Do Spring Training Stats Matter?

Do Spring Training Stats Matter?

Indians

Do Spring Training Stats Matter?

This time of year, I usually write that Spring Training stats don’t matter. Baseball is back on both radio and TV and that’s all we should be thankful for. I would usually state that “there’s too many variables” to accurately take any meaning from Spring Training numbers.

Well, after reading a paper from a few years ago, I’ve changed my opinion.

In 2015, Dan Rosenheck, an editor at The Economist, presented a paper at the MIT Sloan Analytics Conference arguing that some spring training stats do matter – at least a little bit.

He wrote that despite the limited number of games and the uneven quality of opposition faced, “the claim that spring-training numbers are useless is wrong. Not a little bit wrong, not debatably wrong — demonstrably and conclusively wrong. To be sure, the figures are noisy. But they still contain a signal.”

In the spring of 2016, Trevor Story was turning heads. With face-of-the-franchise Troy Tulowitzki was traded to the Blue Jays, the Rockies needed a shortstop, and Story capitalized on a chance to win the job despite a high strikeout rate in the minors that had led to him dropping off Top 100 prospect lists. Story hit .340 in the spring with six home runs and a .792 slugging percentage and then had that historic first week to start the regular season. He slammed 27 home runs in 97 games before going down with a thumb injury.

In Story’s situation, stats did mean something – at least the peripheries.

The key is knowing what stats to look at. Rosenheck’s study showed that peripheral stats like walk and strikeout rate stabilize much quicker in spring training than usual go-to stats like batting average or ERA (this is true in the regular season as well) — and thus were more predictive of what does happen in the regular season. This was especially true for young players. Isolated power is another stat with some predictive value.

This isn’t to overstate the importance of spring training stats. For the most part, you don’t want to overreact to good or bad performances; the player’s prior history is still more important. Still, sometimes you never know. Back in 2010, when Jose Bautista had his breakout 54-homer season for the Blue Jays, he hit .439 and slugged .895 in the spring — with just one strikeout in 57 at-bats. I’m also reminded of seeing Felix Hernandez start late in the spring of 2016, when he was struggling to hit 90 on the radar gun. I was sitting next to one of the Mariners stats guys in the press box and asked him if he was concerned. He said no, that Hernandez doesn’t really air it out in spring training.

Well, guess what: He was never able to air it out in the regular season, either.

Bottom line: It’s still baseball, and that’s better than no baseball.

It’s also still exhibition baseball. Check in on the guys coming to camp in the best shape of their lives; check in on the pitchers coming off injuries; enjoy seeing the kids coming up through the system. And if somebody hits .400 with a bunch of home runs — maybe draft him to your fantasy team.

As my grandma would say: “You never know.”

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