When it comes to spring training, it's process that matters most

It’s only spring!

It’s a small sample size.

The competition is not as good or they’re working on something.

Yes, yes, yes. That is all true.

I think. in general, we are wired to see things in terms of results. It lends us a comforting amount of certainty, tangibility, and numbers that sit still long enough so that we can break down and analyze them.  Results, however, do require a certain sample size and a comparable level of competition to be meaningful.  The spring simply doesn’t offer either of those things and because of this, statistics don’t really hold much value for the next few weeks.

But spring is never about the numbers, not directly anyway.   What we look for in the spring is different than what we look for midway through the season.  We are looking at things like a hitter’s approach and/or how well they are adapting to mechanical changes.  We are looking for the ability to put up consistently good ABs.  On defense we are looking for good jumps, routes, and footwork.  With pitchers we are looking at the quality of their stuff, the ability to repeat their delivery, and how they attack the strike zone and the hitter.

All of these things are repeatable.  They’re all about process.   At this stage it is more about how players are doing rather than what they are doing.  Ballplayers cannot always control what happens, but they can control how they go about each at bat, each pitch, and each fielding opportunity.

Sometimes good results follow good process.  Over the long term it almost always does.  The short term, however, can often be different.  Good results can follow bad process and bad results can follow good process.  That is when things get tricky.  We can easily be fooled by a player who hits 4 HRs in a week but is swinging away, with no plan, perhaps against pitchers who are just working on throwing strikes.  On the flip side, we may see a hitter working counts but still going 0 for 4 with good contact,  Even a 9 pitch strikeout can tell us much more about a player than a broken bat single on the first pitch.  We may see players consistently make proper adjustments but without the payoff to show for it…yet.  And we may see an outfielder getting good jumps and taking good routes, but then losing the ball in the Arizona sun  – and along with that we could also see a pitcher who is otherwise throwing well give up runs because of that misplay.

It’s hard to stay focused on the how, on the process.  But if you really want to derive any meaning from the spring, you really have to focus on those kinds of things.  Process is repeatable. If a player is putting up good ABs in the spring, it is more likely he can continue to do so when the season starts, regardless of what his numbers say, be they good or bad.  Process doesn’t require a specific sample size because it essentially defines who or what a player is, which tends to be static,  while results better describe an event that just happened, which is much more variable.  When it comes to spring, results just aren’t as important.  You are trying to find out who players are and how they fit in to the team as a whole.

I thought about what Joe Maddon said the other day, about how he expects to win in the spring.  That seems to be at odds with a process-oriented approach, but in reality he is just establishing a mindset and a consistent approach to preparing for each game.  There really is no such thing as flipping a switch once the season starts.  That is in part why players like Jon Lester, David Ross, Dexter Fowler, Jason Motte, and Miguel Montero were brought in.  They already understand that mindset and serve as a sort of visual aid to Joe Maddon’s words.  When it comes to preparation and going about their business, they practice what the Cubs preach.

So don’t be too disappointed if a player is hitting .185 or too exited if he’s hitting .435 this spring, be disappointed or excited about how they got there, even when that how doesn’t exactly line up with the results we see on paper.

 

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  • Just all long as the young players develop and no injuries

  • Is there a link to watch the game today

  • In reply to pwcubs2001:

    Not that I have found. Just listening to Len and Mick today.

  • Good stuff John. You focused a lot on hitters/position players in the piece but a lot of that same thought process goes for pitchers too. A pitcher's overall results might not be great in terms of giving up hits, etc. but the things to really watch are struggles with control or if he's getting hit hard consistently when throwing a certain pitch. Something Maddon said yesterday about Edwin Jackson struck me. You might not be able to tell much about Jackson in the spring but you should be able to see if his command has improved, or as Maddon was talking about, he's throwing with confidence or if he's still throwing as tentative as he seemed to be last year and some of the year before. The Cubs have some big pitching decisions to make but they're not sexy ones, 1-4 in the rotation are pretty well established and the 2 or 3 guys at the end of games are more or less established as well (Motte is an interesting case of course) but what's in between could be very important. Looking forward to seeing what they have.

  • In reply to TC154:

    Thank you. And absolutely agree. I tried to mention pitchers a little but I could have done it more.

    One good example was the AB today where Jon Lester just went right after Billy Hamilton. No sense messing around, don't give him 1B, make him earn it. Loved it.

  • They say "it doesn't count" for a reason. At least baseball gets its players out there, unlike Marc Tressman football, which kept most of the starters on the bench maybe 80% of the exhibition season.

    However, while spring training seems important in making sure the players get the process, it no longer has anything to do with "making the team," as Jed made fairly clear on the radio this morning. He said nothing about competition for 3B, but just that Bryant had only 250 minor league ABs. I'm sure that gives him cover for the PA investigation.

  • In reply to jack:

    I wouldn't say spring " no longer has anything to do with making the team". Do you think the Cubs will make the same decision about Baez if he swings from his heels every AB, doesn't adjust with 2 strikes, and is generally putting up poor ABs or whether he puts up good ABs, makes the adjustments they ask him to make, and shows an approach that will work at the MLB level.

    Saying it means nothing at all is no more correct than those who say it means everything. I will say that I think it is closer to nothing than everything, but there is still some importance.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Put that way, it may affect a marginal player being sent back down (put the emphasis on "back") or a marginal player getting an invite to attend camp staying around. However, with the big picture of whether the north side sees Bryant or Schwarber, or the south side sees Rodon, it is irrelevant. None of these potentially impactful players will be up on opening day.

    So, I guess we can agree that it is closer to nothing.

  • In reply to jack:

    Baez is potentially much more than a marginal player but other than that I agree.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I guess it depends on the definition of "marginal," but he sure is on the margin if, after supposedly meeting the qualifications for be brought up from AAA, he risks going back down.

  • In reply to jack:

    That doesn't make him a marginal ballplayer like the guys trying to win that 24th or 25th spot. If he gets sent down it just means he isn't ready to be a full-time starter, which is the only way he makes the team.

  • In reply to jack:

    Theo used the exact language over the weekend. Ducks in a row on that one. Still as far as Bryant goes he'd have to be awfully bad to not be at 3B for 2015 so there's no real competition there. The competition is for who's going to man it before he gets there.

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    In reply to TC154:

    I don't know about Bryant at 3B. I think he can do it but I think he can do LF as well and that is just as open in 2015.

  • Good stuff indeed. As impressed as I was with Schwarber's granny yesterday, his groundout AB maybe impressed me more. He worked the count, went with the pitch to the left side, and HUSTLED down the line. Big man was moving and they barely nailed him by a step. Respect 90 indeed. It's the little things.

  • In reply to lblegacy:

    Thanks.

  • Another good AB from Olt, went from 0-2 to a walk. Three for three when it comes to solid ABs this spring.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Yeah, I saw that walk. Still have hope for Olt here!

  • In reply to lblegacy:

    Are you at the game?

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    No don't I wish. I was watching it on the game cast. I knew that would be confusing as soon as I typed it, LOL.

  • Don't mean to keep harping on this theme but Lester once again gets to 0-2 on a hitter, but then gives up a broken bat single. Good process, bad result.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    I expect more than good process for $155 million. At least 4 perfect games over the course of the year would be ideal.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    You meant 4 in the first half, right?

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    Next you're gonna tell me Olt's "process" improving with a 25% strikeout rate. I'm pretty good at statistics and 25% is striking out almost 1 out of every 4 times. That's pretty bad.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    That is excellent math, though.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    But didn't he have a walk too. 1 walk out of every 4 times is a 25% walk rate. Isn't that pretty good?

  • Baez pulls olt off with throw. Lester looked, well, like Jon Lester. Great. Hammel got out of trouble in 3rd.

  • In reply to TheFiveYearPlan:

    Awesome thanls.

  • In reply to TheFiveYearPlan:

    Motte not Hammel. My bad.

  • You have a knack for providing great articles on very timely topics, John.

    And if there is one player to be excited about at this point regarding an advanced approach it has to be Mike Olt. What I have noticed is what we have NOT heard... anything about his eyesight, depth perception, etc.

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    In reply to Paulson:

    Olt has a history of solid approach so it is very possible he maintains it into the season. And if he is able to coax some walks those are not only NOT outs but also might get him better pitches to hit.

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    He had a 10% walk rate last year, a year that he struggled. I don't expect his walk rate to be a problem now that he is healthy and his confidence is growing.

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    I don't even think this process-based analysis is at all unique to spring training. Sure it's true that W's and L's matter a lot less (or not at all) compared to the regular season, but the only sustainable way to build a team is with players who use a good process to win games. You will never really be able to control crazy bounces and the countless flukes and foibles of baseball, but by improving your process you will give yourself the best chance for them to work out in your favor, regardless of time of year.

    In truth, trying to separate process from raw results is the backbone of a lot of the best baseball analysis.

  • In reply to Nathan King:

    the point is it becomes absolutely necessary when there are short samples and an inconsistent level of competition. Over time, statistics/results will follow good process and so you can use statistics in addition to a more process-based evaluation. There is no need to separate them over a larger sample size. They complement each other.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I like to go to the casino's and play poker and it's the same thing. You can't be results oriented or you'd be beating your head up against the wall. Sometimes you have the best hand when you put your money in and still lose. All you can do is try to make the correct decision every time. The results balance out in the end.

  • Baez did shorten up a bit 0 - 2 and lined to short.

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    In reply to TheFiveYearPlan:

    I really want to see him. It sounds like he's still swinging at everything with less than 2 strikes.

  • Almora's leg kick is really down.

  • In reply to TheFiveYearPlan:

    Good to hear, seems that is a permanent change. Started it in AA last year and is sticking with it.

  • John,

    Not sure if you saw this, but the South Bend Cubs just came out with their new team store name, "Cubs Den Team Store." Not sure if you had a clothing line planned, but this put a damper on your brand name.

  • In reply to KC Cubs Fan:

    I did.

    Wasn't really planning clothing line. I just like to write and watch baseball :)

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I'd buy a t-shirt from you. I spent enough time on this site that I might as well invest $20 to help you advertise.

  • Mick just ended the inning saying (talking about Spring Training) "results are the only thing that matter" He needs to read Cubs Den!

  • In reply to plymkr:

    He does. We even interviewed him here once.

    That said, he must not have read this last article. Or he didn't agree!

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    There was a time when I was younger that I tried to come up with a system to read spring training results. Good spring meant bad season/bad spring good season. Win the last half of spring means good season. Finally I realized that it didn't matter. Just individual players getting better, and results aren't key. I finally got the concept you explained John. But the temptation is always to interpret results.

  • In reply to Sean Holland:

    It is always tempting.

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