|Thursday, March 6
Updated: March 13, 1:36 PM ET
Does anything in spring translate to regular season?
By Michael Wolverton
Special to ESPN.com
They're already grumbling in Philadelphia. The Phillies, after a strong offseason that has elevated them to the status of NL East favorites, have started their exhibition season by losing four of their first five games. Phillies fans, not exactly the most patient and supportive group around, are beginning to gripe about the poor start on talk radio and the internet.
But I'm here to put Philadelphians' minds at ease, at least until next month. Even if the Phillies play this way for the rest of March, it won't have any bearing on whether they'll be playing in October. Aside from dugout chatter, power ballads, and Yogi Berra quotes, there is nothing less meaningful in the baseball world than spring training records.
That's not an especially controversial statement. No one bases their preseason expectations entirely or even mostly on the spring training standings. And plenty of analysts have looked for a strong link between spring success and regular season success over the years, only to come up empty. But fans and writers still give in to the temptation to read something into spring records, especially when a reputedly good team has a bad record or vice versa. So it's worth taking a look at some numbers to see just how little March means for the months that follow.
To get a sense of how well spring training records predict regular season success, we'll look at all spring training records back to 1996 (stopping there before we got to the severely abbreviated spring training of 1995). Let's look first at the very best spring teams.
Does a great spring mean a great regular season? Here are the 15 top spring records since 1996, along with records in the subsequent regular season:
Spring Training Reg Season Team Year W L Pct W L Pct Florida 1997 26 5 .839 92 70 .568 Boston 1998 20 8 .714 92 70 .568 Kansas City 1999 22 9 .710 64 97 .398 Los Angeles 1999 21 9 .700 77 85 .475 Baltimore 2002 20 9 .690 67 95 .414 Oakland 2001 22 10 .688 102 60 .630 Arizona 1999 22 10 .688 100 62 .617 Houston 2002 19 9 .679 84 78 .519 Texas 1998 21 10 .677 88 74 .543 California 1996 21 10 .677 70 91 .435 Baltimore 1998 18 9 .667 79 83 .488 Detroit 1996 20 10 .667 53 109 .327 Arizona 2002 23 12 .657 98 64 .605 St. Louis 1997 21 11 .656 73 89 .451 San Diego 1998 19 10 .655 98 64 .605 TOTALS 315 141 .691 1237 1191 .509
There isn't much reason to believe in spring training records here. Seven of these 15 March Monsters finished below .500 in the regular season. There are some outstanding teams on this list, but there are some truly awful teams too. In particular, notice the great spring put together by the 1996 Detroit Tigers. After they left Florida, they turned out to be the very worst major league team since the '60s.
(The '96 Tigers' mirror image -- the 2001 Seattle Mariners, with a 116-46 regular season record -- showed no signs of their upcoming dominance during spring training. They finished March at 13-19.)
Even if having a great spring record doesn't mean anything, maybe having a spring meltdown is a sign of bad things to come. What about the very worst spring performers? Here are the bottom 15 spring performances of the past seven years:
Spring Training Reg Season Team Year W L Pct W L Pct Montreal 1998 8 23 .258 65 97 .401 Toronto 1996 9 22 .290 74 88 .457 Cincinnati 2002 9 22 .290 78 84 .481 Florida 1996 9 22 .290 80 82 .494 Anaheim 1997 9 21 .300 84 78 .519 San Francisco 1998 9 21 .300 89 74 .546 San Francisco 2001 9 21 .300 90 72 .556 New York AL 2001 9 20 .310 95 65 .594 Milwaukee 1998 10 22 .313 74 88 .457 Montreal 1996 9 18 .333 88 74 .543 Chicago AL 2002 11 21 .344 81 81 .500 Milwaukee 1999 11 20 .355 74 87 .460 Milwaukee 1996 11 20 .355 80 82 .494 Florida 2002 10 18 .357 79 83 .488 Atlanta 1997 10 18 .357 101 61 .623 TOTALS 143 309 .316 1232 1196 .507
This list tells pretty much the same story as the previous one. The worst four spring training teams finished below .500 in the regular season, but the next four, and seven of the 15 overall, finished .500 or above. The most surprising thing here is that the very worst spring training teams of recent years cumulatively played better than .500 ball during the regular season, effectively the same as the very best teams shown in the previous table.
Of course, if we really want to know about the predictive power of spring training, it's better to look at all the teams rather than just the ones on the fringes. We can do that by figuring the correlation coefficient between spring and summer records. A correlation of 1 would mean spring performance predicts regular season performance perfectly; a correlation of 0 would mean there was no relationship at all. Since 1996, the correlation between spring records and regular season records is 0.15. So there is a relationship, but it's very weak. For comparison, the correlation between last year's regular season record and this year's regular season record during the same period is a much stronger 0.52.
So a team's record in the spring means next-to-nothing about their record in the regular season, but maybe that's just because they play so few games in the spring -- not enough for teams' true abilities to emerge. If we look at spring training records over a longer period of time maybe the best teams will show themselves.
No such luck. Here are the top five overall spring records since 1996, along with regular season records during the same period:
Spring Training Reg Season Team W L Pct W L Pct Arizona 101 64 .612 440 370 .543 San Diego 129 86 .600 560 574 .494 Texas 120 87 .580 566 568 .499 Baltimore 114 83 .579 547 586 .483 Oakland 125 97 .563 600 533 .530
Three of the top five spring performers of recent years are sub-.500 teams in the regular season, even when you look at seven years' worth of games. Meanwhile, the best teams in the league, the Yankees and Braves, were each below .500 in the spring. The correlation between spring records and regular season records over the seven years is 0.28 -- better than we saw in single seasons, but still not very strong.
So there's very little relationship between spring training records and regular season records, in the short term or the long term, whether you look at all teams or just the extreme ones. And that's actually pretty surprising when you think about it. After all, they're largely the same teams playing just months apart. Why can't we tell anything about a team from how it plays in March?
You can list the reasons as well as I can. It's partly the parade of minor leaguers and NRIs in the spring who will never see playing time during the regular season. It's partly the severely unbalanced schedules that teams play in the spring. It's partly the lack of motivation for veterans who are just marking time until Opening Day.
But more important than any of those is that the game itself is fundamentally different in the spring than it is in the summer. Players are yanked from the game with no regard to the score. Pitchers will go an entire appearance without using their best pitch in an effort to work on the No. 2 and No. 3 pitches in their arsenal. Managers will send up a lefty pinch-hitter against a lefty reliever just to see how well he can go against his platoon split. In short, the game is not played to win.
And that's fine. There isn't a baseball fan around who doesn't love spring training, where the stakes are lower, the rosters are bigger, and the players are carefree. Enjoy the games. Just don't fool yourself into thinking that a win for your team in March will translate into five in June.
You can check out more work from the team of writers of the Baseball Prospectus at baseballprospectus.com. Baseball Prospectus is a registered trademark of Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, LLC.