The Rockies first exhibition game of spring training is this afternoon, as Jordan Lyles takes the mound against the Arizona Diamondbacks. The wins and losses of spring training won’t ultimately matter. But it is in these games where the wheat of the roster is separated from the chaff. Roster battles will be settled in these games, and thus they will provide a glimpse at the regular season to come. You might read here and there on the Internet that spring training statistics don’t matter. I’m here to look back at some great spring training performances from the Rockies past to tell you that they really, really do matter.*
Spring training 2006 was third baseman Ian Stewart’s coming out party. The 2003 draftee and designated third baseman of the future had just concluded a strong showing in High-A Modesto in 2005 at age 20. Additionally, Stewart slugged .615 in the elite Arizona Fall League in that same year, albeit in only 46 plate appearances. But in spring training 2006, he played even better while coming to the plate more (52 times). His .396/.438/.792 showing during the spring ensconced him as the heir to big league third baseman Garret Atkins.
And what did Stewart do next? Well, he justified the Rockies choice to pass up Evan Longoria in the 2006 draft—nothing cools off the hot corner quicker than too many bodies. Stewart continued to mash in Triple-A Colorado Springs in 2006. And while Atkins’s best season for the Rockies came that very same year, he could not fend off Stewart. Stewart has since become one of the best power hitters in all of baseball. For what other reason would he say, in May 2014, "being a power hitter . . . sometimes I’m basically in scoring position at the plate."**
Being a Colorado Rockies outfielder heading into the 2009 season must not have been easy. The team boasted a core of Dexter Fowler, Carlos Gonzalez, Brad Hawpe, Seth Smith, and our spring training star, Ryan Spilborghs. Spilborghs had earned major league reps in 2006 and 2007. He even made the 2008 team out of spring training, albeit as a fourth outfielder. Determined to make 2009 his year and assert himself as an everyday outfielder, Spilly hit .318/.387/.712 in 72 spring training plate appearances, once again earning a spot on the team out of spring training.
Spilborghs responded by matching his spring training numbers for the big club and turning into the team’s most valuable outfielder. It was the first of a multi-year run where spring training battles turned into contests to be Ryan Spilborghs’s backup.***
Jonathan Herrera was on something of a playing time roller coaster in the late aughts. Herrera played in 28 games as a utility infielder in 2008 for the Rockies, and he spent the entirety of the 2009 season in Triple-A Colorado Springs. But 2010 saw him assert his utility by playing in 76 games for the Colorado Rockies, as he produced a more than respectable .352 on base percentage. Never someone to have home run power, Herrera nevertheless showed the world in spring training 2011 that he can still be a reliable run producer by hitting for extra bases. In 68 spring training plate appearances, Johnny Spark Plug had a .371 batting average to go along with his .420 on base percentage. More impressively, he slugged .565 on the strength of four doubles and four triples.
Herrera didn’t all of the sudden begin hitting home runs in 2011. That would be crazy. Instead, in 2011 he went on to lead all of baseball in both doubles and triples. No matter that he only hit three home runs. His .900 OPS, the product of a .400 on base percentage and a .500 slugging percentage, harkened back to the deadball era. Herrera joined the likes of baseball greats from a century ago Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Eddie Collins and Shoeless Joe Jackson as .900 OPSers who hit three or fewer home runs.****
The 2013 season was rough. Among the biggest question marks heading into 2014 were the starting rotation, second base, and infield depth. In December 2013, the Rockies traded MVP candidate Jonathan Herrera to the Boston Red Sox in return for reliever Chris Martin and Franklin Morales. Morales was to provide depth to the starting rotation. During spring training in 2014, Morales made a case that he should not be depth, but a starter. He compiled a 2.10 ERA in 25 and two-thirds innings pitched. Not only that, but he struck out almost ten batters per nine innings. To address the infield, the Rockies signed the slick-fielding Paul Janish in January 2014. While not previously known as a hitter, Janish turned heads and changed minds with a .413/.438/.543 batting line during spring training 2014. Morales and Janish—what a tandem!
What Morales did NOT do during the 2014 season was take his nearly ten strikeouts per nine innings and make it over ten hits per inning. Nope.***** He maintained his exceptional ERA and, better yet, only trailed Jorge De La Rosa in innings pitched for the Rockies in 2014.****** All the while, Janish proved to be the answer at second base and an excellent fill-in for Troy Tulowitzki after hitting the disabled list. While Janish entered 2014 with a career OPS not much higher than Johnny Herrera’s 2011 slugging percentage, he extended his spring training hitting success into a .350 on base percentage to go along with his excellent defense.*******
Over the next few weeks, spring training games will be underway in earnest and daily performances will turn into spring training statistics. All the while, remember that if Matt McBride hits five home runs in five games, if Omar Quintanilla slugs .500, or if Buddy Boshers has an ERA under 2.00, it really does mean a lot.********
*They do not.
**Perhaps in video games.
***Who cares what he didn’t actually do; he did this:
******Only the sad part is true.
********It does not.