Sweet Jesus, baseball is back. I’m so happy that this spring training, things are going to be different around here – no more mocking the yearly article on how the team is going to steal their way into contention, or whining about the inevitable massive overreactions to spring training performances. Nothing but positive, constructive, analysis – at least until the Jays get 4-hit again. And so, here is a brief list of the things I think we (or, you know, professional sports journalists) should actually be trying to figure out this spring, because they might actually mean something for the coming season:
Can Travis Snider control the strike zone?
It’s just swell that Snider is mashing the ball in batting practice, and better than nothing that can take a rusty piece of trash like Justin Lehr over the wall in his second game, but let’s not kid ourselves – this is not the real test, and his respectable cup of coffee last year should not silence those very real doubts that he’s going to be ready to contribute in a significant way at the age of 21, with almost no experience above AA.
It’s just a different game up here – opposing staffs are going to cut him apart in the video room (or with that fancy dancy pitch tracking stuff I keep hearing about) and he will struggle until he figures out how to adjust back and not fall for all the cute little tricks major leaguers do that make them major leaguers and not the powerful but inexperienced arms you’ve seen so far. A good way to figure out how easy that is going to be is his walk to strikeout ratio; it’s why guys like Chip Cannon don’t project very well – tons of K’s and no walks are a sign that you’re just flailing up there with no real control over your at bats, and occasionally running into a mistake fastball that won’t exist at a higher level.
Coincidentally, high K numbers in the minors have been the only caveat about Snider so far (although he’s been so young at every level it’s kind of silly). Not that strikeouts themselves are such a big deal, but for what kind of hitter he projects into. Anyway, forget the monster jacks off pitchers who everyone in the park knows are only throwing fastballs right now anyway – what we want to see is control and discipline. So far it’s been all contact and warning track drives. He’s screwed!
Does David Purcey throw a curveball?
It wasn’t just fastball control – Purcey lived and died by his curveball last year. Sure there’s more to his development than one pitch (like finding the perfect ADD drug?), but his hot and cold starts last year were mostly because it was doing a disappearing-reappearing act. Some nights he just wouldn’t throw it, and struggled accordingly. Think of it as this year’s version of A.J. Burnett’s hook, and pray.
Does Jesse Litsch still have more than one pitch?
I even had a request to say something intelligent about Litsch this offseason, and totally froze up – because who the heck knows. Forget about his career stats, his PECOTA projection, all that junk. Litsch’s career has been all over the place as his pitches come and go – he got his big break due to developing a changeup, and then stopped throwing it when he got to the majors and just relied on the cutter.
That worked for a while – but then at the end of last year he was forced to reinvent himself with a 4-seam fastball and a new changeup. He’s a total wildcard – is that well rounded pitcher we saw at the end of last year the real deal, or just another novelty that will get shelled once the league has seen it a couple of times?
Is B.J. Ryan’s velocity back all the way?
This is actually something we can investigate without being there (although not for a couple of weeks yet), but despite gutting out a pretty respectable season coming back early from TJ surgery, Ryan never quite had his normal velocity last year, typically sitting at 89-90 rather than 92ish.
Talk all you want (I sure have) about him being a control/deceptive guy, but that loss of velocity made a big difference to his hittability, and he didn’t quite have his control (see: slider, Giambi, Jason) either. That whole coming back stronger from TJ surgery thing is a myth, but it would be nice to see him back to the dude that after his first year was actually conveivably worth the largest reliever contract ever.
Physically, it should be no problem at this point. Mentally? Even for a guy that looks like he plays chicken to lose with MAC trucks, getting over that nagging voice in the back of your head and going 100% after a full out shoulder explosion is another thing entirely, and was probably what was holding him back at the end of last year. Don’t tell him I said that. I know you’re all man, Beej.
Is Jesse Carlson’s slider going for strikes?
Out of nowhere Carlson laid down a positively heroic season last year (which makes Scott Downs year, ummm…godlike?) but he’s a total freak, throwing his slider more than anyone, and for strikes at an abnormal rate. I’m hopeful because sliders are fundamentally harder to hit, but nobody in the history of the game cas dropped them in for as many strikes in the long haul.
There’s also the worry that he’s got an expiry date in the exact same way Litsch did (even though I called him a ‘cutterballer’ last year, threw what was pretty much a slider as his fastball). In theory, everyone has trouble with that cutting/sliding garbage even if they know it’s coming, but you need some element of surprise or batters will just sit on it. Might be less trouble for a reliever. Interestingly, batters hit against Carlson’s “show me” fastball no better than they did his slider last year, even though it was visibly straight and not located particularly well.
Coming Soon: Fewer words, more pretty graphs! PITCH F/X is making its debut at the WBC, so expect to see Scott Richmond under the microscope. Or perhaps some Bacillae if their stuff looks better and they can be signed to a minor league deal.