In spring training, one of the most difficult questions anyone can ask is, "What does it all mean?" The answer most typically arrive at is not a whole lot.
Pitchers will tell you they're working on different things and building up their arms, not approaching individual at-bats the way they would in the regular season. Hitters are trying to find their timing and hone the batter's eye that only game action can allow them to do, and they disregard the results — unless they're good, of course.
And everyone will point to the competition. Rosters can be heavy on major leaguers, almost exclusively feature players ticketed for various levels of the minors, or be anywhere in between. Now, however, there's a way to quantify that.
Baseball Reference's player pages, which are already indispensable, feature a stat using a point system that assigns a number on a 1-10 scale to the pitcher or batters that a player has faced based on their highest level of play the previous season.
Major leaguers are worth 10, Triple-A players eight, Double-A seven, High-A five and Low-A four. Short-season players and rookie-ball players are worth between three and 1.5 points, the site says.
Baseball Reference instituted the stat in 2013, and in an explanatory post from that year said anything at 9 or above meant the player faced mostly major leaguers. Anything below 9 meant it was more minor leaguers.
There are plenty of other factors that play into it, but it seems useful in assessing spring training stats as roster decision time looms. (All stats used are as of Sunday night.)
Let's begin with the spring training darling of Orioles camp, Rule 5 outfielder Joey Rickard. Decades of baseball experience are driving caution with Orioles manager Buck Showalter, who despite being regularly impressed by Rickard knows there was a reason he was left unprotected by the Tampa Bay Rays. He understands there's still a difference between performing well in spring training and doing it in actual big league games.
How big of a difference? Rickard has an opponent quality of 7.5 in stats that appear to be through Friday's games, meaning the quality of pitcher he has faced is somewhere between the Double-A and Triple-A level. Among players who the Orioles could reasonably bring north to Baltimore on Friday, that's one of the lower ratings on the team. It could make for a big jump come April.
Another outfielder who's been the topic of much discussion this spring, Korean left fielder Hyun Soo Kim, is the only one with a lower rating among potential major leaguers: 7.4. Kim is batting .182 with 44 at-bats with no extra-base hits. He started without a hit in his first 24 plate appearances, and has seen his playing time wane in the most recent part of spring training.
There are a few other hitters who this could reasonably used to decipher whether hot springs are real or not, starting with third baseman Jonathan Schoop. He's batting .358/.393/.566 with three home runs this spring, and through Friday has an opponent quality of 8 — a Triple-A pitcher.
Given Schoop is a dead-red fastball hitter, and pitchers are mostly just trying to get their work in, he could see more of those in the spring and simply be jumping on them. It will be much more indicative when the season starts if Schoop continues to produce like this when he gets a steady diet of spin.
Another player who has hit well this spring is right fielder Mark Trumbo, who has a team-leading five home runs and is slashing .308/.321/.615. His opponent quality through Friday is 8.5, which is tied with first baseman Pedro Alvarez for the highest among the position player regulars. (Catcher Matt Wieters also has a 8.5 but has only 16 at-bats because of an injury).
Similarly, a healthy version of shortstop J.J. Hardy looks as good as he has since 2014 this spring. He's batting .333/.366/.641 with home runs in three straight games, and has an opponent quality of 8.1.
For reference's sake, I'll list every players' opponent quality at the bottom, but first let's look at some notable pitchers.
The Orioles' five starting rotation frontrunners — Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez, Yovani Gallardo, Kevin Gausman and Miguel Gonzalez — have seldom gotten good results this spring. Showalter often chalks that up to the hot, breezy conditions in Florida, and the pitchers say they feel good but have been made to pay for the handful of mistakes they have made.
Tillman, who has allowed 10 earned runs in 9 1/3 innings over three starts, has an opponent quality of 9. He faced a full-strength lineup at the Toronto Blue Jays on March 15, and got similarly strong lineups from Tampa Bay and the New York Yankees in his two ensuing home starts. That contributes to him having the highest opponent quality among the team's pitchers.
Given those are division opponents, it's even fair to assume that Tillman didn't pitch those batters the way he would in the regular season.
Jimenez's stats weren't updated late Sunday night after he allowed three runs without getting out of the first inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates to bring his spring ERA to 12.27, and doesn't take into account that he faced minor league lineups twice. He has an opponent quality of 8.7.
For Gallardo, the opponent quality of 8.7 doesn't factor in the barebones Red Sox lineup that scored seven earned runs off him in 3 2/3 innings Saturday and featured two starters who didn't play above Class A in 2015 and several more Double-A and Triple-A players.
Gonzalez has started against major-league heavy lineups in road games against Tampa Bay, New York, Minnesota and Pittsburgh, and has a 12.56 ERA. His opponent quality is 8.5.
For Gausman, who is battling shoulder tendinitis and seems likely to begin the season on the disabled list with just two Grapefruit League starts under his belt, the opponent quality is 8.9.
The other candidates for the starting rotation if Gausman can't go early or someone else is held out are Tyler Wilson (2.92 ERA in 12 1/3 innings; 8.5 opponent quality) Mike Wright (5.74 ERA in 15 2/3 innings; 8.7 opponent quality), Vance Worley (4.61 ERA in 13 2/3 innings; 8.5 opponent quality) and Odrisamer Despaigne (6.75 ERA in 13 1/3 innings; 8.4 opponent quality).
So it seems like if we're going to ascribe a level of play to spring training, it's somewhere close to Triple-A on average. The beginnings of games, most featuring major league starters against each other, can be high, but the quality level drops off sometimes drastically by the end.
If nothing else, these can guide a little of the discourse as the Orioles begin to make roster judgments this week. But it's just as likely that this, like so many other spring stats, will be thrown out the window once camp breaks Thursday.