Baseball is being played again, and it feels great. But do the Grapefruit and Cactus varieties of America’s Pastime really matter? More specifically, do team records and player statistics from Spring Training actually correlate to regular season success?
We all want to go crazy over Dominic Smith’s batting average, or be upset at Zack Wheeler’s ERA, but often these outliers get shrugged off with the phrase, “it’s only spring.” However, these are real baseball games being played, and one may ask how can they not correlate? Let’s just see what the numbers have to say.
You can see that there was a slight positive correlation between a team’s Spring Training record and Regular Season record last year. But we all know correlation does not mean causation, and with the linear regression model only having a slope of 0.35 this is a weak correlation at best. A strong relationship would have a slope closer to a 1:1 ratio. Also, the r-squared value shows that only 9% of the data set is explained by the linear relationship, making this scatter plot more scatter and less of a real trend. The orange dot by the way was the Mets in 2018.
So, team records in spring are not crystal balls to regular season winning percentages, but teams aren’t really playing to win in Spring so this makes sense. Teams are playing to a) practice for the upcoming season and b) to see who makes the team for opening day. Spring is more about the success of individual players than the success of the team.
This proves to be false as well, with another weak relationship between spring success and regular season success. Unfortunately, there were only 39 hitters who qualified for both the Spring and Regular season (the Mets lone representative is the orange dot Brandon Nimmo).
Brandon Nimmo being the only Mets qualified hitter raises a good point about who is playing in these Spring Training games. Paul Goldschmidt did not have enough plate appearances to qualify in last year’s spring season; however, his former teammate Kristopher Negron did. Not heard of Negron? It’s probably because he had a grand total of three plate appearances for the Diamondbacks while playing most of the year in Reno before being shipped to Seattle. These are the type of players playing the bulk of spring games. Remember Nimmo was a 4th outfielder at best this time last year.
Only 40 pitchers reached the number of innings to qualify for 2018 Spring Training, and many of them failed to qualify in the regular season making the sample size for pitching too small. This just further shows that Spring Training is for the 25th men on the rosters, not the stars.
So why do we obsess over these “meaningless” stats? The answer is that while they do not have much of a correlation to regular season success, they matter for the players trying to make the team making them matter to us.
We love rooting for players to succeed because frankly baseball is all too often an overly difficult, unfair, and just plain cruel sport. Players can hit a ball 100 mph directly into the third basemen’s glove, or a pitcher can paint the outside corner but the ball still leaves yard. Freak injuries can happen right as a hot streak starts. But when an unproven player finally overcomes the odds makes it to the big leagues it excites the fans. That might be what we are seeing with Smith, so his 1.2615 OPS is very meaningful in a sense, a sense of hope only found when “it’s only spring.”