As far as important dates on the MLB calendar go, today is both the most anticipated and the least interesting. For months, those who’ve managed to remain baseball fans despite constant reminders of the game’s impending death, have waited for the unofficial beginning of the 2015 season and their wait ends today, as pitchers and catchers begin officially reporting to spring training. For their loyalty, fans will be rewarded with pictures of Madison Bumgarner in warm up shorts.
Before long, spring training will be in full swing. Workouts will give way to games and there might even be a legitimate moment of interest. Certainly, there will be stories of transformation. We’ll hear about weight gained to better handle the 162-game grind, weight lost to reduce the effects of the 162-game grind, workout routines altered to make a player quicker/stronger/more flexible and those who are “finally healthy.” These cliches are the stock-in-trade of the baseball beat writer trying to justify the expense of six weeks of per diem. They’ll be flying out of Florida and Arizona in the coming weeks faster than wrinkly, baby boomers are flying in. Should you want to avoid them, and we’d strongly advise that, here’s what to look out for.
Declarations That a Player is in the “Best Shape of his Life”
The most well-worn spring training cliche is impossible to measure, “shape” being such a subjective thing. But every year, as sure as Troy Tulowitzki is recovering from surgery, dozens of players will arrive at spring training claiming to be in the BSOHL (hat tip to HarballTalk for the acronym and its great work cataloging this cliche). Typically these are players coming off a down year or an injury. Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis, whose dismal 2014 turned him into Dodgers backup catcher A.J. Ellis, is one of the latest to claim the distinction, though he did it with self-awareness that don’t typically see from baseball players. When guys aren’t slapping the label on themselves, writers will often do it for them. Sometimes they’ll ask, as happened to Prince Fielder last year. He said yes, he was in fact in the BSOHL, then went on to play 42 games before shutting down his season with a neck injury.
The real irony here is that the claim is nearly always made by or about someone on the wrong side of 30, who’s clearly in the declining phase of his career. We’d wager Fielder’s 2015 salary that he was in better shape as an ambitious 22-year-old than a chubby 30-year-old.
A Change in Stance or Swing for a Batter
Perhaps he lowered his hands, like then-Jays outfielder Colby Rasmus. Perhaps he did away with the moving parts and streamlined his swing, like Braves outfielder Justin Upton. Or maybe he made changes so subtle that only the man making them could notice, as with Mariner’s catcher Mike Zunino. In spring training, these changes are held up as reasons for hope and then promptly forgotten when a player continues to flounder in June. Sometimes, they’re scrapped much earlier. Consider Derek Jeter in 2011. After an awful 2010, Jeter spent spring training talking up his new stance."You have more time because there’s no stride," he said, explaining how he’d be able to better time pitches on the corners. Eight games into the season, Jeter scrapped it. With his old stance, he improved on the previous season in nearly every stat.
A New Delivery or Pitch for a Pitcher
The pitcher’s equivalent of the new stance is a new delivery. Or, more often, a slightly altered delivery. Because when you’re already in the majors, it doesn’t make much sense to jettison the mechanics that got you there. As with a new stance, a new delivery is always met with optimism. When Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer debuted a new delivery last spring, manager Terry Francona said he was “really excited.” He shouldn't have been. Bauer had a crap year, but he’s only 23, so he’ll be able to change his delivery many more times. Or maybe he’ll do what Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg did last year and start throwing a new pitch. Met with glowing reviews when he debuted it in spring, Strasburg’s sexy new slider was shelved by mid May.
Anyone Who Has LASIK
The most concrete off-season change can’t be reversed by a month of room service or a return to old habits. Better vision is better vision. Problem is, it doesn’t make baseballs easier to hit, even if Padres outfielder Seth Smith claims it did for him. But don’t take my word it. Here’s a study from smart people that says the same.
Photos by AP