The Two Major Takeaways From This Year’s Spring Training

Spring training is far too long. I think just about everyone agrees on that. But spring training is also wonderful, and it’s wonderful for two reasons. One, there’s baseball to watch. Baseball free of stakes and emotion, sure, but baseball, precious live baseball. And two, new baseball means new baseball statistics. They’re statistics we hardly make anything of, and they’re statistics that can be hard to track down in the first place, but numbers are numbers, and after an offseason spent reflecting on the same data over and over, it’s good to have new figures to consider. New numbers help fill the void in between new games.

You know that, on the individual level, spring-training stats are nearly worthless. The signal is drowned out by the noise, for so very many reasons. And even on the team level, you don’t want to take anything too seriously. Yes, four of the five best spring-training records in the American League belong to the Red Sox, Astros, Indians, and Yankees. But over in the National League, the Marlins have a better record than the Nationals. The Padres have a better record than the Cubs. Why should we care about team-level results? Even the teams barely care about team-level results.

And yet, there are league-level results. League-level results, covering hundreds of games and tens of thousands of plate appearances. Only there, when you put everything together, can you find numbers that might have real meaning. To get to the point more quickly, I’m just updating something I wrote about three weeks ago. Spring training is just about complete, with opening day right around the corner, and the league-level numbers are striking, in two areas in particular.

I always planned to update that post, because, while I liked the information just fine back then, I arguably jumped the gun. At that point, spring training was only around 40% complete. The spring training that had been played was the earliest spring training, with the least big-league-y rosters. Now it’s almost all in the books. Now we can observe what spring training has said, for real.

Compared to last year’s spring training, batting average hasn’t budged. On-base percentage hasn’t budged. Walks are just barely up, while strikeouts are up 7%. Bunts are down, and hit batters are up. Hit batters, in fact, are up 15% from a year ago, with the highest spring-training rate since 2006. That’s somewhat interesting — maybe pitchers are increasingly willing to work inside. Maybe something else. We’ll monitor hit batters over the course of the season, but we should move on to the two biggest takeaways. First up, there’s the matter of the home run. I’ve decided to calculate the rate of home runs on contact. In the following plot, you see spring-training rates going back to 2006, and the same for regular-season rates.

When I looked at this a few weeks ago, the rate was clearly up. Since then, it’s only increased further. Last spring, the rate of home runs on contact was 4.0%, which was the highest rate in the window. The rate for this spring is sitting at 4.6%, which works out to an increase of 14% year over year. Think about that for a moment. I know the rates look tiny by themselves. Home runs, as far as batted balls are concerned, remain uncommon. But this isn’t a small change. A change of 14% is enormous. As you can see in the plot, the spring rates and the season rates kind of mirror one another, with the season rate typically being higher. Therefore, we could be looking at a continuation of the home-run surge. And we could see a sizeable bump.

I haven’t analyzed the weather in Arizona and Florida, to see if conditions have been atypically home-run friendly. I’m skeptical. It’s possible this spring is just reflecting last season’s power spike, which wasn’t so apparent in March. There’s nothing we can know for absolute sure. It’s just, there’s compelling reason to believe the home runs are going to go up again. It was harder to get an answer to this than I expected, but spring-training baseballs are new, as opposed to being holdovers from the previous year. Presumably, new spring-training baseballs are manufactured in the same place as new regular-season baseballs. There’s zero evidence the ball has been de-juiced. The ball they’ve used in spring has been flying, and you could say the home-run era is still trying to find its level. Things have yet to stabilize.

Related to the above, we have fly balls. As I’ve mentioned before, spring-training batted-ball data is annoying, because there aren’t just normal ground-ball rates. Instead, what’s available at are ground-ball outs and air-ball outs. That’s not ideal, but we can also assume the out rates on grounders and flies have remained fairly similar. Spring-training BABIP hasn’t really moved; it’s always around .315. So there can be real meaning here, and, as such, take a look at the ratio of ground-ball outs to air-ball outs.

Again, you see the rates mirroring one another. And this spring, the league-wide ratio has taken a dive. Back in 2015, spring training hit a peak ratio of 1.28. The next year, it was 1.27, and the year after that, it was 1.23. This spring, we’re looking at 1.14. There’s a chance there’s been some kind of change in how batted balls are recorded. That’s happened before in the past, when scorers are given new rules to score by. I think the likelihood, however, is that it’s not scoring that’s changed. This spring, for every grounder, it seems like there have been more flies and liners.

Just as with homers, this isn’t anything you wouldn’t expect. This is even a partial explanation for the home-run rise, since homers all come from balls hit in the air. Grounders don’t do anything good for a home-run rate. But ever since we’ve been talking about the home-run spike in the middle of 2015, we’ve been looking for evidence of a league-wide shift to the air. There’s been no shortage of anecdotal evidence, but the league-level changes have been very small. What we could have a hint of here is a change that isn’t so small. What’s suggested by the plot is that more and more hitters are trying to generate loft, and pitchers haven’t been so able to counteract it. In some sense this has felt inevitable, but the change might be picking up speed and momentum. Extra-base hits are found in the air. Extra-base hits are better than singles. Singles are less valuable anyhow in an era with so many strikeouts. You don’t need to hear more about why fly balls are productive. Spring data suggests the league has been listening.

The regular season ahead will reveal the actual truth. Spring training is basically a trailer. It looks like we’re in for a similar movie, but with even more bombs and explosions. I don’t know if anyone knows how many explosions are too many explosions, but baseball appears determined to find out.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Roger McDowell Hot Foot
6 years ago

This is fascinating, thanks. After the last couple years I am really surprised MLB still hasn’t been willing to show more transparency about the sourcing and manufacture of the baseball. I feel like by now they ought to just be reporting who made each game’s balls, or at minimum letting us all know when a new batch gets rotated into play and where from.

Dave T
6 years ago

The baseballs used by MLB are all manufactured by Rawlings in the same factory in Costa Rica.

Guinness Harper
6 years ago
Reply to  Dave T

And said factory in Costa Rica has undergone two significant changes since the start of the home run surge:
1. There were significant layoffs when Rawlings moved its apparel division to another country.

2. The factory is located at the foot of the Turrialba volcano which entered an active phase in 2015.

I personally like the idea that the same thin layer of volcanic ash I find on my car most mornings is also giving some extra explosiveness to the baseballs…

6 years ago
Reply to  Dave T

It irks me terribly that MLB can’t make a policy of only purchasing baseballs made in the USA. It would be a source of national pride for our country’s national pastime, and also it would facilitate quality control. Not to mention it would create jobs in whatever community(ies) have the baseball manufacturing plants.

6 years ago
Reply to  astrosdoug

Right on bro. No need to be outsourcing the production of baseballs to other countries. The game started in the USA and the USA should be the chief producer of baseball-related equipment. Especially for MLB where teams have the budgets to pay extra for quality balls, gloves, bats, etc.

6 years ago

The cover-up feels much worse than the crime, in this case.

If the league had been forthright and said “Hey! We’re tweaking the ball to get more of the fun stuff in the game”, fans might have reacted differently to this phenomenon.

6 years ago

Rawlings has been the exclusive supplier in Costa Rica since 1977 (moved to CR from Haiti in 1987). Coincidentally or not 1987 was a juiced ball year. Back to normal in 1988 though until Bud juiced the ball in 1994 when he took over as commisioner. Manfred juiced it even more when he took over in early 2015, but we didnt see these balls till the 2nd half and maybe in only a few locations.

Hample wrote a cool book on baseball manufacturing , lot of interesting things

Interestingly minor league balls are made in China from a different and unknown to me supplier. The ball is not juiced and made to different specs. In what they call the 400 ft test the balls travel 8 ft short compared to MLB balls although number may be larger with the current juiced ball. Thats why young guys are putting out better power numbers in majors than their minor league stats

Now MLB is requiring teams to condition balls in a air conditioned room. This will reduce moisture content and increase HR rates. They know this. So unless the ball changes and is dejuiced prepare for a HR explosion that dwarfs last year. judge and Stanton may hit 130 HR between them