If Spring Training is the appetizer to Major League Baseball’s entree, the regular season, then let’s be honest; it’s the celery sticks.
There’s just not much to take away. It doesn’t taste like real baseball. It doesn’t fill you up. It looks nice, it sounds nice, but in the end, there isn’t much substance. You’re still hungry for more. And you still have a hot minute or twenty before the steaming plate we call summer arrives at your table.
This post isn’t sponsored by Applebee’s, I promise.
But if you’ll let me extend this metaphor but one graph further…let me help you get your fill. This isn’t like me as resident nutrition-tyrant, but in order to stomach your celery sticks without losing precious calories, you need a little dressing. You need to spice up the bland, add taste to the tasteless.
So as the Cincinnati Reds continue their preseason slate in the land of tires, Goodyear, Arizona, here are five things to watch for that actually matter. Years past have taught us that Spring Training stats mislead, that breakout performances are often followed by disappearances. That what happens in the desert is as likely to be a mirage as it is an oasis in the Spring when hope proves as plentiful as water.
But look closer, dip into some trends, and you can find something. You can turn that appetizer into a model’s meal. And you can always grab Reds tickets if you want to see Cincy live during Spring Training!
1. Can #RunBillyRun find ways to get on base?
Two years ago, rising through the Reds ranks, Billy Hamilton seemed an unstoppable force. Leaving more dust in his wake than the Roadrunner (opposing catchers his Wiley Coyote), he broke Vince Coleman‘s stolen bases record, and stole Cincinnati hearts. A clock started ticking, somewhere, a countdown labeled: when will he arrive?
Well, he’s here. And a truism plagues him: you have to get on the bases to start stealing them.
In High-A and AA-Pensacola, this wasn’t a problem for Hamilton, resident speedster. His on-base percentage across both platforms surpassed .400, and his walk-rates of 12.75% and 16.9% respectively put the MLB average (7.9%) to shame.
But in AAA, something changed. His walk rate dipped to 7.5%. His OBP to .308. And suddenly it didn’t seem so easy, anymore.
There were hints of hope in his sizzling September for the Reds last season. In a (very) small sample, his OBP went up, and he found a way to secure four infield hits in just 22 plate appearances.
As Spring Training drags on, Billy Hamilton’s approach to plate discipline and getting on first to later steal second will bear watching. His first at-bat, in which he saw 10 pitches, and walked, was a good sign. But can he retain that patience? Can he find ways to force more infield hits or errors? Can he keep the ball on the ground and avoid easy fly balls? These are all ancillary parts to the same question: Can he find a way to get on base?
That’s a visible skill, even in the Spring. And with pressure mounting on the 23-year-old to have a good year, the approach necessary to accomplish that must start in Goodyear.
2. Can Donald Lutz be more than a two-outcome player?
You gotta love the Lutz. He’s big, he’s burly, and he blasts. But he also whiffs. And unlike his predecessor Adam Dunn, he rarely walks. Whereas the man himself clearly gets his turn at the buffet, his stat line is feast or famine.
In Lutz’s first taste of big league action last season, he struck out an astounding 23.7% of the time he came to the plate (the MLB average is under 20%). In opposition to those 14 strikeouts, he had but one single walk in 59 plate appearances. A lot of this was due to impatience, as Lutz only saw an average of 3.32 pitches per plate appearance, which also falls below league average.
This wasn’t a small sample size blip. It’s a trend. In his minor league career, Lutz struck out almost exactly three times more than he walked (368 to 123). For those 400 games, his strikeout rate was 24.9%. And that’s against competition much less fierce than he will face should he earn at-bats in the NL Central.
As it stands, Lutz is a 24-year-old prospect with real power potential. And left field isn’t exactly locked up in Cincinnati with Ryan Ludwick inching toward 40 and backups like Chris Heisey failing to make the leap. But if Lutz wants to be an everyday player, he can’t be a two-true-outcomes slugger. When a fan base is hungry, it can’t be feast or famine.
So, once again, Spring Training can lend some indicators as to whether Lutz is learning patience as he ages. He raked in Sunday’s exhibition, but more important to watch is how many balls he swings at out of the zone, how many times he whiffs when he might’ve slapped a single. It doesn’t matter if Lutz hits .400 in Arizona; if he’s only looking at two to three pitches an at-bat, it is probably a sign that the big man won’t have a big impact in the long run.
3. Will all Reds, not just Billy, start running more?
Manager Bryan Price has made it clear in numerous interviews: it’s not enough for the Reds to stay put, to stay complacent.
They need to move.
That applies to the base paths as well, where the Reds were incredibly stagnant in 2013. Their 67 stolen bases placed 10th in the National League, and 20 of those came from a man now making a living in the heart of Texas (Shin-Soo Choo). 13 more came from Billy Hamilton’s September steal-fest. The rest of the roster combined for only 34 swipes.
That includes Zack Cozart, fast in his own right, with zero stolen bases. Same for Chris Heisey, who also finished with one less stolen base than pitcher Tony Cingrani. Even Brandon Phillips only had five.
Price wants this to change. Will this mobile mentality play out in Spring Training? Though the personnel may shift as quickly as the desert sands in Arizona, March is a time for experimentation. Team philosophies are often instilled and implemented in these important infant stages of the season.
Even if the Reds can’t move up the standings in the Spring, they can certainly start to move.
4. Does Ryan Ludwick have any pop left?
I promise I’m not continuing the food theme into the fourth section of this blog post. I do not question Ludwick’s soda supply –only the strength left in an aging, surgically repaired body.
After returning from an Opening Day injury and shoulder surgery last season, Ludwick often looked lifeless at the plate. In 38 games, he managed only two home-runs, only seven extra-base hits.
He was a shadow of his former self.
That home-run rate of 1.4 percent fell far below his career rate of 4.0 percent, and even further behind 2012’s 5.5 percent. And with only 5 percent of his at bats resulting in extra-base hits, his career rate of 9.3 percent, and his 2012 rate of 11.7 percent, felt like bygone eras. When bat collided with ball, it just didn’t sound the same.
Playing in the hitter friendly confines of the desert, we should get an idea if Ludwick has regained his power after an offseason of rest and resurgence. After all, 2012 wasn’t so long ago. And in 2012, according to ESPN’s Home Run Tracker, Ludwick led all Reds in “no doubt” home runs, also leading the team in average distance (403) and longest bomb (469).
The fall from that ferocity was precipitous. An onslaught of power shots in the Spring might foreshadow a rise –a return to power long passed.
5. The Brandon Phillips Twitter experience.
Sometimes, the greatest games take place away from the field.
He’ll make you laugh. He’ll make you cringe. He’ll help you discover moments like the one above that makes you do both.
He’ll make you ask questions like “Why #Debbies?” Putting aside the not-so-slightly chauvinistic aspect of the term, why not #Mirandas or #Shannons? Does Brandon even know a woman under the age of 40 named Debbie? I have my doubts.
But, alas, who cares? And maybe that’s the lesson here.
Spring Training isn’t an appetizer. It’s a Twitter account. It’s an article from The Onion. It’s a Will Ferrell movie.
Some things just can’t be taken too seriously.