MLB: 12 Reasons Spring Training Stats Don't Matter

Gil ImberAnalyst IIFebruary 23, 2012

MLB: 12 Reasons Spring Training Stats Don't Matter

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    As baseball fans across the league settle in for another month of MLB's annual Spring Training ritual, many enthusiasts from coast to coast will be looking to baseball's very own March Madness in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the upcoming season.

    While Spring Training provides a wonderful forum to observe the league's new-season teams—for instance, Albert Pujols in Anaheim and Prince Fielder in Detroit—the statistics produced by the month-long pre-season are generally not indicative of how a team will perform during the regular season.

    For one reason why, take a look at the final Spring Training standings in 2011.

    Divided into the Grapefruit and Cactus, the two leagues' top teams last year were the Minnesota Twins and Kansas City Royals, respectively.

    The Royals finished the 2011 regular season with a 71-91 record, 24 games out of first place in the AL Central.

    The Twins were worse: 63-99 and 32 games back. Only the Houston Astros (56-106, 40 GB in the NL Central) had an inferior record.

    That said, here are 11 more reasons not to read too much into MLB Spring Training statistics.

Jon Weber and Minor Leaguers Who Excel in March

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    Who?

    This former Yankee's lefty hit .588 during spring training in 2010 and was praised by manager Joe Girardi for a "great spring," with the skipper noting that Jon Weber's pre-season performance that year "very possibly" would have landed him on the MLB squad if only he wasn't left handed.

    Weber dropped out of America's minor league baseball system in 2010, joining the Independent League Winnipeg Goldeyes for the 2011 season.

    In 2011, Brewers' right fielder Erick Almonte's .416 batting average was fourth-best in spring baseball. In the regular season, however, he only mustered a .103 average in 29 at bats for Milwaukee.

    Former Orioles' catcher Jake Fox led all of March 2011 baseball with 10 HR last spring: Fox hit just two home runs in 61 at bats during the regular season before leaving Baltimore for the Pittsburgh Pirates organization this offseason.

    While minor league ballplayers may greatly impress every March, their performance often does not translate to the regular season.

Split Squads and College Exhibitions

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    One of the themes with most B/R slideshows is that each slide tends to interact with at least one other item on the list—this one is no different.

    Another reason MLB-ers like Jon Weber sometimes excel in spring training is the ample opportunity afforded to them via split squad contests and college exhibition games.

    To better allow each club to get a better look at its entire 40-man-plus roster, MLB allows and designates its teams to play split squad games, in which the club is split into half, with Squad B backups and third stringers often called upon to fill the void created by the departing superstar who is playing with Squad A for the day.

    To give NCAA student-athletes a taste of professional baseball, teams also play collegiate exhibitions—which also generally leads to a very lopsided victory for the MLB club. The more runs scored and the more lopsided the score, the greater the chance for each professional ballplayer to pad his stats.

Players Not Yet in Playing Form

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    It seems as if the phrase "midseason form" applies to just about anything these days.

    Days after the lockout-shortened 2011-12 NBA season began in December, television broadcaster Kevin Harlan was described as "already in midseason announcing form," while ticket brokers also received the "midseason form" treatment in a Huffington Post business article.

    And in the baseball world, a Massachusetts blogger recently associated Red Sox player Dustin Pedroia's mouth with the phrase.

    In actuality, players generally do not find midseason form until the regular season actually begins.

    Though many players work out and maintain their physical fitness during the offseason, others get a late start, underwhelming throughout March en route to a midseason comeback.

    For instance, Boston's David Ortiz notoriously suffered a difficult spring and early 2009 season before rebounding—in 2011, Ortiz recorded a .250 batting average in March. He finished the regular season with a .309 average, his best mark since 2007.

New Players and Team Chemistry

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    With the Los Angeles Angels acquiring Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson this offseason, the baseball world instantly propelled Southern California's only American League franchise to the top three in the pre-season AL power rankings.

    Not so fast.

    How will Wilson respond in his return to his hometown?

    Will Pujols adapt to the Orange County lifestyle?

    Will spurned veteran slugger Bobby Abreu tear the Angels apart with his recent trade ultimatum?

    Though the Angels are spotlit here, a similar discussion could be held for every team from Prince Fielder's Detroit Tigers to Ozzie Guillen's Miami Marlins.

    For instance, for the Oakland Athletics, it goes something like this: Is GM Billy Beane completely crazy or an absolute genius in acquiring the eccentrically insane Manny Ramirez?

Experiments and Risks

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    Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw entered a recent spring training determined to add a change-up to his repertoire. His fastball was dominant and after several promising years at the major league level, pitching coach Rick Honceycutt and then-hitting coach Don Mattingly advised the young southpaw to develop a slider as well.

    Though Kershaw's 2011 spring training generated a 2-1 record with a one strikeout per 1.26 innings pitched ratio and .268 batting average against, the great experiment paid off and Kershaw won the NL's pitching Triple Crown in 2011, winning the NL Cy Young Award with a 21-5 record with a one strikeout-to-0.94 innings pitched ratio and .207 batting average against.

    This year, the Colorado Rockies hope to develop Jhoulys Chacin's fastball. There are bound to be some bumps in the road for the 24-year-old Chacin as he attempts to master his most important pitch. It's likely those bumps will impact Chacin's 2012 Spring Training statistics.

    Still, if Chacin is able to do what Kershaw did during his spring training mission, those March 2012 stats will be completely irrelevant.

    Spring training is a time for experimenting, development and risk taking.

    Unfortunately, there is no accounting for that in statistics—if he starts out in a struggle as most players do, the numbers will reflect that.

The Injury Bug and Other Unexpected Ingredients

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    San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey experienced a wonderful spring training and early regular season in 2011, batting .396 with a 1.183 OPS in March last year.

    Then MLB's 2010 Rookie of the Year Award winner was injured in a violent May 25 home plate collision, a trip to the DL that spelled the end of the 2011 for Posey.

    Though Posey should be back and well in 2012, Posey reminds us all of the risk inherent with any sporting activity and the problem with relying too much on statistics—both in spring training and throughout the season.

    Always prepare for the unexpected, unless of course, you don't expect it.

    In a joke blog post on Mets Today, an anonymous "source" was quoted as explaining that "fatigue is the number one risk factor for injuries."

    What a comforting thought.

The Big League Difference

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    During the regular season, the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Yankees, St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers are in four separate divisions and two separate leagues.

    During spring training, however, they are all in the Grapefruit League, meaning they all stand to face each-other multiple times, while the Phillies and Tigers might never come face-to-face during the regular season.

    Alternately, the Cardinals and Chicago Cubs are division rivals from April through September, but in March, they are in separate leagues, meaning that although they will face off many times during the regular season, they will not meet even once during spring training.

    Instead, the Cubs play with the Oakland A's, Cleveland Indians and Los Angeles Dodgers in Arizona's Cactus League.

    Accordingly, some key intradivision matchups will never materialize during the pre-season.

Day-to-Day vs Series Play

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    The World Series might as well be the greatest example of the true meaning of "Series Play," in which managers, coaches and players fight it out over a drawn out best-of-seven chess match of a baseball series.

    Though the majority of regular season series are just three games, this is one format notably absent from the spring training environment, in which teams generally face a different opponent every day.

    During the regular season, managers and coaches carefully select their substitutions during a series so that relievers pitch during only the most optimal situations and other substitutions have more to do with factors related to a three-game set than they do in March, when it's one-and-done.

    This allows the most dominant closers, relievers and pinch hitters the chance to really shine during the regular season, while these same players might falter during the pre-season, the true extent of their talents not utilized because spring training is not the same brand of situational baseball that the regular season is.

Day Games and Routines

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    Unless your team happens to be the Chicago Cubs, you can count on the fact that spring training's tradition of day game after day game won't hold up in the regular season.

    From the early afternoon's angle of the sun to the simple dynamics of the morning versus afternoon workout and batting practice, MLB teams do not maintain a routine day game schedule during the regular season.

    For MLB night owls, spring training is more of an annoyance than exciting supplement to the regular season, while for early-to-rise folks, that transition from pre-season day games to regular season night games is not a pleasant one.

    Spring training errors thus may or may not be attributed to sun-in-eyes oddities while notorious party-goers—removed from their hometowns and familiar late-night hangouts—might just do better without the added distraction.

Travel, Tiredness and Time Zones

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    With the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues confined to the Florida and Arizona regions, respectively, each team's greatest travel-related inconvenience may be an hour's bus drive, a same-day trip to the game site and back again for dinner.

    During the regular season, players must deal with the true stresses of travel, the fatigue, the difficult time zone adjustments and the obligatory flight that gets in at 5 a.m., just hours before first pitch at a far-off ballpark.

    In that sense, spring training captures players as they are fresh, before the chore of maintaining a batting average or ERA over the long-haul becomes a true test as it does later in the summer.

Climate, Weather and Location

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    The New York Mets open the 2012 season at home against the Atlanta Braves on April 5, 2012.

    Average high in Queens for April 5? A brisk 47 degrees Fahrenheit.

    When the Mets play their last home spring training game against the New York Yankees on April 3, they will play in Port St. Lucie, Florida, where the average early April temperature is a balmy 70 degrees.

    Even the Arizona Diamondbacks—who play their regular season relatively next door to their spring training facility—play a majority of their summer games at Chase Field with the roof closed.

    The weather: It's more than just a conversation piece when there's nothing left to say.

    It can have a real impact on baseball—just ask the 2009 post-season Angels, who were seemingly paralyzed not by the Bronx Bombers, but by freezing rain, biting winds and stormy sabotage.