As I look out the window of my Denver apartment, snow is scattered all over the place. Yet, when I look at the calendar and see that Rockies baseball games begin on Saturday, I throw that earlier eye test out the window and beam brightly in the knowledge that, finally, spring is here! After the long winter baseball drought when even the football scene in Denver was shorter than usual, we look to see how Rockies do this spring to gauge whether they will rise to or thwart our summer dreams.
Hope abounds. Every spring, every ballplayer in camp is “finally healthy” and “in the best shape of their life”. Even though I’m 40 years old and have seen quite a few springs and heard those sayings quite often, I still get optimistic. Sure, I’ll admit I’ve seen some amazing spring performances wither on the season-vine by July while others parlayed a good spring into a season-long bloom. So, this year, I figured it’d be fun and maybe even a tad bit instructive to look back at how the 2016 Rockies performed during that spring and see how well those spring results carried over into the 2016 summer, if anything carried over at all.
Sometimes spring suggests something’s suspect
In the spring of 2016, the Free Kyle Parker movement whimpered into nothing as he hit just .222 over 27 at bats, striking out 10 times with just one extra base hit and one walk. He was released at the end of spring training. Veteran sparkplug Brandon Barnes had what could best be described as a mixed spring training. Though he hit .273 in 55 at-bats, he only drew 2 walks and struck out an alarming 17 times, four whiffs more than any other Rockies player. He made the Opening Day Roster but continued to whiff in April and was demoted by the end of the month. A call-up for June and July fared no better for him and by the end of the year, the Rockies released him.
Poor pitching also permeated throughout the staff that spring. Former staff ace Jorge De La Rosa stumbled out of the gate, allowing a 6.10 ERA while yielding an un-nice 1.69 WHIP over 20.2 innings, giving up three home runs in the process. De La Rosa was one of five Rockies pitchers to give up at least three home runs that spring. He was still better than Jordan Lyles, who had a convenient 7.11 ERA over 19 innings and slurpeed up four home runs. “Here’s a Hit” Eddie Butler gave up 12 hits in just seven innings in his failing bid to be a Rockies starting pitcher. There were hopes that Tyler Matzek had gotten past the anxiety issues that had plagued him in the past, but his spring was unfortunately telling. He appeared in one game, gave up three hits, two walks and a home run, then left camp.
Each of those players had suspicious springs and ultimately disappointing 2016 regular seasons. Of those players previously named, only Jordan Lyles remains with the organization. Coming out of that spring, the Rockies starting rotation looked bleak. But the Gray, Andersons and Chatwoods of the world ended up being so good that though Lyles was the #2 starter in the rotation as recently as 2014, it’s unknown whether he will continue to have a role with the 2017 Rockies at the major league level.
On the subject of unknowns, there’s Tony Wolters. A non-roster invitee who had the rare mix of experience at catcher and the middle infield, he looked more like a curiosity and a guy to fill out the field in B-squad games instead of a serious contender for a major league job. He apparently could field, but he hadn’t had an OPS over .642 since A-ball. Yet in that 2016 spring, he hit .406 over 38 plate appearances. More than half of his 13 hits going for extra bases and he also chucked in five walks while only striking out six times.
Now, many guys over many springs have hit .400 during spring training, and it’s definitely no guarantee someone will hit well during the regular season. However, it’s way better to hit .400 while trying to win a job than by hitting .040. Having done so, now he’s known as TFW, and visions of him dance in sabermetricians’ heads. Rafael Ynoa also hit well that spring with a robust .357 batting average. He also won a job on the Opening Day roster and spent some time as the primary left fielder(!), though it was more out of necessity than visions of Barry Bonds flexing in Walt Weiss’s head.
The oft-injured Tyler Chatwood, two years removed from Tommy John surgery, used his 2016 spring to show he was “close to the best shape of his life” by throwing competently without popping another ligament. Over fourteen innings, he had a 3.21 ERA and a sorta serviceable WHIP of 1.43, though walking seven batters over those innings (and only striking out seven) aren’t usually ratios to brag about. Generally, a pitcher’s command is thought to be the last element to return when coming back from elbow surgery. Yet, because of the failings of the aforementioned starting pitching candidates, Chatwood’s performance was enough to win him a rotation slot. Now that he’s recovered from surgery and has a healthy season under his belt, this 2017 spring might actually be suggestive of what kind of a pitcher he will become.
Then again, maybe not. Jason Gurka turned a lot of heads by striking out twenty batters and only allowing one walk in ten spring innings. After he won a job on the roster, he promptly lost it by giving up 16 hits in 9.2 inning and was released from the Rockies in August.
When there are those roster slot battles, it’s usually because the candidates are equally qualified. If a good spring can tell us anything, it’s that a standout performance just might separate one guy from the pack, winning him future major league work through the dog days of summer.
Many mixed messages
Prior to the 2016 season, Purple Row’s own Cameron Goldener (and quite a few commenters) thought that Gerardo Parra would be “more than capable as an everyday outfielder, and in a vacuum, he'd represent a productive addition to any Major League outfield.” On the hitting side, Gerardo Parra’s first spring with the Rockies left fans with little reason to worry, as he had a spring that pretty much echoed his career stats. Parra put up a .263/.333/.421 line that spring; it mirrored his .277/.326/.404 career slash stats going into that 2016 season. Then the 2016 season actually started and his performance cratered about the time Nick Groke from the Denver Post reported teammates were plugging “Parra for President” t-shirts. Parra said, “It’s my opportunity to be president. I want to think of something good for the team.”
While thinking, however, about global peace, global warming and Global / Parra Dice, he forgot how to be patient at the plate. Note that Parra walked six times during spring training over 63 plate appearances. By contrast, he walked only nine times the entire 2016 season. He finished the season hitting .253/.271/.399. Score one for the “don’t mix politics and sports camp.”
Jake McGee, also acquired last spring, made an early good impression in camp. Over eight outings and 7.1 innings of work, he had an ERA of 2.45 while striking out seven batters and allowing less than a baserunner per inning. Those kinds of numbers were in the ballpark of his pre-2016 stat lines of a 2.77 ERA, 1.017 WHIP and 11.1 K/9. Perhaps his hurt knee was as much of a factor as he suggests, or the concerns about his fastball velocity (or one leading to the other), but his 4.73 ERA, 1.577 WHIP and 7.5 K/9 were much worse than expectations.
Even with the veterans, spring training performances are mysterious. You might know what you’re going to get once the season starts, but it’s not necessarily because of spring.
After the spring of 2016, it seemed the Rockies rotation would be poor based on the lackluster performances of Jorge De La Rosa, Jordan Lyles, and others. It wasn’t. After stellar spring outings by Gurka and McGee, there was less reason to think the Rockies bullpen would be bad. It was.
It’s important to remember that though winter feels long, it’s sometimes easy to forget just how few spring training games there are. In the grand scheme of things, while a player’s spring stats might hint at certain things, it’s not definitive. At best, it might only suggest who might enjoy the summer as a major league baseball player for the Colorado Rockies. However mixed the stats are for players, there’s one area in which spring training has an unblemished record: it means that baseball’s back.