Yesterday, we were able to watch Rays baseball for the first time in five months. It was the real Rays (for a couple innings at least) on a real field. It was great. I had a blast. I learned almost nothing.
That's the thing about spring training. It seems real, but it's not. I'm sure we'll still get into arguments about what organizational soldier should make the team as the fourth outfielder (Corey Brown, anyone?), and that's fine. We can have those arguments if that's your style.
But if that's not your style, here are some suggestions on how to watch the spring.
You CANNOT tell whether someone "knows how to hit."
Hitting is a discipline where results matter. We call someone a good hitter if he gets on base often, or regularly hits the ball far. These skills only become visible over many plate appearances during a season. There's a number for each statistic that sometimes gets referred to as the "stabilization point." What that means is that when you observe a statistical difference in a player's production from what you expect, once the player receives a certain number of plate appearances, you can assume that the change in production is half due to the player's true skill and half due to random variation.
The first statistic to stabilize for hitters is strikeout percentage, and it takes 60 plate appearances. That's about the maximum number of plate appearances anyone ever receives in spring training, and that only gets you to 50% confidence.
But wait, these aren't "real" plate appearances. For most of them, particularly at the beginning of the Grapefruit League season, pitchers are trying to build up arm strength, hitters are trying to get their timing right, and more than anything else, starters are trying not to get hurt.
Here's an example, just in case you're feeling skeptical. Last year, in 40 spring training at bats, Yunel Escobar batted .375. Then he proceeded to hit .250 for the first half of the real season, before improving in the second half.
You CAN tell specifics about how a player hits.
This is where you get to play the scout. Watch the swing, and try to tune out the result (it's hard to tune out the result). Does the bat speed impress you? Is the swing compact or is it long? When he catches a pitch in the sweet spot, does the ball go far?
It's okay to pay attention to this stuff. The trick is to not overvalue it, and not to use it when there's other information that should take precedence. For veteran players, you can go ahead and put your scouting glasses away. We know what type of hitter Evan Longoria is. He'll walk about 10% of the time, strike out about 20% of the time, and hit with good -- though not necessarily great -- power. Whether or not you think he looks great or horrible in spring training, as long as he's healthy, nothing you see should change your expectation.
For players without significant major league time, spring training can be an opportunity to fill in your mental picture and help you project how a guy can translate his game from the minors to the majors. Just don't get carried away and forget what you knew yesterday. If Steven Souza hits nothing but singles, he's still a power hitter. Cole Figueroa peppers the outfield wall? Nope. Don't believe it.
Ignore errors and watch the components of fielding.
You really shouldn't get hung up on mistakes. Spring training is exactly that -- it's a time for players to get into rhythm and sharpen their fielding skills up for the season. They're going to drop the ball.
Rather than pay attention to the results, watch them run. Do they get quick jumps on the ball? Do they cover a lot of ground? Are their movements fluid? Are their throws strong?
Pay attention to where players are stationed in the field.
This is pretty basic, but you can learn something about what the team thinks of a player's fielding by where they're positioned in spring training games. Is Desmond Jennings starting in left field? Maybe that's because manager Kevin Cash wants him to be comfortable there, and plans on making him the left fielder more often than the center fielder. Between Nick Franklin and Asdrubal Cabrera, who spends more time at shortstop, and who spends their time at second base?
What pitches are the pitchers throwing?
This basically the only thing to watch for with pitchers. Don't worry about whether or not they're getting hit and how hard. They're concentrating on getting themselves ready for the season, not on getting batters out. Don't worry about dips in velocity. It takes many pitchers time to build up their arm strength. Don't even pay attention to the movement of their pitches. Once again, this time is mostly about getting in shape and getting a feel for the ball.
Really, the one thing that's worth paying attention to is what they're throwing. Last year, we saw two new pitches in spring training that heavily impacted the season: a split-fingered changeup for Jake Odorizzi (which was very effective for him) and a cutter for Brandon Gomes (which he couldn't command).
If you were paying attention last spring, you knew that those two were throwing something new. But just to belabor the point, you wouldn't have known how it would affect their seasons. Odorizzi struck out 13 hitters while walking eight and then proceeded to establish himself in the majors. Gomes struck out 14 while walking only three, and then walked his way out of a job.
What do your team's prospects look like?
I mean, before today, I wouldn't have been able to pick Taylor Motter out of a police lineup. Now, I'd have maybe a 20% chance. Progress.
Did anyone get injured?
No? Then it was a good day. This is basically the most important thing to watch for.