Baseball can't come soon enough, but for those desperate fans, Spring Training is already underway. We've seen some prospects, some multi-millionaires, and some under-the-radar players earn a spotlight in just the first week. Over the rest of March, we'll see some exciting stats, some disappointing ones, and a good mix of optimism and pessimism over what to expect in the Bronx in 2014.
So what can we make of Spring Training? Not very much is the quick answer. One month of numbers is rarely enough to carry over for the rest of the season. Competition in March is always at its weakest, with some players testing out new approaches, and others completely unprepared for the professional game. As we watch players like Yangervis Solarte bat .857 with 2 home runs, it's obvious just how different the game is from March to April.
Masahiro Tanaka pitched on Saturday to a huge media fanfare. What Tanaka really gave Yankee fans was a false sense of importance for two innings on March 1st. He brought the YES Network a big audience, but he didn't show us anything that we didn't already know. Similarly, just a few innings earlier, CC Sabathia made his Spring Training debut to a much different fan response. The results were nearly identical, 2.0 innings and 2 hits for both Sabathia and Tanaka, only the left-handed starter was only throwing 88 mph while Tanaka was at 94 mph. Despite the results, the takeaway from Saturday's game was boosted expectations for Tanaka and wilted ones for Sabathia.
Meanwhile, after a disappointing performance in his first Spring Training start, Ivan Nova rebounded yesterday with one of the best pitching performances yet. Nova was throwing hard, around 94 to 95 mph with a strong curveball and an aggressive changeup. Now fans are clamoring over how Nova could be one of the best pitchers in this year's rotation.
Spring Training is a lot of fun to watch, but what we're watching is largely irrelevant. Velocity often turns into a non-issue, and Grapefruit League statistics are meaningless by April 1st. Maybe there will be a player that will breakout in 2014, but we can rarely tell by watching games in March.
What we can make of Spring Training are the small things. Last season, Ivan Nova threw more sinkers, a seemingly small change to his approach, that by June showed to have a massive change to his entire repertoire. This season, Nova is throwing a changeup more often, but he's also throwing it directly to right-handed hitters. Brian McCann talked about growing his confidence in the changeup, and having an offspeed pitch ready for the beginning of the season could prevent some of the volatility we've seen from Nova in the past.
Another thing to watch are the left-handed bats in this lineup. The Yankees and Joe Girardi are exceptionally perceptive to platoon splits, and when the team signed Jacoby Ellsbury, McCann, and Kelly Johnson, they were aware of the possible problem they'd have against left-handed pitching. Kevin Long has conquered these sorts of problems before with Brett Gardner and Robinson Cano, and so far this offseason we're seeing a lot of left-handed batters facing off against left-handed pitchers.
One of the most significant things to watch will be health. On Thursday, Alfonso Soriano and Mark Teixeira may return to the lineup, both of which project to be the Yankees' top power hitters next to Carlos Beltran. Teixeira's wrist and Soriano's legs need to hold up this Spring if the Yankees truly want to be a top offensive team in 2014. On Friday, Michael Pineda should take the mound for three innings. Finally getting a glimpse of his velocity and movement will be an important step in determining who the fifth starter is and where Pineda belongs with this organization.
Unfortunately for Solarte, the numbers mean very little right now. 2 home runs and getting on base 7 out of 8 times is no easy task, but there's no way we can expect that to continue. If he finishes March with 15 home runs, maybe a spot will open up for a breakout player, but right now all we're hoping for is a healthy team. Spring Training is a lot of fun to watch, but its context is far removed from the regular season.