During Spring Training, we tend to do two things without fail: give in to unbridled optimism and overanalyzed individual performances. We gravitate toward players who play well and convince ourselves they have “figured it out” or “taken the next step”. On some occasions, they really have.
However, as Steve has pointed out on multiple game threads, Spring Training stats are often misleading. Two obvious reasons are sample size and varying levels of competition. As we look at the race for two (and possibly three) starting rotation spots, we need to account for these factors.
In small samples, one really bad performance can wreck a pitcher’s numbers because they will not pitch enough innings in Spring Training to bring a ghastly ERA back down to earth or lower their walk rate to an acceptable level.
And yet, we can gather some useful insights from a pitcher’s performance in Spring Training. Instead of looking at numbers that take a while to become useful, such as ERA or FIP, we should consider the number of quality outings each starter has had because that information will give us a trend that tells us more than ERA over 8-12 innings.
Defining what “quality” means is somewhat subjective. A player may pitch poorly and give up zero runs, as Cody Reed did on March 5th when he let up four hits and walked one in two innings. Because no starter has pitched more than four innings so far, I’ve judged quality appearances by whether the pitcher gave up no more than one earned run and had more strikeouts than walks.
So far, the starting pitching candidates have mostly turned in strong performances. Here’s a breakdown of each appearance by the starters with a star by their quality outings.
- *First Appearance: 2 IP, 1 ER, 1 K, 0 BB
- *Second Appearance: 2 IP, 1 ER, 4 Ks, 1 BB
- Third Appearance: 3.1 IP, 2 ER, 3 Ks, 0 BB
- *Fourth Appearance: 4 IP, 0 ER, 7 Ks, 1 BB
Romano has consistently pitched well. Even the game when he gave up two runs in three plus innings, he did not walk a batter and had some spotty defense. In fairness, Billy Hamilton also saved him at least a run with an unbelievable grab. Romano’s Spring Training performance has thus far mirrored his minor league career: he gives up a decent number of hits (12 in 12 innings) but doesn’t walk anybody.
- *First Appearance: 2 IP, 1 ER, 3 Ks, 0 BB
- Second Appearance: 1.2 IP, 5 ER, 3 Ks, 2 BB
- *Third Appearance (B game): 2 IP, 0 ER, 2 Ks, 0 BB
- *Fourth Appearance: 3 IP, 1 ER, 3 Ks, 0 BB
Lorenzen has three quality appearances while struggling mightily in the other. The earned run in his first start came (strangely) on a strikeout. As I note above, Lorenzen started a B game in his third outing, so his stats were not added to his cactus league totals. While we do not have much information on who participated in that game for the Rangers, it’s likely that he faced mostly minor leaguers.
- *First Appearance: 2 IP, 0 ER, 4 Ks, 0 BB
- *Second Appearance: 3 IP, 0 ER, 6 Ks, 0 BB
- Third Appearance: 2 IP, 2 ER, 1 K, 2 BB
Garrett put up video game numbers in his first two appearances. He struck out 2/3s of the batters he faced and threw significantly harder than he did last year. Garrett has always struggled a bit with command, and that shortcoming plagued him in his lone poor outing. He also faced more MLB talent in his third appearance than the other two.
- First Appearance: 1.2 IP, 3 ER, 4 Ks, 1 BB
- Second Appearance: 1.1 IP, 2 ER, 1 K, 3 BB
- *Third Appearance: 3 IP, 0 ER, 3 Ks, 0 BB
Stephenson is known for one virtue and one glaring vice: he has tremendous stuff but never knows where it’s going to go. This Spring, he has again flashed tremendous potential while failing to consistently command the strike zone. He is the only pitcher on this list to have more “poor” performances than quality ones. Because he came in as a front runner, we can assume he has some rope to rebound, and he impressed last time out.
- *First Appearance: 2 IP, 0 ER, 2 Ks, 1 BB
- *Second Appearance: 2 IP, 0 ER, 3 K, 0 BB
- Third Appearance: 2.2 IP, 3 ER, 2 Ks, 1 BB
- *Fourth Appearance: 3 IP, 1 ER, 2 Ks, 0 BB
Mahle just gets guys out. He was the first of these pitchers to get a third quality outing, and while it seems like the Reds want to play the service-time game with him, Mahle has certainly looked the part of Major-leagued starter so far. He always seems in control, even when falling behind hitters. The stuff may not give you as many good feelies as the other guys on this list, but the command and poise are top notch.
Based on the quality appearance marker, these pitchers have performed pretty similarly. Garrett and Mahle have dominated a little more in individual outings than the others, with Romano just a step behind. Outside of one disastrous outing, Lorenzen has pitched well. Stephenson looked excellent in his last audition, though he has struggled more than the others overall.
But another factor plays just as big a role in our calculations: players face different levels of competition in Spring Training. Early on, teams will take out their starting position players after one or two plate appearances. A pitcher may face an MLB lineup or mostly double AA talent depending on when they enter the game.
Baseball Reference (BR) has a neat stat called OppoQual that tries to quantify the quality of hitter pitchers have faced in Spring Training. Essentially, BR looks at the level (A, AA, AAA, MLB) a position player played at in the previous year and assigns them a number:
- 10: MLB
- 8: AAA
- 7: AA
- 5: High A
- 4: Low A
- 5-3: Rookie and short season
- 1: Opposing pitchers
Then, BR take the numbers of the players a pitcher has faced and averages them together to get a quality score. For example, if a pitcher faces three players with ratings of 10, 7, and 8, he will face an average of just above a AAA hitter (8.33).
Right now, the Reds starting pitching candidates have the following OppoQual scores:
- Romano: 8.2
- Lorenzen: 7.9
- Stephenson 7.7
- Garrett: 7.1
- Mahle: 7.0
Thus far, only Romano has faced an average batter with the quality of AAA or higher. While Garrett and Mahle have overwhelmed hitters, they have also faced inferior competition. Before Mahle’s last outing, he had a 6.5 OppoQual, meaning the average player he faced was below AA.
What should we take from this? The biggest thing is that Romano has arguably had the best Spring of any of these pitchers. Even if he’s been less sexy than Mahle or Garrett, Romano has pitched well against better hitters. If he really had an edge coming into Spring Training, he hasn’t allowed anyone to close the gap. With the injury to Anthony Desclafani and Brandon Finnegan remaining an unknown, Romano seems to have a spot all but wrapped up.
If the injuries leave two more spots available in the rotation, then the Reds have quite a competition on their hands. To get the best assessment, they should consider pitching all of these guys against another team’s starters. Stephenson, Garrett, Mahle, and Lorenzen should all be starting games down the stretch of Spring Training. If the Reds are insistent on Mahle beginning the season in AAA to save service time, then they need to get a good read on the other three, who all came into Spring Training with lots of question marks.
Taken together, the Reds young pitchers have pitched well. However, as we compare them and look forward to the season, we can’t forget the context: some of them have faced better players than others. Regardless, these pitchers have given fans hope that a solid rotation will arrive sooner than later.