Is It Legit: Looking to Spring Strikeout Rates for Hitter Breakouts
Ask anyone in the know and they’re sure to repeat the same old truism: “Spring Training stats don’t matter.” As a result, don’t bother getting excited that your favorite prospect or career bench bat has five home runs in March. It’s mostly hot air, especially in the Cactus League.
The Twitter baseball curmudgeons have good reason to take this tact. For the most part, they’re right, and the vast majority of spring stats can be tossed out the window. But it turns out that there are some useful indicators buried behind the noise.
Daniel Rosenheck, a writer for The Economist, presented a seminal paper on the predictive power of Spring Training statistics at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in 2015. The full powerpoint can be found here.
Rosenheck confirmed that traditional stats like ERA and batting average display absolutely no correlation between spring and the regular season. However, Rosenheck did discover that the spring performance in a variety of peripheral indicators, such as strikeout rate, isolated slugging percentage, and stolen base attempt rate, maintained significant predictive power.
Strikeout rate for hitters proved particularly useful in the study, with Rosenheck finding a significant 0.44 r2 coefficient between spring training and regular season strikeout rate.
This article will identify players that could be exhibiting meaningful gains in offensive skill due to improvements in strikeout rate in 2019 Spring Training. The analysis focuses on younger players with limited MLB experience, as their baseline MLB projections are highly spurious and could be improved significantly through analysis of Spring Training data.
Enrique Hernandez, Los Angeles Dodgers
The 27-year old Enrique “Kike” Hernandez has scratched and clawed his way to MLB relevance since making his initial professional debut all the way back in 2010 for the Astros organization. Several teams and nearly one decade later, Hernandez finally made a substantial mark in the majors, accruing a 3.2 fWAR and 113 wRC+ for the Dodgers in 462 plate appearances in 2018. Hernandez’s improved plate discipline underpinned his success, highlighted by a strikeout rate of 16.9% compared to 23.4% in 2017 and 26.2% in 2016. Kike is continuing that trend this spring, striking out a mere three times in 47 plate appearances, for a sterling 6.4 K%. It turns out that Hernandez’s newfound contact ability is part of a longer-term trend that started in May 2018, so we might be witnessing a Justin Turner-izing of Hernandez right before our eyes. While at-bats will be difficult to come by on a crowded Dodgers roster, Hernandez seems poised to break out offensively in 2019.
Chad Pinder, Oakland Athletics
Chad Pinder, similar in many ways to the aforementioned Hernandez, clubbed 28 home runs in 642 plate appearances over the last two seasons as a utility player for the Oakland Athletics. But in spite of the plus power, Pinder’s overall batting performance in that span sits at a near-average 106 wRC+, weighed down by an unsightly 28.0 K% and 0.25 BB/K ratio. With the home runs and the Statcast dominance, Pinder already owns an upper echelon power profile. The next step in his game is to cut the strikeouts and put more overall balls in play. Fortunately, he is doing that in spades this spring, clocking in with one measly strikeout in 34 plate appearances (2.9 K%). That means something when you consider that Pinder’s strikeout rate on a 25-plate appearance rolling average never dipped below 14% at any point during his brief time in the majors. Like Hernandez, playing time will be an issue in 2019 for Pinder, but I’m a believer that the cream tends to rise to the top.
Byron Buxton, Minnesota Twins
Oh, here we go again! Byron Buxton, the former No. 1 prospect, is tantalizing Twins fans and fantasy owners alike with a scorching 10 games worth of at-bats. I, like many others in the fantasy universe, have been burned by Buxton before. But it seems like there might just be some real improvements underlying Buxton’s absurd .448/.485/.966 Spring Training batting line. The lowest rolling 25-plate appearance strikeout rate that Buxton has attained in his MLB career is 16%, which came in his mini-breakout in late 2017. Meanwhile, his strikeout rate sits at 12.1% in 33 PAs this spring. While that type of relative improvement isn’t on the Pinder level highlighted above, it should stop fans and pundits from outright dismissing the performance. The old expression – fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice (or three or four times in this case), shame on me – certainly bears repeating when it comes to Buxton, however, his spring gains in plate discipline give me a sliver of hope that real change is around the corner.
Frank Schwindel, Kansas City Royals
Frank Schwindel might be the best minor league player that nobody knows about, clubbing 67 home runs since 2016 and posting well above average offensive production each year along the way for the Royals organization. Schwindel possesses a rare blend of plus power and plus plate discipline, evidenced by the aforementioned home runs to go along with a 15.3% career minor league strikeout rate. He’s taken that aversion to strikeouts to an extreme in the Cactus League, owning a microscopic 5.2 K% in 96 career spring plate appearances (4.5% in 2019). Originally a catcher but converted to first base several years ago, Schwindel is a minus in the field, and profiles best at DH in the majors. The Kansas City Royals have expressed hesitancy to promote Schwindel because of his defensive shortcomings, but Salvador Perez‘s season-ending injury likely opens the door for Schwindel to earn a roster spot with his ability to rotate in behind the plate. Once he starts getting MLB at-bats Schwindel will be a difficult person for the Royals to keep on the bench, with room to rotate him in at catcher, first base, and DH.
Jose Rondon, Chicago White Sox
Jose Rondon experienced one of the more impressive breakouts around baseball in 2018, smacking 24 home runs to the tune of a .244 ISO split between time with the Triple-A Charlotte Knights and the Chicago White Sox. The 25-year-old primarily played shortstop in the minor leagues but is expanding his defensive repertoire by taking reps in left field this spring. Rondon’s strikeout rate increased from 24.3% in AAA last year to 28.0% once he hit the bigs, levels that make consistent offensive production difficult to sustain. But he’s only struck out once while walking four times in 29 spring plate appearances, indicating that he’s potentially turning a corner with his plate discipline. Rondon seems poised to make the Chicago roster when camp breaks but he will likely spend the first several weeks in a backup role. Fortunately, the White Sox don’t look to be competitive in 2019 and will likely give Rondon significant time at second base or a corner outfield spot if his plate performance warrants it.
(Photo by Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire)