There’s a lot to like about spring training. Hey, it’s baseball! Sort of. Games end in ties, Will Ferrell gets to play all the positions. That’s fun. Also, there’s a lot not to be thrilled about during spring training. Games end in ties! And games don’t actually count.
Although, if you’re a fan of the Cubs, Pirates, and especially the Orioles, you’re probably happy about that last point so far this March. Those teams are a combined 3-23 in spring-training play. Fortunately, we’re just finishing the first full week of baseball games, just getting our first real look at starting rotations, and many teams (like Baltimore, with their 0-9 record) have been marching out many unrecognizable and/or split-squad rosters (which would at least partly explain the zero in the wins column). But what does spring training mean for the season ahead? Can we really glean anything from March performance, especially team-wide? It’s good to remind ourselves of what this means.
We’re mainly going to be looking at the very obvious: how do team win-loss records correlate between spring training and the regular season? Is there any sort of relationship between terrible March teams and terrible regular-season teams, or vice versa with good teams? Take a look at a plot of the spring training and regular season records of all teams between 2006-2015 — and feel free to mouse over the chart:
This chart is all over the place: lose more games than you win in spring training? Doesn’t mean you’re going to do so during the regular season. Win more than you lose? Doesn’t mean you’ll be successful. A month of games in March is the same as a month of games at any other point during the season — a relatively small sample, prone to all the pitfalls we see in any other small sample. If we tried to glean something from this 10-year sample, there are examples warning us not to be woefully awful in spring training. If a team covers that — finishing above .300 — our data provides evidence that the team probably won’t be unrecognizably terrible. Then again, we simply don’t see teams lose more than ~110 games very often during a regular season, whereas finishing with a winning percentage that low is doable in one month of baseball.
Likewise, the same might hold true on the opposite end of the spectrum: if a team is very successful during spring training (like winning ~70% or more of their games), there are examples that tell us they might be more likely to be a good team. However, if you don’t finish on one extreme or the other, there is almost no predictive value in this data. Our low p value (.001) and low r squared (.03) tells us we have a relationship here, but it doesn’t explain the variance in the data. That’s not surprising given the fact that it’s only a month of baseball, and it’s a good reminder with some potential playoff teams off to terrible spring training starts.
But that doesn’t mean that all spring stats are totally meaningless. There’s been work on these digital pages which shows that strikeout and walk rate for pitchers during spring could be helpful in projecting possible breakout candidates, mostly due to the fact that we get at least part of the way toward stabilization with a few pitching rate stats by the end of the month. Since we don’t really track advanced statistics during spring, we have to rely on some of the more traditional ones for our analysis, and a lot of those simply don’t hold up to comparison between spring and the regular season.
Overall, most of what we see on the team level is pretty meaningless for predicting the of outcomes of the regular season. Rosters are different, playing time is uneven, and the predictive usefulness of most of the team stats are muddied by the very reasons for having spring training — to shake the rust off, to try out players we won’t get a chance to see during the regular season, and to be able to make mistakes and have it be inconsequential. As we’ve seen, looking at individual spring statistics can be useful, but maybe we should leave most of our conceptions about overall team performance out of it. There’s simply not enough evidence to truly worry about teams that struggle during March, just as there isn’t too much evidence to be overly confident when a team does well.
The Cubs and Pirates will almost certainly be fine, or more than fine. The current outlook for the Orioles is a little murkier, but that’s probably because of the freshness of their recent roster issues; they’ve famously shown a penchant for outperforming their BaseRuns record in many of the past few seasons, and many fans might be expecting more magic because of that, despite some holes. The teams on the extreme ends of the spectrum are the ones we should pay most attention to during the later parts of spring training, so if we reach the end of the month and the Orioles have only won a few games, we might actually have cause to worry. Otherwise, Baltimore’s a good reminder that it doesn’t really matter whether you win or lose — at least in March.
Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.