Just one more weekend. After a long winter and an interminable spring full of games where we found ourselves in the bottom of the seventh asking, "Who in the world is Barrett Kleinknecht and why is he in the infield with a tomahawk on his jersey?" we are just one more weekend away from actual baseball. Hold on, we'll get there.
Spring Training is generally kind of weird. It's naturally important for players and coaches from a preparation standpoint, and while games are nominally played, not much attention is paid to the results. In some ways, it reminds me of playing fantasy football: you don't really care about the outcome of a given real-world game, but you do want your player to be in such a position where they can rack up tons of points because the game situation allows them to. In the same way, the overall results are somewhat meaningless in the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues, but that does not mean that teams and fans are completely ignoring the individual player performances that take place on those fields.
For a long while, the easy conventional wisdom was that Spring Training stats did not matter. Like most tidbits of conventional wisdom, that mantra remains largely true but is also fraying at some very small edges. Dan Rosenheck did some awesome stuff in The Economist last year, and Mike Podhorzer at Fangraphs saw some small but notable effects for starting pitcher peripherals in terms of spring stats translating into the following season. For an overview that might be slightly over-the-top but is generally a good summation of where things stand, this might help.
Given the minuscule sample sizes and unclear competition levels prevalent in March, and the fact that most useful baseball statistics take a while to stabilize (in other words, become useful for predictive purposes to any extent), the two easy and possibly-useful-but-maybe-not-really stats to examine are strikeout rates and walk rates for both pitchers and hitters. Were Spring Training stats collected and made available in the same detail as regular season stats, we could add plate discipline numbers here as well, but alas, we make do with what we have. On this note, the remainder of this post is a high-level overview of these peripherals for the Braves hitters and pitchers with something resembling a non-laughably-small sample size (that's a lie, they're still laughably small) of plate appearances/batters faced this spring.
During a recent Spring Training game broadcast, Chip Caray and Joe Simpson had Freddie Freeman mic'd up. In talking about 2016 preparations and expectation, the conversation turned to the fact that while the Braves are rebuilding and focusing on prospects, the major league team, especially as far as position players go, is actually pretty old, because the Braves have brought in a bunch of stopgap veterans on short-term deals to man the field and lineup until the youngsters are ready. To that end, and as evident in the projections pieces from earlier weeks (catchers, infielders, outfielders, if you're interested), a lot of the Braves' position players are fairly "known quantities" offensively with relatively little room for variation.
Still, that doesn't mean that Spring Training peripherals aren't at least interesting for this motley assortment of players. Look at it this way: if these players go on to underperform their projections, you can say that the Spring was a portent. If they don't, you can feel confident and/or smug that Spring Training stats are indeed meaningless. In reality, the added predictive power of Spring Training stats over earlier performance already incorporated into the projection is marginal, and the Braves aren't really rolling out young position players who may be signaling a breakout with their peripherals en masse (at least not yet).
Still, six players have very heartening peripherals in Grapefruit League action:
Note: Projected BB% and K% taken from Fangraphs Depth Charts, which are blended Steamer/ZiPS projections.
Jeff Francoeur, true to his nature, is expected to have an abysmal walk rate and whiff more than average in 2016. In the Spring, he's pushed his walk rate to just "below average" and his strikeout rate to "really good!" territory. It probably won't last, but if it does, at least it won't be coming out of nowhere. (By the way, you can take that last sentence and apply it for most of these guys. Just copy-paste it with your mind.)
AJ Pierzynski has decided that contact is super-duper awesome this spring, with no walks and just two strikeouts. Unfortunately, that contact has been fairly weak (just one double and eight singles). Pierzynski's offensive revival last season came with a marginal improvement in his walk rate and a really substantive decline in his strikeout rate (helped by a huge decline in the number of pitches outside the zone that he whiffed on), so at least he's carrying that forward.
Kelly Johnson has posted a ridiculous walk rate of nearly 20 percent in Spring Training. Johnson walks a decent amount and strikes out a lot, so it's interesting that he's really improved both of those this spring. Then again, he's a stalwart veteran at this point, and whether or not he can take advantage of Spring Training hurlers who may not even be trying to get him out is probably less relevant than his quite-lengthy track record at this point.
The same can be said to a lesser extent for Gordon Beckham, who generally doesn't walk or strike out that much, but has drawn a ton of walks this spring while cutting down further on his strikeouts. I doubt it presages a real new gear for his performance, but if he can improve over the minor disaster of a hitter he's been so far, the Braves will welcome it.
Adonis Garcia and Jace Peterson are the two relatively unknown quantities on this list. Garcia has continued to shy away from walks as though they were toxic, but he's cut down his strikeout rate into "this guy is a wizard" territory, which is nice to see. It may be a little more predictive for him than for other players given his lack of major league experience, but it's worth noting here that despite the improvements he actually hasn't hit super-well this Spring. If the focus on not striking out is eating critically into his power, and still isn't accompanied by an increase in walks, then he potentially will be even less valuable than expected. Peterson, meanwhile, was pretty average in the peripherals department last year, but has shown a great eye this spring while cutting down the strikeouts a bit. Similarly to Garcia, he's made fairly weak contact, however, though the lack of power is not as much of a concern for him so long as that walk rate improvement is somewhat sustainable and he can provide a strong OBP as part of his package.
Comparatively, only three players have anything that could be considered a red flag as far as peripherals go, but again, it's less of a red flag and more like an orange sticky note with a shrug emoticon.
Ender Inciarte's sticky note is potentially the brightest orange of the three: he's generally thought of as a contact-first player who neither walks nor strikes out much, and while those have both been true in Spring Training, his walk rate is kind of scary. However, a big ameliorating factor here is that Inciarte has made pretty good contact this spring, so this may be a case of him just seeing the ball well and plonking it for singles instead of waiting to draw a walk. Again, it probably doesn't mean anything, but if he struggles especially drawing walks this season, this may have been a precursor to that.
Nick Markakis has the good kind of plate discipline where he generally doesn't whiff much but contributes decently in the walk department. This spring, however, he's barely walked while his strikeout rate has gone towards "average" territory. He's also had a really awful spring by the numbers (.171/.205/.244), which is the worst on the likely major league roster. One explanation is that this is a harbinger of his rapidly impending decline, but it's more likely that he's just tinkering with stuff and his own limitations/abilities while preparing for the season, and he'll be generic, aging Nick Markakis come the start of the season. He also might be trying to get back into the swing of trying to hit for more power, hence the plate discipline declines, but it's hard to tell without firsthand or secondhand reports that that is indeed the case.
Lastly, in the "why is he still on the roster?" category we have Emilio Bonifacio, who has decided to farcically strike out in over 30% of his spring PAs. He's actually kind of hit "okay" (for him, anyway overall, but given who he is, it's hard to read a further backslide in peripherals, even if they're Spring Training peripherals, as a positive sign. I still don't know why he's on the roster. Do you?
By now you're probably wondering, "hey, where's Hector Olivera?" Olivera's been one of the better performers for the Braves offensively this spring, but he's mostly swung at and connected with everything, so his walk and strikeout figures aren't supremely interesting. It's hard to tell whether he will continue with this approach, or whether he's just swinging it well right now and has no reason to lay off pitches at the moment. But Opening Day isn't far away, so we'll be able to start seeing him perform in meaningful situations pretty soon now. For completeness, though, here are the (less interesting) peripherals for the team's remaining position players.
Erick Aybar and Michael Bourn are pretty true-to-form as far as spring stats go, and while Tyler Flowers has whiffed a less egregious amount than expected, it's not particularly noteworthy. Freddie Freeman, of course, has bonkers spring training stats helped in part by his towering walk rate, but that's almost expected from him given his good eye and the way he generally terrorizes pitchers. (Half of Freeman's hits this spring have been homers, and only 25% have been singles. Heh.)
The Braves, like many teams, have spread around their innings this spring. That makes it harder to get a good read, even on walk rates and strikeout rates, which stabilize a bit more quickly. Only eight Braves pitchers have thrown more than nine innings in the Grapefruit League so far. So, while peripherals might be more interesting for the roster's assortment of young arms (as compared to older bats), there's sadly less to go on. Still, it's marginally heartening to know that none of these eight pitchers have displayed dreadful peripherals worse than expected so far, and four have shown some good signs there.
Note: Projections reflect Steamer-only rates since Fangraphs does not provide K% or BB% for pitchers for Depth Chart and ZiPS projections. They can be back-calculated, but I'm lazy. Steamer may differ from ZiPS substantially in this regard, but it's still a useful benchmark for expected performance for pitchers.
John Gant, the dark horse wunderkind of the spring as far as arms go, has been stingy with walks. But, not as stingy as Daniel Winkler, who has a cray-cray 16/0 K/BB ratio (which will cause a rift in reality, dividing by zero and all). Winkler has struck out over 40% of the hitters he's faced, which is Kimbrel-esque video game land type stuff, even if it happened only in Spring Training.
Julio Teheran has seriously cut down his walk rate as well (yay). His strikeout rate has also suffered, unfortunately, in the process (not yay). On the whole, it's an improvement, but ideally one of those numbers would go up while the other goes down, as opposed to them both declining. But, if they both had to decline, at least the walk rate decline is proportionally greater, and shows he's been on point command/control-wise this spring (if nothing else).
Williams Perez is a bit of a surprising name here, and his peripherals were so bad last year that he should essentially be expected to regress to the mean just because it's hard to see him maintaining that poor K/BB ratio. The fact that he's improved further over those figures is good to see, but Perez actually had pretty decent peripherals in the minor despite his junkballing ways, so this is perhaps more of the same and portends little as far as major league performance goes.
The remaining four pitchers are less interesting in terms of their peripherals.
The only real thing of note here is Matt Wisler, who has done okay with limiting contact, but has also walked a few more guys than you'd ideally like to see without bumping up his strikeout rate. Meaningless contests or not, I'd ideally have liked to see Wisler improve his performance a bit after a trying rookie season. Maybe he's saving it for April. The rest of these guys have pitched largely as expected in terms of walks and strikeouts. It's good to see Bud Norris trim his abysmal walk rate a bit (note that Steamer is weirdly very high on him, and I figure his walk rate will be higher than the 7.7 percent listed above) but there's no giant, wholesale improvement there, and Norris generally hasn't pitched well in the spring either.
So there you have it. Again, it probably doesn't mean much, but feel free to use this article either to support the "peripherals in the Spring are kinda meaningful" or "nothing in the Spring is meaningful!" narrative as you see fit, once the 2016 season is in the books.