I know it’s Spring Training, and statistically minded analysts and writers generally moan about how they hate Spring Training because nothing means anything and anything means nothing, but as a baseball fan, I love this time of year, because baseball!  Grown men are wearing matching outfits with numbers on them, someone stands on a pile of dirt and hurls a thing with stiches at a guy with a smoothed out tree branch and baseball happens!  I think it’s glorious.

I take issue with and just flat-out disagree with the notion that spring games are somehow useless and boring.  First, you get to see players you might not normally see, and see how they play baseball.  And this is fun!  Second, you see people you normally see playing baseball, and this is fun, too.  And informative!  You can see, for instance, how a pitcher’s pitches are moving, and how major league hitters respond to that movement.  You can see who looks dialed in and who looks like he’s hopelessly hacking.  You can pretend you’re a scout, reporting to the GM in your head.

With that said, I offer a couple early spring takeaways, keeping in mind that I’m not nor have I ever been remotely a scout, I only claim to love baseball and have played it and studied it for a very long time.  So here are some early takeaways:

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  1. People can’t stop talking about Mookie Betts!

This guy went from nobody, to fringe prospect, to can’t miss faster than I think I’ve ever seen happen to a player.  The other day, John Danks, who doesn’t even play with or near Betts, was raving about his athleticism because the two apparently work out together. Coaches rave about his makeup, his approach, his attitude.  Heck, the projection systems even love him!  ZiPS projects him to be worth 3.4 WAR.  PECOTA has him slashing .280/.356/.417. Steamer thinks he’ll hit for slightly more power: .285/.349/.425. These appear to be very good signs for Red Sox fans, barring a freak bathtub injury or the like.  Now, if the Red Sox can only find a place for him to play!  He’s competing with a guy the Sox are paying $13M, Shane Victorino, a guy they’re paying $10M, Rusney Castillo, and their recent $88M acquisition, Hanley Ramirez.  If you’re a Sox fan, there are worse things to worry about than finding playing time for Ramirez, Castillo, Betts, and Victorino.

 

  1. Carlos Carrasco has a FILTHY changeup.

Even to my largely untrained eye.  I’d love to show you, but I don’t for the life of me know how to make a GIF.  Jeff Sullivan does, though, and he does so here.  Based on Monday’s spring game against Seattle, Carrasco’s got a good feel for it already.  He made Kyle Seager, who is a pretty good hitter, look like this:

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In this screen grab, and in this at bat, Seager flailed hopelessly at back to back changeups and struck out, meekly.  Like a lamb.  Yes, it’s only spring, and pitchers are ahead of hitters unless the hitters are ahead of pitchers and so on, but it certainly bodes well for Carrasco that he seems to have such a good feel for the pitch already.  Several smart and talented writershave already written articles breaking down Carrasco’s 2014 breakout (here’s the latest, and another one from that Sullivan guy), so I’m not going to go over that again, but it seems entirely likely Carrasco and his filthy change are here to stay, and poised for a big 2015.  ZiPS and Steamer like him for a 3.32 FIP and a 3.29 FIP, respectively, and I’m going to go ahead and say those projections could even be a little conservative. ZiPS assumes a higher than average BABIP in its projection (.314), and both ZiPS and Steamer predict a marked drop in strikeout rate, 8.39 and 8.64 K/9, down from 9.4 in 2014.  These both seem unlikely to me, considering the guy has clearly changed his approach.  He strikes out a ton of guys, hardly walks any, and really seems to have figured it out.  Sure, Carrasco’s BABIP was a little low in 2014, at .274, but I think the projection systems err a little too much on the side of regression to past performance, when we’re pretty clearly looking at a different pitcher.  I’m bullish on Carrasco.

 

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  1. Wilmer Flores can and will play SS in the major leagues.

Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller touched on this briefly with Ted Berg on the Mets preview on the Effectively Wild Podcast, with Berg thinking Flores was virtually a lock to start the year at short for the Mets. He was a prospect for a long time, since he was a teenager, but he’s still only 23, and he appears to be ready to play in the majors after starting 67 games last season.  Scouts, though, and many of them, have generally derided his defense, calling him a man without a position, with slow, heavy feet, that could never realistically stick at shortstop.  Well, the Mets seem committed to giving him a shot, and based on some early spring games, he looks pretty comfortable there!

 

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That’s him ranging to his right in a game this weekend, diving to make a play that looked pretty tricky!  He jumped to his feet and fired a strike over to first to make the out.  Yes, it’s just one play, but in another game, I watched him turn a double play, and his hands looked soft, and his motion was fluid, with a quick transfer.  Not clunky at all.  So maybe, just maybe, these young guys CAN improve their defense.  Maybe we’re too quick to write them off or move them off middle infield positions.  Carson over at Fangraphs took a little deeper dive here, with a lot of cool GIFs, that show the good and the bad from 2014. In a small sample of 443 innings last year, the metrics actually look pretty good.  UZR has him at +4.0, and UZR/150 at +12.5, although DRS has him at -3.  Still those aren’t the numbers you’d see for someone who was a disaster defensively. Look, there’s already guys who probably shouldn’t play short actively playing shortstop in the big leagues: Jed Lawrie and Asdrubal Cabrera, if you ask some.  There was this guy once… Derek somebody.  Wore pinstripes.  Maybe it’s too early to close the book on Wilmer Flores, big league shortstop.  Maybe he doesn’t get to every ball someone smaller and quicker might, but he seems to be settling in, and, at least maybe capable of making some decent plays.  And if his bat plays the way the machines (ZiPS has him at .266/.300/.428 with 17 HR) and scouts project it to, the Mets might have something pretty nifty here.

 

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  1. Danny Hultzen is pitching!

The screen grab above is the first pitch he’s thrown against a big league team in 18 months.  It came in at 92, it was taken for a called strike, and it had some zip to it.  These are encouraging signs!  Of course, his very next pitch looked like this:

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A lousy excuse for a curveball that kicked up dirt six inches shy of the plate and nearly hit Troy Tulowitzki on the bounce.  There’s some polishing to do still!  Still, Hultzen shook it off and promptly threw the next pitch at 94 mph, nicking the inside corner for another called strike.  94 mph is really good for a lefty coming off rotator cuff surgery!  He threw another curve in the dirt for his third pitch, so that offering clearly needs some work, but he came back with the heater at 94 and 95.  He walked Tulo, but it was close, and those pitches really had some zip on them!  He started off the next hitter, Wilin Rosario, with another called strike, coming in at 93.  Rosario fouled off another 93 mph offering for strike two, fouled off a better curve, and then grounded another curve into a 5-4-3 double play. Hultzen stayed at 93 to start the next hitter with a called strike, then got Ben Paulson to bounce weakly out to short.  If you’re a Mariners fan, this is really exciting news! Hultzen, of course, was taken #2 overall in the 2011 draft out of Virginia, and was billed as an almost-can’t-miss prospect.  Then his shoulder got blown to hell, and everyone feared the worst.  Well, the velocity seems to be back, although it remains to be seen if Hultzen can maintain it over the course of a couple innings.If you’re looking for a time to be optimistic, this is it!

So, there you go. Most of these list-things go in fives or fifteens, but I’m going to stop at four, because I have some work to do.  Enjoy your Spring Training games, and celebrate the little things and progress and optimism and Baseball!

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