Does Spring Training Matter?

'Red Sox Spring Training' photo (c) 2011, WEBN-TV - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/Last year, the Minnesota Twins boasted a 20-12 record in Spring Training, the best in the Grapefruit League. They finished the regular season with a 63-99 record, easily the worst in the American League. Over in the Cactus League, the Kansas City Royals went 20-10, finishing just above the San Francisco Giants and Colorado Rockies in the standings. All three of those teams found themselves on the wrong side of Baseball’s annual October tournament when the clock struck midnight on the regular season.

So here we are on March 13th 2012, with Bobby Valentine’s Red Sox 6-2-1 in Spring Training, fresh off a 10th inning walk off homer by Pedro Ciriaco. The team is looking good, there’s no doubt. Cody Ross looks like he may be a difference maker, Alfredo Aceves is pitching well enough to make you believe that last year wasn’t a mirage, and Felix Doubront may just be a decent fifth starter. But looking at the standings from last year, and the way these games are being won, and what players are getting the game winning hits, one can’t help but wonder, does Spring Training really matter at all?

Of course, the obvious answer is, yes. Spring Training matters because it’s important for players to get back into the feel of the game. All major league sports have an exhibition period, a preseason. Just look at the NBA this year, each team only had two preseason games and the ensuing season has been filled with sloppy games, where players seem to lack the basic fundamentals of the game.

So sure, Spring Training matters in that sense. It helps fine tune and prepare the players for the marathon of a regular season that awaits them once the calendar flips to April. But should we analyze the statistics compiled over the spring? Should we watch the games during spring and expect to see the same results when the regular season starts?

To make a long story short, no. Sometimes Spring Training stats can be indicative of the season a player is about to have, but more often than not, the numbers turn out to be a mirage, especially when players who have a history of underperforming suddenly start hitting at a blistering pace. Two years ago, outfielder Jeremy Hermida hit over .400 in Spring Training. He went on to bat .203, posted a BB-K ratio of 12-45 and was released before the season was over. Last year, Mike Cameron was hitting .408 on March 15th. He was released before July.

One of the biggest dangers in analyzing baseball statistics is sample size. Our society is one that tends to overreact to things too quickly. Jeremy Lin played two weeks of great basketball and suddenly he was a national phenomenon. Jeff Francouer raked the ball for the first two weeks of his career in the big leagues; suddenly he was the next Chipper Jones. Ryan Lavarnway hit two home runs in four at bats; suddenly he was batting fifth on the last day of the season with the Red Sox playing for their season. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that baseball is a sport where players normally get about 500 at bats a year. It’s easy for a player to go cold for a stretch of 30 at bats, but this does not mean he’s having a bad season. Last May, Carl Crawford hit .304, jacked three home runs, and legged out three triples. Just looking at that stretch, you’d say Crawford was having a great year, unfortunately we know how the rest of the season turned out. Most talent evaluators will tell you that it takes over 500 at bats to truly have a good gauge on a player’s abilities at the major league level, it’s important to remember this when judging a player on only a handful of at bats. (Just ask Josh Reddick, who hit .405 last June, but never broke .300 in any month after that.)

Spring Training is the time when most people fall into this trap. We want every at bat to tell us something about the future, about how the player will actually do during the regular season. In a span of less than 100 at bats, sometimes even less than 50 at bats, we expect to know exactly how the season will turn out. As much as we’d like it to be true, it isn’t. Don’t worry that Jacoby Ellsbury is only batting .154 right now, I promise you that he’ll be hitting over .200 by the time April is over. Of course, on the other side of that logic, Cody Ross’s average won’t be anywhere close to .500 at that time either.

Yet, as stated earlier, without these Spring Training at bats, players would not be ready for the regular season. It’s a tough spot, because the players need the at bats, yet fans reach for conclusions that simply aren’t there just by observing a few at bats in March. The other important part of Spring Training is the fact that it allows managers to evaluate younger players they haven’t gotten the chance to see yet. Of course, this can lead to the same dangerous places that fans get to when they make conclusions too early.

When Pedro Ciriaco blasted a pitch over the Green Monster in Jet Blue Park yesterday afternoon, Bobby Valentine took note. When Scott Atchinson struggled to get through the ninth, he took note. Unfortunately spring is just too short to get an accurate evaluation of players. Sure, Ciriaco’s homer was majestic, sure it was clutch, and I’m sure more than a few Boston fans did a double take, “Who is this guy?” It was a beautiful thing, unfortunately for the 26 year-old Dominican, it was just one at bat, during one exhibition game, one year in Spring Training; probably nothing more.

Categories: Boston Red Sox

Alex Convery is a student at the University of Southern California where he studies screenwriting. He spends his time procrastinating. Follow him on twitter here: www.twitter.com/alexconvery

4 Responses to “Does Spring Training Matter?” Subscribe

  1. ChipBuck March 13, 2012 at 8:30 AM #

    Well put Alex.

  2. CosmoD March 13, 2012 at 10:34 AM #

    Besides the BA of the players Spring Training is for figuring out how to work together on the field; Aviles and Pedroia/Punto, Youk and Aviles, Ross and Ells, etc until they can play as unit. It is also a time to work on the plays you don't see every day: squeeze bunt, steal of home, etc. And Bobby V will steal a game or two this year because that's what he has the Sox doing: practicing the little things that win ballgames. You could see that in the Rays game last week. Great hit and run plays coupled with the usual doubles and HRs you expect from the Sox. Throw is some solid front line pitching so far and the Sox look pretty good.

  3. Walt in Maryland March 13, 2012 at 2:22 PM #

    Excellent take. Obviously, it matters, and perhaps the better question to ask would be "How MUCH does it matter?"

    As much as their terrible September, the Red Sox' terrible start in April kept them from being a playoff team. Don't have the exact numbers handly, but I recall they lost something like 9 of their last 10 spring training games. They clearly were not ready to start the season, and it carried over.

  4. ChipBuck March 14, 2012 at 10:13 AM #

    Bobby V recently said he didn't envision many squeeze plays or even bunts in general unless they were either for hits or in very special circumstances. Valentine is pretty statistically savvy, and he understands that bunts are usually terrible percentage plays that actually hurt run creation. I agree with the rest of your statement though.