Every year, spring training brings a return to everyday baseball after a long winter of absence. Many fans flock to their viewing devices, desperate to see games for the first time in quite awhile. While these games mean that baseball is back, it's not truly back until every team is in regular season form, when the games actually matter. To call these games a true test of skill would be wildly inaccurate. Pitchers are still finding their form and experimenting with both new mechanics and pitches. Starting pitchers do not go deep in games until late in camp. The men on the mound, especially early on in camp, do not represent true MLB talent. Position players already assured of a spot on the roster don't often appear in full games. The defenses out on the field are more likely to have flawed minor leaguers with range and fielding ability below that of regulars.
Thus, the game is not what it seems to be, and the statistics cannot be trusted due to these flaws. Much hullabaloo is made about "spring training competitions," but provided that the competitors are healthy, the competitions are most frequently decided the success and potential shown from previous seasons as a better evaluator. They represent both larger sample sizes and a far more consistent talent level. Spring training statistics might sometimes be viewed as a possible tiebreaker if the roster competitions are legitimately neck-and-neck, but more often than not, managers will go with the player who did not need flashy spring training numbers to thrust himself into the mix.
Unheralded players like Yangervis Solarte and Chris Leroux have produced among the most gaudy numbers in camp this year. The 26-year-old infielder Solarte has hit .457/.513/.629 in 35 at-bats this spring despite only batting .282/.332/.404 with a 91 wRC+ in 1,044 at-bats over the past two years in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. The righty reliever Leroux has kept his ERA perfect at 0.00 in eight games and 10 2/3 innings, allowing just four hits, walking none, and fanning nine batters. However, the 30-year old was unable to stick with the Pirates or the Japanese league Yakult Swallows in 2013, and his career major league numbers are completely forgettable: 63 games, a 5.56 ERA, and a 1.622 WHIP.
These figures from the past couple seasons are likely what will keep Leroux and Solarte off the Opening Day roster. I would take Solarte over the forgettable Eduardo Nunez, but not over Dean Anna, who has performed much better in the PCL over the same two-year span (120 wRC+ at Double-A in 2012, 140 wRC+ at Triple-A in 2013), or a potentially healthy Scott Sizemore, who had a 109 wRC+ at the major league level just a couple years ago before getting hurt the past two seasons. The spring numbers are truly not that important.
A short stroll down memory lane to spring trainings of the past 10 years reveal other unheralded players like Solarte or Leroux who were either not taken north after camp, or taken north with little success to follow. These minor leaguers went on to regress to their true talent levels and play out their seasons without the Yankees regretting their decisions:
Kevin Thompson, 2006
ST stats: 47 AB, .383/.420/.532, 4 2B, 1 HR
A 26-year-old outfielder in Yankees camp eight years ago, Thompson looked sharp in camp, but he had a .694 OPS in 58 games with Triple-A Columbus the year before. The Yankees knew better than to take him, so he returned to Columbus. He only every appeared in 41 career big league games before retiring in 2011.
Ramiro Mendoza, 2006
ST stats: 12 IP, 1.50 ERA, 12 K, 1.25 WHI
Meanwhile, it looked like there was a chance that the 33-year-old Mendoza, the sinkerballing ground ball machine from the dynasty years, could have a career resurrection in '06 after only making one appearance in '05. He never pitched in the majors again.
Josh Phelps, 2007
ST stats: 38 AB, .395/.442/.737, 1 2B, 4 HR
The Yankees brought in both Phelps and Doug Mientkiewicz help provide first base depth and potential with the bat, so perhaps he doesn't belong on this list since he was likely making the team anyway. However, the Alaskan home run king put on a show in March with gaudy power numbers that inspired great confidence. The 28-year-old rewarded that confidence and the Yankees' decision to take him north with a forgettable 86 wRC+ in 36 games before getting cut.
Colter Bean, 2007
ST stats: 11 IP, 1.64 ERA, 12 K, 0.64 WHIP
Bean was a 30-year-old veteran reliever with three career MLB games to his name. He did double that total, but he went on to post a 5.95 ERA in 28 Triple-A games in '07, then was out of baseball by the end of '08.
Chris Woodward, 2008
ST stats: 28 AB, .393/.414/.429, 1 2B
The 31-year-old infielder had surprising pop in camp during Joe Girardi's first spring training, but he was coming off a miserable 92-game, 35 wRC+ season with the Braves. He wasn't taken north and only appeared in 53 more big league games before retiring at the end of 2012. Would've been funny if he was the shortstop of the future.
Eduardo Nunez and Angel Berroa, 2009
ST stats: 26 AB, .385/.484/.577, 2 2B, 1 HR (Nunez)
ST stats: 62 AB, .371/.381/.597, 8 2B, 2 HR (Berroa)
Yes, long before Nunez was a punchline, he was a Yankees prospect who had a red-hot spring training. As we of course now know though, these brief numbers were not indicative of his true ability. The former Rookie of the Year Berroa was also in camp that spring and earned a backup infield job. He rewarded the Yankees by batting .136/.174/.182 (-15 wRC+) in 24 regular season plate appearances before getting cut. He has since appeared in just 14 MLB games and is unlikely to return.
Kei Igawa, Jonathan Albaladejo, and Brett Tomko, 2009
ST stats: 12 1/3 IP, 0.73 ERA, 13 K, 1.46 WHIP (Igawa)
ST stats: 10 2/3 IP, 0.84 ERA, 8 K, 0.84 WHIP (Albaladejo)
ST stats: 15 1/3 IP, 1.17 ERA, 12 K, 0.91 WHIP (Tomko)
Oof. Surprisingly, this tremendous trio was not the key to the Yankees' 27th World Series title. Maybe.
Sergio Mitre, 2010
ST stats: 22 IP, 3.27 ERA, 19 K, 0.82 WHIP
Jon Weber, 2010
ST stats: 31 AB, .452/.452/.581, 4 2B
With Weber's only competition for a reserve outfield spot being Marcus Thames, who had a .451 OPS in the spring, it looked like the 32-year-old Weber might at long last make his MLB debut (though a depressing read, check out his long, arduous road to nowhere). Alas, the Yankees took Thames over him, and of course Thames had a fine season off the bench for a playoff team. Weber played 14 seasons in the minors, but never made it to the majors. Ouch.
Jorge Vazquez, 2011
ST stats: 34 AB, .412/.444/.765, 3 2B, 3 HR
Ah, "El Chato." I fondly remember the days of the 29-year-old mashing extra-base hits in camp three years ago, only to be disappointed when he wasn't taken north. His positional restriction to first base only (which he was not good at anyway), hurt him, and his rampant strikeout percentages combined with an awful OBP in the minors made Mark Reynolds look like Tony Gwynn. Thus, he never made it to the majors. He could mash when he was the recipient of a mistake, but those just weren't going to come very often in the pros.
Eduardo Nunez, 2012 & 2013
ST stats: 43 AB, .372/.386/.488, 5 2B (2012)
ST stats, 61 AB, .311/.386/.571, 1 2B, 1 3B, 2 HR (2013)
Appearing here again, Nunez was so disappointing early on in 2012 that he was sent down to Triple-A. He then followed up a strong camp in 2013 with his worst career MLB season to date, a horriawful -1.4 fWAR, 83 wRC+ campaign. Spring training All-Star Eduardo Nunez, everyone.
These are just a few of many cautionary spring training star stories in MLB's records. They indicate that one must proceed very carefully when using spring training stats to argue for a roster spot. They've fooled many people in the past, and far more often than not, they will continue to mislead fans.