We’ve seen this story before with the Blue Jays in spring training. Players X-Y-Z have a great spring and then scuffle during the regular season. This was the case with Brandon Drury in 2019 and Jose Bautista in 2017. Drury hit .315 over 59 plate appearances, while Bautista hit .414 with 29 PA. Both of these players raked in camp and then went on to have abysmal regular seasons.
There is a plethora of other examples I could use but these fit the bill for my argument, because like Robbie Ray, Tyler Chatwood and Steven Matz (who have been the talk of camp this year) Drury and Bautista were both underperforming players at the time who garnered false hope based on meaningless numbers.
I don’t want to say Blue Jays fans shouldn’t be optimistic about Ray, Chatwood and Matz, however, I think the real test will be when the regular season starts. As it presently stands, I am still pretty bearish on these three pitchers because I put a lot more stock into their subpar results in the 2020 regular season than what they have done this spring.
Robbie Ray, Tyler Chatwood and Steven Matz have been lights out in the spring. All three are coming off down years so baseball pundits have been quick to over-analyze their sub-2 ERA’s. Pitching well in spring training is better then not pitching well, but the numbers are totally inconsequential to the regular season and the quality of opponents are very poor compared to that of the MLB regular season. Furthermore, the MLB players that do pitch and get at-bats in the spring are usually working on their weaknesses as opposed to their strengths, which makes for unreliable data in the context of the regular season.
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In recent years, Baseball Reference added an individual-player spring training stat called OppQual that essentially measures the average level that an opponent played at in the previous season. This stat is a great indicator of the quality of competition that a particular player has faced throughout the spring.
As it pertains to Matz, Chatwood, and Ray, their eye-popping spring numbers should be taken with a grain of salt. The OppQual between these three players ranges from 5.5 to 7.9. That means that the average hitter that these pitchers faced was somewhere between high A and AA ball. With that being said, I doubt that people would marvel about the success of MLB players in spring if they knew the average opponent was a high A player. For MLB-ready players, the gap in competition is significant and cannot be ignored.
Matz, Chatwood and Ray may very well be the real deal for 2021, but results against undeveloped minor league players should mean very little for major league players. With that being said, pitchers are still throwing the ball during spring training so there are definitely indicators that suggest a pitcher is where he needs to be in spring.
Personally, I think peripheral stats that are out of the opponents control like velocity and command are much better indicators of how well a major league pitcher is tossing the ball during the spring. Since peripheral stats are out of the control of the hitter, there is no grey area with this data and it could be easily applied to a regular season situation. For instance, if Aroldis Chapman came to camp throwing in the low 90’s, then there would be an obvious issue with his throwing ability/health.
Everything considered, pundits and fans alike should wait for the regular season to start before putting a ton of stock into spring training numbers. Like I said, we’ve seen this story many times before with the Blue Jays.