Don't read too much into spring statistics
I've been thinking lately about Bob Welch (the former Oakland A's pitcher, not the former Fleetwood Mac musician). In 1990, when I was working...
Seattle Times baseball reporter
I've been thinking lately about Bob Welch (the former Oakland A's pitcher, not the former Fleetwood Mac musician).
In 1990, when I was working in the Bay Area, there was rampant panic over Welch's spring-training performance with Oakland.
Welch finished the Cactus League with an 0-3 record and 17.72 earned-run average. In 10 innings that spring, Welch gave up 21 earned runs and 23 hits in 10 innings. In his last spring start, he gave up eight runs in four innings against the Mariners, who hit three two-run homers off him.
"Maybe I'm dumb," Oakland manager Tony La Russa said after that game, "but I'm not concerned."
The first batter Welch faced in the regular season, Dan Gladden of the Twins, hit a home run. Gulp.
Footnote: Welch won that game, finished the year with a 27-6 record — still the most victories by an American League pitcher since Denny McLain won 31 for the Tigers in 1968 — and captured the Cy Young Award.
This all comes to mind because of the consternation in some quarters over Erik Bedard's initial Mariners spring start, in which he had the audacity to give up three runs in two innings.
Manager John McLaren was miffed by what he seemed to perceive as an overly aggressive line of questioning after that outing. To McLaren's ears, what he apparently heard was a grossly premature theme of, "What's wrong with Bedard?"
The man has a point. The one key lesson I've learned from covering 20-plus spring trainings is that March performances are consistently poor harbingers of what's to come when the games count.
From the Welch era, I distinctly remember the annual hand-wringing over the Giants' Rick Reuschel, a portly, elderly pitcher who routinely got his brains beat in during spring. And after we all penned our grim "Big Daddy May Finally Be Done" stories, Reuschel would go out in April and throw, oh, a 93-pitch, four-hit gem.
Substitute "Jamie Moyer" for "Rick Reuschel," and the same story line played out in the 2000s with the Mariners.
And speaking of which, I'll never forget Lou Piniella's evident concern in early March 2001 when his hotshot new right fielder, Ichiro, seemed incapable of pulling the ball. One day, Piniella pulled Ichiro aside and told him he had seen enough opposite-field hitting. That afternoon against Oakland, Ichiro hit the ball hard to right field three times.
Later that spring, Piniella told hitting coach Gerald Perry that he should ask Ichiro to cut loose with the bat. As The Seattle Times' Bob Finnigan quoted Perry later that season:
"I went to Ichiro and told him he had to start driving the ball, to make the defenses honest. He looked at me and winked. I swear to God he did."
Perry reported to Piniella, who responded, "Well, tell the SOB to give us a hint so I can sleep at night."
Footnote: The next day against Oakland, Ichiro hit three line drives, two that were doubles and one into the visitors bullpen for a home run, his first. Ichiro went on, of course, to win a batting title with a .350 average.
The moral: Don't sweat out Ichiro's still-.000 average this spring. I'll make a bold prediction: Ichiro will hit better than .300 in 2008 and collect more than 200 hits. Many, many more.
A glance at last year's spring statistics yield a few more cautionary tales. The Dodgers' Brad Penny had a 10.64 ERA, giving up 21 hits in 11 innings. He made the National League All-Star team and put up a 16-4 record. Oakland's Dan Haren had a 6.16 spring ERA, giving up 27 hits in 19 innings. He started the All-Star Game for the American League and won 15 games for a sub-.500 team.
Do you think the Twins were panicking last year when Carlos Silva, the other new Mariners pitcher, racked up an 11.02 ERA in spring while giving up 29 hits in 16 1/3 innings? Silva wasn't exactly Cy Young when the season started, but he won 13 games and was much better than the previous season, when he had a 3.21 ERA in Florida.
The Phillies were a tad worried last year when Aaron Rowand hit .171 in spring. He went on to have a career year that earned him a five-year, $60 million contract with the Giants.
Great spring performances can be just as misleading, of course. Going back to the Bay Area once again, Randy Elliott became the personification of the spring phenom and summer flameout back in the 1970s. Now his name is invoked every spring when the latest prospect-from-nowhere starts tearing up the Cactus League.
It dates back to 1977, when Elliott, an obscure outfielder, was hitting .692 in mid-March. He finished at .547 (29 for 53, with 18 extra-base hits) and made the Giants' roster.
You haven't heard of Randy Elliott? Not a surprise. He fizzled in the big leagues, finishing his career with a .215 average in 114 games over four seasons, hampered by a shoulder injury.
Phillies fans still remember Ron Stone, who always tore the cover off the ball in the Grapefruit League in the early 1970s and couldn't hit a lick when the season started. The pattern earned him the nickname "Palm Tree Stone."
Last spring, no one hit the ball with more authority than Arizona's Scott Hairston, who put up a .426 average with six homers, seven doubles, two triples and 17 runs batted in. Cactus Hairston was hitting a weak .222 for the Diamondbacks when they traded him to San Diego in July.
The point is an elementary one, but worth remembering: Players get into shape at their own pace, particularly veterans, and most particularly veteran pitchers.
I had to relearn that lesson last spring, when I was convinced that George Sherrill's magic had run out. I knew he was traditionally a slow starter, but Sherrill showed absolutely nothing in racking up a 12.86 ERA in Arizona. And then he went out and had one of the most effective relief seasons in the American League.
Bob Welch himself put it best back in 1990, after he recorded his 18th victory in early August.
"It just goes to show you," he said, "that for three weeks in spring you can really screw up and still pitch good."
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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