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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.

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