WHY SOME OF THE NUMBERS THAT DON’T MATTER DO MATTER
Any discussion of Spring Training statistics has to come with a disclaimer:
It’s hard to put too much stock in numbers compiled in the spring because, particularly in the early weeks, hitters are not getting regular at-bats as they work to simply get their timing down at the plate, and they’re not always facing major league-caliber pitching.
Meanwhile, many pitchers, particularly those who aren’t competing for jobs, spend the early weeks of the spring simply building up their arm strength and, in many cases, working on things. For example, Jose Fernandez said he threw 6 consecutive sliders at one point in his start against the Nationals yesterday. That’s something he’d never do in a regular-season game. In a recent B game against the Mets, Kevin Slowey threw one curveball after another, working to get a better feel for the pitch. Steve Cishek has put added focus on improving his split-fingered fastball this spring, often throwing it in spots where he wouldn’t if he were protecting a one-run lead in the 9th inning of a regular-season game.
This is no different in Marlins camp than in any other. Simply put, particularly with established players, the bottom-line results aren’t nearly as important as the process at this time of year.
That said, with Opening Night only 15 days away, there are some numbers that have been compiled that seem significant in assessing the big picture.
While virtually nothing that happens in March guarantees success or failure when the Marlins head 83 miles south to begin the season, here are some of the numbers to this point this spring—some good, some bad–that stand out to me:
NUMBERS: The Marlins have the lowest team ERA in baseball so far this spring. The 5 members of Miami’s projected Opening Day starting rotation–Jose Fernandez, Nathan Eovaldi, Henderson Alvarez, Jacob Turner and Tom Koehler–have combined to allow only 7 earned runs in 40.2 IP for a 1.55 ERA. If you remove Turner from the mix (4 earned runs in 8.1 innings), the other 4 have a 0.84 ERA. Overall, the 5 have allowed less than a hit per inning (35 hits in 40.2 innings of work) while posting a nearly 3-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Meanwhile, other contenders for a rotation spot have also excelled. Brad Hand, who threw the first 5 innings of last night’s combined no-hitter against the Yankees in Panama City, has allowed one run in 12.0 innings, while recording 15 strikeouts against only 2 walks. And, heading into his start against the Twins in Fort Myers today, Kevin Slowey had yet to allow a run in 4.2 Grapefruit League innings, surrendering 2 hits, walking none and fanning 5.
THEIR SIGNIFICANCE: Collectively, it’s good to see pitchers competing for jobs step up and perform at a high level. Individually, among the things that stand out: Koehler is building on his late-2013 success (2 wins and a 1.86 ERA over his final 3 starts). The 27-year-old, who’d be the only pitcher older than 24 in the rotation if he locks down a spot, has allowed only 7 hits in 12.0 innings, while ringing up 11 K’s and walking only 2. And Hand—in a critical spring for him because he’s out of options—has done a tremendous job pounding the strike zone. In his major league time over the last 3 seasons, the 23-year-old lefty had walked 49 and struck out 56 in 84.1 innings, an average of 5.2 walks and 6.0 K’s per 9 innings. That’s a far cry from his rate of 7½ punchouts for every walk so far this spring.
NUMBERS: Adeiny Hechavarria stole second base and third base in one inning last night against the Yankees, and he’s 3-for-3 in stolen base attempts so far this spring.
THEIR SIGNIFICANCE: The 2nd-year Marlins shortstop is a pet project for new third base coach Brett Butler, who, in addition to working with Miami outfielders and handling the bunting game, coaches the team’s base runners. Butler was one of the great base stealers in the game over his 17-year career, swiping 558 bases to rank among the top 25 in Major League history. As Hechavarria looks to step up his offensive game, to go along with his spectacular defense at shortstop, his ability to study and master the art of taking leads, reading pitchers, getting jumps and stealing bases will be critical. This is not a Marlins team blessed with a lot of speed. 38 of the 2013 club’s 78 stolen bases, nearly half, departed with Juan Pierre (23) and Justin Ruggiano (15). Hech is the team’s top returning stolen base threat with 11 steals in 21 tries in 2013. If the 24-year-old can become a 20- to 30-stolen base man, and significantly improve his success rate, that would provide a nice spark at the bottom of the batting order. Look for Christian Yelich (a perfect 10-for-10 last season) to run more often under Butler’s tutelage in 2014. And, if he’s on the big league roster, Jake Marisnick (3 steals in 4 attempts this spring) is another Marlin with the potential to beef up the club’s running game under the watchful eye of Butler. Marisnick, Yelich and Donovan Solano have taken to Butler’s teaching in the bunting game, and that could be another area where the Marlins improve in 2014. Non-roster invitee outfielder Reed Johnson, always regarded as a good bunter, had a run-scoring bunt single against the Twins today, and he could force his way onto the roster as he continues an exceptional spring.
NUMBERS: Marcell Ozuna is just 5-for-31 to begin the spring, recording a .161/.308/.290 slash line with 4 doubles, no homers, 6 walks and 11 strikeouts.
THEIR SIGNIFICANCE: Ozuna has to do more than just prove he’s healthy this spring following surgery to repair a torn ligament and an avulsion fracture in his left thumb last July. Remember, Ozuna is only 23-years-old and had only played 10 games above Single-A when he was brought to the big leagues April 30 of last season due to a Giancarlo Stanton hamstring strain. While Ozuna hit .347 with men in scoring position and, in spurts, carried the 2013 Marlins offensively, he also struck out 57 times in 275 at-bats and showed enough issues with plate discipline that he’d been optioned back to Double-A before his season-ending thumb injury was diagnosed the night of July 22 in Denver. Ozuna was mired in a 6-week slump at the time of the option, which was voided due to the injury, and while his dynamic outfield play and high-energy approach to the game are both tremendous assets, the Marlins need Ozuna to improve his command of the strike zone if he’s to be a regular part of this lineup in the short term. The early returns this spring have to be concerning.
NUMBERS: Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Casey McGehee and Garrett Jones are hitting a combined .187 with one double, 4 homers and 7 RBI in a total of 33 games and 91 at-bats.
THEIR SIGNIFICANCE: These 3 are the kind of veteran players whose numbers, I’d argue, are less significant in the spring. Nonetheless, their bats will be critical behind Giancarlo Stanton in the batting order in 2014. Their production will go a long way toward determining the approach other clubs take in facing Stanton. It’s simple: If these 3 newcomers are productive, Stanton sees more pitches to hit. If they struggle, Stanton is in a spot similar to last year when only the Giants’ Pablo Sandoval saw a lower percentage of strikes in all of baseball.
NUMBERS: Speaking of Jones, the Miami first baseman is 1-for-10 against left-handed pitchers so far this spring.
THEIR SIGNIFICANCE: The Marlins have said repeatedly Jones will be given every opportunity to play first base against both lefties and righthanders, but history indicates a platoon could be in order before long. Jones is a career .193 hitter with a .578 OPS vs. lefthanders and a .271 hitter with an .826 OPS against righties. Over his final 3 seasons with the Pirates, Jones had only 163 AB’s against lefties, batting .160. Of his 347 starts over the last 3 years, only 18 came against lefthanders, and he did not start a single game against a lefthander in 2013. The Marlins would seem to have viable platoon candidates if they need to turn in that direction. Jeff Baker has hit .298 with an .875 OPS against lefties in 9 major league seasons, while Ed Lucas hit .330 with an .883 OPS and 3 of his 4 homers against lefties as a 31-year-old big league rookie in 2013. Lucas, who can play anywhere on the infield, continues to impress with his defense at first base in particular.
NUMBERS: Rafael Furcal has played only 7 games and has only 18 at-bats so far this spring.
THEIR SIGNIFICANCE: Furcal has battled a left hamstring strain over the last week, no cause for alarm at this point in the spring except for the fact that the 3-time All-Star missed all of 2013 with the Cardinals while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and has averaged only 82 games played over the last 6 seasons (491 games played since the start of 2008). He’s been sidelined by an assortment of injuries: a bulging disk in 2008, left hamstring and lower back issues in 2010, a broken left thumb and tendinitis in his right shoulder in 2011 and lower back issues and a torn ligament in his right elbow in 2012, leading to the reconstructive elbow surgery in 2013.
The Marlins are counting on the 36-year-old to play second base in 2014 and, more importantly, hold down the lead-off spot in the batting order. After Furcal, the Marlins don’t have another prototypical lead-off man on the roster. While Christian Yelich led off 27 times late last year, Mike Redmond prefers him in the No. 2 spot for now and in more of a run-producing position in the order down the road.
NUMBERS: Giancarlo Stanton is off to a .300/.333/.567 start in 11 spring games with 2 doubles, 2 homers and 6 RBI.
THEIR SIGNIFICANCE: Several people in the Marlins clubhouse have commented on the fact that Stanton seems happier and more relaxed this spring than he did at any point during the club’s tumultuous 2013 season. Stanton missed significant time with leg injuries during 2 of the last 3 springs, and he was out nearly 6 weeks with a hamstring strain suffered April 29 of last season. Giancarlo is healthy this spring. If you want to project numbers for the Marlins right fielder in 2014, don’t worry about home runs and slugging percentage. Worry about games played. He played only 116 last season and only 123 in 2012. That means Giancarlo has essentially missed one-fourth of the Marlins’ games over the last 2 years. If he can play 150-plus in 2014, the rest of the numbers will take care of themselves. The early signs are very encouraging this spring.
What else have you seen this spring that has you either encouraged or concerned? Feel free to chime in in the comments section below.
For more on the Marlins and Major League Baseball, follow me on Twitter at @GlennGeffner and friend me on Facebook at Facebook.com/GlennGeffner. To have new Fish Tales posts delivered directly to you via email, please click the “Follow” button and enter your email address. And you can catch Marlins play-by-play on the radio all season long on new flagship station AM 940 WINZ and the Marlins Radio Network.