I, for one, will not begrudge anyone the right to be blindly optimistic in the spring. I certainly am, and that's part of the fun of "Hope and Faith," and all that. We must be optimistic about the season, trying to put together that sequence or series of events that will propel the Mets into a wild card berth or a miracle division title over the hated Phillies. So there's nothing wrong with that.
But I think there is something wrong with the second temptation: to overinterpret Spring Training statistics. They are, essentially, meaningless. That is not to say that Spring Training is meaningless. Our usually-reliable data becomes useless, or worse, misleading, in March.
1. Ignore spring training statistics. It is way too hard to adjust for context reliably.
Last week, Oliver Perez pitched 2 scoreless innings against the St. Louis Cardinals, which seemingly bought him some time in his battle to salvage a rotation spot. But the only number here that really mattered was his velocity. Why? Quality of competition. Perez faced a minor-league caliber lineup and probably will continue to face mixed competition for much of the spring. Media reporting is that his velocity is still down. Unless the velocity recovers, Perez is done. (Thankfully, the Mets seemed to agree with this.)
Even when facing big leaguers, it is dangerous to take the numbers seriously. For one, we are dealing with incredibly small samples of big-leaguers versus big-leaguers. But more importantly, players are working on things in the spring, like new pitches, different batting stances, perhaps even different equipment. The spring is really the only chance a major leaguer gets to experiment in live games; I would bet that major leaguers who feel secure in their roster spots (translation: the best players) are much more willing to experiment than the lesser players. So even strong performances against strong competition can be deceiving.
Now, I think there probably is value on the scouting side of the house here. Scouts can probably detect differences in process that regular fans probably cannot. But it needs to be independent of gaudy numbers.
The easiest way to get around this mess is to surrender, or to adhere to the wisdom of Socrates (or, rather, Bill and Ted's paraphrasing thereof):
Ted: That's us, dude.
We must accept that we can know nothing. So, what to do?
2. Trust the established track record, including high-minors (AA and AAA) statistics.
Because the spring provides us with so little useful information, we must take what we have that IS useful: namely, the previous body of work. We know that Willie Harris can draw a walk and can field well; nothing he does this spring should change that. Scott Hairston has some pop; Nick Evans can hit lefthanders; Luis Castillo is sure-handed but lacks range; Fernando Martinez has never had a full season of productivity but periodically shows flashes of brilliance; Angel Pagan covers the part of the planet not covered by water; Josh Thole has a strong command of the strike zone; Mike Pelfrey is a slightly-above average innings eater. These are all things that we would have said last November, or last December, when talking about the Mets. Nothing that happens in the spring should change that.3. Be able to articulate and justify the role of every player on your projected Opening Day roster.
This is what I try to do when looking at the wonderful Make-the-Mets-o-Meters here at Amazin' Avenue. Where do the players fit in?
The guarantees: Josh Thole, Mike Nickeas (as placeholder), Ike Davis, Jose Reyes, David Wright, Jason Bay, Angel Pagan, Carlos Beltran, Mike Pelfrey, Jon Niese, RA Dickey, Francisco Rodriguez, Bobby Parnell, DJ Carrasco.
Believe it or not, that leaves 11 roster slots. What do the Mets need?
- Lefty pinch hitter
- Righty pinch hitter
- Backup middle infielder
- Backup corner infielder
- Defensive outfielder (to replace Bay periodically)
- Two starting pitchers
- Lefty specialist
- Mop-up/long-man/Innings eater
- Two middle relievers
Whatever roster you pick should have players who can fill all of those roles. That, of course, does not mean that you need to have one player for all of those things; if, for instance, you had a great pinch hitter who could also play shortstop and second base, you wouldn't need two different players to fill those roles. But the fourth factor is probably the most important one:4. Exercise roster humility. Before forcing yourself to move a player off the 40-man roster or through waivers, check your work.
It's a long season, and even if a talented player doesn't make the team, they can always be called up later. As critical as I was of the Mets' roster management last year, stashing Bobby Parnell in the minors to start the season worked out perfectly. He had options, and he worked on improving his game down in the minors. On the other hand, the decision to take Jenrry Mejia over Nelson Figueroa had enormous repercussions--Figgy was claimed by the Phillies, and then the Astros, where he did yeoman's work. The Mets were stuck with 15+ starts from Olly and Maine.At this point, it's a good idea to figure out what everyone's roster status is. Who has options? Who does not? Who is likely to decline a minor league assignment? Who is likely to pass through waivers? These factors are important, because no 25-man roster is stable throughout the season. At least 2 starting pitchers will miss time. A few relievers will probably be overworked by July and might need a minor league trip for rejuvenation. A couple of hitters will wind up on the DL. The roster should be managed with that aspect of the game in mind--the marathon requires more than 25 players, and anyone who could provide value at some point in the season should be kept, if at all possible. In other words: if the organization is going to lose Nelson Figueroa, it had better be because the alternative was losing someone better.
There's no stress or emotional catharsis in watching a spring game, particularly in comparison to pennant race baseball. It's just the sport, in all of its majesty. We also get to see players with impossible uniform numbers competing for jobs. And we do have the right to imagine the impossible playoff run as we watch a projected AAer smack a long home run or save a run with a diving grab.
March is really quite awesome if we take it for what it is: a time to reacquaint ourselves with the game, and a time to imagine the future. But if we make it the time to find this year's surprise player, or the time to make binding judgments on players, we will almost always be disappointed.