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Myles Straw and the illusion of spring training production

Spring training numbers can elicit overly positive or negative feelings about a player, but they shouldn’t.

MLB: Game Two-Houston Astros at Oakland Athletics Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no coincidence that every spring training, players inanely claim they’re in the best shape of their lives, and during the spring exhibition games each year, stats of an equally meaningless sentiment are produced. This is the time of reacting to ostensible developments that are usually trivial or just plain illegitimate. Fans and writers alike are guilty of this, as well as some players and coaches.

Right now, the Myles Straw hype train is gathering speed. Straw, the heavy favorite to open the season as the Astros’ starting center fielder, is currently hitting .381 through the first two weeks of spring training. Much has not only been written about Straw’s performance itself, but about the fact that he’s now apparently one of manager Dusty Baker’s top leadoff candidates.

The implications of this questionable notion aren’t terribly important, but still annoyingly illogical. If Straw’s leading off, that means one of José Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Yordan Álvarez, Kyle Tucker or Michael Brantley will be batting seventh. One of those six impactful hitters will have to bat as low as sixth in the order regardless of how it’s comprised, but not at the expense of one of the team’s worst hitters not only being placed ahead in the order, but at the top of it — one of the most important slots in a lineup.

In general, Straw isn’t a bad hitter. He has an extensive minor-league track record of getting on base at a high clip and consistently kept his strikeout rate south of 20 percent. In terms of batting average, Straw frequently hit around or above .300.

The big caveat, however, is Straw’s power, or lack thereof. He’s never hit more than two home runs in a single season and he’s not an adequate source of extra-base hits, either. That significant deficiency may not be something that gets exposed or taken advantage of in the minor leagues, but against big-league pitching, it surely will be, and in Straw’s case, it already has.

Vs. Fastballs (4-seam, 2-seam, Cutter, Sinker)

Hitters Usage rate wOBA xwOBA wOBACON xwOBACON
Hitters Usage rate wOBA xwOBA wOBACON xwOBACON
Myles Straw 66.1% 0.302 0.312 0.309 0.324
League Average 58.8% 0.348 0.349 0.384 0.385
Data from 2018-2020 & compiled via Baseball Savant

Despite all this, numerous projection systems project Straw to post a slightly above-average on-base percentage in 2021. With his blazing speed, that could translate into dozens of stolen bases. In an ordinary lineup, there would be merit to batting Straw first, but the Astros’ lineup is far from ordinary.

In any case, it does seem necessary to shed light on why Straw’s performance this spring should be viewed as insignificant. For one, this is hardly the first time he’s produced robust numbers during this time of year.

In spring training of 2019, Straw hit .378/.417/.511 in nearly 50 plate appearances. Then, in 2020, he slashed .435/.500/.870. Including this spring, Straw’s combined batting average over the past three years is .393, in 95 total plate appearances.

(Side note: Straw has yet to draw a walk in his 21 plate appearances this spring.)

Of course, no one thinks Straw will hit .400 in the regular season, but the problem isn’t with the numbers themselves, it’s how they will influence decisions made by Baker, a manager with a notoriously old school philosophy who has a tendency to stick with his convictions, everything else be damned.

It is worth noting that Baker is far from the only manager who puts stock into spring performance and there actually are some stats and metrics that are worth paying attention to, but that’s a different conversation.

The point here is that during the spring, basic stats such as batting average, on-base percentage or slugging percentage shouldn’t be given credence alone — not unless in direct correlation to more meaningful data, which is difficult to discern given the developmental nature of spring training from a pitching standpoint. Also, the small sample sizes.

If you do think that spring training output is meaningful, the numbers would strongly disagree with you.

2019 OPS Numbers

Name Spring Training Regular Season
Name Spring Training Regular Season
Greg Allen 0.966 0.636
Elvis Andrus 1.045 0.707
Albert Almora Jr. 0.993 0.652
Matt Adams 1.022 0.741
Ehire Adrianza 1.054 0.765
Lewis Brinson 0.896 0.457
Jay Bruce 1.176 0.784
Josh Bell 0.563 0.936
Charlie Blackmon 0.583 0.940
Mookie Betts 0.662 0.915

Those are just 10 cases from a single year, and there are numerous other instances from 2019 alone.

Suffice it to say, it’s not wise to put stock into spring training stats, as tempting as it is. It’ll be known soon enough just how much the Astros’ manager put into this year’s.