Looking Back, What Does Spring Training Really Mean?

Baseball season will officially begin this time next week in baseball parks across America. However, in Arizona and Florida, Major League Baseball teams have been refreshing and prepping their skills for another long season. While hope springs eternal for each of the 30 ball clubs, some teams are meeting expectations and others are already finding that they have huge holes.

While statistics are kept in spring training, do they really matter? With split squad games and combined line ups that see all-star hitters taking on single A pitchers, should fans take anything that happens in spring training as being more important than a grain of sand? The most important statistic in baseball is wins and losses. Do spring training numbers have any sort of merit for the season?

If the post season began today with the new five-team playoff format based on spring training records, the American League division winning teams would be Toronto, Oakland and Detroit, with the Los Angeles Angels and Seattle battling in the wild card game. In the National League, the Cardinals, Padres and Marlins (despite their losing record) would be the division winners, with the Giants and Rockies playing in the play in game. Should these fan bases have a renewed sense of optimism? To answer that question, let’s look at how things have turned out the last three years under the old playoff system.

In 2011, the teams that would have made the playoffs based on spring training records were the Kansas City Royals, the Minnesota Twins, the Los Angeles Angels and Toronto Blues Jays in the American League. For the National League, the San Francisco Giants, the Colorado Rockies, the Milwaukee Brewers and the Philadelphia Phillies would have made the playoffs. Only the Brewers and the Phillies actually made the playoffs. Four of the remaining teams finished with records of .500 or below

The teams that made the playoffs in 2011 were the New York Yankees, the Texas Rangers, the Detroit Tigers and the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League. In the National League, the Philadelphia Phillies, the Milwaukee Brewers, the Arizona Diamondbacks and the St. Louis Cardinals made the playoffs. The Yankees, Rangers, Cardinals and Diamondbacks finished with below .500 records during spring training. The Diamondbacks were 12-25.

In 2010, the Rays, the Giants and the Braves were the only teams who would have made the playoffs based on spring training and regular season records. The Rangers, who went to the World Series, were the worst team in the AL in spring training. In 2009, the Yankees, Twins, Angels and Cardinals would have made both postseasons. In 2008, the number of teams was two and in 2007, the number of teams was also two.

If you average that out over the five years of recorded data, 2.6 teams would have made the playoffs in both spring training and through 162 games in the regular season. The moral is that fans should not get too high or too low from the most important statistic in baseball through March.

The clock is rewound starting with opening day and the regular season is six times longer than the spring training schedule. Spring training has too many variables to predict. For fans of the White Sox and Mets, the two worst teams in their respective leagues during 2012 spring training, this should come as minor solace. Of course the teams are not even lumped into American and National, it’s all Cactuses and Grapefruits, another variable that makes March records even less meaningful.

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