ERA numbers coming out of the Cactus League this spring did not flatter the Giants and A’s, who both made significant additions to their pitching staffs during the offseason.
Following Saturday’s preseason finale, the A’s had the highest spring ERA of any American League team and third-highest in the majors at 6.10. And the Giants were one spot worse, with a collective ERA of 6.37. Only the San Diego Padres (6.89) had a higher mark.
So what are spring statistics worth? Most pitchers will say not much: Playing conditions in spring training are widely considered to be more hitter-friendly, and a common refrain in camp is pitchers are “working on things” rather than worrying about results.
“You can’t read a lot into spring training,” Giants veteran right-hander Jake Peavy said.
In fact, spring numbers have not been a strong predictor of a pitching staff’s performance in the regular season – at least over the past decade. Of the two teams that recorded their league’s highest spring ERA the last 10 years – 20 teams overall – 11 finished the regular season in the bottom half of the majors in ERA, while nine ranked in the top half and six placed in the top 10.
There was a greater disparity for the Bay Area teams. The Giants and A’s finished spring training in the bottom half of the majors in ERA a combined 14 times from 2006 to 2015. But they posted a bottom-half ERA in the regular season only four times and combined to place in the top 10 on 12 occasions.
A main reason cited by members of both teams last week is the difference between the dry heat of Arizona and the moister, cooler air of the Bay Area, which affects how pitches move and how far a well-hit ball travels.
“It hits you right in the face,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “It feels like there’s no defense for some of the stuff that goes on in spring training. (Pitchers) have to continue to pitch and get their conditioning up and their pitch counts to a certain level. But it can be very frustrating.”
Jeff Samardzija and Peavy, the projected Nos. 3 and 4 starters for the Giants, left Arizona this spring with ERAs of 7.20 and 7.43, respectively. In the first two games of the Bay Bridge Series at AT&T Park, however, each right-hander recorded his best pitching line of the spring with five scoreless innings against the A’s.
“It just plays a lot more like baseball when you get out of the Cactus League,” Peavy said. “(Arizona is) a lot like Colorado, when you’re outside especially, in that kind of weather. The ball flies when it gets hit. Infields are like concrete with balls getting through. On both sides of the ball, it’s hard to read into what guys do.”
Spring numbers may mean even less, Peavy said, for a staff like the Giants’ that features many pitchers in already-established roles.
“You’ve got veteran guys who are not trying to compete to make a team,” Peavy said. “They’re trying to get themselves ready.”
A’s right-hander Kendall Graveman, who started against Peavy on Friday night and gave up two runs in five innings, said he noticed his sinker moving much more than earlier in the spring even though he was throwing it with the same amount of spin and velocity. He attributed that to “the moisture in the air.”
“It’s good for guys that throw sinkerballs,” Graveman said. “You can see some sliders and some people’s pitches that are really shaping up here nicer than they do in Arizona because the air’s so thin. It’s an adjustment you have to make.”
Peavy noted he would rather adjust from Arizona to California conditions than have it the other way around. As Opening Day arrives Monday for both teams – the A’s hosting the Chicago White Sox and the Giants visiting the Milwaukee Brewers – improving on their Cactus League pitching numbers seems a likely – and necessary – result.