What I Learned From Spring Training

Burn After Reading, an oft-overlooked part of the Coen Brothers oeuvre, is quietly one of their best films and includes some of Brad Pitt and George Clooney’s the finest work ever captured on celluloid. I’m not going to spoil the ending by giving you the film’s last bit dialogue (you really shouldn’t worry about spoilers for a 12-year-old flick), but the final exchange is one I think about a lot, as it applies to numerous aspects of life.

CIA Supervisor: What did we learn, Palmer?
Palmer: I don’t know sir.
CIA Supervisor: I don’t f***ing know either. I guess we learned not to do it again.
Palmer: Yes, sir.
CIA Supervisor: I’m f***ed if I know what we did.
Palmer: Yes sir, it’s hard to say.

Spring training is not especially informative. Team records don’t matter. Players’ performances rarely predict what will happen during the regular season, although access to underlying metrics like those provided by Statcast can help a bit in figuring out what’s small sample and what’s a real change in ability. Still, we all watch spring ball and try our best to glean some kind of insight from the six weeks leading up to real baseball. Here’s what I got from it this year.

Injuries will be the defining factor of the 2021 season

It’s already happening. The Blue Jays will likely be without George Springer on Opening Day due to a strained oblique, while their big offseason bullpen fix, Kirby Yates, is out for the year following Tommy John surgery. The Rays will be without first baseman Ji-Man Choi for a month following knee surgery, and already have five relievers on the 60-day IL due to a smorgasbord of elbow issues. The Yankees will begin the year without slugger Luke Voit and two crucially important lefties out of the pen in Zack Britton and Justin Wilson. Eduardo Rodriguez, Boston’s scheduled Opening Day starter, has a dead arm. Baltimore outfielders Anthony Santander and DJ Stewart are dealing with muscle strains. And that’s just the American League East.

We all know what happened in 2020, and none of it was good for players in regards to their health. When the game shut down last March, many players shut down as well and weren’t ready to ramp up when the re-start began. Players are downright beholden to their routines, and nothing was routine about the last 12 months. Pitchers don’t have stamina built up from a full season last year, with one team official telling me that he is “terrified” for this season in terms of managing the workload for his team’s staff. More than anything, the 2021 season is going to be a war of attrition. There is going to be a team that far outplays their projection, with the reason being that they were able to stay healthy. On the flip side, some club will be the official disappointment of 2021, and it’ll likely be because the injury gods cursed them for six months. Teams have been working for a decade-plus on injury prediction models, and as far as I know, all they have really concluded is that players who tend to get hurt also tend to get hurt again, while players who tend to stay healthy tend to continue to do so, and “tend” is doing a lot of work here; sadly, there are always unpleasant surprises. It’s all going to add up to a highly unpredictable season and for all the wrong reasons. Speaking of which…

COVID-19 isn’t going away

There are reasons to be optimistic, and a light at the end of what has been an exceptionally dark and extremely long tunnel is visible. We have effective vaccines, which are starting to become more widely available. All of that is great. Hell, all of that is downright wonderful. But we’re not out of this crisis yet, and that glimmer of light has led to a surge in unsafe behavior and an associated rise in COVID cases. On Tuesday, John Hopkins University reported that cases have spiked 25% over the last two weeks, and Chicago reported a disturbing 60% rise since the start of the month as U.S. government officials warn of a third wave that might actually be here already.

And baseball attempts to proceed with its season, the pandemic is making its continued presence known. Boston’s Matt Barnes tested positive, albeit falsely, or at least as a non-infectious positive. No matter how one defines it, he still missed time, though he was back in camp earlier this week. Astros reliever Pedro Báez will have a delayed start to his season due to a positive case, and the team had a late-camp scare when Myles Straw, Abraham Toro and Garrett Stubbs all had to enter the COVID protocols due to contact tracing. If this had been the regular season, they would have missed three games. It looks like there’s a good chance that these kinds of delays and absences will continue through at least the first half of the season if not longer, and that assumes everyone is smart and gets their shots, which isn’t a given. (MLB and the Players Association are trying to incentivize players and team to get vaccinated with the promise of loosened protocols for clubs that get 85% of their Tier 1 personnel vaccinated.) Beyond the players, Tigers pitching coach Chris Fetter has tested positive; his absence leaves the team without a first-year member of their staff on Opening Day. Despite the league’s safety protocols, teams are still relatively close-quartered, and one positive test could hamstring a team for a week or more, potentially having a considerable impact on the standings. Keeping everyone healthy, both at the ballpark and in teams’ communities, is the most important thing, but the impact on the field is undeniable; we all saw the effect the Marlins’ and Cardinals’ outbreaks had last season.

Nobody seems to have any idea what effect the new baseball will have on the game

There’s a new ball in town. It’s supposedly a tad lighter and less bouncy, and will require greater impact to achieve the same kinds of exit velocities we have seen in the past. That produces a conundrum. The ball is less lively coming off the bat, but because of the weight, it could also carry farther. To a non-physicist (that’s me), it all sounds like a zero sum game, and as the ball only started to enter spring games over the last couple of weeks, there isn’t enough data to draw any conclusions at this time. MLB hasn’t helped matters in terms of their communications with teams about the new white spheres being used. “I’m telling you, none of this has been clear,” one club official told me. “And it doesn’t help that the people at MLB that are conveying the message are probably confused, too.” The jury is still out, but it doesn’t seem like it will be a major force on depressing slugging. One comp has been to the 2017 version of the baseball, which was far from dead. The league is working hard to have stricter standards in terms of the baseball, and that’s a good thing, but for 2021, it’s still a relative unknown. “The ball will be what it will be,” concluded the official. “We’ll learn as we go, as we have every year.”

MLB can try all they want to change it, but the game still resolves around power

Players are bigger and stronger than ever. Nearly every player in a big-league lineup can hit the ball over the fence and very often, that’s what they go to the plate trying to do. Meanwhile, pitchers throw harder than ever and velocities continue to rise, leading to more strikeouts. An inability to control that velocity, along with a need to be careful in the zone against all those mashers, leads to more walks. MLB is concerned about the lack of action in games and is beginning to experiment in the minors with some rules meant to create more, but Three True Outcomes baseball continues to accelerate at the game’s top level.

Spring Training TTO Rates
Year HR% BB% K%
2020 3.1% 9.6% 24.5%
2021 3.2% 10.2% 25.3%
SOURCE: MLB Advanced Media

You can’t fight progress, as much as MLB might try, and we’re a long way from shorter, action-packed games.





Kevin Goldstein is a National Writer at FanGraphs.

156 Comments
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EccentricChemistmember
1 year ago

All are FG writers these days leftists that are going to bow down to big government and the Covid frenzy?

Anonymousmember
1 year ago

It isn’t. It’s an intelligence test.

r0ark
1 year ago
Reply to  Anonymous

Yup and you failed.

Anonymousmember
1 year ago
Reply to  r0ark

Thanks for taking the test. Would anyone else like to try?

free-range turducken
1 year ago

I’m a libertarian, and I loathe big government’s appetite for big power grabs.

And I don’t like political issues getting thrown into sports columns.

But this is NOT one of them. This is a real pandemic, with real lives being lost or scarred with real health issues. There are new strains going haywire in Europe, South America, and Southern Asia right now, and the only thing saving this country’s ass is that we’ve pushed through an incredibly powerful vaccination program. A program that has been pushed by two presidential administrations who couldn’t agree less on anything, but could still both realize that stopping the spread of this virus is priority #1 for us all right now.

TheGarrettCooperFanClubmember
1 year ago

Well said.

casey jmember
1 year ago

Whatever, Dude. You can’t preach or teach when you read only the information put out on a platter for you daily, and unfortunately anybody can just say they are a libertarian. Imagine a libertarian touting both parties of our bloated government as proof that their policies are just? Haha. Libertarians trust none of this top-down BS, and if you were libertarian you would know why. How funny.

Ukranian to Vietnamese to French is back
1 year ago
Reply to  casey j

All right, man. You can’t teach or teach when you don’t read the information on Table 12 every day, and unfortunately, everyone can only say it’s free. Imagine a free date on both sides of a cumbersome government as proof that their policies are real? Haha, I’m sorry. Liberals do not trust any of these summits, and if you are a liberal, you will understand why. Now that’s funny.

sadtrombonemember
1 year ago

That’s right, you need to read the information on Table 12 every day. Every day! You skip a day and you are waaaaay behind.

r0ark
1 year ago

They hate when you spout truth like this. It’s no more deadly than the flu. An inconvenient fact for the hysterical mob. The PCR tests are mostly false positives. The hole thing is idiotic.

hughduffy
1 year ago
Reply to  r0ark

CDC estimates for flu deaths range from 12,000-51,000 per year from 2010-2017.
In one year, COVID-19 caused 533,301 deaths.
COVID-19 is about 10-44 times deadlier than the flu.

PCR tests for COVID-19 suffer from false negatives. False positives for COVID-19 are incredibly small.

Get your facts straight.

Philip Cowanmember
1 year ago
Reply to  hughduffy

AND Covid caused more deaths while we quarantined, avoided groups (most of us anyway) and wore masks. If we hadn’t been preventative like that it would have been far higher. And isn’t it weird we are still even having this conversation? And that is taking place on a KG story? Let’s stick to baseball so these tangents don’t even start, at least on this website.

Anthony Princeton
1 year ago

Well there are quite a lot of ignorant Americans when it comes to politics. The Fangraphs comment section like many comment sections have many examples. But, if/when Fangraphs is here in Chicago I would be happy to teach you. For the better part of the last century my family and friends have been involved with unions, government jobs and local Democrat politicians from aldermen to mayors and a former state senator whose grandniece I dated.

My wife is also a medical professional and one of her jobs is teaching infection control at a local college. She and many in her circle of doctors, nurses, instructors etc have no plans on getting vaccinated. Again, I am sure she would be happy to educate you. However, I will mention “vaccine passport” as something you and the other politically ignorant can look into.

captainjameshookmember
1 year ago

Medical professional? Is that like a utility player?

sadtrombonemember
1 year ago

Where’s Serb? Serb should know about this one.

Ukranian to Vietnamese to French is back
1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Yes, there are a lot of Americans who take notes when it comes to politics. The fangraph comment section and many comment sections have many examples. But if / when the fans are here in Chicago, I would be happy to teach you. For most of the past century, my family and friends have interacted with unions, government affairs and local Democratic Party politicians, from council members to mayors and former cities. Member of Congress.

My wife is also a health worker and one of her jobs is teaching infection control at a local university. You and many people in the world of doctors, nurses, teachers, etc. I do not intend to get vaccinated. Once again, I’m sure she would be more than happy to educate you. However, I would call the “vaccine passport” something you and other politically smart people can consider.

sadtrombonemember
1 year ago

This is no more garbled than the original, although it did change “ignorant” to “smart”, which, well, that’s interesting.

Ukranian to Vietnamese to French is back
1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

{Lol, happens sometimes. Probably a sign that certain types of trolling are now commonplace in Serbia, Vietnam, and France – Serb.}

Lanidrac
1 year ago

Your wife should be fired for gross incompetence in her field of work. Avoiding useful vaccinations is the very antithesis of infection control! [sarcasm]I’m sure the world was a much better place with smallpox and polio.[/sarcasm]

martyvan90
1 year ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

Lanidrac, you got me to bite. I work for a vaccine company, considered volunteering in the trial, believe in vaccinations, understand the science, and also realize attitudes like yours will be counterproductive in getting across the herd immunity line (a concept many here mocked last year).

Vaccine skeptics come in many shapes- some based in science, some based on experiences, some based on religious, personal, or libertarian principles, some based on false narratives (very common on the left and right…), and some on complete whack-a-doo theories. Vaccine skeptics are Democrats and Republicans. We’ll need numbers from both to get to 85-90 per cent. Some unfortunately will never agree…
The current public policy approach is wrong headed, political, and not based on science, public health policy experience. Calling people Neanderthals, mask shamming, marching out public policy experts who have become highly politicized will not get us across the finish line. They should be doing focus groups on reasons why people are skeptical by groups. It’s President Biden’s first real COVID policy challenge. I hope he thinks differently- uses targeted PSAs across the vaccine skeptic landscape, uses local healthcare providers versus “national public policy people”, and for goodness sake vaccinate willing athletes ASAP in public and use them in PSAs.
I’ll close with this in hopes it resonates. Would you shame, name call, or attempt bulling with African Americans who are skeptical because of the Tuskegee project or other reasons? Don’t do it with other groups (or them) based on other reasons- legitimate or in our opinion illegitimate. Thank you for your time and consideration.

coffeedrinker
1 year ago

Wait, did you just humblebrag about dating the grandniece of a former state senator?

Psychic... Powerless...
1 year ago
Reply to  coffeedrinker

And he seems to believe that said relationship helps prove he knows more about politics than the rest of us, which is delusional.

szakyl
1 year ago

Dating the grandniece of a former state senator is predictive of having political knowledge in the same way that a pitcher’s fantastic single inning, Spring Training BAPIP is predictive of an awful stolen base rate 5 years in the future by a completely different player.

dozingoffdadmember
1 year ago

I love offering up my wife’s labor free of charge to a bunch of baseball website commenters. Also, since you came here to help you really ought to support the site by signing up for a membership. Thanks in advance!

evo34
1 year ago

Dude just dropped the state senator grandniece ex-girlfriend BOMB like it ain’t no thang…

Now if we just knew where he went to college.

gettwobrute79member
1 year ago

More like Anthony Failed Out of Princeton.

sadtrombonemember
1 year ago

I am afraid, Mr. Goldstein, that your comment is aspirational more than technically true.

What I wouldn’t give to live in a world where vaccines were not politicized. But all it takes is a group of people with an interest in something and who can attach it to a demand and boom, you’ve got politics.

ahduth
1 year ago

Can’t vaccinate against line drive hitters.

casey jmember
1 year ago

In either case, you are not qualified to comment on that stuff, except at the most basic of levels. Talking about “unsafe behaviors”, is a political stance, no matter what rhetoric surrounds it. It doesn’t matter, no matter how many downvotes this getseither , this will (and is) hurting Fangraph’s number of subscribers. If you ignore the temptation to pander, be right, signal that you are right, whatever it is… more people will come here because they like to talk baseball.

adamh468member
1 year ago
Reply to  casey j

lol

tuna411member
1 year ago
Reply to  casey j

@ casey … I dropped the athletic for exactly what you write.

baseballenjoyer
1 year ago
Reply to  casey j

You guys greatly overestimate the number of people who have subscription-canceling level meltdowns over the most anodyne statements of fact.

r0ark
1 year ago

Yah because when the government coerces behavior it’s never political. Commence the zombie hive mind’s down votes.

hombremomentomember
1 year ago

No they’re actually baseball writers

ncfieldermember
1 year ago

The ratio on this comment is an encouraging sign for vaccination rates.

sadtrombonemember
1 year ago
Reply to  ncfielder

Fangraphs commenters are not a random sample.

That said, if the world was more like Fangraphs commenters we would have more baseball and better statistical literacy and that would be a good world to live in.

r24j
1 year ago

Here Kevin posts this nice, succinct and thoughtful article and of course the first comment is about as stupid as they come.

I beg FG for a mod in the comment section. This nonsense isn’t needed.

casey jmember
1 year ago
Reply to  r24j

This is more offensive than what he said. He is voicing disagreement, and FG will lose more subscribers who continue to push or mention or advocate political especially when they dont allow all a reasonable spectrum of viewpoints, or want to “moderate” them. There would be no “nonsense” if KG had left his agenda out, no matter how “common sense” he thinks it is. I love coming here, and it is pushing me away. KG is a smart smart man, but he isn’t more educated than us on virology, and its odd to here him try to speak on it. Membership drive dudes! I’m telling you. There are LOTS of us. Please reconsider.

adamh468member
1 year ago
Reply to  casey j

Well… there will be less of you if you all continue to not understand how basic science works. Better to pander to the group that won’t be dying off.

tuna411member
1 year ago
Reply to  adamh468

@adam… basic science works fine. it is the clueless pushing longterm untested va(( for wuhan which, IF you even contract, has a survival rate greater than 99%

r24j
1 year ago
Reply to  casey j

The fact there are “LOTS” of you is why we probably needlessly had 200-300k COVID-related deaths in this country.

Kevin didn’t even post anything groundbreaking. He reported the increase in COVID spikes, the incentive initiatives for players to get vaccinated, and said we aren’t out of the woods.

And considering you aren’t a member and use all of these resources (which aren’t free or cheap to make), I’m not sure you’re one to discuss memberships.

free-range turducken
1 year ago
Reply to  casey j

I’m going to have to agree with casey j here lol. The first comment was stupid trolling, and I don’t think KG did a damn thing wrong in mentioning the cloud of the pandemic on baseball, but if we’re going to get a moderator for the comment section, who exactly determines the rules on what’s deemed “acceptable”? It’s a slippery slope that we shouldn’t travel on.

r24j
1 year ago

Everyone has a right to a platform, but everyone also has a right to not keep it if they spew hateful, untrue, or dangerous rhetoric.

tuna411member
1 year ago
Reply to  r24j

@ r24 … and who decides what is “hateful” “untrue” or “dangerous”. ffs, mentally ill people call words ‘violence’

Sæder
1 year ago

I would love a toggle that members could use to filter off non-member comments! Not that I don’t appreciate this comment. But more often than not the trolls are not members, so it’d be nice. Plus it’s a nice little incentive to drive memberships!

Moatemember
1 year ago
Reply to  casey j

“There’s literally dozens of us!”

bosoxforlifemember
1 year ago
Reply to  r24j

Sorry but the word moderator instantly becomes censor. We are able to throw out the garbage

free-range turducken
1 year ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

Perfectly said!

r24j
1 year ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

Then let’s begin throwing out garbage and not allowing comment sections to blow up with misinformation and harmful conversation every single time someone mentions any kind of world event even in passing.

BillClinton
1 year ago
Reply to  r24j

I’m going to begin by throwing out garbage calling for censorship so enjoy your thumbs down.

Jim Parksmember
1 year ago
Reply to  r24j

Yes! We can call it the FG Ministry of Truth!

Smiling Politelymember
1 year ago
Reply to  r24j

While I don’t want this place to become a social media-esque FFA, an occasional idiot who’s roundly shouted down and doesn’t recur is a sign that the system and community works, right?

BenZobrist4MVP
1 year ago

Donald Trump and George W. Bush are promoting getting vaccinated. Are they leftists now too?

casey jmember
1 year ago
Reply to  BenZobrist4MVP

Very odd to use Trump supporting something as proof of its efficacy, after calling him stupid 27,000,000 times over the past few years. You’ll have to try again. The left instructed me that The W and Trump were two of the stupidest people ever to live, therefore I must conclude from your own logic, that you were right about one thing (they are stupid) or the other (they should be listened to on vaccines, because they are smart).Tough call, I think I’ll choose “Willing to say ANYTHING to get what you want, without it needing to make sense”, and without understanding the consequences either.

free-range turducken
1 year ago
Reply to  casey j

All right, I’m just going to have to say it. COVID deniers like you lost the election for Trump, more so than his tweets, any ballot shenanigans, or the virulent bias of 90% of the media. He would have won in spite of that, but because of folks who took the crazy pill that the pandemic is just some overblown, made-up crisis to divide and control our populace have so discredited the conservative/libertarian half of our nation that middle-of-the-roaders got disgusted, voted for Biden, and put the future of this nation in the hands of a party whose policy is straight from the platform of Bernie Sanders, an open socialist. This is what your type has done.

Thanks for nothing.

tuna411member
1 year ago
Reply to  casey j

@ casey … you are a brilliant poster

trentjreimers
1 year ago

Dude chill out, the vax ain’t some leftist mind control stuff as your Alt-right news might be telling you. Get vaxxed for the future, not the politics.

Original Greaser Bob
1 year ago

I’m sorry about your team, Kim.

Ukranian to Vietnamese to French is back
1 year ago

GET OFFFF MY LAWN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

bluerum29
1 year ago

Need to get that fence built this summer. Drives me crazy when the kids next door are playing in my yard.

Chungus Khanmember
1 year ago

Noted leftist Bill Gates hears you talking like that, he’s liable to activate Operation Kommissar Delta, be careful how you comment….

renhoek65member
1 year ago
Reply to  Chungus Khan

OMG 😀 😀 😀