Quick! What was the spring training record of the 2017 World Series Champions Houston Astros? Who had the best spring training record last season?
If these two questions have adequately stumped you, whether you are a casual or rabid baseball fan, you are not alone.
Evaluating spring training performance certainly has its merits and can provide some information to teams, fans and sports media alike. Still, team records in spring training are useless for anticipating the results of the regular season.
A team’s record during spring training means absolutely nothing. The overall wins and losses of teams rarely reflect their full potential for a variety of reasons: Day-to-day lineups vary hugely; starters do not play full games and sometimes do not even travel with their teams to away games; minor league players get a look in the majors for practice whether they are ready for the major league level and the games can end in a tie.
To answer my opening question: The 2017 Houston Astros spring training team went exactly .500, with 15 wins, 15 losses and three tie games. The New York Yankees dominated in the 2017 standings, with a first-place record of 24-9. While they went further than expected in the playoffs in October — losing in the American League Championship Series to the Astros — their dominant record in spring training certainly did not translate to a spot in the World Series.
In fact, the Los Angeles Dodgers went one game over .500 with a total record of 18-17. Therefore, both teams in the 2017 World Series — the Astros and the Dodgers — had either exactly or just above .500 spring training records.
In fact, the only thing spring training records could potentially indicate is which part of the field a team will fall into: in either last place or the playoffs, according to a 2011 study published in Bleacher Report by a contributor to the website, Sam Fetchero.
Fetchero found teams with a record .500 or over after spring training had a good shot of making the playoffs, which proved to be true last season. However, he found no indication that, once they reached .500, spring training records had any effect on how far a team could go in the playoffs. Even so, only five of eight teams in the 2010 postseason had spring training records over .500, so the correlation was far from decisive.
Spring training records can go either way. A much more useful analysis of spring training would be an examination of the performance of each individual player, rather than the team as a whole.
Take Yankees slugger and 2017 American League Rookie of the Year Aaron Judge: In 63 spring training at-bats in 2017, Judge had an impressive slash line of .333/.391/.540. His 2017 regular season slash-line, which contributed to his Rookie of the Year award, was .284/.422/.627, with the lower batting average a result of his mid-season slump.
From a statistical standpoint, Judge’s spring training stats may have implied success in the 2017 season. Other spring training indicators that may not appear in statistics include an increase in confidence or adjustments to swing, both of which Judge exhibited in 2017 spring training.
Another advantage of examining players as individuals is testing not only young players such as Judge, but also older veterans who may be recovering from injury or might not have the commanding talents of their younger years.
During this spring training, the Texas Rangers gave 12.2 innings to test-drive starting pitcher and veteran-of-all-veterans, 44-year-old Bartolo Colon. His 4.26 spring training ERA lines up fairly well with his 4.04 lifetime ERA, indicating Colon has still got it. In this way, spring training confirmed Colon should be ready to go for yet another season.
Even examining individual players, however, must be taken with a grain of salt. For example, in spring training, pitchers often experiment with new pitches or adjustments to their wind-ups and run the risk of getting knocked around in a way they wouldn’t necessarily during the regular season.
San Jose Mercury News writer Kerry Crowley detailed how San Francisco Giants pitchers like Jeff Samardzija are experimenting with a new curveball. Whether these alterations make it to the regular season remains to be seen — Samardzija’s ERA after 11 spring training innings is currently 10.64, so he probably will not take his experiments to the regular season. Samardzija’s career ERA is currently 4.10, with a 2017 ERA of 4.42; his spring training performance is therefore not the most accurate indicator of pitching abilities both because of his experiment and his low number of innings pitched, which skews his spring training stats. Samardzija will be the Giants’ third starter despite his spring training blunders.
Clearly, while spring training can yield some interesting observations, there are an incredible number of factors to consider when evaluating spring training performance.
Amanda Christovich is a junior in the College. Helmet to Helmet appears in print every other Friday.