Who says nothing can be learned from MLB spring training games? We asked our MLB pundits to put aside their notion that these exhibition games – even those that stop in the middle of the inning due to a grace rule introduced this spring – don’t matter for a minute and instead focus on that what they’ve learned from this year’s early action in Florida and Arizona.
Which players did we notice under the March sign? Who Are Some Potential Breakout Stars You Should Know As You Prepare For Your Fantasy Blueprints? What do household names look like trying to come back from injuries that derail their 2020 season? What trends emerging in the cactus and grapefruit league this March will carry over to the 2021 MLB season? And how are the much discussed changes to baseball affecting previous home runs (or potential home runs)?
We asked ESPN MLB experts Jesse Rogers, Alden Gonzalez, David Schoenfield, and Bradford Doolittle to weigh all of the spring training lessons they’d learned by the countdown to opening day (Thursday April 1st).
Who is one of the players who caught your eye this spring?
Alden Gonzalez: It’s early morning, but Shohei Ohtani is proving that he may be able to pull off this whole two-way thing. After a disappointing 2020 season in which he felt noticeably uncomfortable on the hill and was mechanically out of whack, Ohtani went through an aggressive offseason regime and got stronger. In spring training, he hits massive home runs and throws nasty splinters.
The angels have been very optimistic about Ohtani’s potential in 2021 and promised to ease some of his limitations. Ohtani does his part. He has the talent and the discipline to do what hasn’t been done since Babe Ruth. He just has to stay healthy.
Jesse Rogers: I’m going to cheat and pick three players who, together, will make a huge difference to the Philadelphia Phillies: aides Archie Bradley, Tony Watson and Brandon Kintzler. By Sunday the trio hasn’t given up a run this spring and they just bring an evil attitude that the Phillies didn’t get out of their bullpen last year. Watson and Kintzler are on invites in the minor league but have the potential to make good money by forming the team. You are motivated. The Phillies needed a major overhaul in the pen and they got one.
Second: Michael Kopech. After signing out last year, he was put in the bullpen where his arsenal can be used for shorter stays. He only realizes what that can mean when you consider that he won’t be setting up clubs for later in the game like he would if he started. I was there when he was throwing 98 mph, 87 mph, and then 79 mph on the first three pitches of his spring. It’ll be in the three digits soon enough to do some nasty off-speed stuff.
David Schoenfield: I watched Sunday’s game between the Royals and Dodgers and 20 year old Bobby Witt Jr. took the lead. He dropped 2-0 on his first strike against Julio Urias before eventually completing a 12-pitch run (and showed his speed when he hit from second place on a ball that didn’t leave the infield). On his second attack, also against Urias, he turned on an inner fastball and launched it for his third home run of spring – and one of them was a massive 484-foot blast. He beats over 300 and played well on second base, despite projecting as a shortstop long term.
Is there any chance he’ll make the Royals opening day roster? The 2019 number 2 overall didn’t play above the rookie ball so I would say no in a normal season. But Witt did well in summer camp last year as he did in spring practice so far, and it’s not that Nicky Lopez is a big second base roadblock. I wouldn’t be shocked if Witt opened up on second base just to give him much-needed game action until the minor league season begins. If he plays well, he stays up. Eventually, if he has problems, they can send him downstairs for more spices.
Bradford Doolittle: Since Dave stole my monologue from Bobby Witt Jr., I’ll be going with Akil Baddoo of the Tigers. For some reason, I’ve seen Detroit more than any other team this spring and they really excelled. Baddoo is a rule 5 guy, so the Tigers must keep him at big league level or send him back to the Twins. Their roster appears to have at least five players, with semi-established big league outfielders. So it’s entirely possible that Baddoo will end up in Triple-A in the Minnesota organization and we won’t hear from him again until next spring. But I haven’t seen anything about him that I don’t like.
His track record clearly shows that he has both speed and power right away. He also has a good record of record discipline, so the real thing is showing enough racket-to-ball skills to make it work. This spring he did it. In addition, he can play in midfield plus defense and slide into both corners. He was the 74th player selected in the 2016 draft, so the raw talent is there. Finally: He is only 22 years old. I just don’t know how the tigers can part with a guy like that right now. Incidentally, Dave and I don’t speak to each other anymore.
What topic have you noticed so far this spring?
Gonzalez: I spent 10 days in Arizona earlier this month, visiting as many different facilities as possible. I saw fans come through the gates, sit down in their seats and cheer again. They wore masks, sat scattered in the stands and did not reach over the railing for autographs. Even so, it felt normal for me to watch baseball games again. It was the first time I had been able to say that in 12 months (and a different experience than in October, when fans were gathering for postseason games at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, at a time when the COVID -19 numbers were still uncomfortably high). It was refreshing. It gave me hope for an enjoyable 2021 season.
Rogers: To be honest, after a week in Florida and a week in Arizona there is definitely COVID fatigue. The players are likely a little better than the fans as many in the latter group did not wear masks as required during games. Some players while I was in Arizona went in for dinner and got into trouble with their teams. As the season begins, there is hope that restrictions will ease for everyone, especially if the vaccine is available to players early enough.
Schönfield: How carefully the jugs are handled – as we all expected. The spring training rules that year allowed an inning to be stopped before three outs when a pitcher reached or specified the pitch count, or a pitcher re-entered a game. (Urias, for example, threw 28 pitches and was removed in the first inning and then returned for the second.) The starters don’t seem quite where they normally are at this point in spring practice. So be sure to watch out for the same caution that you should take at the start of the regular season, which means pitching depth will be crucial in April. Those back-end people on the pitching team will play a bigger role than normal.
Doolittle: As Dave mentioned, the issue of the starters not running at full capacity has already been the subject of some debate. While most of the opinion is that teams need to be careful with young pitchers whose development has been disrupted and who may never have thrown the number of innings you need for a five-man rotation in a normal MLB campaign some uncertainty about the vets.
Sure, their innings were down in 2020, but – can we say – could that be a good thing? Could the partial rest have given them the time they need to heal after years of wear and tear? This is a question we can only answer in retrospect, but just to give a few examples, some spring training veterans like Arizona’s Madison Bumgarner and Detroit’s Julio Tehran (a non-squad invitee) seem to be zipping the ball a little more deliver than they have shown in the last regular seasons. Nathan Eovaldi almost wore out the radar weapon during Sunday’s Red Sox game. I feel that teams that are ready to rely on seasoned starters sooner rather than later will have a competitive advantage in the first few weeks of the season.
What’s the only spring training status that you notice the most right now?
Gonzalez: Jacob deGrom, who climbed 102 mph during his second spring training start. In the past three years, deGrom’s fastball speed has increased to 96, then 97, and last year an average of 99 mph. With that, he has come a long way in winning several National League Cy Young Awards. To see arguably the best pitcher in the game take this to the next level – at the beginning of the season, mind you – is both fascinating and exhilarating. DeGrom’s strike rate has grown steadily, from 10.7 per nine innings in 2017 to 13.8 per nine innings in 2020. Now, DeGrom could be throwing triple-digit fastballs and nasty sliders in the mid-1990s. It’s just unfair.
Rogers: The new Cubs outfielder Joc Pederson hits everything in sight and hits .571 with five home runs. He used the entire field and even walked away from the shift for a hit to include in the scouting report for the next month. Remember, he’s entering another free agent season again and expects to play every day. There have only been 16 cases in the history of the Cubs where a left-handed player completed 30 or more home runs in a season. Pederson could be a lock for # 17.
Schönfield: You never want to exceed the spring stats. Do you remember when Jake Fox did 10 home runs in 2011? Or how about 2018, when Frank Schwindel from Kansas City hit .366 and took the lead in the spring with seven runs home? One thing I do keep in mind, however, is the strikeout-to-walk ratio for batters, as that doesn’t stabilize until after a minimal number of record appearances, but it also says something about a player’s overall approach.
Andrew Vaughn has as many walks as a breath and meets .321. Although he didn’t play above Class A after the White Sox moved him to third overall in 2019, he has a good chance of starting the season as the team’s DH. He had the same mature approach in college in Cal and that should allow him to at least hold his own in the majors.
Doolittle: The Royals have put together the largest collection of power hitters in baseball history. The spring statistics prove it. They have six more homers than any other team, leading the majors in runs, punches, and barrel differentials. You also hit as often as anyone else. This is the most un-royals-like show we’ve seen. Just to get the stats in a nutshell, as of Sunday Kansas City has an OPS team of .896. Of course, most of these numbers are swept away in the gusts of Surprise, Arizona, with little hope of making their way to Kauffman Stadium. But I’m still excited about the prospects for this year’s Royals.
What’s one thing from this spring that we can count on to carry over to the regular season?
Gonzalez: I’m not saying you will see seven to nine pitchers per game, but given the jump from a schedule of 60 to 162 games and the innings gap that needs to be closed in the process, we’re going to go see the teams in Be extra careful with their pitchers this season, we’ll see a lot of pitching changes. The 2021 season is likely to set the record.
The opening day is getting closer and the teams still don’t know how to approach this issue. Some try six-man rotations, others may even use a method where the starters piggyback each other. All of them will undoubtedly carry at least one helper who can consistently take up several innings. But that’s still a big unknown. And the pace of the spring training games could unfortunately carry over.
Rogers: Referees bark for balls and strikes. I’ve seen it several times this spring and it will definitely return to pre-2020 levels. First of all, fans in the stands are giving players and coaches more cover so that they can get their points against the dugouts without the referees hearing every single word. By returning in-game videos, pitchers and hitters can be instantly screened for close calls.
Schönfield: Fernando Tatis Jr. is going to be the most exciting player in the game. He hit from third base on a popup that was caught by the shortstop. In a spring training game! I don’t know if Mike Trout will keep his grip as the best all-round player in the game, or if Mookie Betts will claim that throne, or if this is the year that Tatis or Juan Soto take over that title with a monster of the season. But Tatis, with his exciting combination of speed and strength, is the best player in the game in 2021 and is set amidst the Padres and Dodgers rivalry. (Corey Seager looked very, very good this spring too, by the way. If you’re looking for an NL Sleeper MVP candidate, Seager is my type.)
Who is one of the most impressive players to return from injury?
Gonzalez: Stephen Strasburg had been without a batsman for more than six months as he recovered from carpal tunnel surgery but looked fine on his spring training debut. He knocked out four of the six thugs he faced and showed practically all of his pitches. That was just enough to piss us off before he finished his second start with a calf strain that’s considered mild at the moment. At least that’s the hope. The National League East looks like a department-wide traffic jam. And if Strasburg can go back to what it was in 2019, the Nationals will be right there with the rest of them.
Rogers: Jordan Hicks just made his spring weekend debut and hit 100 mph on his first appearance since 2019 after surgery on Tommy John. Yes, his first batsman got him to 22 spaces before he left, but once the rust comes off that arm will light up radar cannons all season.
Schönfield: Strasburg is probably the most important man here – along with Mike Soroka (who didn’t play a game for the Braves when he was recovering from a torn Achilles) and the Yankees duo of Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon. The most important thing for Kluber and Taillon is that they both feel healthy, although Kluber’s last appearance on Saturday was a little shaky as he hit two batters and served a home run and a few other hard-hit balls over four innings. Taillon threw 2.2 scoreless innings in his final game and hit up to 95.1 mph with his fastball while averaging 93.9 mph. The command wasn’t great as it only threw 28 out of 51 slots for strikes, but the stuff seems to be where it was before Tommy John’s surgery.
Doolittle: Jimmy Nelson! For the first time since he flapped his stomach while trying to run the bases at Wrigley Field a few years ago, he looks like the all-star pitcher he was for the Brewers at the time. I’m not sure how he fits into the Dodgers’ workforce simply because of the number of good pitchers they have, but he can help a team this year. I would love to see him try to do it in a rotation from someone. Maybe because I was there when he got hurt, he’s someone I made up my mind. You hate to see someone’s success just dropping off. Whatever happens in the future, you must credit him with the perseverance.
Baseball is different: how much does it seem to affect home runs so far?
Gonzalez: Personally, I didn’t notice much of a difference. In fact, we’ve seen some titanic home runs from Wander Franco and Mike Trout, to name a few. However, new Padres pitcher Blake Snell noted that the seams on the new ball are higher so he can better dig his fingers into them to spin breaking balls, adding that he has noticed that some fly balls don’t go that far how he might have expected to be worn. There could be some confirmation bias at play there. This will have to be a lot longer before we really know.
Rogers: Very difficult to judge at the moment as the games are played in spring stadiums. There is just no context. And as Alden mentioned, there have been a lot of long home runs so the new ball hasn’t passed the eye test yet. However, we’ll get a better idea next month. When the little boys hit the ball in the opposite direction, we know the old balls are going to be used again.
Schönfield: I know Brad has some numbers on this so I’m going to put him off. It seems like the wind blows every game I’ve seen from Arizona (although it also looks like it’s a little cooler than normal down there as a lot of fans are bundled up in jackets and blankets). Anyway, the last two weeks will tell us a little more as we see more bats and innings from the regulars.
Doolittle: I posted some numbers the other day and compared the home run rates through March 12 for each of the last five spring trainings. I’ve put the Florida-based teams and the Arizona-based teams in separate buckets. There have already been some comments, like from Snell, regarding the feel of the ball and flying different and maybe not as good. The numbers don’t confirm that. In Arizona this year, where – as Dave mentioned – it was unusually breezy, the home run rate is the highest it has seen in recent years. Thus, the overall rate is the highest that has ever been.
There are many constraints on the numbers, from sample size constraints tightened by fewer and shorter games, the weather, the fact that we don’t know exactly when or where the new version of baseball was used, to the reality that we are always have to be careful when we do something with spring numbers. So right now it is difficult to make a meaningful statement on this subject, apart from the fact that there has been no discernible and obvious decline in Homer numbers.