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Spring training surprises include Willis, Jackson

I'm going to write a bit about a few of the early surprises of spring training today, but first my standard boilerplate warning: spring training stats mean very little.

They are skewed because, despite all looks, the games are not real. They are more or less scrimmages, where the visiting team doesn't even bother to send its actual "A" squad, where pitchers work on things oftentimes with minor leaguers fielding behind them, where field conditions are not up to MLB standards, and more. Veterans struggle, guys you haven't heard of do great. Some players are out to prove something; others aren't. That's just the way it is.

And then you add up all the numbers and realize the innings pitched and at-bats total less than they will during the month of April. How much about a season do we really know in the first few weeks of April?

Spring training quotes aren't much better. Every comeback player has a chance. Almost every player reports in great shape. Adjustments are made. Their fastballs have life. The changeups are fooling batters. The batters just have a sound that ... sounds good. Managers are impressed, teammates are impressed, opponents are impressed. Everything is peachy.

Under those circumstances, it's pretty hard to do much useful analysis of spring training from afar, and you've probably noted that I haven't spent a lot of time looking into the results so far, nor do I make a big deal out of anything from the box score.

None-the-less, pausing today to take a look at some stats and surprises might help us figure out where things stand. So that's today's Morning Lede today. (And by the way, a big thank you to Big Al for pitching in a few days a week to give me a time to catch my breath as well.)

Dontrelle Willis

He knows he has some problems, but he's just going to go out there and pitch and not think so much. He's feeling great. He's pitching great.

At first I thought, "Haven't we seen this storyline before ... say ... last season?" But upon further review, Willis had already started to make a plunge by this point of 2009.

Could it actually be true this year?

In three appearances across seven innings, he has a 1.29 WHIP (but four walks and also a hit batter). He has struck out four and allowed just a run.

After Saturday's start, he told the media (as quoted by's Jason Beck):

"I didn't have very good rhythm, and I'm a weird guy in the sense that I fall behind and then I zero in. And then, all of a sudden the big guys come up and I'm strike one, strike two. I don't know what that is, but when I had to make pitches, I was able to make pitches against some good hitters.

"You're not going to feel great every time out, but I battled and I grinded it out. I'm actually more happy about this than my other outings before, because [today] I was grinding and I got some good ground balls for some guys."

So in summation: Willis doesn't understand it. The fans don't understand it. The personnel probably don't understand it. But right now, the results are there.

I'm still worried. But he's a great surprise to all of us so far.

Nate Robertson

Like Willis, the lefty is making the best of his opportunities to prove to manager Jim Leyland he deserves a spot in the rotation. He has seven strikeouts and three walks across 6-1/3 innings of work, and he's allowed just four hits and two runs.

A tweet by's Ken Rosenthal quoting a scout said (with Twitter speak cleaned up):

Tigers' Robertson two straight games had better stuff and command than I've seen from him in two years. Bonderman, Willis also better.

Robertson struggled last year until having his pitching elbow cleaned out after growths were found in it. He pitched terrific for a couple of opportunities before a groin injury caught up to him his final start.

Maybe Robertson can regain some of his 2006-07 innings-eating form now that he's healthy.

Austin Jackson

Jackson's two-part swing was a concern. He says hitting coach Lloyd McClendon has helped him fix some problems with that. If so, so far, so good.

In the minors, Jackson struck out 22 percent of the time in 2009, and 19.4 percent in 2008. He walked just 7.2 percent of the time in 2009.

So far the Tigers' presumptive leadoff man has fixed his approach: He's got five walks to go with 29 at-bats. (Leaving off for a minute any sacrifices, which I don't find listed anywhere, that's a walk rate of 17.2 percent). He's struck out just four times.

So right now, he's got a pleasant .375 average and .483 on-base percentage to go with a .542 slugging average. All very nice stats so far. And heck, he's even got a home run, a towering shot to center field.

If you were looking for reason to worry about Jackson, he's certainly not providing it.

Don Kelly

Kelly has made the most of his extended audition while the third basemen (Brandon Inge) and second baseman (Scott Sizemore) continued to recover from offseason surgeries.. The possible Tigers' superutility -- he can play both infield and outfield spots, as can Ryan Raburn -- has a .429 average and .714 slugging percentage in 21 at-bats. He's apparently been making contact, with just two strikeouts as well as no walks.

Gerald Laird

.824 slugging average? Laird? Whoa. A .383 OBP? Not too shabby either. Of course he has struck out five times in 17 at-bats, and he does have just one walk.

But really, he's shown great improvement. Maybe even significant improvement. As Lee wrote about on Tiger Tales Friday, a significant jump in slugging percentage during spring training can portend good things. He quoted John Dewan of Baseball Info Solutions:

A hitter with a positive difference between his spring training slugging percentage and his lifetime slugging percentage of .200 or more correlates to a better than normal season.

Laird's career slugging in in the MLB is .367.

Keep it up, Gerry!

Magglio Ordonez

Maggs' career slugging is .513. Like Laird, he's got .824 right now. Both he and Laird have two home runs.

Scott Sizemore

If you're looking for something to worry about, he's 3-for-18 with four walks and four strikeouts as he recovers from a broken ankle.