Who says you can’t learn anything from MLB spring training games? We asked our MLB experts to put aside any notion they may have that these exhibition games — even ones that stop mid-inning for a mercy rule put in this spring — don’t matter for a minute and instead focus on what they have learned from this year’s early action across Florida and Arizona.
Which players have caught our eyes under the March sign? Who are some potential breakout stars to know as you prepare for your fantasy drafts? How are household names looking as they attempt to comeback from injuries that derailed their 2020 seasons? What trends emerging this March in the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues will carry over to the 2021 MLB season? And how are the much-talked about changes to the baseball impacting home runs (or would-be home runs) so far?
We asked ESPN MLB experts Jesse Rogers, Alden Gonzalez, David Schoenfield and Bradford Doolittle to weigh in on all of the spring training lessons they have learned so far as the countdown to Opening Day (Thursday, April 1) continues.
Who is one player who has caught your eye this spring?
Alden Gonzalez: It’s early, but Shohei Ohtani is proving that he might just be able to pull this whole two-way thing off. Coming off a disappointing 2020 season, when he was noticeably uncomfortable on the mound and mechanically out of whack in the batter’s box, Ohtani went through an aggressive offseason regimen and got stronger. In spring training, he’s hitting massive home runs and throwing nasty splitters.
The Angels have spoken very optimistically about Ohtani’s potential in 2021 and have promised to ease off some of his restrictions. Ohtani is doing his part. He has the talent and the discipline to do what hasn’t been done since Babe Ruth. He just needs to stay healthy.
Jesse Rogers: I’m going to cheat and pick three players who will combine to make a big difference for the Philadelphia Phillies: relievers Archie Bradley, Tony Watson and Brandon Kintzler. Through Sunday, the trio has yet to give up a run this spring and they simply bring a nastiness in attitude the Phillies didn’t possess out of the bullpen last year. Watson and Kintzler are on minor league invites but with potential to make good money if/when they make the team. They’re motivated. The Phillies needed a huge makeover in the pen and they got one.
Runner-up: Michael Kopech. After opting out last year, he’s been put in the bullpen where his arsenal can be used in shorter stints. He’s just realizing what that can mean considering he won’t be setting up hitters for later in the game as he would if he were starting. I was there when he threw 98 mph, 87 mph then 79 mph on the first three pitches of his spring. He’ll be hitting triple digits soon enough to go along with some nasty off-speed stuff.
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David Schoenfield: I was watching Sunday’s game between the Royals and Dodgers and 20-year-old Bobby Witt Jr. was hitting leadoff. In his first at-bat against Julio Urias, he fell behind 0-2 before eventually working a 12-pitch walk (and showed his speed when he scored from second on a ball that didn’t leave the infield). In his second at-bat, also against Urias, he turned on an inside fastball and launched it for his third home run of the spring — and one of those was a huge 484-foot blast. He’s hitting over .300 and has played well at second base, although he projects as a shortstop long-term.
Is there a chance he makes the Royals’ Opening Day roster? The No. 2 overall pick in 2019 hasn’t played above rookie ball, so in a normal season I’d say no. But Witt handled himself well at summer camp last year as he has so far in spring training, and it’s not like Nicky Lopez is a big roadblock at second base. It wouldn’t shock me to see Witt open up at second base, just to get him much-needed game action until the minor league season starts. If he plays well, he stays up. If he struggles, they can eventually send him down for more seasoning.
Bradford Doolittle: Since Dave stole my Bobby Witt Jr. soliloquy, I’ll go with Akil Baddoo of the Tigers. For some reason, it seems like I’ve watched Detroit more than any other team this spring and he has really stood out. Baddoo is a Rule 5 guy, so the Tigers have to keep him at the big league level or ship him back to the Twins. Their roster seems to be at least five deep with semi-established big league outfielders, so it’s entirely possible that Baddoo ends up in Triple-A back in the Minnesota organization and we don’t hear from him again until next spring. But I have yet to see anything about him not to like.
His performance record shows clearly that he has both speed and power off the bat. He also has a good record of plate discipline, so it’s really a matter of showing enough bat-to-ball skill to make it work. This spring, he’s made it work. On top of everything, he can play plus defense in center field and can slide over to both corners. He was the 74th player picked in the 2016 draft, so the raw talent is there. Finally: He’s only 22 years old. I just don’t know how the Tigers could part with a guy like that right now. Also, by the way, Dave and I are no longer on speaking terms.
What is one theme you’ve noticed so far this spring?
Gonzalez: I spent 10 days in Arizona earlier this month, visiting as many different facilities as possible, and I saw fans coming through the gates, settling into their seats and cheering again. They wore masks, sat scattered throughout the stands and didn’t reach over the railing for autographs. But watching baseball games nonetheless felt normal to me again. It was the first time I could say that in 12 months (and a different experience from what I felt in October, when fans gathered for postseason games at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, at a time when COVID-19 numbers were still uncomfortably high). It was refreshing. It gave me hope for an enjoyable 2021 season.
Rogers: To be honest, after spending a week in Florida and a week in Arizona, there is definitely COVID fatigue out there. Players are probably doing a little better than fans, as many in the latter group didn’t wear masks during games as required. Some players, while I was in Arizona, went inside for dinner and got in trouble with their teams. There is a hope once the season starts that restrictions might loosen for everyone, especially with the vaccine being available for players soon enough.
Schoenfield: Just how carefully the pitchers are being handled — as we all expected. Spring training rules this year allowed for an inning to be halted before three outs if a pitcher reaches or specified pitch count, or for a pitcher to re-enter a game. (Urias, for example, threw 28 pitches and was removed in the first inning and then returned for the second.) Starters don’t seem to be quite where they normally are at this point in spring training. So look for the same caution to be deployed early in the regular season, which means pitching depth is going to be vitally important in April. Those back-end guys on the pitching staff are going to play a bigger role than normal.
Doolittle: As Dave mentions, the problem of starters not being fully stretched out has already been a matter of some debate. While most agree that teams will have to proceed carefully with young pitchers whose development was disrupted and who may never have thrown the number of innings you need to stick in a five-man rotation in a normal MLB campaign, there is some uncertainty about the vets.
Sure, their innings were down in 2020 but — dare we say — could that be a good thing? Might the partial respite have given them some needed healing time after years of wear and tear? This is a question that we’ll only be able to answer in hindsight, but just to cherry-pick a couple of examples, some veterans in spring training such as Arizona’s Madison Bumgarner and Detroit’s Julio Teheran (a non-roster invitee) seem to be delivering the ball with a little more zip than they’ve shown in recent regular seasons. Nathan Eovaldi nearly wore out the radar gun during the Red Sox’s game on Sunday. My feeling is that the teams that are willing to lean on veteran starters sooner than later are going to have a competitive edge over the first few weeks of the season.
What is the one spring training stat that jumps out to you most right now?
Gonzalez: Jacob deGrom topping out at 102 mph during his second spring training start. Over the past three years, deGrom’s fastball velocity has jumped to 96, then 97, then last year, an average of 99 mph, capping a stretch that saw him capture a couple of National League Cy Young Awards. To see arguably the game’s best pitcher take that to yet another level — this early in the season, mind you — is both fascinating and exhilarating. DeGrom’s strikeout rate has increased steadily, from 10.7 per nine innings in 2017 to a league-leading 13.8 per nine innings in 2020. Now we might have deGrom throwing fastballs in the triple-digits and nasty sliders in the mid-90s. That’s simply unfair.
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Rogers: New Cubs outfielder Joc Pederson is hitting everything in sight, batting .571 with five home runs. He’s been using the entire field and even bunted away from the shift for a hit, dropping that into the scouting report for next month. Remember, he’s re-entering another free-agent season and expects to play every day. There have been only 16 occasions in Cubs history that a left-handed hitter has hit 30 or more home runs in one season. Pederson might be a lock for No. 17.
Schoenfield: You never want to overreach to spring stats. Remember when Jake Fox hit 10 home runs in 2011? Or how about 2018, when Kansas City’s Frank Schwindel hit .366 and tied for the spring lead with seven home runs? One thing I do keep an eye on, however, is strikeout-to-walk ratio for batters as that only tends to stabilize after a minimal number of plate appearances, but also tells us something about a player’s overall approach.
Andrew Vaughn has as many walks as whiffs and is hitting .321. Even though he hasn’t played above Class A after the White Sox drafted him third overall in 2019, he has a good chance to begin the season as the team’s DH. He had the same mature approach in college at Cal and that should allow him to at least hold his own in the majors.
Doolittle: The Royals have assembled the greatest collection of power hitters in the history of baseball. The spring stats prove it. They have six more homers than any other team, lead the majors in runs, slugging and run differential. They’ve also struck out as often as anyone. This is the most un-Royals-like showing we’ve seen. Just to pick on stat: Through Sunday, Kansas City has an .896 team OPS. Of course, most of these numbers will be carried away by the gusts of Surprise, Arizona, with little hope of finding their way to Kauffman Stadium. But I remain excited about the prospects for this year’s Royals.
What is one thing from this spring we can count on to carry over to the regular season?
Gonzalez: I’m not saying you’re going to see seven to nine pitchers a game, but given the jump from a 60- to a 162-game schedule, and the innings gap that must be made up in the process, we’re going to see teams be extra careful with their pitchers this season, and thus we’re going to see a lot of pitching changes. The 2021 season probably will set the record.
Opening Day is fast-approaching, and teams still don’t know how they’ll tackle this issue. Some will try six-man rotations and others might even use a method of starters piggybacking one another; all of them will undoubtedly carry at least one reliever who can consistently absorb multiple innings. But this is still a great unknown. And the pace of spring training games might, unfortunately, carry over.
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Rogers: Barking at umpires for balls and strikes. I’ve seen it several times this spring and it is bound to return to pre-2020 levels. First off, fans in the stands will give more cover for players and coaches to get their points across from the dugouts without umpires hearing every single word uttered. Plus, the return of in-game video will give pitchers and hitters instant verification on close calls.
Schoenfield: Fernando Tatis Jr. will be the most exciting player in the game. He scored from third base on a popup caught by the shortstop. In a spring training game! Look, I don’t know if Mike Trout will maintain his grip as the best all-around player in the game or if Mookie Betts will claim that throne or if this is the year that Tatis or Juan Soto takes over that title with a monster season. But Tatis, with his thrilling combination of speed and power, is the most must-watch player in the game in 2021, playing in the middle of the must-watch Padres-Dodgers rivalry. (By the way, Corey Seager has looked really, really good this spring as well. If you want a sleeper NL MVP candidate, Seager is my guy.)
Who is one player returning from injury who has been most impressive?
Gonzalez: Stephen Strasburg went more than six months without facing hitters while recovering from carpal tunnel surgery but looked good in his spring training debut, striking out four of the six batters he faced and displaying solid command of practically all of his pitches. That was just enough to tease us before exiting his second start with a calf strain that is — at the moment — considered mild. That’s the hope, at least. The National League East looks like a division-wide logjam. And if Strasburg can tap back into who he was in 2019, the Nationals are right there with the rest.
Rogers: Jordan Hicks just made his spring debut over the weekend and was touching 100 mph in his first appearance since 2019, after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Yes, his first batter took him to 22 pitches before walking but once the rust comes off, that arm will be lighting up radar guns all season.
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Schoenfield: Strasburg is probably the most important guy here — along with Mike Soroka (yet to pitch in a game for the Braves as he recovers from a torn Achilles) and the Yankees’ duo of Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon. The most important thing for Kluber and Taillon is both say they feel healthy, although Kluber’s latest outing on Saturday was a little shaky as he hit two batters and served up a home run and a couple other hard-hit balls over four innings. Taillon threw 2.2 scoreless innings in his last outing, hitting as high as 95.1 mph with his fastball while averaging 93.9 mph. The command wasn’t great as he threw just 28 pitches out of 51 for strikes, but the stuff looks to be where it was pre-Tommy John surgery.
Doolittle: Jimmy Nelson! For the first time since he belly-flopped while trying to run the bases at Wrigley Field a few years ago, he looks like the All-Star-level pitcher he was for the Brewers at the time. I’m not sure how he fits onto the Dodgers’ staff simply because of the number of good pitchers they have, but he can help a team this year. I’d love to see him get a shot at doing it in someone’s rotation. Maybe because I was there when he was injured, he’s someone I’ve been rooting for. You hate to see someone’s success just snapped off like that. Whatever happens going forward, you have to give him credit for perseverance.
The baseball is different: How much does it seem to be impacting home runs so far?
Gonzalez: I personally haven’t noticed much difference. In fact, we’ve already witnessed some titanic home runs from the likes of Wander Franco and Mike Trout, just to name a couple. But new Padres pitcher Blake Snell noted that the seams on the new ball are higher, allowing him to better dig his fingers into them in order to spin breaking balls, and added that he has noticed some fly balls haven’t carried as far as he might have expected. Some confirmation bias might be at play there. This is going to have to play out a lot longer before we truly know.
Rogers: Really hard to judge right now because games are being played in spring stadiums. There’s just no context. And, as Alden mentioned, there have been plenty of long home runs so the new ball hasn’t passed the eye test just yet, however, we’ll get a better idea starting next month. If the little guys are hitting the ball out the opposite way, we’ll know the old balls are in use again.
Schoenfield: I know Brad has some numbers on this, so I’ll defer to him. It does seem like every game I’ve watched from Arizona the wind is blowing out (although it also seems like it’s been a little cooler than normal down there with a lot of the fans bundled up in jackets and blankets). Anyway, the final two weeks will tell us a little more as we see more at-bats and innings from the regulars.
Doolittle: I ran some numbers the other day, comparing home run rates through March 12 for each of the past five spring trainings. I grouped the Florida-based teams and Arizona-based teams in separate buckets. Already, there have been some comments, like from Snell, regarding the ball feeling and flying differently and perhaps not carrying as well. The numbers don’t bear that out. In fact, in Arizona this year, where — as Dave mentions — it has been unusually breezy, the home run rate is the highest it’s been over the past few years. Thus the overall rate is the highest it’s been.
There are plenty of caveats to the numbers, from sample size limits exacerbated by fewer and shorter games, the weather, the fact that we don’t actually know for sure when or where the new version of the baseball has been in use and the reality that we always have to be wary about doing anything with spring numbers. So right now, it’s hard to make a declarative statement about this topic beyond the fact that there hasn’t been any kind of noticeable and obvious dive in homer numbers.