MAIER RIDDLE IS TOUGH TO SOLVE
SHere comes Mitch Maier, something like the Ted Williams of the Cactus League, and if you didn’t know better you’d think the Royals have an MVP candidate. He’s closing down one of the best springs of anybody in baseball, hitting .440 with as many walks as strikeouts. Even his outs are line drives, and the buzz among scouts is that Maier should start over Rick Ankiel, who signed a $3.25 million contract in part because the Royals promised him the center field job. Big leap for a guy not expected to be on the opening day roster when spring training began. “Full package,” manager Trey Hillman says. “Honestly, no reservation saying this: I know I’ve never seen this much development at this level in one year for a position player.” Maier is the talk of camp here, and the conversation drives straight into an
issue that comes up every year at this time — how the heck should spring training be evaluated? You’ll fight this in your fantasy draft, and general managers will fight it in their roster management. The common line from scouts is that the two worst times to evaluate baseball players are September and spring training. Septembers give you minor league call-ups and veterans looking forward to vacation. Around Kansas City, Kyle Davies somewhat famously went 4-1with a 2.27 ERA in September of 2008, talk spreading that he’d finally learned how to use his diving changeup against big-league hitters. He then went 8-9 with a 5.27 ERA last year. Spring training may be an even goofier time to evaluate because there are even more variables to muddy the look. These are almost all day games in preparation for a season full of night games. The air is light, so curveballs don’t bite like during the summer. The desert sun and wind turn pop-ups into doubles, and established stars face wide-eyed minor leaguers. Last year, the Royals led the Cactus League in home runs before finishing 13th in the American League. Zack Greinke had a 9.21ERA while the Cactus League hit .367 off him, then dominated the regular season with a 2.16 ERA and the Cy Young Award. Maybe you don’t want to know that the Royals now lead the Cactus League in hitting. Or that Joe Mauer didn’t play at all last spring. Or that Albert Pujols hit just one home run. This stuff can drive you crazy. “That goes back to that little man in your head saying, ‘Hey, don’t over-evaluate, especially offensive statistics, in spring
Go to updates, photos and videos from Royals spring training. training,’ ” Hillman says. This thing with Maier may have legs, though. His aren’t routine flies catching in the wind and carrying through the light air. These are line drives hit after tough at-bats, a balanced plate approach that’s improving through the spring. Hillman goes on and on about Maier, saying every last detail is where a veteran should be. He’s throwing to the right base, making the best reads on fly balls, and showing an improved sense of the strike zone and hitting situation. If he’s honest, Maier will say the whole thing is a little more than even he expected. But it does reflect his career-long pattern of making huge improvements his second year at any particular level. “I’m a big believer that I’m going to make adjustments,” he says. “The 15th time you face Justin Verlander, you have a better idea what he’s got. I’m not saying it’s not still tough, but the first time through and he throws a two-strike curveball and you haven’t ever seen anything like it, well, there’s something to be said for that.” So maybe the Royals have a much-welcomed surprise here, a fringe big leaguer turned solid contributor. Or maybe they’re looking at a mirage, a hot streak of 50 atbats that should be taken in context of a small sample size from a time and place that really doesn’t mirror bigleague baseball. The Maier-over-Ankiel thought makes sense when you see Maier star while Ankiel tends to an injury. It makes less sense when you ask Maier how much importance he puts on spring training performance. “Honestly?” he says. “Not a ton.” To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send e-mail to [email protected]star.com or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.
Royals outfielder Mitch Maier is hitting .440 and drawing gushing reviews during spring training.
The Royals’ Mitch Maier (foreground) is drawing praise this spring for his improvements at the plate and in the field.