Spring Training 2018: Identifying Fool's Gold Among Breakout Stars
Spring training is the best because it marks the annual return of Major League Baseball.
And yet, it is also the worst because you never know which players to trust.
Well, we're here to help. While there's never any shortage of nits to pick with spring training performances, our goal is to focus on eight players in particular who aren't the stars they're portraying themselves as early in the 2018 spring exhibition season.
We'll start with four hitters and then move on to four pitchers.
Gordon Beckham, Seattle Mariners
Spring Stats: 7 G, 20 PA, 1 HR, 3 2B, .588 AVG, .650 OBP, .941 SLG
Could it be? A decade after the Chicago White Sox chose him with the No. 8 pick in the 2008 draft, is Gordon Beckham finally realizing his potential?
It looks that way. Now with the Seattle Mariners, the 31-year-old entered Tuesday as the spring leader in batting average, on-base percentage and OPS (1.59). And according to Baseball Reference's opponent quality metric, the average rating of his opponents (8.5) falls fairly close to MLB-caliber (10).
Good stuff for a guy who boasts just a .672 OPS in nine major league seasons. He credits it to his work over the offseason.
“I checked my ego at the door and worked on my swing as though I was a child; I basically relearned everything," Beckham told FanGraphs' David Laurila.
But with only one walk and just four extra-base hits out of 10 total hits, Beckham's spring numbers are built largely on a foundation of singles. The extra-base hits he does have came off Eric Stout, Anthony Bass, Junior Guerra and Adrian Sampson. All four are fringe major leaguers or worse.
This doesn't necessarily mean that Beckham isn't better now than he used to be. But it does constitute a reason to doubt that he's suddenly this good.
Mike Freeman, Chicago Cubs
Spring Stats: 8 G, 22 PA, 1 HR, 1 2B, .550 AVG, .591 OBP, .750 SLG
Mike Freeman has bounced around since beginning his pro career in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization in 2010. He now has the difficult task of cracking a loaded Chicago Cubs roster.
Hitting .550 with a .591 OBP in spring training is one way to go about it. As of Tuesday morning, both numbers placed second behind Beckham among qualified hitters.
Anyone who cares to look up Freeman's minor league record will see a solid .292 average and .364 OBP in eight seasons. Those are the products of three useful hitting tools: a strong eye, a knack for making contact and a line-drive swing.
However, his bat has been humbled whenever he's been exposed to major league competition. In 56 career games, he's hit just .134 with a .211 OBP.
His warm spring doesn't mark the turning of the tide. His opponent quality checks out at 7.3. That's barely above Double-A level. So for the most part, he's hitting pitchers he's already proved he can hit.
Another catch with Freeman's batting line—not unlike Beckham's—is that nine of his 11 hits are singles. His lone homer came off a guy named Seth Elledge, a fourth-round pick from the 2017 draft who's only advanced as far as Single-A.
Kyle Jensen, San Francisco Giants
Spring Stats: 10 G, 18 PA, 5 HR, .545 AVG, .722 OBP, 1.909 SLG
There are two hitters who've clubbed as many as five home runs this spring. One is Jason Kipnis, who you've definitely heard of. The other is Kyle Jensen, who you probably haven't.
He's been around since the then-Florida Marlins took him in the 12th round in 2009. He finally earned a cup of coffee with the Diamondbacks in 2016, after which his contract was sold to the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in Japan.
Now, the Walnut Creek, California, native is enjoying a homecoming with the San Francisco Giants by giving them a taste of the power contained within his 6'3", 255-pound frame. He topped 20 homers each year between 2011 and 2016, with a peak of 30 coming in '16.
However, there's a big step in between mashing in the minors and mashing in the majors. Jensen is not in the process of taking it this spring.
He's mostly appeared off the Giants' bench late in games and has thus faced roughly Double-A-level (6.9) competition. The best pitchers he's taken deep are Homer Bailey, who's way past his prime, and Tony Barnette, who got shelled in 2017.
Given how much age and fragility the Giants have on their roster, there's a decent chance Jensen will be seen in the majors this year. But since he's no spring chicken himself at 29 years old, he's not likely to be much more than space-filler.
Fernando Tatis Jr., San Diego Padres
Spring Stats: 9 G, 26 PA, 1 HR, 3 2B, .348 AVG, .423 OBP, .609 SLG
No spring training is ever complete without top prospects forcing their way into headlines. This spring, the list is headlined by Ronald Acuna, Miguel Andujar and Fernando Tatis Jr.
If we must pump the brakes on the hype train for one of them, it should be Tatis.
Whereas Acuna and Andujar are genuinely knocking on the door to the major leagues, Tatis isn't even on the doorstep yet. Acuna and Andujar have played 112 games at Triple-A between themselves. The 19-year-old Tatis hasn't made it that far. Indeed, he's played only 14 games at the Double-A level.
The competition he's faced this spring has been befitting of his experience. Tatis' opponent quality rates at 6.1, which is right in the middle between Double-A and High-A. His list of victims also fails to impress. He homered off Shawn Armstrong and got his doubles off Mark Lowe, Sam Gaviglio and Thyago Vieira.
Meanwhile, Tatis has struck out nine times in his 26 plate appearances. That's a rate of 34.6 percent, which is even worse than the 24.4 K% he's put up in two minor league seasons.
Rest assured, Tatis is going to be a star for the San Diego Padres some day. He's a talented hitter and at least an equally talented defender. He's just not as close to realizing his potential as his hot spring would suggest.
Amir Garrett, Cincinnati Reds
Spring Stats: 2 G, 5.0 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 10 K, 0.00 ERA
Amir Garrett has struck out 10 of the 16 batters he's faced and has yet to give up a hit, a walk or a run.
According to Adam Baum of the Cincinnati Enquirer, Cincinnati Reds manager Bryan Price is impressed:
"A dare-to-be-noticed type of approach here," he said. "He just came in. He's ready. His arm slot's where it needs to be, his delivery's repeatable and he's throwing three quality pitches. At this point in time in the season, early in spring training, to be this sharp really has kind of put him out in front of the pack as a standout."
Garrett's dominance isn't coming out of nowhere. Although he accumulated a 7.39 ERA in the majors last season, he was electric early on and had come into the year as a top prospect. It looks now like the 25-year-old is back on the proverbial saddle again.
However, you know where this is headed.
Garrett has faced weak competition (7.3) on the whole, and it somehow looks even weaker upon closer inspection. He's appeared in mop-up duty in both of his appearances. And while whiffing Brandon Crawford was a solid accomplishment, it's hard to say the same about his punchouts of Casey Gillaspie, Daniel Palka, Matt Skole, Seby Zavala, Kelby Tomlinson, Jarrett Parker, Jerry Sands, Gorkys Hernandez and Ali Castillo.
At the least, Garrett is interesting again. It's harder to say with any certainty that he's back, though.
Ben Heller, New York Yankees
Spring Stats: 4 G, 6.1 IP, 4 H, 4 R (1 ER), 3 BB, 10 K, 1.42 ERA
Although he hasn't been as overpowering as Garrett, New York Yankees right-hander Ben Heller entered Tuesday as the only pitcher with as many strikeouts as the Reds left-hander this spring.
Setting down hitters by way of the K is nothing new for the 26-year-old. He packs a big fastball that's climbed as high as 100 mph and has used it to strike out 12.1 batters per nine innings in his five minor league seasons.
Heller has had trouble missing bats in his brief exposure to the majors, however. He's appeared in 19 games for the Yankees and has whiffed just 15 batters in 18 innings.
What Heller is doing this spring can't be characterized as his "Eureka!" moment. He's faced Double-A-level competition (7.0), and his only punchout victims of note are Rhys Hoskins and Nick Williams. Otherwise, he's set down a mix of minor leaguers and fringe major leaguers.
And while it's a positive on the whole that the strikeouts are nothing new, it's a negative that the walks are also nothing new. Heller owns a merely OK rate of 3.5 walks per nine innings in the minors. He's issued 10 free passes in his 18 major league innings.
So for now, this still seems to be a case of a great arm attached to a not-great pitcher.
Mark Leiter Jr., Philadelphia Phillies
Spring Stats: 3 G, 7.0 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 9 K, 0.00 ERA
How has Mark Leiter been so dominant? Largely because he has a nasty splitter, and he knows how to use it.
Of course, it helps to have other weapons. The 26-year-old also throws a four-seamer, sinker, slider, curveball and cutter. That gives him a total of six pitches, all of which he commands well.
"I don't know how much attention you've paid to vintage, in-his-prime Joel Peralta, but starting to see some similarities there, both in the tenacity and the smarts, the watching hitters and the execution of pitches," Philadelphia Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said in February, according to MLB.com's Todd Zolecki.
The usual caveat applies, however.
Leiter's opponent quality checks in at just 6.6, and it mostly shows in his strikeout victims. On the one hand, there are Kendrys Morales, Russell Martin and Aledmys Diaz. On the other, there are Rowdy Tellez, Anthony Alford, Danny Jansen, Jason Leblebijian, Nick Gordon and LaMonte Wade.
As such, Leiter may not be ready to put his inauspicious major league debut behind him. He managed only a 4.96 ERA in 27 appearances for the Phillies in 2017. Major league hitters simply weren't fazed by his deep arsenal and strong command, as they got to him for 18 homers in 90.2 innings.
Hector Santiago, Chicago White Sox
Spring Stats: 3 G, 8.0 IP, 7 H, 1 R (1 ER), 1 BB, 9 K, 1.13 ERA
Hector Santiago was an All-Star as recently as 2015 and a useful innings-eater as recently as 2016.
Thus, it's not the biggest surprise that the 30-year-old seems to be finding his groove again for the White Sox. It helps that, according to the man himself, he's found some of the velocity that went missing in a disastrous 2017 with the Minnesota Twins.
"Nice to see a bit of velocity back from the end of last year," Santiago said after facing the Seattle Mariners on Feb. 24, per Richard Justice of MLB.com. "Mixed in some pitches, some stuff we've been talking about, working on."
Contrary to most of the guys on this list, Santiago hasn't had the luxury of facing weak competition. His opponent quality grades out at 8.4, which is about as good as it gets at this point of the spring.
The catch is that Santiago wouldn't stand out as much if it wasn't for all his strikeouts, and that's where his list of victims fails to impress. Getting Ian Happ was a feat. Otherwise, the best hitter he's punched out is probably San Diego's Cory Spangenberg.
It's therefore not a given that Santiago is prepared to reverse his declining strikeout rate. And if he can't do that, rescuing his career will prove difficult.