Basing roster decisions on spring training performance doesn’t make any sense

Ahhhh yes, spring training is here once again. The grass is green, the skies are blue and bullpen sessions are all the rage. This is also the time of year where players battle it out for a spot on a major league roster or a spot on their team’s starting nine. While position battles breed competition and competition can sometimes bring the best out of a player, the process of deciding who starts and who sits based on less than 90 plate appearances is downright absurd.

This week, Indians manager Manny Acta said that he expects the battle for the team’s third base job to last all spring. That battle will rage between 23-year-old top prospect Lonnie Chisenhall and soon to be 32-year-old Jack Hannahan, but I ask: What will happen over the next six weeks that will tell the Indians something they don’t already know about either player?

Chisenhall was rated as the 25th best prospect in baseball by Baseball America before the 2011 season and though he hasn’t exactly mashed in the minor leagues (.272/.344/.452 overall), scouts seem to believe that he’ll be at least an average big league third baseman, capable of hitting around 20 home runs and posting at least a league average OBP annually. Chisenhall is certainly not without his weaknesses — he needs to prove that he can hit lefties (he hit only .200/.282/.360 against lefties at triple-A in 2011) – but what are we going to learn about Chisenhall in spring training that we don’t already know at this very moment? Even if he hits a couple home runs off of lefties during spring training games, we cannot simply assume that his issues against lefties are over and done with.

The Indians drafted Chisenhall 28th overall in the 2008 amateur draft and have had organizational scouts and coaches track his progress through over 1,600 minor league plate appearances. They’ve analyzed his swing, graded his defense and projected the ceiling and floor over all aspects of his game. However, we are lead to believe that an insanely small sample size of about 60-80 plate appearances in spring training – a good amount of which will either come against major league pitchers that are simply trying to work on things in preparation of the new season or pitchers that are soon destined to start their 2012 season in the minor leagues – will somehow prove or disprove the opinions of said scouts, coaches and front office staff that have been following Chisenhall’s progression for the last four years.

On the other side of the coin we have Jack Hannahan, who has over 1,300 major league plate appearances to his credit with a .231/.317/.358 career slash line and a track record for playing excellent defense at the hot corner. Are six weeks of spring training going to prove that he’s something more than what his numbers say he is? If he hits .300 with three home runs and Chisenhall hits .280 with three home runs in spring action, does that mean that Hannahan deserves to win the starting job?

It shouldn’t.

Last spring, then Oakland A’s third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff hit .413/.449/.571 with two home runs and 12 RBI in 63 at-bats. Kouz, who has 2,679 career major league plate appearances and a .255/.300/.420 line to show for it, went on to hit .235/.284/.372 with seven home runs in 257 plate appearances between the A’s and Rockies. For even more perspective, Robinson Cano hit .236/.276/.382 over his 2011 spring training plate appearances.

Given the tremendous amount of information and data that is available on every single professional baseball player that plays for a major league organization – and available almost instantly – how does it make one ounce of sense to base roster decisions on spring training performance? If an organization doesn’t know what they have with every player on their roster before the start of spring training, they aren’t doing their job – international players in their first year with the team might be the lone exception.

If the Indians organization thinks right now in this moment that Lonnie Chisenhall will help them win more games in 2012 than Jack Hannahan, or vice-versa, then that should be who breaks camp with the starting job, barring any major event such as an injury.

Spring training is a great time of year. It represents the promise of a new season where every team can dream, whether it’s realistic or not, of making the postseason and possibly a world championship. Spring training is a time for pitchers to work on new pitches or for hitters to find their timing and adjust their swing mechanics. Spring training is not, however, a time in which managers or front office personnel should be forming concrete opinions on their players. Did Jake Fox prove that he was a breakout power hitter by slamming 10 home runs in 74 at-bats last spring? Did Alcides Escobar prove that he was on the verge of a breakout season by hitting .364/.400/.636 with five home runs in 55 at-bats last spring? One look at the regular season numbers for those two players will tell you everything you need to know about how much spring training stats matter.

Hopefully any talk of spring position battles is just that, talk and nothing more, because to say and believe such words just doesn’t make any sense

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