Roster projections, and caution to the wind on Spring Training

The second batter of today’s game, Lane Thomas, hit a no-doubt 2-run home run to left field until it was in-doubt. The ball got caught up in a brisk Floridian coastal wind blowing in, and towards right field, that knocked the ball down like a fly swatter — and right into left fielder Michael Siani‘s glove. That baseball exited the bat at 100.7 mph with a 30 degree launch angle, but only traveled 336 feet — a FO-7 in the books which is all that matters for the boxscore. The point here is that every at-bat in these small sample sized statlines shouldn’t be evaluated as reliable results in Spring Training when compared to the process. There are many variables affecting results: Quality of pitcher. Quality of batter. Weather conditions. Official scorer. Quality of the pitch. Quality of the contact.

Thomas ended up with an out instead of a home run. A huge difference on the stats, and it would matter if Thomas was a player on the bubble. Officially he has an .878 OPS. Unofficially we know it should be much higher.

In 2014, it was Jayson Werth struggling in Spring Training with a .206 BA and .552 OPS, and fans were clamoring to cut him and replace him with some flavor of the day. Werth was so hot by mid-April that he was batting .368 with a 1.046 OPS in the games that actually counted. He finished that 2014 season at 18th in MVP voting, and hit .292 with an .849 OPS that season. The next year it was Matt Skole who owned Spring Training with a .409 and 1.207 in 22 at-bats, and spent the whole season in Double-A and barely hit his weight. In that same 2014 Spring Training, Ryan Zimmerman was struggling early on and finished at a .581 OPS, and some wanted Skole to replace Zim. For 2015, Zim’s final OPS was .773, nearly 200 points over his struggling Spring Training of that year.

Annually Danny Espinosa struggled in Spring Training, and infamously blamed it on the batter’s eye in Viera. Stop looking at small sample size results. Just stop. If you did that, you might have the wrong scouting report on your own player. Nasim Nunez for instance got robbed on a spectacular diving catch in the outfield today, and his BABIP is just .143 showing how unlucky he has been. His K rate is only 23.8% so maybe he is better than he looks on paper — and maybe Luis Garcia‘s .318 BABIP is a little lucky like we saw today with that hit to another poor fielding second baseman like Nolan Gorman who clanked it off of his glove. We have seen official scorers with very questionable hit/error calls too.

So while Web Gems, amateur official scorers, and Mother Nature are taking away hits, we know that the winds give and take home runs like a baseball version of Robin Hood in Florida — a common occurrence.

You have heard the word ‘barrel‘ in the newest lexicon of Statcast baseball terminology. MLB defines a barreled ball as any contact with an exit velocity of at least 98 mph coupled with a launch angle between 26-30 degrees. Those are automatic “barrels” by definition.

For every batted ball with an mph of over 98, the range of launch angles expands, and for example, a ball traveling 99 mph always earns ‘Barreled’ status when struck between 25-31 degrees of launch angle. Add one more mph — to reach 100 — and the range grows another three degrees, to 24-33. Every additional mph over 100 increases the range another two to three degrees until an exit velocity of 116 mph is reached. At that threshold, the barreled designation is assigned to any ball with a launch angle between eight and 50 degrees. We have seen Thomas, Dylan Crews, and Brady House all lose home runs to the wind so far. James Wood was the recipient yesterday of a wind blown triple. He still crushed it, and in larger sample sizes they say it all sort of evens out.

You could hear it and see it off of the bat for Thomas today, but this is the problem with relying on stats in Spring Training or any stats in small sample sizes. Over the weekend, Trevor Williams gave up a 3-run homer that seemed to be a can of corn flyout if the the wind wasn’t gusting straight out. Williams wasn’t pitching great — but he got gazumped by Mother Nature.

Bob Dylan would say, “the answer my friend is blowing in the wind.” Dylan knows all about those bumpy roads, and how many roads you must walk down to get that answer. We once shared the Werth story about how he got passed over in Spring Training by a kid, Simon Pond, who was killing it — and Toronto traded Werth to make room for that kid because they believed in those stats in March of 2004. General Manager Mike Rizzo did not make that mistake with Skole like former Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi did with Pond. It happens, and when you make that mistake it can be costly.

So no, Rizzo is not going to send Joey Gallo packing today just because he couldn’t hit water out of his boat on the intercoastal. There’s no rush to decide on Gallo or Juan Yepez today. There could be a time and place for a decision like that — but today isn’t that day. Even with Gallo’s 61.1 percent K rate, there is no rush to judgment. We knew he was going to be a high K batter, and he clearly is not seeing the ball well, in his miniscule 18 plate appearance sample size. Many batters need 40-60 at-bats.

What about Trey Lipscomb who is in a position of need for the Nationals at second base? He went 1-2 with a walk today and is batting .360 with an .807 OPS. About 100 points over Garcia, and no issues with Lipscomb’s defense or baserunning. In fact, he was a minor league Gold Glove winner last year. Kind of the polar opposite from Garcia’s defense if you extrapolated his OAA for the full season — he would rank at the bottom of defenders. Defense matters too.

Between, Lipscomb and Nunez, could they start the season with the Washington Nationals? Both are plus/plus defenders, and Nunez has top of the game speed. The issue is that you would need to see both against big league pitching like we have seen with Wood who passed with flying colors. Getting hits off of scrubs isn’t a big accomplishment for a top prospect. They are supposed to torch bad pitching.

Only 13 position players will make the big league Opening Day roster. Several more might be on the cusp like Wood and Yepez. You need big league depth in the minor leagues. One player who keeps impressing is Jacob Young. Today it was the perfect bunt for a single that was just textbook, and then he had an oppo single. Some would say that Victor Robles has better stats. Well what about that Robles home run? Was it helped by the wind? That might be the only differential between their stats. Does Rizzo stick with his $2.6 million man or go with the prospect?

These will be the debates, not only here, but in Rizzo’s front office. In the past, he has almost always leaned on the side of his veterans — and especially if they came through his minor league system. Is it time to change the way business was done before?

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