Tough To Judge

added 3/29/2010 by Bob Hulsey

Few people remember that the expansion Houston Colt .45s won the 1962 Cactus League title. How could that be so when they had probably the least talent of any team in the majors and few players had even been teammates with one another the season before?

Simple. The expansion draft produced no superstars. Almost every player had been a reserve for somebody else, meaning there was nobody who could take spring training for granted as no job was safe. Every man in camp had but one priority and that was to play their best so as to make the team. Manager Harry Craft need not fear a lack of motivation for any of them.

Which is one reason why it is hard to take spring results very seriously. Different players, even different teams, come to camp with different agendas.

For the veteran players like Lance Berkman or Roy Oswalt, the goal is to get the body in shape to withstand the grind of a long season and staying healthy. "Getting his work in" is the most common phrase you'll hear about them because they know they aren't going to be cut no matter how poorly they perform. It's all about toning up and tuning up to be effective when the bell rings.

The marginal player may come to camp with a bigger incentive. They might be a bench player that would like a place in the starting lineup or just hanging onto a spot on the big league roster. They have to impress the manager that they can do the job.

For the prospect, the hope is to play well enough to be kept on the roster or to move a step up in the minor leagues. In some cases, they've run out of options, meaning they'll be exposed to waivers if they are cut.

Then there are the non-roster invitees, trying hard to milk one more year out of a career that is likely on thin ice - at least thin on the prospect of playing at the big league level.

Each player has their reasons to perform but not all of them will approach the spring with the same intensity. Therefore, some "star" players underperform while other marginal players get on a hot streak. It also means some good teams will lose a lot more in the spring than they might be expected to and some poor teams will actually win a lot of games because more players are fighting for their baseball lives.

Not all spring experiences are alike. Some pitchers come to camp ready to learn a new pitch or to alter their throwing motion. Some hitters experiment with a new stance or a different swing, hoping to add more power or generate more hits. While trying out a new practice, the player will often appear to be having a rough spring when, in reality, they are using the opportunity of games that don't count to try something new.

It's also true that players who perform later in a spring game are more apt to face below-average opposition. It's important to weigh statistics based on the quality of opponents they are seeing.

In addition, its become a standard practice for many of the star players to stay home rather than take a bus to a road game during the spring. Home teams typically get a better chance to win than the road team of backups and prospects who not only have the disadvantage of riding on oft-rickety buses through the Florida or Arizona countryside to get to their game but also have to try to win against the other team's top talent.

(As a side note, it seems unfair to spring training fans that the games they watch will likely be one team's regulars versus the visiting team's scrubs. I understand why this is so but it cheapens the competition one more level when the squads aren't on an equal level.)

That's why it is hard to look at spring statistics and use them to tell who is going to make the team and who isn't. And it shouldn't be a clear indicator as to who will have a successful season and who won't.

Yet this is the time of year when everyone tries to get ready for the season - ready because the time for experimenting ends when the season starts and the surviving 25 players will get to wipe the slate clean and play for keeps. As with every spring, we can't wait to see games that count again.