It's a warm May evening, and I'm sitting behind home plate at Fifth Third Ballpark watching the West Michigan Whitecaps play their brand of Single-A baseball. Joe Jimenez is taking the mound to pitch in the ninth, and I'm paying close attention, because I've heard good things about this kid. I'm taking notes, too. How many times does his fastball go above 95 miles per hour? How many times does he deviate from the fastball and try out a secondary pitch? How many whiffs does he get, and how many times does he miss out of the zone?
Here are a few of the things I'm not paying attention to: the score of the game, whether the Whitecaps win or lose, how many hits Jimenez gives up, whether or not he allows runs to score. These are results, and there will plenty of time to care about that later, but for right now all I care about is the process.
Does his breaking ball actually break? Can he locate it? Is he fooling hitters? If he misses with a high fastball, was he trying to throw it for a strike, or was that a "waste pitch" that he was trying to get the hitter to chase, or maybe just trying to change the hitter's eye level?
By now, you're looking at the headline of this post and you're saying, "Hey, jerk-head, this is supposed to be about spring training, so what exactly is your point?" And it's a good thing you asked that question, because it provides a perfect segue to the thing I really wanted to talk about: I watch spring training games in the same way I watch most minor league games:
half-drunk on good beer and wondering if I really needed all four of those hot dogs looking for the same types of things.
Most of the individual parts that make up spring training games don't matter more often than they do matter, and if someone would just lend me a nice sub-header, I could say more about that -- oh good, here we go ...
Why most of the parts of spring training games don't matter
There are certain bits of spring training that you can completely throw out the window of your moving car without giving it a second thought. Win-loss records, for instance. The Tigers had a 7-0 lead in a contest that saw Mike Pelfrey throwing a perfect game through three innings, and by the end, they had lost 10-9. Of course they did. Pelfrey stopped pitching after three innings, the rest of the game was pitched by relievers you've probably never heard of, and most of the regular starting position players were out of the game by the fifth inning.
This goes also for certain types of statistics, especially the ones that rely on dividing two very small numbers in order to present an average number. I'm talking specifically, pointedly, maybe even a bit accusingly and angrily, about ERA, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, OPS, and things of that nature. The sample sizes are too small, for a start.
As for pitchers, I just watched Mike Pelfrey have a less-than-amazing outing this week when he spent several innings throwing nothing but fastballs. What the hell, Mike Pelfrey? Mix in a sinker or a slider once in a while, won't you? Oh, sorry, I didn't realize you were using this time to practice throwing a new cutter pitch you're apparently working on, just ignore me.
Hitters? They're inflating their numbers because they're taking at-bats against a guy who's just trying to practice throwing his cutter, or they're facing Double A talent, or maybe they're using their spring to experiment with performance-enhancing drugs and it seems to be going really well. How the hell do I know?
When and why some parts of spring training games do matter
Ok, you were all watching that, I definitely did not ask for that sub-header just now. But there it is, so I guess I have to say something about what parts of spring training are worth paying attention to, and why.
It's a lot like watching a minor league game, really. I don't care if Mike Pelfrey gives up several runs, I care if that cutter he's working on is moving well, if he's locating it with consistency. I don't care if Daniel Norris gives up bombs on fastballs that caught a wee bit more of the plate than he'd prefer, I care that the six curve balls he threw looked really good and had the hitters bailing out. I care that Shane Greene is, generally speaking, getting good break on his slider.
From the hitting side of things, it really doesn't matter to me that Steven Moya is hitting some boner-inducing home runs this spring. I'm interested in how many close pitches he's laying off. I'm concerned that his swing still looks a bit long, leaving him exposed to whiffing on hittable pitches.
Justin Upton? His career stats say he's going to strike out in about one out of every four plate appearances, so just go ahead and get used to that frustration. Seeing him do it in spring training to the tune of about 80 percent is cause for concern, but it's a different kind of concern. You can fret and worry that he's going to do nothing but strike out all season long, but that would be silly, because his track record strongly suggests that won't happen.
The concern here -- and it's minor, at best -- is that it's taking him a bit of time to recalibrate his timing and pitch recognition, and that might finally click this week, or two weeks into the regular season, or in May. That's about as far as the concern goes.
Or, just ... you know what? Enjoy spring training your way
Baseball is back, the snow is melting, and you're thrilled to see games on TV or hear Dan Dickerson on the radio again. So forget everything I just said. I'm a dude on the Internet with an opinion, and the stupidest thing you could do at this point is to let your own spring training mojo be in any way interrupted by something I said, or a thought that I had.
Shoot, maybe I should have just that at the beginning and let it go at that. It would have taken less time.
Are you having fun with Tigers baseball, version 2016? Good. I am too.