The obvious answer is that, since I live in South Florida, it is accessible. The Orioles train about 20 minutes away. The Cardinals and Marlins share a facility that is just a shade less than one hour, door to door. Add another 20 minutes or so and I am at the Mets. The Twins and Red Sox are at the other coast of Florida, but it is a doable 2 and a fraction hours. Add a half hour and I am at the Rays. But, reflecting on it there are four other important reasons for my infatuation with the Spring games.
You really can get up close. Here is a picture of Josh Johnson warming up – no telephoto lens involved, just a few yards between me and a potential Cy Young winner. Go to a football game. First, you cannot figure out who is on which team because their faces are hidden behind masks and tinted face screens. But, even if you knew a player by his number, try standing this close. And, notice how the rest of the pitching staff forms an audience. That is what happens when you are the ace.
You can focus away from the score. The score is not really relevant, so you can watch another aspect of the game. At this game, I decided to follow Johnson's pitch count. Forget how it used to be, today a pitcher is expected to pitch 100-120 pitches per game. If he gets his team into the 7th inning, he gets credited with a quality start. That breaks down to about 15-17 pitchers per inning. Scott Kazmir is considered to be an inefficient pitcher, because he consistently runs counts up and is more likely to throw 20 pitches per inning. He started 27 games last season, pitching 152 innings, or 5.6 innings per start. Ricky Nolasco, by contrast, turned in 212 innings in 32 starts, averaging 6 2/3 innings per start.
If you look at the Box Score, Johnson turned in a good performance. His 3-inning line score was 1-3-1 and the run came on three singles. He struck out three and walked one. He threw 37 strikes vs. 26 balls. But, that leads to another story. His pitch count was 14-29-20 and 63 pitches in three innings is not that efficient. At that rate, he would burn up his per game allowance before the 7th inning starts.
You get a chance to make fantasy baseball real. Those of us who play the Strat-o-Matic version of the game are always playing with last year's statistics. Although you can use some of your picks on potential, if you want to compete, it is last year that counts. It is sort of like driving with your eyes fixed firmly on the rear view mirror. Strat-o-Matic uses the prior year statistics to simulate a game based on the lineups and rosters of the competing teams. The game engine is comprehensive and takes all aspects of the game into consideration. Pitchers, for example, are rated on their ability to keep runners on base and position players carry defensive ratings.
Hanley Ramirez, who is the darling of the Marlins – they broke with their usual practice and signed him early to a long-term contract -- made two horrific throws on routine ground balls, but his first baseman, Gaby Sanchez rescued both. He let two ground balls through for singles that most shortstops would have stopped and that many would have converted into put outs and he misdirected at least one outfield cut off throw. None were scored as errors. As Terry Dell points out in his great primer, Dell's Strato Strategy, the shortstop handles 23% of the possible fielding chances. He will give up a lot of hits in 2010 if he keeps playing like that in 2009. To paraphrase a famous theatrical review, the guy plays shortstop as if he is afraid that the field will rise up and play him. He is also a walking endorsement of the theory that errors only tell some of the story.
Roto players will revel in his hitting stats and can safely ignore his hamhandedness in the field. The rotisserie version, often called roto, is based on current performance. Roto is not a complete game measurement – most leagues play with a 5x5 format. In a typical 5 x 5 roto fantasy baseball league takes five hitting stats (Batting Average, Runs, Home Runs, Runs Batted In and Steals. The other five are pitching stats Wins, Saves, Strikeouts, Earned Run Average and Walks (there are variations). In Roto defense does not count and that should make owners of Hanley Ramirez very happy indeed. And, that explains why Sports Illustrated placed him 2nd, behind only Albert Pujols, in their draft guide.
You meet the greatest people. The tattooed wrist belongs to a charming young lady, who is devoted to the Atlanta Braves and Chipper Jones in particular. In addition to the wrist art, she was wearing a Braves necklace, a red Atlanta shirt and Braves sneakers (perhaps more out of sight) – but she told me there are no other tattoos.
No, she is not a real life Annie Savoy. She is a talented photographer who, in her words, "is married to baseball." She does not have a wardrobe that is exclusively Atlanta's though. She has a Maddux Cub jersey and follows other Braves when they switch to other teams.