When the Cardinals take the field for their first Spring Training game at noon on Friday, I will be watching. In fact, I've already made plans to meet a fellow fan at a local barbecue establishment.
I'll watch (or listen to) many of their practice games over the next month. Mostly, the Florida sunshine and trappings of baseball will serve as a portal to spring. But even though we all know that we shouldn't read too much - if anything at all - into what happens during Spring Training, there are a few specific things I will be on the lookout for:
Adam Wainwright's velocity
As Craig so well put it a couple days ago, let’s not pretend we have any idea how Adam Wainwright will do this year. But Spring Training will provide our first inklings of what to expect, and I'll be looking specifically at his velocity.
Wainwright had one of the biggest drops in velocity between the first and second half of last season, down to an average fastball velocity of just 87.8mph. His curveball likewise deteriorated, both in terms of velocity and drop.
He may not be a power pitcher, but Wainwright still needs enough velocity on his fastball to keep hitters off his curve. There were times last season where his pitches all blended into a mid 70s to mid 80s stew that big league hitters could feast on.
Pitcher's fastball velocity in spring training may be a bit lower, because of both the fact that they are warming up and cooler temperatures. On average, spring training velocities are about a half a mile-per-hour lower than regular season averages.
For Wainwright, I want to see his 4-seam fastball sit at-or-above 88mph. If he's there in spring, we can hope he will dial it up to 89 or even 90 once the season starts, which is where he was during his fairly strong first-half of last season.
If he's throwing below 88, he's starting below where he finished in a pretty disastrous 2nd half of 2017, and I think the Cardinals should be looking for a new 5th starter even before Opening Day.
All those Statcast metrics
The main reason to ignore spring training stats is very simply that they nearly all suffer from small sample size issues. Whatever your favorite rate state is, for hitters or pitchers, nobody will rack up enough appearances that changes in those rates are particularly meaningful.
One exception comes in terms of many of those Statcast metrics that come closer to measuring raw ability, things like exit velocity, sprint speed and (the aforementioned) fastball velocity. Because these are more like raw tools, it takes very few measurements before they stabilize. In general, once a player demonstrates that they can hit or throw the ball really hard, or run really fast, we know they can do it.
Will we get this data for spring training games? It will probably be spotty. I'm not sure if any of the parks in the Grapefruit League are wired for the full compliment of Statcast data, but I expect they all have some hodgepodge of radar guns and tracking systems.
So take any of this data with a big grain of salt, as it may well not be calibrated exactly to the standard of the major league parks. But at any rate, all I'll be looking for here is any BIG deviations from what we've seen from a player in the past.
Big increases will be noteworthy, though probably fairly unlikely. I'll be more on the lookout for any big drops in exit velocity, fastball speed, etc. All of these are often a sign of injury.
Okay, the traditional stats, maybe just a little
Look, I know I shouldn't look back at any of the traditional stats over spring training, but like Lot's Wife, I'm not going to be able to help myself. And as long as I keep it in perspective, there may be just a bit of useful information.
A pair of articles at Five Thirty Eight a few years back looked at whether or not we can put ANY stock in traditional stats during spring training. For individual players, only if they perform dramatically above or below their projections is there reason to adjust our expectations, and even then it should only shade our projections just a bit.
Anecdotally, this does seem to hold true for last year's Cardinals. Jose Martinez led the over performers, putting up an OPS 539 points above his ZiPS projection. Stephen Piscotty was the biggest underperformed, 330 points below his projection.
If you look at the team performance, the numbers are a bit more predictive. Rob Arthur found that a spring OPS of 100 points above or below projections (team-wide) equated to about a 15 point swing in regular season performance. The reason is quite simply that measuring the whole team in aggregate gets around some of those problems caused by sample size with an individual player.
What's the vibe with Oquendo and Maddux?
After shaking up Mike Matheny's coaching staff midway through last season, the organization made even bigger moves this offseason: Bringing Jose Oquendo back into the dugout and hiring veteran Pitching Coach Mike Maddux.
I'm loath to speculate too much on Palace Intrigue, but Bernie Miklasz on the first episode of his new podcast with Will Leitch said he believes both of these hires were meant to be a check on Matheny. He also said that despite his injury, the real reason Oquendo stepped away from the big league club was because he felt he was being ignored, and would not have agreed to return without assurances that he would have more of a voice.
I doubt we'll get much of a sense of what impact these new hires will have in spring training, but I'll be ready to read into any little hints we might get as to how the power dynamic might be shifting.
Who starts games late in the spring?
It doesn't really matter who starts games in spring training, or if a pitcher throws the first three or the middle three innings. But in those final weeks, the guys that will be in the rotation usually start taking their turns in, you know, rotation.
Unless there is an injury or Wainwright really struggles, we probably know who the five-man rotation will be. But who will be #6, #7..? That's a little less clear.
The Cardinals have said they will stretch newly-acquired Bud Norris out for potential use as a starter. Jack Flaherty will start the first game of the spring. Those two, along with Alex Reyes, were the first names John Mozeliak mentioned on this week's Cat Chat Podcast when pressed to identify who might be in-line should a rotation spot open up. And just beyond them, there's any number of Dakota Hudsons and Austin Gomberses who it's easy to imagine stepping in with a strong spring and a solid month or two in the high minors.
As I said last week, I'd like to see the Cardinals use their pitching depth (and the 10-day DL) to spread starts out among more of their guys. I'm curious how serious they are about using Bud Norris as a starter. I'll be watching to see who's pitching starters innings late in the spring to get some sense of what the hierarchy looks like outside the top five.
Any of these things might yield some hints about what's to come this season, or perhaps they won't tell us much at all. I'll be watching them, but mostly I'm just happy to be watching ANY kind of baseball at all.
What will you be watching?