Control the ‘Zona
I understand the limited utility of spring training stats. Small samples, lots of plate appearances by A-ball prospects no one’s heard of, different environment, unbalanced schedule, etc. I get it, and you can add to that the fact that I’m using only half of the cactus league “season” for this. This may mean nothing, but I thought I’d check in on how well the M’s have managed to “control the zone” given how central that message seems to be in their player development strategy.
A further objection might be: “Spring Training is a biased sample of the organization as a whole, because the team might only let certain prospects into games.” This is valid, of course, and a decent reason why the stats might not represent the org’s “true talent” for, say, K:BB ratio, but it’s also the mechanism by which the organization reinforces the importance they place on certain skills.
I grabbed some batting/pitching team stats from MLB.com and calculated walk rates, K rates and ratios for batting and pitching. The M’s currently lead the league in OPS/Average etc., but a key to their success has been a very high ratio of walks to strikeouts. Their walk rate of 10.3% ranks 7th, while their K rate is 3rd lowest – this produces a K:BB ratio of 0.62, a ways behind the Angels’ leading mark of 0.76, but 2nd in baseball. The M’s z scores (standard deviations from the league mean) are about 1.5 for each stat: walk rate, K rate and ratio.
How about pitching? The M’s as a team have produced a league-average K rate, but they’ve been remarkably stingy with walks; their BB rate is over 2 standard deviations from the league average of 8.9%. This drives a K:BB ratio* of 3.59, 2nd behind only Tampa’s 3.63. The Rays BB rate is solid, but their team K rate drives their ratio, as their 25%+ rate easily leads the league, while the M’s have the 2nd lowest walk rate, just a fraction behind Baltimore’s 5.50% mark.
The M’s thus rank 2nd in both hitting and pitching walk/K ratios, which is pretty remarkable. The Angels were #1 in batting, but tumble to 25th on the mound. The Rays are even worse, ranking *29th* on offense. It’s kind of a meaningless calculation, but if you sum the batting/pitching ranks for K:BB (and BB:K), the M’s mark of 4 is the only one in single digits. Baltimore and Pittsburgh are tied for 2nd at 13. So what does this mean? That the M’s are stacking the deck by giving innings to command/control prospects like Andrew Moore instead of high-risk/high-reward guys like…uh, Luiz Gohara? Sure, that’s a huge factor. But it’s a sign that the M’s development overhaul seems to be pretty effective. K:BB ratio is important, but it’s not the only thing, of course. It IS, however, something that seems both teachable (to an extent) and easy to identify and select for.
In case you’re wondering the M’s were pretty good on the pitching side of the ledger last year, posting a 2.95 K:BB ratio that was in the top half of the league, but weren’t spectacular offensively, with a ratio of just 0.42. Some of last year’s worst offenders have moved on (Franklin Gutierrez, for one), but a big part of the improvement has come from returning players like Leonys Martin and Nelson Cruz. Will any of this carry over? These stats are among the quickest to “stabilize,” meaning that they indicate something about true talent in smaller samples, but I’m not sure how much signal we have at this point. Still, it’s an encouraging sign, and something that’d give the club a bigger margin for error in the regular season.
I was going to write this yesterday, and the M’s ratios took a hit thanks to the Cubs’ pitching staff, but well done by the M’s minor leaguers to come back and get a late win. Today’s game’s on TV, so tune in and watch the M’s attempt to maintain strict control of their zone. Or something.
M’s at Cincinnati Reds, 12:10pm
Chase de Jong vs. Brandon Finnegan
1: Dyson, LF
2: Motter, 2B
3: Haniger, RF
4: Valencia, 1B
5: Zunino, C
6: Ruiz, DH
7: Martin, CF
8: Smith, 3B
9: O’Malley, SS
SP: De Jong
* I flipped the ratios to get both on the “higher is better” scale.