Every year, once spring training games are rolling daily, and Florida and Arizona are filled with the sights, sounds, and smells of baseball, it’s important to hold onto one sobering reminder: none of this counts.
Even the Tigers’ official Twitter account felt it was necessary to let everyone know.
But just because the games don’t count doesn’t mean the results are totally worthless. Knowing who’s hot and who’s not in the spring can offer a glimpse at what’s in store for the regular season. There are also implications for finalizing the active roster, the 40-man, and the starting lineup.
Take Dustin Peterson, for example. The 24-year-old outfielder who Detroit plucked off waivers from Atlanta last September has exactly two MLB at-bats to his name (and he’s 0-for-2 with a strikeout). But this spring, he’s been excellent with a .417/.462/.583 in 10 games. And since he’s on the 40-man roster, his spring performance could potentially land him in Detroit to open the season.
Then there’s JaCoby Jones, who lies at the other end of the performance spectrum. He’s supposed to be the everyday center fielder, but a spring season of .211/.375/.368 in eight games so far is not helping his case. How much will a few weeks of exhibition games factor into his standing with the team? Only the Tigers’ front office has that answer.
Maybe there will be no correlation between Peterson and Jones’ results now versus the regular season. For that reason, no one should pore over spring training stats in hopes of understanding the future. Trust me, I’ve tried.
A look back at some of Detroit’s best/worst performers over the past five springs show that high hopes or low expectations in March have been altered in all sorts of ways as the ensuing season played out.
A note before we begin: in a perfect world, all the players discussed below would be “qualifiers” (i.e. players who have the minimum number of plate appearances in spring training to qualify for league leadership). But attempting to use only qualified players would’ve greatly decreased the pool of available examples, thus increasing the difficulty of this exercise. So keep in mind that all of these sample sizes are very small — some just happen to be a bit smaller than others.
Austin Jackson (2014) — 18 games, .429/.458/.696, 24 hits (9 XBH), 14 RBIs, 3 SB
Jackson, who’d turned 27 a few weeks before spring training games began, was simply a prime-aged outfielder playing out of his mind. He didn’t maintain his absurd numbers, but he did stay hot enough to produce a .911 OPS in the first month of the season. He cooled in the months that followed, but surged again in July in time to be flipped to Seattle in a three-way deal that netted David Price.
Ian Kinsler (2015) — 19 games, .400/.460/.709, 22 hits (11 XBH), 13 RBI
Kinsler debatably had the best spring training performance of anyone mentioned in this list. His 1.169 OPS, if translated to the regular season, would’ve been the highest since Barry Bonds in 2004. That didn’t happen, but he did go on to be Detroit’s highest-valued player (5.9 bWAR) while finishing third in the majors for hits by a second baseman (185).
Ian Kinsler (2016) — 19 games, .288/.350/.654, 15 hits (9 XBH), 5 HR, 18 RBI
Not as impressive has his previous spring, but the slugging percentage still pops. And Kinsler carried his momentum into the regular season, collecting hits in 19 of his first 22 games. His power numbers sagged, but somehow he ended the year with an identical .288 batting average and came awfully close to mirroring his OBP (.348).
Alex Presley (2017) — 25 games, .455/.526/.818, 15 hits (8 XBH), 4 walks
Presley put up these gargantuan numbers in just 38 plate appearances. That wasn’t enough to earn him a spot in the majors to open the season, but he was eventually called up. Again, he made the most of his limited chances. In the final month of the season, as Detroit face-planted with a 4-24 record, Presley hit for .347/.371/.475. The outfielder, now 33, has not played in the majors since.
Miguel Cabrera (2018) — 22 games, .368/.397/.596, 21 hits (7 XBH), 3 HR, 13 RBI
After an abysmal 2017 season littered with career-lows, Cabrera’s follow-up spring gave every indication that 2018 would be different. Unfortunately his year was cut short when he ruptured his left biceps tendon in May. Cabrera’s torrid start early this spring (1.552 OPS in five games) is another glimmer of hope that he can return to his All-Star caliber self, barring injury.
Eugenio Suarez (2014) — 16 games, .212/.229/.242, 7 H (1 XBH), 8 strikeouts, 3 RBI
Tigers fans now view Suarez, who mashed 34 homers for Cincinnati last year, as a burgeoning star who got away. But in the spring of 2014, he was just a 21-year-old who hadn’t arrived yet. In his rookie campaign that followed, Suarez’s .652 OPS in 85 games didn’t sparkle for a team that still believed it was in win-now mode. Maybe that’s why the front office felt comfortable dishing him that offseason for Alfredo Simon and… well, we all know how that one turned out.
Jose Iglesias (2015) — 19 games, .135/.167/.154, 7 hits (1 XBH), 4 strikeouts, 3 SB
Spring training hasn’t been kind to Iglesias. He suffered stress fractures in both shins during the 2014 spring season, which caused him to miss the whole 2014 regular season (and triggered Suarez’s call-up). Then in 2015, he turned in this dud of a stat line. Not to worry, though, as Iglesias bounced back in the regular season with a .300 batting average and a career-low strikeout rate (9.7 percent). He was an All-Star for the first — and to this point only — time in his career.
Anthony Gose (2016) — 20 games, .245/.298/.472, 13 hits (5 XBH), 6 RBI, 14 strikeouts
Gose’s numbers here aren’t that bad, though a sub-.300 OBP is always concerning. In truth, he made this list because this was the beginning of the end of Gose as we knew him. By mid-May, he was optioned to Triple-A Toledo, where he scraped for a .521 OPS. He was demoted again that season to Double-A Erie and then designated for assignment the following winter. In 2017, he tried re-inventing himself as a pitcher. That didn’t work, but it did lead to my favorite Rod Allen hot take of all time:
Bold prediction from Rod Allen on FSD broadcast: "We're gonna see Anthony Gose in the big leagues (as a pitcher) before the year is over."— Jordan Horrobin (@JordanHorrobin) May 23, 2017
Mikie Mahtook (2017) — 28 games, .188/.257/.281, 12 H (4 XBH), 21 K
As a former first-round pick who the Tigers traded for in January 2017, Mahtook’s first impression with his new club was not an inspiring one. But the Tigers plugged him into the opening day lineup and gave him plenty of chances throughout the season. He was a solid player most of the way, carrying an .839 OPS into mid-August, but a rough final month set the tone for what was to come.
Mikie Mahtook (2018) — 21 games, .161/.217/.214, 9 hits (1 XBH), 14 strikeouts
The Tigers cut Mahtook less slack after another brutal spring. He still cracked the opening day lineup, but found himself in Toledo less than two weeks later. Mahtook bounced between the majors and minors a couple times last year and now, despite significantly improved numbers so far this spring, his standing with the big club is very much in question.
Perhaps Dustin Peterson will have the propensity to stay hot, as pretty much all of the successful spring trainees from this story did (also, Niko Goodrum — with his Bonds-esque 1.276 OPS through eight games so far — deserves a shout-out). As for JaCoby Jones, he should probably just hope he doesn’t turn into the Mikie Mahtook of 2019.