The World Baseball Classic has begun, but very few people outside of Bruce Chen’s family seem aware of its presence. Even fewer of them care. So, I’ve decided to write about something even more arcane, instead: spring training statistics.
Making sense of the numbers is often a fruitless exercise. There are simply too many variables. Playing time and competition levels vary. Veteran hitters, if they play at all, might use the time to tinker with their swing. Pitchers might be trying out a new grip they learned in winter ball. The overall-theme is more about getting back into a rhythm than it is about posting big stats. However, if you read between the statistical-lines, you can occasionally glean SOME valuable tidbits of information.
For instance, a high rate of attempted steals could signal a shift in personal or organizational philosophy. A pitcher who is pounding the strike zone while posting a miniscule walk rate may have developed improved control of his stuff. Likewise, a young hitter who posts a good walk-to-strikeout ratio might be seeing the ball particularly-well and is poised for a breakout season.
This leads me to Joey Rickard.
I wrote briefly on the 25-year-old outfielder a few weeks ago. He is one of about 300 players competing for a job in the Baltimore Orioles’ outfield. At the time, I surmised that it might be difficult for a player of his skill-set (right-handed batter, corner-outfielder) to stand out – but, that was before he started channeling his inner-Wade Boggs.
On Monday, Rickard singled and drew a walk. That free pass was his eighth of the spring - a category in which he is currently the MLB-leader. In those 11 games, he has struck out only three times.
I can already hear the wail of the Sample-Size Police sirens in the distance. The raw numbers aren't the point; the approach is.
Mr. Rickard does have some history of being proficient in the on-base department. In 2015, he posted a .431 OPB across three levels of the Rays’ system – including a .437 clip at AAA Durham.
In his MLB-debut, Rickard averaged 4.33 pitches per plate appearance. That would have placed him in some pretty good company, had he stayed healthy long-enough to qualify.
2016 Pitches per plate appearance leaders:
Jayson Werth 4.60
Mike Napoli 4.57
Mike Trout 4.43
Dexter Fowler 4.40
Joey Rickard 4.33
Joe Mauer 4.28
Joey Votto 4.28
That’s a lot of Joey’s (maybe Jonathan Schoop should consider adopting a temporary-name change to help with his plate discipline?). The rest of the guys you’ve no doubt heard of, as well. It's an eclectic list; some pose bigger power threats than others. The one thing they all share is an apparent enthusiasm for winning the war of attrition against the opposing pitcher via the long at-bat.
So, does that mean Orioles fans should get their pencils and computer mice ready for a full-on, all-star-ballot-stuffing campaign? Not quite yet.
Rickard’s minor league walk-rate hasn’t translated to regular season, MLB action. Last season (in an 85-game sample), he walked a mere 6.4% of the time, while striking-out at a 19.1% clip. Change-ups, in particular, were a bugaboo. He hit an anemic 2 for 24 in at-bats that ended with that pitch – including 14 whiffs.
High strikeout-rates are fine if a player consistently gets on base, or has a chance of sending the ball a long ways when he does connect. Rickard owns some power to the gaps – which is amplified against lefties – but is not your classic slugger. Thus, he will have to be one of those pesky guys who work counts in order to maintain favor with management.
His 36% BB-rate this spring is obviously-untenable. However, it shows he isn’t pressing in his return from the thumb injury that brought a premature end to his rookie season. As starting pitchers ramp up their workloads and fringe-arms are banished to minor league camp or cut, it will be important that Rickard’s production doesn’t taper off.