Spring Training Is Long. Could It Be Better?

Living amidst the rolling hills of Western Pennsylvania, ignoring a snow-and-ice covered driveway isn’t an option for me. Our property’s concrete access to the garage includes what seems like a 30-degree slope to reach the street. While I work from home, my wife does not. My wife and I do not own four-wheel drive automobiles. So, as is the case for many others, knowing that pitchers and catchers have reported is one of the first signs the thaw is near.

Visual evidence, courtesy the author.

But spring officially remains, of course, more than a month away.

While “pitchers and catchers reporting” is a romantic phrase that warms the heart and while it boosts the morale to see footage of players stretching and playing catch on sun-soaked diamonds in Arizona and Florida via MLB Network, another snowfall or two likely awaits. It’s still very much winter and spring training remains a really long period, though it will be shortened by two days in 2018 in accordance with the new CBA to allow for extra days off in the regular season.

Still, the length of spring training is increasingly unnecessary for the vast majority of those involved, a point made by Adam Kilgore for the Washington Post. Pitchers require – or at least baseball thinks they require – about six weeks to stretch out their arms for the regular season. For everyone else, though, the length spring training provides little benefit. Said Ryan Zimmerman to the Post:

“People are showing up more ready than they used to be, and we haven’t really changed anything,” Zimmerman said. “We haven’t adjusted to what the professional athlete does in the offseason now. I understand it. For me as a position player, it’s unnecessary.”

Zimmerman didn’t supply alternatives to reshape and re-imagine the spring, but perhaps spring training’s length and format has become a prisoner to tradition. Has anyone or any team thought about a dramatically different way to maximize spring training? I’m not aware of one, though perhaps there are incremental changes being implemented that go mostly unnoticed or unreported.

I’m not suggesting to copy some of the practices of Japan’s NPB, where Yoshikawa Hikari threw 163 pitches in a bullpen on the first day of Yomiuri Giants camp, according to a Yahoo! Japan report. (The translation is far from perfect.) But perhaps the industry doesn’t really understand how to stretch out pitchers, either, as Alex Reyes and Chris Tillman have already come down with injuries. Every year it seems pitchers are hurt early in camp, though that assertion is anecdotal; I haven’t studied the issue in detail and the game’s injury data is surprisingly poor.

Now teams are always tweaking practices, and the Cleveland Indians made a change in 2015 in how they go about defensive drills. Wrote MLB.com reporter Jordan Bastian:

Rather than simulate one play over and over, the Tribe plans on having more drills that run a play to completion — an approach aimed at creating more game-style unpredictability. Beyond that, the Indians will have players field grounders in shift situations, too.

Still, should there be more experimenting?

Zimmerman told the Washington Post he needs about two weeks of at-bats to feel ready for the regular season, and the rest of his time in February and March is spent in two ways:

The first is trying not to get hurt, “which is a terrible way to play sports,” he said. The second is attempting to focus as if it’s the regular season — to play situational baseball, such as pushing in a runner on third with fewer than two outs.

“It’s hard to do that in front of 2,000 people and you’re facing No. 97,” Zimmerman said. “You ask [hitting coach Rick] Schu, ‘What does this guy throw?’ ‘We don’t know. We don’t even know his last name.’ The guy’s throwing 95 miles per hour, and you don’t even know what his secondary pitches are.”

Perhaps the lack of familiarity with opponents is reason to rethink how many spring-training exhibitions are played, or how they are played. Perhaps there should be more intrasquad work, or teams should more often go good-on-good, to borrow a football phrase, in exhibition work.

Perhaps as we see more cross-pollination between sports, we will see more best practices borrowed. The Indians hired James Harris to lead their farm system despite the fact that he’d never played organized baseball and spent only one year — the previous season — involved in professional baseball. One reason why the Pirates hired the former Philadelphia Eagles assistant to Chip Kelly in 2016 is because Pirates GM Neal Huntington felt football did a better job of teaching technique and fundamentals.

During spring training in the Korea Baseball Organization, more reps are produced per minute by having two pitchers behind L-screens throw batting practice to two hitters simultaneously. That arrangement might not ultimately have a fit in the States. But as major-league players enter the spring in better shape and condition, it might make sense to consider new ideas.

Perhaps baseball is on to something already, having reduced spring training by two days in 2018 to expand the regular reason from from 183 days to 187. From the Associated Press:

“The voluntary reporting date for pitchers, catchers and injured players will be 43 days before the major league opener instead of 45, according to a copy of the agreement obtained by The Associated Press. For other players, the date will be 38 days ahead instead of 40.”

And perhaps baseball can trim a few more days from the spring in the next round of CBA talks to better keep players rested and near full capacity as they enter the regular season. There’s perhaps more utility to trading in spring days for more regular-season off days.

I don’t have a lot of alternatives in mind, but there might be some merit to comments by Zimmerman and other players who suggest the duration of the training season is too lengthy. There’s probably a way to build a better mousetrap.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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There is no question that ST should be shortened. The players and managers would not object. The reporters would have to file less “best shape of his life” stories, too. However, the Florida and Arizona cities that are spending big money to subsidize spring training by building ballparks and adjoining facilities would not be happy if there were 7 less games and a week or more taken off the ST calendar. That’s the biggest obstacle–how do you tell West Palm Beach, which just built a campus for Washington and Houston, that there will be less opportunity to make money? The common sense stated in this column will be blocked by money.