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Daily Jolt: Spring No Time to Panic

Feb 26, 2009 – 8:30 AM
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Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson %BloggerTitle%

The Daily Jolt is a dose of baseball reality every weekday.

Can you feel it? Spring is in the air. Real, actual baseball games were played Wednesday in the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues. The arrival of baseball games is mostly pleasant for fans, even if the contests mean nothing and their favorite players end up doing wind-sprints in the outfield by the fourth inning. But it can also bring a bit of anxiety.

Winter is mostly gloomy with the next nine innings so far away, but it is also a time for boundless optimism. Squint hard enough between the leafless trees and falling snow and you can almost see Carl Pavano pitching 200 innings. Maybe that's why Spring Training can cause a little panic -- all it takes is one bad start to shatter the wildly optimistic construct of the 2009 season we've spent all winter putting together in our heads.

So let's get this out of the way right now, before we get too far along into Spring Training or distracted by the fast-approaching World Baseball Classic. Spring numbers mean next to nothing.

Tigers fans should not worry that free-agent addition Brandon Lyon gave up three runs in their spring opener, nor should they be too excited about new catcher Gerald Laird's double and triple in his first game wearing the Old English D. Red Sox fans should not be concerned that Tim Wakefield's knuckleball didn't knuckle quite right against the Twins, nor should White Sox fans stay up at night because key reliever Octavio Dotel surrendering three runs himself.

There's just no real precedence for reading anything into performance before April. Cliff Lee had an 8.31 ERA last spring and went on to win the AL Cy Young Award. There was nothing in those results to indicate a breakout performance was coming. His teammate, Travis Hafner, hit .333 and had a disastrous year in 2008. NL Rookie of the Year Geovany Soto hit .222 and didn't go deep once last year in the Cactus League. He hit .285 and slugged 23 homers once he got to Wrigley Field. Barry Bonds hit a comparatively paltry .289 in the spring of 2004. He followed that up with a .362 average and an absurd .609 on-base percentage in the regular season. That same year, newly-signed closer Keith Foulke posted an ERA of 15.00 for the Red Sox in the spring, inciting hysteria across New England. He ended up notching 32 saves and closing out Boston's first World Series championship in 86 years.

And I could go on (and on and on and on).

The point is that there's very little predictive value in these spring games that we all enjoy so much, and that means there's no sense getting worked up over a bad outing from a pitcher or a slow-swinging slugger.

That's a general rule of thumb, not a hard and fast maxim. If a starter penciled in for your team's rotation surrenders nine walks in a spring outing as the Giants' Noah Lowry did last year, go right ahead and push the big red button. Ditto if the aging 30-homer-a-year slugger in the middle of your team's order shows up looking more emaciated than a supermodel.

In most cases, though, it just isn't worth the heartache. The spring sample size is too tiny to glean a whole lot from it, and that data is further tainted by the nature of the games, where the result is less important than getting all the kinks worked out before the season, than ensuring that your curveball is snapping off and that the gaping hole in your swing is closed.

So sit back and enjoy the fact that baseball is back. There will be plenty of time to fret in just a few weeks.
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