We know that Spring Training stats are mostly useless. We know that it’s only about 50 plate appearances at best so far, and that’s just too small a sample to say much, particularly when it comes to power and patience. But! We do also know that strikeouts are the quickest thing to stabilize. Right around two months into the season, we can say that a batter’s current strikeout rate is more meaningful to his future strikeout rate than the league average.
We’re not really a month into Spring Training, barely 50 plate appearances in for the most active of players. Why not look at the players that have made the most improvement over last year’s strikeout rate anyway? It *might* give us a month-long head start on finding players that are ready to improve this year.
Looking at the players that have managed at least 30 at-bats, and had at least 100 plate appearances in 2013, here are the 15 that have put the most distance between their 2013 strikeout rates and their spring rates so far. Some of these players really need to make more contact, so it could be great news.
Age is an easy category to add to this. From what we know about contact rate and age, it continues to improve until about 29 years old. So it’s easy to separate out the improbable improvers from the more possible. Juan Uribe, for example, might just be beating up on back-end rotation options and guys working on new pitches. Mike Napoli is who he is, most likely. Chris Colabello has some experience on the rest of the group, and he also had a smaller 2013 sample than most.
This is not to say that the rest of the group is not just succeeding due to the peculiarities of Spring Training. Any player can have a good 40 plate appearances. And so the Indians, who know about David Adams‘ 2013 contact troubles, didn’t let this short stint of competence sway them too far — Adams was re-assigned to the minors this week. Charlie Culberson may make the Rockies as a utility infielder, but this work probably won’t push him into the conversation for the second base job.
Then there’s the portion of the group that are young veterans with mostly assured roles. Maybe Carlos Gomez, Michael Saunders, Pedro Alvarez, and Kole Calhoun will improve their contact rates a bit this year. In the first three cases, that would be a welcome change and may help contribute to a peak year. They’re in the range, and this could be part of how they achieve their best numbers.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the group, however, are the young men who are fighting for a role and have had contact issues in the past. Charlie Blackmon and Brandon Barnes are both competing for time in that Rockies outfield, and both would look a lot better with an improved contact rate. In a way, Danny Espinosa and Jordan Schafer are similar players: once highly thought-of, the two have seen much of their production sloughed away via the whiff. An improvement there could actually open up a decent role for them on their teams. There’s some excitement about Darin Ruf despite the fact that he’s mostly a non-prospect that was old for his levels on the way up, but you have to admit either way that strikeouts weaken his case for more playing time.
But the most intriguing name on this list might be Nick Franklin, especially in light of the entirety of his situation. Franklin has seen his strikeout rate increase as he’s risen through the minor league system in Seattle, and each time he’s repeated, he’s improved that rate. Now he’s repeating the major league level. He’s in a competition for Brad Miller for shortstop right now, but it’s more likely that he’s being shopped for a trade — either way he’s fighting for his baseball life. And due to inconsistent defense at short, it may be contact rate (and offensive excellence) that keeps him at the shortstop position, as Jeff Sullivan just suggested this week. Franklin has every reason to be focusing on contact rate, and this improvement might mean a lot for his future.
Maybe we’re seeing the beginnings of some nice years from a few players in their peak age range. At least they’re on the right start. Or it could just be the sort of thing that happens in a few spring plate appearances against uneven competition.
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