The Grapefruit League season begins this afternoon for the Orioles as they travel to Lakeland, Fla., to face the Detroit Tigers.
And with that annual rite of spring comes the annual burning question: Who will be this year’s winner of the Jake Fox Award?
Fox, as you may recall, was the journeyman bench player who took the Grapefruit League by storm in 2011, Buck Showalter’s first spring training as Orioles manager. Battling for a backup catcher role, Fox bashed 10 home runs in 74 spring at-bats, homering twice as many times as the next-best Oriole. Despite Showalter’s skepticism about Fox’s glove behind the plate, he landed a spot on the Opening Day roster – Fox’s hot spring too good to ignore.
As it turned out, not only was Fox’s defense not up to snuff, but neither was his bat. He was batting .188 in 48 at-bats when the Orioles designated him for assignment at the end of May. He returned for eight games later that season, but hasn’t played in the majors in the five years since.
Fox’s name is now synonymous with Orioles’ spring training flukes — players who gave the performance of their lives in exhibition play, only to crash to earth under the bright lights of the regular season.
It seems to happen nearly every year. An unexpected player destroys the competition in February and March, garnering a ton of buzz and playing their way onto the Orioles’ roster. In most cases, though, the regular season results are less than stellar.
In 2012, a pair of veterans, outfielder Endy Chavez and first baseman Nick Johnson, were two of the club’s hottest hitters in spring training — especially Chavez, who went 16-for-36. They gave O’s fans hope that they could be valuable contributors off the bench. That hope died quickly.
Chavez hit .203 with a .515 OPS in 64 games, and Johnson went 0-for-26 in April, failing to register his first Orioles’ hit until May 1. He ultimately batted .207 in 38 games and saw his career end due to a wrist injury.
The list goes on.
In 2014, righty relievers Josh Stinson and Evan Meek both won spots in the bullpen after combining to allow one earned run and striking out 23 batters in 18 innings. As for the regular season? They combined for a 5.95 ERA in 31 games and contributed little to the division-winning Orioles.
And don’t forget Jimmy Paredes, who did his best Jake Fox impression in 2015 with a .364 average and team-leading 10 extra-base hits. That convinced the Orioles to make room for him on the 25-man roster after a brief DL stint. Paredes, unlike most of the others in this story, actually contributed for a while — topping an .800 OPS in the first half — but fell apart after that.
The common theme is clear: Don’t get fooled by spring training stats. They might not be totally meaningless, but they’re pretty darn close. Showalter makes that point every spring.
So why the discrepancies?
The level of competition in spring training is wildly inconsistent. In any given at-bat, a hitter could be facing a raw Double-A arm or a past-his-prime veteran looking for one last gasp in the majors. The reverse is also true — a pitcher could be facing a no-name utility infielder or a non-roster, minor-league lifer wearing No. 99.
Even for established major league players, the main purpose of spring training is to prepare for the season, not to give an all-out effort and to win at all costs. A pitcher might be more focused on loosening his arm than getting batters out; a hitter could be tinkering with his swing. Hitting a home run off, say, Clayton Kershaw has much less meaning in March than in July.
For example, let’s take a closer look at Fox, the poster child for misleading spring statistics.
Of his 10 home runs in 2011 Grapefruit League play, two were against pitchers who hadn’t yet made their major-league debuts. Another two came off pitchers who (unbeknownst to them at the time) were entering their final season in the big leagues. And two more of Fox’s homer victims never played in the majors after that spring, including a guy named Matt Fox, who I’ll just assume was Jake’s long-lost cousin.
So, Fox did a sizable portion of his home run damage against pitchers who weren’t quite big league caliber. Once the regular season started and the quality of competition improved, it’s no surprise that Fox wasn’t able to replicate his spring training success. The same is true of Chavez, Johnson, Stinson, Meek, Paredes and a host of others throughout club history.
The Orioles faced another spring dilemma last year, when left fielder Hyun Soo Kim suffered through a miserable camp — starting 0-for-23 — while Rule 5 outfielder Joey Rickard exploded for a .397 average and 1.044 OPS. Their performances convinced the club to anoint Rickard as the everyday left fielder to open the season and to bench Kim (after unsuccessfully trying to convince him to go to the minors).
It didn’t take long for the script to flip. Rickard’s hot streak lasted only a few weeks in the regular season while Kim — once he started getting consistent at-bats in May — emerged as the high-contact, on-base specialist he’d been in Korea.
Does that mean the Orioles made a mistake or put too much stock in spring training? Not necessarily. Maybe Kim truly wasn’t MLB-ready at the end of camp because of conditioning or other factors. Rickard likely was the better option to start the season. But it was another instance in which the regular season played out in a very different way than spring training had suggested.
So, who will be this year’s spring surprise, whether for good or bad? That’ll be determined; it’s the appeal of the Grapefruit League. Whatever happens, though, take it with a grain of salt, and beware of false expectations.
If an established player struggles through a quiet spring training, don’t panic. If an unknown player puts up a Ruthian (or Foxian) spring performance, don’t declare him the next major league superstar. It’s a long season, and spring training is strictly a dress rehearsal.