For years, it was hard to justify getting really into spring training games. We would watch on tv, and all the notable players were gone halfway through the game leaving most viewers uninterested. However, times have changed! Since the implementation of Hawk-Eye as the league’s ball tracking system, the influx of these systems into each and every spring training facility has increased the amount of information that comes in from these games. To put it lightly, everything matters. Each pitch somebody throws matters, and each swing a hitter takes matters.
There are a few specific ideas I have in mind and they are all related to player development. On a public level, we have live access to each and every pitch coming in from the games. As starters and relievers are testing things out in their team’s pitching labs, they’re also experimenting with those same projects in games. It gives us direct access to what these teams are up to.
Under the specific context of the Yankees, it’s been incredible to see how tangible Matt Blake’s impact is on pitching development. Last year, we saw several pitchers playing around with cutters, and we saw a few of them use the pitch for the entire season. The same goes for the changeup and sweeper. I sorta cut to the chase on that one, huh. We all fiend for new pitches come spring training time. At Yankees camp, it’s been a completely fair expectation. We’ve seen countless pitchers either add a new pitch, or fine tune their other ones.
After pitch repertoire changes, it’s important to pay attention to pitch speeds. The most obvious case of this is if a pitcher has a couple ticks increase on their fastball. An improvement in velocity almost always means an improvement in mechanics, and that is something I will always pay attention to. The first memory I have from last season’s spring was Jordan Montgomery’s velocity uptick. He was very effective for the Yankees in the first half too. This year, it seems like Wandy Peralta might be throwing harder. That changes the way I, and many, look at him as a pitcher. That may seem obvious, but it’s something that we pay attention to this time of year that actually matters.
Lastly, there is the hitting side of things. It would be great if we could just see five mph increases in max exit velocity right off the bat, but that isn’t always the case. Instead, we must pay attention to mechanical adjustments. Over the last two years, Mariners’ prospect Jarred Kelenic has struggled relative to his expectations. This year, he’s come in with a new swing. Folks may tell you that you need to wait for multiple months of plate appearances to know if something is really changed or not, but finding mechanical improvements can give you a head start as to whether a change is legitimate or not.
On a Yankee specific level, we can think back to Isiah Kiner-Falefa last year. He came into camp with a new leg kick, and seemingly rebuilt swing. Off the bat, it was obvious to me that this didn’t really impact his bat path. Sometimes people use their leg kick to get in different position at foot strike, but IKF’s leg lift was more of an up-down movement than cue to rotate his hips. Off the bat, that told me he was likely to be a similar hitter, and eventually IKF himself agreed as he returned to his previous swing.
If you haven’t already picked up on it, these changes are all related. From the pitching side, we can use concrete data that doesn’t fluctuate to validate what we see with our eyes. On the hitting side, you have to take what you see with a grain of salt unless there is a clear mechanical improvement. Yes, maybe you could have done that in the older spring training days, but the data that teams have access to makes the project more well informed. In the dawn of the tech era, spring training is actually quite important. Pay attention when you see it, but make sure you’re not forgetting to check Baseball Savant’s game feed as you’re watching.