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Yoan Moncada
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Digging In

Digging In: Spring Performances

by Nathan Grimm
Updated On: March 31, 2019, 1:09 am ET

I used to want to be a pen repairman.

Never mind that “pen repairman” isn’t a job, because pens aren’t particularly hard to repair, and because if a pen breaks, it’s infinitely more cost effective to just get a new one than pay a third-grader to repair it. It wasn’t much of a dream, but hey, we can’t all be astronauts.

Mostly, I just liked taking the pens apart and putting them back together; I liked seeing how they worked. We’re in a great age for baseball fandom because we get to see the game’s inner workings -- to see the inside of the pen -- now more than ever. Sure, teams still operate at a higher level, but the analysis and information available to the public is unprecedented.

Every Sunday, this column will offer a look at some of that information through the prism of fantasy baseball. Fred Zinkie did a lot of similar, great work in this space last year; I’m hoping to continue that analysis, but in my own way and with my own style.

In the first installment, let's take a look at some spring training performances that stick out as possibly being noteworthy.

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Yoan Moncada

Historically, spring training numbers were written off as being a lot of noise with little to be gleaned from them. That has changed in recent years, as research has shown some spring stats correlate with regular season performance. A batter’s walk rate is among them.

That bodes well for Moncada, who walked at a 17% clip this spring (11 walks in 64 plate appearances) after posting an above average 10.3% walk percentage in the 2018 regular season. Moncada also cut down on his strikeouts, if only marginally, in Cactus League play, fanning in one-fourth of his plate appearances as opposed to striking out one-third of the time last year. If those gains hold, his potent power-speed combo could play up, making it a potential breakout season for the 23-year-old.

 

Sean Newcomb

Spring walks matter for pitchers, too, creating some questions regarding Newcomb’s outlook after he led the league with 15 walks in 21 Grapefruit League innings. This after the southpaw walked 11.6% of batters faced in 2018, the highest percentage among qualified starters. Newcomb’s command has always been the thing that would ultimately decide his ceiling, and two years in it doesn’t seem as though he’s making many positive strides.

 

Jung Ho Kang

A power spike is another spring trait that corresponds to regular season performance, and none hit more homers this spring than Kang. Returning to the Pirates after missing most of the past two seasons, Kang mashed seven Grapefruit League homers to pace the league. Of course, his power showed when he was a regular for the Bucs in years past, so it’s not surprising as much as it is a positive indication that he’s still got what it takes to be a slugger in the majors. After awarding Kang the third base job over incumbent Colin Moran, it appears the Pirates think so, too.

 

Brad Keller and Martin Perez

These are two guys arguably at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of career arc, with Keller’s best days almost surely ahead of him while Perez is seeking an effectiveness he’s perhaps never seen, even in his better statistical years. The reason they’re listed together is the ability of both to induce ground ball outs in spring. Keller’s performance was nothing new; among pitchers who threw at least 140 innings in 2018, he ranked third in GB/FB ratio. For Perez, the key to his success was a velocity jump that saw his fastball sitting in the mid-90s. Ground balls aren’t as sexy as they used to be in the real game, and they’ve never really been sexy in our fake one, but guys like Dallas Keuchel have proven that you can still be a fantasy-relevant pitcher with that profile.

 

Garrett Hampson

Few players’ stock rose more from the end of the 2018 season to the beginning of spring training than Hampson’s. Second baseman DJ LeMahieu’s departure seemingly opened the door for the speedy 24-year-old to walk on through, and while Hampson’s big spring didn’t earn him the job outright -- Ryan McMahon also had a strong Cactus League campaign, and the two have split duties to start the year, with McMahon drawing more of the playing time in the early days of the season -- it did offer insight into Hampson’s upside were he to garner everyday at-bats.

Hampson led the majors in stolen base attempts with nine, and he was successful seven times. A willingness to run in spring has often carried over into the regular season, and if Hampson plays everyday, he should have a big green light on the basepaths. The playing time remains the biggest question at the moment.

 

Padres pitchers, Brewers pitchers, Marlins pitchers

There is perhaps no more FOMO-inducing spring statistic than pitcher strikeouts, and each of these teams boasts multiple spring performers who deserve consideration for their feats. From the Padres, both Matt Strahm (25:5 K:BB ratio) and Chris Paddack (24:3) showed well; in Brewers camp, Corbin Burnes (26:4) and Brandon Woodruff (26:6) turned heads; and the Miami trio of Pablo Lopez (16:1), Caleb Smith (19:1) and Trevor Richards (20:4) forced its way into the Marlins rotation with its Grapefruit League performance.

All of these pitchers share a common trait: youth. That's both a plus and a minus -- the lack of a track record makes them more of a risk for your fantasy squad, but younger players' spring gains often mean more than those of their veteran colleagues. Given what we saw in spring and the fact that all seven have skillsets to back up those performances, all are worth keeping an eye on out of the gate.