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On Spring-Training Performances and the Giants

There isn't a team alive that builds their roster using spring stats. There isn't a single employee of any of the 30 teams who sits back at the end of March and says, "Boy, that guy was sure lost at the plate … but says here that he hit .300. Welp, the stats sure don't lie. He's on the club."

But spring-training performances mean something. I'm as guilty of using "spring-training performances" and "spring-training stats" interchangeably as anyone, so this is a bit of a confessional. No, the Giants don't care a lick about spring-training stats. But they care a whole lot about spring-training performances.

And is that really so silly? Obviously it makes more sense to put more stock in the 100 to 10,000 at-bats or innings that the player had in the majors before spring training, but you can't just expect teams to ignore a month of baseball. Some players are going to look unexpectedly good, some players are going to look unexpectedly bad. Every team will pay some attention. Even the smart ones. Humans are wired to just love that anecdotal, observable evidence. It's how we avoided being eaten by saber-toothed tigers.

  • Reminder: Go back in before publishing and make a pun about SABR-toothed tigers.

This is why the Giants aren't going to start Brandon Belt, even though he's hitting .382/.426/.636 for the spring. They don't like how he's getting all those hits. He's not standing back enough. He's still exposed to the breaking ball.

/Aubrey Huff grounds out to second

Atta boy, Huffy. But Belt needs to figure out to hit at the major-league level.

/Aubrey Huff bats again, gets called out for batting out of order, grounds out to second again for a double play to end the inning

There are things that you can see in these spring-training performances. They might mean something. Belt has all sorts of things to fix with his mechanics, apparently.

Brandon Crawford has looked amazing this spring, for example. I've already expressed admiration for his approach in the past -- I'd rather start with a patient kid who works the count and low-BABIPs his way to a miserable performance than a hacky kid who high-BABIPs his way to a .300 season -- and, for this month, he looks like he's squaring up the ball. He's hitting against guys who will be pitching for the St. Paul Saints in a year, sure, but he looks great.

I can understand how that's enticing, how that can suck you in and make you optimistic. If Crawford could hit .260/.330/.390, he'd be a fantastic player. Right now, he looks even better than that. So seductive. And I can't help but feel optimistic with the rest of the Giants-loving world.

But here's why I'll continue to complain about the Giants reading too much into spring-training performances where I might give a pass to other teams: There is no team in baseball that I trust less to evaluate hitters. I don't think that's overly cynical or dramatic. I know that every fan base has its optimistic partisans, but I really don't see how anyone can think that statement is too harsh.

Giants since 2005:
2005: .319 on-base percentage (29th out of 30 teams), .714 OPS (28th), 86 OPS+ (29th), 649 runs scored (29th)
2006: .324 on-base percentage (28th), .746 OPS (25th), 90 OPS+ (24th), 746 runs scored (24th)
2007: .322 on-base percentage (28th), .708 OPS (30th), 82 OPS+ (30th), 683 runs scored (29th)
2008: .321 on-base percentage (25th), .703 OPS (28th), 83 OPS+ (29th), 640 runs scored (29th)
2009: .309 on-base percentage (30th), .699 OPS (30th), 82 OPS+ (30th), 657 runs scored (26th)
2010: .321 on-base percentage (22nd), .729 OPS (17th), 98 OPS+ (15th), 697 runs scored (17th)
2011: .303 on-base percentage (29th), .671 OPS (27th), 89 OPS+ (25th), 570 runs scored (29th)

I picked 2005 because that's when Barry Bonds was hurt, and it coincides neatly with the decline and fall of the Giants' offensive empire. They used to score runs, remember. A lot. It wasn't always just Bonds. The 2000 lineup was amazing with Jeff Kent and Ellis Burks. But for the last seven years, it's been mostly miserable sledding. I was almost annoyed with the 2010 team for making me count up so many places from the bottom of the Baseball-Reference tables.

I don't know what's changed since 2000, but I'm confident that I don't trust this organization to evaluate hitters better than other teams in baseball. I'd love to read an argument that posits this is reactionary or cynical. I get that the Giants do a lot of things right -- just looking at their first-round picks since Matt Cain sends me on an endorphin high -- but I don't believe in their ability to evaluate hitters.

And that's their ability to evaluate hitters in general. Like, after hundreds and hundreds of at-bats. The Giants signed Aaron Rowand the year after they were rumored to be chasing Gary Matthews, Jr. and Juan Pierre. I don't trust them to evaluate hitters in general. Shorten the evaluation time to a few dozen at-bats? In the spring? Against pitchers who will never crack a 40-man roster? Yeah, not getting more confident about that evaluative ability.

Say, is that Manny Burriss starting at second base to open the season? Huh. Well, isn't that a kick in the pants.

So that's why I'll continue to needle the Giants for making decisions based on the spring. And for making decisions. All decisions. I'm kind of a dick like that.