"Pah! Spring training doesn't mean anything!"
We say it (or something like that) every year. The notion that spring training results are meaningless may as well be a scientific fact, especially when it comes to teams and players that do well.
There are reasons we think this way. One is the simple fact that doing well during the spring season is easy. The competition is light, the weather is warm and nobody's taking anything too seriously. Going from spring training to the regular season is like going from Study Hall to Advanced Nuclear Physics.
Another reason we think this way is because conventional wisdom says so. It's not unheard of for successful players and teams to keep it up once the regular season starts, but hot players and teams have also been known to go "pluh" once March turns into April.
This is a case where a quick study of the top hitters, pitchers and teams from recent exhibition seasons shows why the conventional wisdom is so conventional.
Spring Training Hitting Stars
In situations like these, the ideal scenario involves a 10-year sample size from which to draw statistics. Sadly, MLB's spring training database only contains stats from as far back as 2006, so a seven-year sample size will have to do.
Using OPS as a primary measuring stick, here's a look at the top two hitters from each of the last seven exhibition seasons.
|Year||Player||Spring OPS||April OPS||Final OPS|
*Mike Morse had the top OPS during spring training in 2008, but he was lost for the year five games into the season. Thus, he didn't have a fair shot to prove his spring production was for real.
Every hitter in the above table achieved an OPS of at least 1.200 in spring training, but only five stayed hot in the season's first month and only six finished with an OPS of at least .850.
There are easy explanations for some of the hitters whose production tailed off once the regular season started. Some guys were just playing over their heads.
Scott Hairston, for example, barely played in the majors in 2005 and 2006, so it's not a shock that his production tumbled once he started facing major league pitching every day in 2007. Sean Rodriguez had spent the previous two seasons as a utility player for the Angels before joining the Rays in 2010, so his production was too good to be true. The same goes for Kila Ka'aihue, who managed a .712 OPS in 64 major league games before 2011.
Though he's one of the all-time great catchers, Ivan Rodriguez was also playing over his head during the exhibition season in 2008. He was in his mid-30s at the time, and he was coming off a season in which he only managed a .714 OPS.
On the flip side, there are the guys whose spring production fell in line with their typical regular-season production. Albert Pujols, for example, is one of the greatest hitters ever. Jim Thome was still a capable hitter in 2006, as was Derrek Lee in 2007. Mark Teixeira got off to a slow start in 2009, but it's pretty much inevitable that he will every season. It's also inevitable that he'll snap out of it.
What these guys have in common is the fact that each of them was born to hit a baseball. Things like the time and the place matter little when they're in the box.
Time and place matter a lot when comparing spring training pitching and regular-season pitching. Hitters get to face the dregs of the league's pitchers during the spring, and established pitchers may be more interested in trying out new pitches and getting their reps in instead of competing.
The degree to which the pitching quality elevates once the regular season begins is the kind of thing that would impact lesser hitters like Hairston, Sean Rodriguez and Ka'aihue. It's also the kind of thing that would impact less-than-great hitters like Kevin Mench and J.J. Hardy, and hitters past their prime like Ivan Rodriguez.
The increase in pitching quality would not, however, impact the greats. If they can feast on regular-season pitching, it stands to reason they'd be able to feast on spring training pitching as well. The records, obviously, show that they do.
For everyone else, the success rate will be totally random. For every 2011 Mike Morse, there will be several Hairstons, Pudges, Rodriguezes and Ka'aihues.
The moral of the story: If a given hitter didn't hit well before, odds are he's not going to start hitting well just because he found his stroke during spring training. It's not a reliable proving ground.
Spring Training Pitching Stars
Just as the hottest hitters tend to put up absurd numbers during the exhibition season, the hottest pitchers tend to light up the stat sheet as well.
Using ERA as a primary measuring stick, here are the top spring pitching performers from the last seven exhibition seasons (minimum 19 innings pitched).
|Year||Player||Spring ERA (IP)||April ERA (IP)||Final ERA (IP)|
Not one of these 14 pitchers had a spring ERA over 2.00, yet only five managed to maintain their strong pitching in April. Only four went on to pitch over 200 innings, and only three managed to complete the season with an ERA under 4.00.
The list of pitchers who went on to have successful seasons features some familiar names: Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, John Lackey and Roy Halladay. Carpenter, Lackey and Halladay are three of the best to come along in recent memory, and Lackey wasn't a total mess yet in 2010.
This reflects the trend that showed up among hitting stars from the last seven exhibition seasons. Just as really good hitters are going to hit well no matter the occasion, really good pitchers are going to pitch well no matter the occasion.
Jered Weaver in 2008 and Josh Beckett in 2012 may look like exceptions, but there are explanations for why they had mediocre seasons after dominating during the spring. Weaver had just experienced his first full season in 2007 and wasn't yet an ace-caliber pitcher. Beckett had a strong season in 2011, but it came to a bitter end when he posted an ERA over 5.00 in his final eight starts.
The other pitchers in the above table amount to a mixed bag. Brian Bannister was just starting his career in 2006. Ditto Dana Eveland in 2008. Kameron Loe was still adapting to starting in 2007, and Kyle McClellan was also new to starting in 2011. Rick Porcello was still finding his way in 2010. Luis Mendoza spent most of 2011 in the minors.
And so on and so on. These guys were pitching under different circumstances at the time of their spring training dominance, but one thing we know about them now is that they're all league-average pitchers or worse.
That goes to show that spring training is just as unreliable a proving ground for pitchers as it is for hitters. The easy explanation is largely the same as the explanation for hitters: The competition level is too mixed.
Just as hitters get to face the dregs of the league's pitchers, pitchers get to face the dregs of the league's hitters. Teams want to give their younger hitters a chance to show what they can do, and they're forced to water down their lineups in split-squad games.
These are spring training staples that allow pitchers to feast, but they go away once the games start counting. The only spring stars who can be counted on to keep pitching well are the ones who have done it before.
Spring Training Champions
As random as it is, there's more of an emphasis on individual success in spring training than there is on team success. Wins and losses matter little during the spring because they say little about the true quality of a team.
You can probably guess by now why we know that spring records are only worth so much. Like with hitters and pitchers, the carryover rate is too random.
Just take a look at the teams with the best records from the last seven exhibition seasons.
|Year||League||Team||Spring Record||April Record||Final Record||Playoffs|
New York Mets
Los Angeles Angels
There are 15 teams in the table, and nine of them missed out on the playoffs in the ensuing season. Only two made it to the World Series. Only one won the World Series.
There are only three real surprises that stand out. The 2007 Diamondbacks, 2008 Rays and 2010 Giants all translated their spring success into success in the regular season and the playoffs. None of them had made the playoffs the previous season, and all three clubs featured young, unproven players.
This shows that it's possible for success stories to have roots in spring training. Spring training may not be much of a proving ground for players to showcase their true talent, but it is a time for teams to come together. The chemistry developed during the spring can have a lasting impact.
However, talent will be the deciding factor more often than not. As well as the 2006 Royals, 2006 Marlins, 2008 A's, 2011 Royals and 2012 Blue Jays played in spring training, they failed to build on their success in the regular season. It's not as easy as the '07 D-Backs, '08 Rays and '10 Giants made it look.
Another trend that shows through here is one similar to how great hitters and great pitchers tend to find success in spring training. Great teams can find success in spring training too, a point proven by the 2007 Tigers, 2009 Angels, 2009 Brewers, 2011 Giants and 2012 Cardinals.
All five of these clubs made the playoffs the previous year, and they picked up where they had left off in spring training. They already had talent in place, and they only had to worry about reconvening rather than coming together.
The lesson here is the same as the lesson concerning pitchers and hitters in spring training: The success can be trusted if the track record says it can be trusted. Otherwise, don't place any bets.
You can still enjoy spring training, mind you. The competition may be awful and teams may be trotting out players who have never been seen and will never be seen again, but spring training baseball will always have one thing going for it:
If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.