It is very difficult to learn too much that is meaningful in regard to sports picks from the games played in the first half of spring training. Teams don’t care about the results, preparation means more than wins, rosters are in a constant state of flux, and split squads make it very tough to assess matchups, so what we see on the field tells us little about what to expect on the field in April and beyond. That doesn’t mean that the first 10 or 15 games of the spring are meaningless for bettors, though. In fact, you can pick up a lot of clues about what the future might hold from paying close attention to what happens in the spring. Here are four types of clues that can be useful when you are handicapping baseball:
Young pitchers who are getting a lot of attention – When a team has a hole in their rotation they would probably prefer relying on some young, inexpensive talent they have in their system rather than having to bring in veteran talent form elsewhere that may or may not work out. It can be tough to know how well a pitcher can handle that responsibility until he gets a chance, though, and as a result it can be tough to how a team is feeling about a pitching situation. One of the best ways to get a clue about what a team wants is to see which pitchers are getting a lot of attention. The team will want to know if they are going to be okay as soon as they can, so they are going to try to find out as soon as they can if a young pitcher is ready. If a pitcher is getting a lot of early attention – starting early in the spring, going deeper in games than you might expect, and so on. How he performs is far less important than the opportunities he gets form the team.
Young hitters – If a team has a hole in their lineup that they are hoping to fill with a young player then they are going to give that player as much playing time as they possibly can in the spring. How the hitter performs right out of the gate won’t necessarily be the same as how he performs in the season, but it can tell us a lot about the mental state of the player. A player who jumps out of the gate with great hitting, for example, is probably comfortable with the opportunity that is given to him. He’ll still have struggles at times for sure, but he’ll be relaxed, and that can make all the difference. On the other hand, a hitter who struggles badly out of the gate could be overwhelmed by the opportunity he has been given. Talent aside, I’d take a relaxed player over a tense one any day.
Veterans who are hurting – We can’t be too worried in the early spring by how veterans are performing. Some try very hard in the spring, while others just want the whole experience to end so the season can start and games can actually matter. What we can be interested in, though, is players that aren’t healthy. If a player was expected to be fit and ready but is taking longer to get into form than expected then it could be a warning sign. It doesn’t have to be a lingering injury, either – a new injury like a groin or a knee could be a problem well into the season. Beyond injuries, we can learn a lot at times from veterans that just aren’t getting playing time that you would expect. If a guy is supposed to be a starter but he isn’t seeing the field even though he is healthy then it could be a sign that he doesn’t fit into the team’s plans quite like people thought.
Veterans coming off a bad year who start strong – When an older player has a rough year the public is quick to write him off – to suggest that he is on the decline. There are a lot of reasons for a veteran to have a bad year, though, and not all of them carry over to the next season. If a guy coming off a lousy year starts the spring with a real fire in his game then it could be a good sign that what we saw the previous season was more of a blip than a lasting issue. It doesn’t mean that he’s sure to have a great season again, but it could be a good indicator that the player is in a better place physically and/or mentally, and that he is hungry to make this year count. If the player is high profile then this strong play could be particularly helpful because he could start well above public expectations and that could lead to value.