Monday, 31 March 2014

A Couple of Mostly Meaningless Predictions

WARNING: Dubious statistical pseudo-analysis ahead!

'Tis the season for boundless optimism, and it's often delivered in the form of predictions based on tiny samples of spring training performance. We all know that spring training is all but meaningless when it comes to predicting a player's regular season performance, but that doesn't stop us from trying anyways does it? It's just too tempting for fans (and content starved writers) to find meaning in the meaningless, and as long as it's presented as exactly what it is, mostly unfounded guesswork, I don't think there's anything wrong with giving in to the urge from time to time.

There have been efforts made in the analytics community to use spring training statistics to predict regular season performance, and I'm sure teams are also hard at work trying to wring some predictive value out of spring training statistics since the implications for putting the best team on the field for opening day are obvious. Similarly, some other efforts have been driven by the fantasy baseball community's desire to get the edge in a draft by catching lightning in a bottle with a late-round breakout sleeper candidate.

One of the most well-known attempts at using spring training stats in a predictive manner is brought to us by John Dewan, owner of Baseball Info Solutions. By applying what is known as the Dewan Rule, he has proposed that breakout seasons can be predicted by an extreme increase in spring training slugging percentage, provided certain other parameters are met as well. It seems intuitive that an extreme enough spring training performance should have some sort of predictive value for the season. The Dewan Rule has changed some from year to year, but it looks something like this:
  • A player must have at least 200 career at-bats in the majors
  • They must have at least 40 at-bats in the current season's spring training
  • They must have exceeded their career slugging percentage by at least .200 points in the current season's spring training
Dewan has at times suggested that 60-75% of players who meet these criteria will experience some degree of improved performance in the upcoming season, although he's pretty vague about precisely what constitutes an improvement. Here's the thing about the Dewan Rule though. It's been pretty thoroughly debunked, and even attempts to tweak it to make it more meaningful have proven about as predictive as a coin flip. But why let that stop us from having a bit of fun with it? 

Currently, the Jays have two players who have hit well enough this spring that they (pretty much) meet Dewan's criteria for expecting big things from them, although given that the players involved have pretty extensive major league track records it's hard to really call them "breakout" candidates. 

So far this spring, Jose Bautista has been destroying baseballs to the tune of a .375/.455/.785 line with a league leading six dingers. Perhaps you're not all that impressed. It is after all Jose Bautista,who we have become accustomed to expecting big things from. However, that .785 SLG% is 298 points better than his career SLG% of .487, and 222 points better than his .563 SLG% since he emerged as one of the league's best power hitters back in 2010. 

His timing looks great, and at the risk of falling into the trap of armchair psychoanalysis, he seems to be controlling his frustration with umpires and not allowing it to affect his at bats the way we sometimes saw last year, although we'll see how well that holds when the games start to matter. I don't think we should expect anything we haven't seen from Bautista in the past, but given the idiotic Trade Bautista movement we've been seeing in recent months, I'd like to propose that the rumours of Bautista's decline have been greatly exaggerated. It's looking like he's getting ready to party like it's 2010, and assuming good health I'm thinking we might see an even better Bautista than we did in 2012 and 2013 which would be a major boon to the Blue Jays' already powerful looking offense.

The other player whose spring has me very optimistic is Melky Cabrera. He finished spring training with a triple slash line of .405/.423/.595. His spring slugging percentage didn't quite make the DeWan Rule cutoff, topping his career mark of .409 by "only" 186 points, but he was above the line up until Friday so it's close enough to warrant pointing out, or would be if the DeWan Rule were a real thing. More than that though, his swing looks fantastic. The bat speed is there, and all he's done all spring is shoot laser beams from foul line to foul line, capping off his impressive spring with a game winning two-run shot in Montreal. 

Both Jose Bautista and Melky Cabrera have been tearing the cover off the ball in the Grapefruit League, and I think it's worth taking note of despite the well-documented issues with the Dewan Rule. In the Baseball Prospectus piece I linked to above, in which Ben Lindbergh set about debunking the rule, he wrote (referring to Bautista in 2010):
"Of course, some hitters who have hot springs really are about to break out—most notably Bautista—but spring slugging percentage alone is not a reliable predictor of improvement. To divine any deeper significance, you’d have to combine it with scouting information, or knowledge about a meaningful change in approach—Bautista’s revamped swing, for example." 
I think a case could be make that we have some such information regarding both players although it's not about their swings or a change in approach, but rather their health.

After his monstrous 2010 and 2011 seasons, Bautista's 2012 and 2013 were dogged by nagging injuries of the sort that can have a nasty tendency to sap the monstrous power on which he relies. According to his Baseball Prospectus injury history, since 2012 he's missed games due to trouble with his groin, a wrist injury that eventually required surgery, an ankle sprain, back soreness, and a bone bruise on his hip. Most troublesome were the wrist surgery and the hip injury. Both are very concerning for power hitters, especially ones with as violent a swing as Bautista. 

This year, however, Bautista is a full season removed from his wrist surgery, and an off-season should be plenty of time for any bruise to heal. Without reason to suspect otherwise, it would seem that Bautista might be fully healthy for the first time in a couple of seasons. At his age we can never know how long that will last, but if it does I'm thinking he might flirt with the kind of power we saw back in 2010/11. Will he hit another 50+ bombs? Well that might be a bit of a stretch, but it's Opening Day and I'm feeling optimistic, so... sure!

While I'm doing a bit of guessing about Jose's health, there can be absolutely no question that Melky is a whole lot healthier in 2014 than he was in 2013. After a disappointing season that saw him hit for absolutely no power whatsoever and hobble around the outfield and on the base paths like he needed a walker, it was discovered that he had a tumour on his spine that was pressing on nerves and sapping the power to his lower half. It was obvious that his bat speed was down, and that balls to the gap that should have been doubles were being turned into singles by his lack of mobility, both of which were impacting his power numbers.

Now he's tumour free (knock wood), and is looking very much like the Melky Cabrera who would have won the National League batting title in 2012 if not for his P.E.D. suspension. Both the bat speed and foot speed seem to be back and I'm optimistic that Melky will surprise a lot of Blue Jays fans who gave up on him as a total bust last year. I've been on record with this one for a little bit now anyways, so might as well double down:

I called it crazy, and it is, at least in the way that any attempt to predict baseball is crazy. Quite frankly though, it's starting to look just crazy enough to happen. Setting aside the numbers, Melky has been making the kind of consistent hard contact that helped him post the high BABIP numbers that drove his best offensive seasons. If that continues now that he won't be feasting on minor league pitching, well... crazier things have happened. Batting title or not, a healthy, productive Melky Cabrera is going to be a huge benefit to the top of the Blue Jays' order. 

Last year was a real shame for Melky. Many were already assuming the success of his previous two seasons was a product of artificial performance enhancement, and when he wasn't the same guy they were plenty quick to throw around the old "I told you so". Now that we know what the real problem was all along, I'm hoping this is the year that fans get to know the real Melky Cabrera. I think they're going to like him.

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