Hold the ticker tape, Giants fans.
Sure, the Giants have just blazed through another week of spring training with the lowest team ERA in the Cactus League and the best overall record, but spring training numbers have historically meant almost nothing when it comes to predicting regular season success.
In other words, it’s still too soon to begin preparations for another parade down Market Street.
For years, analysts have tried to identify a meaningful correlation between spring training records and regular season success. Time and again, they have failed to establish a relationship between the two.
Michael Wolverton of Baseball Prospectus recently crunched the numbers comparing every MLB team’s spring and summer records since 1996. Assuming that a correlation coefficient of one is a perfect prediction of regular season success and zero indicates no relationship at all, the correlation between spring training records and regular season records is 0.15. This number is miniscule when compared to the 0.52 correlation between a team’s regular season record and its success from a year before.
The latter statistic should come as good news to Giants fans.
If the Giants’ Cactus League record is an inaccurate predictor of what to expect in the regular season, we can at least look to players’ individual statistics to embolden our hopes, right?
Unfortunately, relying on this method of prediction is a similarly shaky strategy. Giant fans need only one year of hindsight to recall the rock star numbers Aaron Rowand and John Bowker put up last March. Both players lost their starting jobs in the regular season.
Spring training statistics are poor indicators of a team’s regular season chances because spring training baseball is a fundamentally different game. With respect to team record, a manager’s primary aim in spring training is not to win games. If it were, there would be no split-squad games, no lefties facing lefties to see how they fare and no substitutions without regard to score.
These elements are annual staples of spring training.
When it comes to individual statistics, players struggle to get into the groove of a full game when minor leaguers are constantly subbed in and out. Pitchers often throw only their second- or third-best pitches in certain innings. Hitters will play to work on their weaknesses rather than to pad their stats.
Perhaps the best illustration of this phenomenon comes from Giants great Will Clark. Clark would regularly step to the plate in spring looking to swing at curveballs only. Even if a fastball landed right in his wheelhouse, he would lay off for the sake of improving his game.
In short, ballplayers play the game in a fundamentally different way in the spring, thus rendering their spring statistics poor indicators of success in the regular season. Unfortunately, the only way in which numbers really matter in spring training is in determining who will make the opening day roster.
Therein lies the paradox of spring training: The numbers contribute nothing in terms of predicting regular season success, yet jobs are won and lost because of them every spring.
So, what is a Giants fan to do during spring training if not admire the team’s stellar record and look optimistically toward April? Fortunately, certain elements of the spring season do indicate future team success.
To find them, you just have to look past the numbers.
For instance, Pablo Sandoval’s increased range at third base should translate into better athleticism in other parts of his game as well. Mark DeRosa’s swing appears uninhibited by last season’s wrist ailments, which will add a valuable weapon to this year’s squad.
Reports that Tim Lincecum arrived at spring training in prime physical shape ought to assuage fears that the Freak’s lack of conditioning will lead to another mid-season slump. Apart from Matt Cain and Brian Wilson—who are thankfully returning to action—the pitching staff looks to be relatively healthy following a demanding season.
Maintaining an injury-free starting five will be a key element this spring in predicting how the team will fare in the regular season.
If one goes down, however, Jeff Suppan has reportedly increased the movement on his pitches from years past.
These are only a few of the many signs of hope to look for in spring training. Because it is difficult to watch the games without actually being there, most of us have to rely on reports coming out of the Cactus League.
However, if you keep your ear to the ground, you might uncover indicators of regular season success that are even more accurate than the numbers. Fans should be happy with the confidence the Giants are projecting from Scottsdale.
Their recent championship seems to have made them even hungrier for another, and that alone is reason enough to look forward to the 2011 season.