Why Grapefruit League games matter for Braves



NORTH PORT, Fla. — There are MLB players in the Grapefruit League, but it isn’t the majors. Established big leaguers play alongside minor leaguers and roster hopefuls. The games don’t count. Most of the players are just getting warmed up.

Most everything that happens in exhibition games will be forgotten once opening day arrives. That doesn’t mean Grapefruit League games don’t matter.

Some spring training statistics do have limited predictive value for the regular season. Many players coming back from injuries will get their first chance to test their bodies in live games. And some teams, the Braves among them, will consider performance in these exhibition games when they set rosters for opening day.

“I’m kind of excited about the games starting, just to see what the guys look like,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said before his team was to open Grapefruit League play at 1 p.m. Saturday against the Red Sox.

Snitker and general manager Alex Anthopoulos have a few things to consider as the Braves play a 31-game Grapefruit League schedule over four weeks.

Vaughn Grissom and Orlando Arcia are competing to replace Dansby Swanson at shortstop. Eddie Rosario is trying to prove his eye issues are behind him and he can be the starting left fielder. Right-hander Ian Anderson aims to show that his bad season in 2022 was a temporary setback in what had been a fast rise in the majors.

Braves officials must decide what matters in these games and what can be filed away as artifacts of spring: small sample sizes, wide variances in competition, the different approaches players take to spring games. Those factors are why teams don’t weigh spring training performance too heavily when making roster decisions. They just don’t usually say that, lest established players take it too easy.

But exhibition games can be useful parts of real evaluations. In 2015 Dan Rosenheck, a data editor for The Economist, studied spring training statistics and concluded that they are far from worthless. Rosenheck’s research showed that the rates of walks, strikeouts and extra-base hits for pitchers and batters during spring games can provide some clues about what to expect when the games are official.

(Braves backers might remember a time when that proved to be true. Newly acquired outfielder B.J. Upton struck out at an alarming rate during 2013 spring training before going on to do the same thing in the worst season of his career.)

Rosenheck found that the predictive value of spring stats is highest for young players. That makes sense. Many inexperienced players are still trying to prove that they belong in the majors and learning about the game. So, it’s worth paying attention to how some young Braves players perform in the Grapefruit League.

Grissom is at the top of the list. He had a successful debut in the majors in 2022, but enters this season with a lot of questions to answer. Grissom is trying to show he can play shortstop in the majors after doing so for only 10 innings above Double-A. Grissom’s offensive production also faded late in 2022 as he struggled to hit breaking balls.

The Braves say Grissom is in an open competition with veteran Arcia, but don’t want Grissom to put too much pressure on himself.

“I’ve told him that already,” Snitker said. “We are going to play the games to see what direction we go, quite honestly. I like what I’ve seen so far and how he goes about things, but that’s why we’re going to play these games and see where we are.”

I’m also interested to see what center fielder Michael Harris does in the Grapefruit League. He was National League Rookie of the Year in 2022 but swung at too many pitches outside of the strike zone. Good rates of walks and strikeouts in the spring would be a good sign for Harris to begin his second big-league season.

There are some veteran Braves players who could ease concerns with some strong performances in spring games.

Marcell Ozuna admitted that he struggled to hit the past two seasons because he didn’t put in enough work before the real games started. He said he came into camp more ready this season. Ozuna can provide evidence of that by making more contact on pitches in Grapefruit League games. We’ll also see if Ozuna’s throwing arm is stronger, as he said.

I believe Rosario will win the job in left field easily if his vision is sharp. A mysterious eye ailment affected Rosario’s sight in 2022, when he .212 in 250 at-bats.

“I think we don’t pay enough attention to what he went through last year and how hard it had to be to go with where his eyes were,” Snitker said. “I’ve seen a different guy this camp.”

Rosario’s strikeout rate spiked in 2022 after it had been low for his career. If Rosario doesn’t whiff much in Grapefruit League games, then it could be a precursor to a bounce-back season. Rosario was a solid hitter and OK defender for seven seasons before 2022. Regaining that form would be enough for Rosario to be the primary left fielder.

There are some other things to watch for the Braves in the Grapefruit League. Most of them are related to injuries.

Right-handers Kyle Wright (shoulder) and Michael Soroka (hamstring) are behind schedule. Second baseman Ozzie Albies is taking it easy after underdoing shoulder surgery in October. Outfielder Jordan Luplow is doing the same because of an oblique injury.

The Braves otherwise are relatively healthy for Grapefruit League games that don’t count, but do matter. Opening day is March 30.