It's one of the annual traditions of spring. No matter where you turn to get your baseball news about this time of year, writers will no doubt be trumpeting the fact that spring training stats have no value. Looking at stats and pointing at stats for reasons to expect improvements are a fallacy, they all say. And they aren't completely wrong. But there is a truth that lies just beneath the surface that should not be ignored.
While it is true that there is no magic equation that tells us that X player hitting Y amount of home runs in the spring means he will hit Z number of homers during the regular season, scouting the players and looking for mechanical differences -- nuances that increase an ability to perform at the game's highest level -- can still forecast a player taking a big step forward. I've been making phone calls since early February and getting input from those coaches and scouts that watch the Mariners' players day in and day out to try and get information on these nuances. A lot of that input comes on minor leaguers and a lot of it comes from practice time, not really giving me much to go on for the big league team.
To fill in those gaps, I had the opportunity once again to speak with MLB.com's Bernie Pleskoff, a former scout for the Astros and Mariners who attends spring training games daily in Arizona, to get his input on what he has seen from the Seattle Mariners this spring.
We started off talking about just what goes into scouting players. Mr. Pleskoff brought up that it's not just in the spring, scouting really is never about the statistics. "We are looking at three things," said Pleskoff, "mechanics, health and attitude." That of course is simplifying it down to its core, but it gives you a baseline idea of what scouting is all about, and that is looking at the 'how' much more than the 'what'.
In that light, what Bernie has seen from M's first baseman Justin Smoak is very encouraging. "I see a tremendous difference in his approach," he said. "He's shorter, quicker to the ball. He's stopped looking to hit a home run every time up." Indeed it seemed that Smoak was trying to break out of his slump with one swing of the bat a lot last year, and as a result he was getting beat a lot, but he was also getting himself out quite often. This spring he has been staying within himself, focusing on good mechanics and putting good swings on the ball. The results? Smoak finished fourth across all of MLB in OPS with a 1.251 mark and 13 extra base hits in 59 at bats. How did he do it? "He's barreling the ball up a lot more," said Pleskoff, adding, "Smoak is one of the most improved players I saw all through the spring."
Dustin Ackley is another Seattle player that struggled through a rough 2012 that has changed up his stance this spring. Ackley also got healthy over the off-season, cleaning up a nagging injury with ankle surgery. Does he look more comfortable this year? "The best thing for Dustin to do, in my opinion, is not try and do too much," said Pleskoff. "He's a line drive hitter and he needs to stick with that approach. I think that his stance change is fine, he just needs to get back to being comfortable." The change in Ackley's stance involves his hands being lower and more forward in his pre-pitch set up at the plate, and while it may look a little awkward, he has certainly hit the ball with more authority and stayed closed on pitches longer with the adjustments.
Ackley's pedigree as the No. 2 overall pick in 2009 has earned him status of sorts, but Pleskoff really likes what he sees from the competition that the Mariners are bringing up behind Dustin. "Nick Franklin is going to be an outstanding baseball player. And I really liked what I saw from Brad Miller -- he's got outstanding balance and is a very good, very heady ballplayer," said the veteran baseball man. On the topic of what seemed like a road block he added, "If I'm another club I'm calling about [Franklin] and working to get him on my team."
Wrapping up talking about the hitters, Pleskoff echoed something that the organization has been saying about what adding Kendrys Morales and Mike Morse can do for this team: "Morales is going to be a huge difference maker and Morse is going to make a difference, too. It allows them to move a few guys like Smoak and [Jesus] Montero around in the order. You've now got to navigate through that lineup." But the player who Bernie feels could have among the biggest impacts is one who has been in Seattle for a while now. "If Franklin Gutierrez is healthy, he is going to be huge for them. He was hitting so well last year down here before he got hurt and he's doing it again this year. He can do some damage. He's one of the most underrated players in baseball in my opinion."
On the pitching side the Mariners had one of their prospects stand out above the rest, as Brandon Maurer breaks camp in the rotation. Pleskoff is going to have an in-depth report on Maurer coming up soon on MLB.com that you should all check out, but he still gave me a bit on the young right-hander. "Love him," said Pleskoff. "He has a strong repertoire, gets a lot of sink on the ball." When I prodded to get some more detail about what he liked so much and what let him succeed Bernie pointed out that Maurer was working ahead all spring. "He throws strike one. That is something that goes a long ways. Show me that you can throw strike one and get ahead," he said.
The prospect trio of Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton had much shorter stays in big league camp this year than Maurer did, and the first time I spoke with Bernie back in late November he wasn't very high on Paxton. Has that changed? "I think as this point with those three, maybe they are not as far along as they should be or as the club would like them to be," he said. He did mention that he liked the repertoire and pedigree of Hultzen and Walker, but Paxton still has him puzzled.
But there is still plenty to like on the pitching side. Carson Smith -- who will likely start 2013 in Double-A -- Stephen Pryor, Carter Capps and Tom Wilhelmsen all got mentions from Pleskoff. "Those guys have matured and they are big, strong, intimidating arms coming right at you," Bernie said of the big league trio. And Smith has, "that power-sinker that can really be tough to hit."
The spring training stats tell a story of a much-improved offensive club as Seattle breaks camp and heads for Oakland with a pitching staff that should be able to hold its own, even in the tough American League West. "I'm still very bullish on this club for 2013," said Pleskoff.
The scouting eye, looking a layer below the stats on the surface, agrees with what the stats are telling us in that regard. As for where that will lead the club this year, time will only tell. Pleskoff, for one, thinks it is back to a place that the club has only been once in the last five seasons. "I think that they should be able to finish above .500 -- they're improved enough and the lineup is extended enough that doing so is a reasonable expectation," he says.
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