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The curious case of Jeremy Hazelbaker

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

On May 13, 2015, the St. Louis Cardinals agreed to terms on a minor league contract with 2009 fourth-round draft pick Jeremy Hazelbaker, who had been released by the Los Angeles Dodgers (from the Double-A Tulsa Drillers) less than two weeks prior. The very next day, the left-handed hitting, then 27-year-old outfielder joined the Double-A Springfield Cardinals, where he promptly began tearing up Texas League pitching, to the tune of a .308/.394/.503 slash line in 168 plate appearances (ultimately earning him a spot on the Texas League's mid-season All-Star team). After being awarded a relatively quick promotion to the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds, Hazelbaker's bat heated up even more, slashing his way to .333/.403/.594 in 233 plate appearances.

With a crowded outfield depth chart at the top two levels of the organization (Matt Holliday, Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, Tommy Pham, Charlie Tilson, Anthony Garcia), the Cardinals could have very easily thanked Hazelbaker for the productive five months and let him move on to a different organization as a minor league free agent. Instead, on December 4, 2015, the Cardinals signed Hazelbaker to another minor league contract with a non-roster invitation to spring training. While many non-roster invitees have been reassigned to minor league camp, Hazelbaker has not yet been one of them, and with Holliday-to-first appearing to be more than a mere spring experiment, many have been discussing Hazelbaker's possibility of breaking camp on the club's 25-man roster.

2016 Spring Training Statistics

15 36 33 .303 .361 .515 .876

Most impressively, Hazelbaker's .876 OPS ranks fifth highest on the team among players receiving at least 10 spring training at bats. I used this qualifier to weed out higher OPS's attached to at bat totals of one (Luke Voit), four (Jhonny Peralta), and five (Paul DeJong). Yet, as John Nagel of @CardinalsFarm pointed out on Twitter, when looking at an individual's spring training performance, it is important to consider their level of competition as well. Per Baseball Reference (excluding yesterday's game at the time of publishing), Hazelbaker's current opponent quality (OppQual) is 6.9. For reference, 7 is considered AA-level, 8 is AAA-level, and 10 is as high as it gets, also known as MLB-level.

Across seven minor league seasons (with three different parent-club organizations), Hazelbaker has accumulated 1,426 Double-A plate appearances and 837 Triple-A plate appearances. Thus, while an OPS of .876 is impressive at any level, it should not be all that surprising that he is experiencing success against a level of opponent that he has faced for many years.

Another thing to consider is sample size, and this is where a double-standard tends to surface. When a hitter is struggling, many fans (myself included) have the habit of throwing out the numbers as "not very meaningful (statistically and anecdotally)" because we are dealing with a small sample size, also known as, "come on, if you give the hitter more at bats, things will begin evening out." At the other end of the spectrum, when a hitter is performing well (as Hazelbaker has been thus far in Florida), sample sizes tend to be ignored (or at the very least, not prioritized), and it ultimately leads to discussion that a non-prospect, not currently on the 40-man roster, may force his way onto the 25-man roster of a World Series contender come the start of the regular season.

By my count, the Cardinals 40-man roster is currently full, but this really is not much of a hurdle for anyone in a position to crack it as an easy move to free space is the transfer of Lance Lynn to the 60-day disabled list since he is projected to miss the entire 2016 season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. Plus, barring an unforeseen setback among other relief pitchers, rule-5 draft pick Matt Bowman will likely be sent back to the New York Mets once the regular season starts, freeing up yet another 40-man spot.

Thus, while Hazelbaker has been quite productive since signing with the Cardinals back in May 2015, one must put his performance, particularly from spring training, into context. Virtually any baseball player, especially one of fourth-round talent, can get hot for a few months, just the same as any baseball player can experience a cold streak for a few months. Hazelbaker is definitely an interesting option to consider going forward, and given what he has gone through in his professional career, I am definitely rooting for him. That being said, it is hard to put too much stock in six months of high quality play (including this spring) over seven years of relative mediocrity.

As an aside, if you have a Twitter account, I would truly appreciate your vote in this #CardsMadness contest.