When Do Spring Training Stats Start to Matter?

We all know that March stats are the most unreliable figures in baseball. The level of competition is uneven at best, since the rosters are full of minor league guys with no shot of playing in the bigs this season. You’ve got pitchers working up to their full velocity, or trying out that new curveball which they’d never throw in the regular season. Plus, hitters are either trying to get their timing down or just making sure they don’t hurt themselves. All these variables – plus the unbelievably small sample sizes – make spring training stats almost useless. We all love Blake DeWitt, but does anyone really think he’s going to OPS 1.092 this year, as he is in the spring? Do the 18 excellent innings put up by Russ and Ramon Ortiz matter more than the 9 or so horrible seasons they’ve combined for in the last few years? Of course not.

Yet at some point, you have to realize that James McDonald is rocking a 20.25 ERA – having allowed 19 runners in just 5.1 innings - and wonder how much of that stat line can be dismissed. When McDonald was knocked out of the 5th starter competition the other day, it didn’t bother me all that much; with the issues the bullpen is having and the limited number of starts the last rotation member gets, you could make the case he’d be needed more in the bullpen. But too many outings like yesterday’s…

McDonald, having pitched his way out of the competition for the final spot in the rotation, might have pitched himself off the team by allowing six runs on six hits with two walks in 1 1/3 innings. McDonald sat in front of his locker with head in hands after the game.

“James had a tough night,” said manager Joe Torre. “He had good stuff and got ahead 0-2, then it was 3-2, and all of a sudden bad things happened. He’s just got to be more economical.”

…and you wonder whether he’s even going to make the roster at all. Remember, despite his failure as a starter last year, McDonald was excellent out of the bullpen (2.72 ERA, 48/20 K/BB ratio) so his inclusion on this year’s squad should have been a foregone conclusion. But McDonald has been so bad this spring (nothing is more troubling than the 2/5 K/BB ratio) and there’s so many other pitchers impressing that it’s going to be hard to look past his otherwise meaningless spring line.

Remember, McDonald does still have minor-league options left, and the Dodgers have several pitchers in camp who can’t be sent down without being exposed to other teams. If it means holding onto Charlie Haeger, Eric Stults, Carlos Monasterios, or even the odd Ortiz or two, then perhaps Albuquerque is where he’s best served.

Obviously, there’s side-effects to that, both good and bad. Not having an effective McDonald in the bullpen as he was last year is another blow to a squad that’s missing Ronald Belisario (still!), has lingering health questions about Hong-Chih Kuo (though he did pitch an apparently pain-free inning last night), and an achy George Sherrill. That said, the long-term goal should be for McDonald to be an effective starter, and he’d certainly get much more of an opportunity to do that at AAA than in Los Angeles.

My best guess here is that unless he massively turns himself around, and soon, he’s pitched himself off the roster. But that’s hardly the last we’ll see of him, and once the inevitable injuries and poor performances at the big-league level happen he’ll still be a big contributor to the 2010 Dodgers.

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  1. [...] but a poor spring  first cost him a chance at the chance at the rotation, and then threatened to cost him a spot on the team entirely: Yet at some point, you have to realize that James McDonald is rocking a 20.25 ERA – having [...]