Every now and then, I hear a friend or media member opine that Spring Training is the best time of the baseball season. While I don’t share that sentiment, I understand the affection for the boundless optimism that comes with a 0-0 (undefeated!) record. Spring Training has no disappointing midseason results from preseason favorites, no white-flag trades at the deadline, or ugly collapses down the stretch. In March, every team has a chance to win it all.
Spring Training games are nice reminders of how much we miss baseball during the winter months. We get our first glimpses of players who have joined new teams, and of talented prospects who have yet to crack a 25-man roster or receive a September call-up.
What is endearing about Spring Training games is how much they look like minor-league and even, at times, Little League games. Some of this resemblance comes from the aesthetics of the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues, with their small parks, low-energy crowds, and the at-least-you-tried indifference many players and coaches convey during games. Even the broadcasters have the same sort of easygoing, vaguely patronizing tone that you hear during ESPN broadcasts of the Little League World Series.
The relative lack of interest in winning often leads to some charmingly weird results in the Grapefruit and Cactus standings, where it is not uncommon to see terrible teams carrying better records than defending champions.
Being the true baseball fan that I am, I’m very interested in random bits of trivia and data and got to wondering if there is any pattern in Spring Training success translating to regular season success. Here’s what I found. I’ll start by highlighting the best teams of each of the past five Spring Training seasons and how they fared in the actual season (note: I am not a statistician, so please take the junk science I’m offering with the grain of salt it deserves):
2014 Cleveland Indians, 20-9, .690 (regular season, .524, 3rd in AL Central)
2013 Kansas City Royals, 25-7, .781 (regular season, .531, 3rd in AL Central)
2012 Toronto Blue Jays, 24-7, .774 (regular season, .451, 4th in AL East)
2011 San Francisco Giants, 23-12, .657 (regular season, .531, 2nd in NL West)
2010 San Francisco Giants, 23-12, .657 (regular season, .568, World Series Champion)
With one obvious exception, it seems that having a great Spring Training may bring mediocrity in the regular season. Is the reverse true? Do teams that are terrible in March go on to much better things later on? It would seem not:
2014 Philadelphia Phillies, 9-18, .333 (regular season, .451, 5th in NL East)
2013 Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (the name still cracks me up), 10-20, .333 (regular, .481, 3rd in AL West)
2012 Cleveland Indians, 7-22, .241 (regular season, .420, 4th in AL Central)
2011 Houston Astros, 11-24, .314 (regular season, .346, 6th in NL Central)
2010 Pittsburgh Pirates, 7-21, .250 (regular season, .352, 6th in NL Central)
Here the pattern seems a little clearer. If your team plays well in the spring, it may be a good idea to not read much into it. But if your team plays poorly in the spring, then the panic button could be appropriate. A mediocre team can take some time to be exposed, but if the team is awful in the preseason, then there may be no escape from a long, hot summer.
Even so, optimism always dominates the headlines in Spring Training, and that’s rare to find consistently in any sport. Players, coaches, and the media all seem as happy as fans to have the old ballgame back. I even like seeing clips of players taking routine ground-ball and double-play drills. It serves as a reminder that these players were once Little Leaguers trying impress their parents, then later trying to impress MLB scouts, then just a bit later taking long bus rides across some Double A league, hoping to get called up to The Show.
These guys get to play a game for a living, and a rather good living at that. The least they can do is show they actually appreciate this gift and are enjoying it. In August and even in October, this isn’t always the case. But in March, it’s pretty clear that they’re having fun. From all of us who have to work for a living: you’ve earned it.