Do Spring Training Wins and Losses Matter?

You hear it every year. If a team is doing poorly in spring training, its general manager, manager, and players are likely to say: “Spring training games don’t count, we aren’t concerned with our record, guys are working on things, we are giving young players some looks” etc. They will also state clearly that spring training performance will have no bearing on the regular season, usually with some “throwing out/away” and “starting over” metaphor.

In contrast, if a team is doing well in spring training, you are likely to hear that they “like to win no matter what, everything is clicking and the team is playing well,” and of course that the “momentum will carry us into the regular season.”

The Cubs started 0-6-1 this spring training and still sit at just 6-9-1. During these early days Anthony Rizzo : “It is Spring Training, yes. Does it matter if we lost? No.” Manager , downplaying the record and emphasizing the type of play he was seeing (the good and the bad), but also hinting that winning mattered: “Of course it does,” Maddon said, “You always want to win.”

So does winning in spring training matter? I surveyed the field to see what we know, if anything, about the relationship between spring training and regular season performance.


Sadly, much of what is out there is completely anecdotal and unhelpful. , for example, wants to remind us that “spring training records don’t matter” by looking at the definitive sample of one team—the Los Angeles Dodgers—over the past five years. Sigh… If you look, you will find writers for most teams making similar types of arguments in most years. In particular, if a team is doing very poorly in the spring or a surprise team is doing very well, it is a nice way to boost fan hopes going into the regular season. But otherwise these types of claims with this type of evidence are useless in understanding larger trends.

A bit better approach has been to examine subsets of teams and their won-loss records in spring training and the regular season. This essentially involves placing teams in categories (e.g. playoff teams), answering yes/no questions for each (e.g. above .500 in spring training or not?), and then reporting the counts as percentages.    

For example, a few years ago examined 10 years of spring training performances, looking at how some of the best and worst teams fared. Only one of the 14 teams with the best regular season record finished below .500 in spring training; but there were also plenty of playoff teams that had atrocious records in March. Perhaps not surprisingly, no team with the worst regular season record even finished above .500 in spring training; yet many teams who improved the most from regular season to regular season had terrible springs too. In a similar approach, an examined records over a 12-year-period and found that 69% of playoff teams finished above .500 in spring training. A in the New York Times in 2011 took a similar approach.

So these studies seem to point to some evidence that spring training records matter, but not very much, and really only at the tails—the best and worst teams. There is very little relationship between spring training and regular season records for the bulk of teams who are in the middle. This type of approach, however, is hindered by the sets of cases they chose—they don’t examine all teams but only certain subsets—and a small sample size of just a few seasons.

Others have tried to apply more advanced statistical approaches to all teams, but are likewise hindered by looking at too few seasons. article from several years ago, for example, presents fancy correlations of spring training and regular season records, but only does so for one season—2010—making any findings essentially meaningless. the correlation of all teams’ spring training and regular season records for a five-year period (2007-2011) and someone else subsequently a few weeks ago. Neither finds much correlation at all between spring and regular season records, but the snapshot of just a few years doesn’t tell us much.

Similarly, an estimates some simple linear regressions on team records over a 5-year period and finds that spring training performance is a weak predictor of regular season performance from year to year, especially in contrast to the previous year’s regular season performance which performs far better. The findings are a bit stronger when looking at the entire 5-year period: a team’s general performance in spring training over those five years correlates to its general performance in the regular season. Intuitively, this makes sense. Say in that period a really bad team finishes well below .500 in the regular season four times, but gets lucky once. Likewise, they do terribly in spring training in three seasons but have an okay record in the other two. If the “good” spring trainings occur before bad regular seasons and a “bad” spring preceded their lucky regular season, then the year-to-year correlations wouldn’t look very good. But 3/5 and 4/5 suggest a bit more of a pattern.

Still, five years makes for a pretty small sample. The smaller the sample the greater the likelihood the findings could be occurring just by chance (think of flipping a coin 10 times vs. 1,000 times, the more you flip the closer your overall results should be to 50/50 heads/tails if the coin is true) and the more likely a few big outliers could be throwing us off.

The best assessment I found on the topic was a in 2012. The author looked at all major league teams and all seasons from 1984-2011 and finds very little correlation between spring training and regular season performance. One interesting note, Joe Maddon’s former Tampa Rays were the only team that has had a strong relationship between spring training and regular season results on a year-by-year basis.  

But citing a small sample of just 28 seasons (which should tell you he has a better idea of what he is doing than the others), he more closely examines the divergence between spring training and regular season records for each team from year-to-year. Here again, however, he finds very little relationship. Zooming in on playoff teams only, he finds a bit more, showing that “two-thirds of all playoff teams over the last 28 years have at least played .500 in the spring, and only 13% have reached the post season after playing sub.-400 baseball.” Overall, he shows that “the chances of making the postseason gradually decrease as spring training records decline.”

The main takeaway from this piece and from my sense of reading widely on this topic, is that there is little to no correlation between spring training and regular season records. However, the extremes can be moderately predictive. A team that tears it up in spring training has a high likelihood of making the playoffs, and a team that has an atrocious spring record has a low likelihood of making the postseason. But for the remaining 25-27 teams each year, fans can focus on individual performances rather than team records.

Interestingly, that is where the new research is heading. Last year, that “spring numbers can and should affect our predictions for a player’s regular-season production, but only slightly, and only after a particularly strong or weak performance.” Similarly, a new article in the shows that while most spring training statistics are meaningless, peripheral stats (like strikeout rates or fly ball percentage) are predictive and that players ZiPS projects with spring training peripherals added outperformed ZiPS forecasts alone.

 

Comments

Nice think-piece, WI. You obviously put a lot of work into this. Overall, your theory and the work you cite all make sense. Since April results are barely predictive of May results, it stands to reason that March results are even less predictive of April results. I've had a thought on this topic over the last few years but not the effort to try to develop it. Rather than focusing on wins and losses, I would do a +/- system for runs scored and allowed similar to hockey, but instead of all spring innings, looking only at the innings where a substantial portion of the players on both teams were "MLB players," which I would define as players who are projected to have at least 0.5 WAR for the upcoming season. It might be my own self-deception as I've watched a lot of March baseball over the years, but I feel like you do get a good feel for the quality of teams as long as you factor out the "noise" of all the prospect who end up playing a substantial portion of spring innings, especially early in the spring.

My understanding is that spring records don't matter for most teams; however, those that have a spring record of 15%+/- their record of the previous regular season is an indicator of future performance shifting upward or downward for the team. Arizona is likely to have a good season if they continue to have a good spring and finish better than a .545 record. The giants will have a poor season if they have a record below .393. Baltimore and Detroit will trend downward and if they finish with spring records below .393 and .406 respectively. Cleveland is a team to watch if their spring record is below .375. I learned this system in the early 1990's; unfortunately, I don't remember the author or article. 15%+/- seemed to be an indicator of future performance - and it works for any spring.

Cool. I'd like to see if anyone can dig out that original study. Maybe this blog will double as a peer-reviewed journal (not to give any traumatic flashbacks to any academics out there).

Here's an article "Do Spring Training Results Matter in Major League Baseball?" by Michael R. Summers of Pepperdine University: http://www.na-businesspress.com/AJM/SummersMR.... It make's easy to test the earlier theory because it has the team prior-season, spring & season records side by side. I saw one exception to the 15% rule since 2006. Remember - it only indicates an upward or downward trend by a team.

Yeah, I link to and discuss that piece in a paragraph in the post above. It was interesting, but a bit limited given it's 5-year pattern. 

Sorry, I missed your reference to the article. Are you able and willing to expand it? Both seem like their worth a shot if have you the ability, time and inclination to do it.

Well, my day job is submitting articles to peer reviewed academic journals, so it wouldn't be a flashback, but still a bit traumatic, so I hope this doesn't turn into that! And that also means that I don't have the time do a much more detailed analysis of this spring training issue.

But I'll say a couple of things about this 15% idea. First, the article you and I cited is limited because it is only looking at a 5-year snapshot. We'd simply need much more than that to be able to say anything definitive. Second, the cut-off of 15% is relatively arbitrary and we would also have to arbitrarily specify what we mean by "shifting upward or downward" from season to season. The nature of that process will inevitably leave some teams just over the line on one side or the other. Finally, we will end up with two types of errors--teams where the relationship predicts a change and we don't see one, and teams that change a lot that the 15% relationship misses.

 

As an example, let's take a look at the 2013 regular season, 2014 spring training season, and 2014 regular season. Seven teams saw a 15% or greater change (+ or -) in their winning percentage from the 2013 season to the 2014 spring training season. According to the argument, those teams should then see a corresponding "shift" upward or downward in the 2014 regular season.

 

Six were correct, with changes of 15% or more from the regular season to spring training accurately showing corresponding shifts in the next regular season. The Braves, Red Sox, and Rangers, all successful in 2013, tanked in 2014 ST and likewise did terrible in the 2014 regular season. On the other hand, the Marlins, Angels, and Mariners, who performed terrible in 2013 did well in 2014 ST and likewise had successful 2014 seasons. The changes from regular season record to regular season record for these six teams ranged from +/- 9% to 16%.

 

Looks good, right? But one of the seven teams missed badly. The Dodgers had a .568 winning percentage in 2013 and a 2014 spring training record of 7-12 (.368), yet they finished the 2014 regular season with a .580 winning percentage.

 

Moreover, the Astros improved by nearly 12% from 2013 to 2014, and the Diamondbacks got worse by over 10% from season to season (both changes more than some of 6 “correct” teams above), but neither shift is predicted by their spring training records because they didn’t change by over 15% from 2013 to ST 2014.

 

So now we have one shift predicted that didn’t happen and two big shifts not predicted by relationship alongside six accurate predictions—and six of nine (2/3rds) is not particularly strong. And my guess is that you can find similar patterns most years. For example, the 2012 Mariners had a .463 winning percentage, they improved to .667 in 2013 Spring Training (a huge 20.4% improvement), but finished the 2013 regular season with a .438 winning percentage (a 2.5% decrease).

 

Finally, to illustrate the arbitrary nature of the cut-off, let’s look at the Rays. They had a .564 winning percentage in 2013 and a 2014 spring training percentage of .696, or an improvement of 13.2%! This is just outside our 15% cut off. The Rays responded in the 2014 regular season with a .475 winning percentage, or a decrease of 8.9%–the opposite direction! If the Rays had turned just one more spring training loss into a win they would have fit the 15% change rule, and there is nothing magical about the 15% cut-off. So this is why the best way to study this question would be look at correlations of all teams and records, and to do so over many years—which is why I think the piece by William Juliano at the Captain’s Blog is the best assessment that I have seen. And the overall conclusion I came to—“a team that tears it up in spring training has a high likelihood of making the playoffs, and a team that has an atrocious spring record has a low likelihood of making the postseason”—seems to me to be about all that we can say. And that probably makes intuitive sense given the limitations of interpreting winning percentage based on just 30 games played.  

 

 

I am intrigued by your comments and my day job, my company, leaves me little time to properly respond. Thanks for your effort. The 15% rule has been a good indicator for my level of interest. It is insufficient on a larger scale to indicate if a team has improved for the upcoming season. Sorry for any inconvenience. You have truly gone beyond the call of duty. That's one reason I love this site. I find the writers to be gifted and informative along with many of the regulars. I visit often just to get thoughts regarding the Cubs and their development. Thanks again for your effort, analysis and comments.

Kudos, WISCGRAD! And sorry about any resulting psychological trauma...

nice piece per usual WISCGRAD...

The DBacks seem to be taking on the personality of LaRussa

http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/mlb-big-league-...

(around 2:17 in)

Here I thought the link was going to be about a DBack falling asleep drunk in his car around 2:17 in . . . the morning.

Cubs lighting up McCarthy. 5-0 already in 2nd. Everything being hit hard.

But nowArietta being hit hard. Really missing his spots.

d.ross has been calling single-sign signs for a good chunk of the game...dunno how much that is hurting arrietta's game, if at all. ah, crap that goes on during spring training...fun and lazily pointless...mostly fun.

Jorge Soler is a really, really good hitter.

What the hell is going on with Brett Butler? https://pbs.twimg.com/media/CAaZwB0U8AAR3O1.png

wow...he already looked "too old" for a guy in his early/mid 50s coaching the futures game back in 2011, but this is off the hook aging for a guy in his late 50s. he needs to lay off the ____________ (fill in the blank, probably multiple blanks).

I'm 60 and he looks older than me... but baseball players get a lot of sun on their faces that I don't. :)

According to this article the Tampa Bay Rays won the World Series in 2008: http://mlb.com/r/article?ymd=20150318&content...

Carrie Muskat must have gone online and corrected her piece after your post.

Good. Yeah - as of 6:30pm she had the Rays as 2008 World Series champs. I had to double check myself because I know Maddon doesn't have a WS title, right? But glad she corrected it.

d.barney almost took h.rondon's head off with a comebacker...no one was injured, an out was recorded, and laughs were exchanged.

Darwin will get an extra slice of pizza at Chuck E Cheese after the game.

MLB twitter accounts are getting pretty good.

if you don't know who Darren Rovell is, consider yourself lucky

@darrenrovellCubs Season Ticket Holder Gift: Baez signed ball & scarf pic.twitter.com/8llqGX22c4 (H/T @AndrewgVaughan)

@Cubs That cat though!  RT @darrenrovell: Cubs Season Ticket Holder Gift: Baez signed ball & scarf (H/T @AndrewgVaughan)

@darrenrovell @Cubs you guys include any goats?

@Cubs @darrenrovell No, but we just found a troll we can get off our hands.

The first one is hard enough to hit, but the second one doesn't seem possible. Soler might not even be able to hit that second one.

Dicks! Cubs fan site trolling fans https://twitter.com/WrigleyBlog/status/578556...

I would say that spring games lost by players who won't make the team don't matter. I really look more at what happens when the starters from both teams are playing. In AZ it is better hitter's situation so pitchers often look better when the get to the regular season. Really good pitching in AZ is extra impressive while not good pitching isn't a reason to jump off a ledge. :) If a team is playing good sound fundamental baseball but loses more games than win in the spring, I don't get to bothered. Until starting pitchers are going 6 inning or more the bullpen isn't slotted into it's normal roles. Until the starting position players also play the whole game, it's not the real game situation. If our single A pitcher gives up a HR to their AAA hitter, I pay little attention :)

I don't see any mlb listing of the split squad game that Kyle Hendricks was supposed to start in. Also, the Reds vs Texasgame from AZ was postponed. Must be another weather day in beautiful AZ. Edwin Jackson is supposed to start the night game vs Dbacks. Hold that...Lots of twitter comments about Bryant hitting another HR in the 'B' game. Mark Gonzales: Almora makes a diving catch in CF to end the 5th. having quite a week. and Muskat: Kyle Hendricks has struck out 7, given up 5 hits over 5 IP vs Angels in B game. then Gonzo: Hendricks done after 5IP. Well, that and after leading off B5 with a double (lifted for pinch runner). Guess MLB.com's website just doesn't cover b games.

I know they should send him to Iowa, but the fanatic in me wants them to say screw it and bring him north.

So I get the Astros sorta dodged a bullet ‏@keithlaw 28 minutes ago Brady Aiken had to shut his first outing down after 12 pitches

wow...cj edwards to AAA camp. bit surprised (but not shocked) he's not going back to AA to start the year. fasttracking...

Does it mean that or does it just mean he was sent to minor league spring training and could end up at either AA or AAA?

supposedly he's been assigned/optioned there...i'm just picking it up off twitter blurbs.

Per AZ Phil's previous description, I would presume that Rob Richardson is correct in noting that C.J. could end up either at AAA or AA. Roster placement at this point is not determinative nor final.

yeah, twitter seems to be more iffy than definite on it the more i read stuff about it. i assumed too much.

minor league designation doesn't mean a whole lot right now, but Edwards in AAA would be the logical progression. Unless a bunch of the major league surplus makes it through waivers or accepts minor league assignments.

night baseball! woo. also, what is up with a.rizzo's hair? my god...

i hope ARZ's front office is paying close attention to welly throwing out one of their speedsters by a few steps in the 1st... it's getting weird...almost like they're not bluffing about going into the season with their sketchy C options (especially with p.obrien not stepping up this spring). it's also looking like DET is going to go with j.mccann backing up the sketchy a.avilia given mccann's spring so far...so that's probably 1 less team that was thought to be looking a backup.

Dang Baez really has lost some weight! He was batting .111 1 HR 1 RBI OBP of .111 And sure enough he took walk number 1 of the spring.

what a horrible 8th...too much to say, too little of it good...at least it's all guys not expected to break with the team.

twitter seems to have been caught by surprise by Baez might start season in Iowa talk. I feel we all knew that after Winter Ball and a week of spring training. 

 

and suspected that the Cubs were hedging their bet when they traded for LaSella.

full of Maddon quotes about Baez in todays Tribune by Mark Gonzalez:Mad-don said Thursday night before Baez and the Cubs were scheduled to face the Diamondbacks at Salt River Fields.
“Of course there’s a chance he might not make the team,” “There no law in regards to that." “We talked about the entitlement program that doesn’t exist. Everything has to be earned, especially with the young guys. When you’re a veteran guy you might come in here and have a bad camp, but you know the guy’s track record. It’s a different story." “A young guy is trying to earn his stripes, (but) you can’t give him the keys to the car. You just can’t do it, so you watch him closely.” “He has things he has to learn yet,” Maddon said. “He shows signs of brilliance. He has had a lot of good at-bats. He has hit some balls hard. And then he will show the out-of-control swing that bothers him a little bit, and I think it bothers the fans more than it bothers me." “It’s just a young guy trying to figure this all out. He has incredible bat speed. (Mistakes) will be rectified. He just needs plate appearances.”

In other words, figure it out in Iowa or pack your bags for Japan.

Recent comments

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  • Arizona Phil 38 min 18 sec ago (view)

    The fact hat the Cubs have not run him through waivers by now tells me the Cubs know Duane Underwood Jr is a lock to get claimed and so they are hoping to find a club that would be willing to give the Cubs something more than the $50,000 waiver price in return for Dunderwood (either more $$$ and/or a player). 

     

  • Arizona Phil 1 hour 20 min ago (view)

    Today's pitchers, most of them the same guys who threw last Tuesday: 

    Alec Mills:
    FB: 89-91 
    SL: 81 
    CH: 81-82 
    CV: 67-70 
    COMMENT: This just in: Mills heater now sitting at 91!!!!... had two easy innings and looked very good... threw only a handful of his "Bugs Bunny curves" but they are fun to watch because hitters don't know how to deal with it... ... 

    Craig Kimbrel: 
    FB: 93-96 
    CT: 87-88 
    SL: 82-84 

     

  • Arizona Phil 1 hour 54 min ago (view)

    DJL: Jason Adam sustained a right elbow fracture a few years ago and missed two full seasons, and when he returned to action he started using a "short-arm" delivery. 

     

  • crunch 1 hour 54 min ago (view)

    baez "soft tissue injury"...no biggie...it's spring.  he'll be back in a day or 2.

     

  • crunch 4 hours 3 min ago (view)

    kimbrel...K, single, HBP, 3 more hits...inning called due to pitch count.  4 earned.

    also, baez removed after being HBP on the hand.

    neat.

     

  • First.Pitch.120 10 hours 16 min ago (view)

    Cotton McKnight: In 23 years of broadcasting I thought I'd seen it all, folks. But it looks like Peter La Fleur has actually blindfolded himself.

    Pepper Brooks: He will not be able to see very well, Cotton. 

     

  • First.Pitch.120 10 hours 17 min ago (view)

    Yes! Exactly... I'd love to be able to watch coverages in football or just key-in on a great WR to watch them work.

     

  • First.Pitch.120 10 hours 20 min ago (view)

    Wow... this is the most engagement I have ever received on any topic on social media platform. Please stay tuned for my opinions on the Oxford Comma, the APA Style Manual for Academic Writing, and the auto-correct on my iPhone.  

    I am an awesome guy at parties.... 

     

  • bradsbeard 20 hours 44 min ago (view)

    I watched some of the Puerto Rican Winter League games that Miguel Amaya played in this winter. At least one broadcast had a super wide shot for balls in play that let you see the OF and the baserunners at the same time. It was awesome. 

     

  • Wrigley Rat 23 hours 50 min ago (view)

    3 dots on this evening's Cubs-Dodgers game - makes sense & they do color in the 3rd dot as they're going to commericals (Spectrum Sportsnet).

     

  • crunch 1 day 2 hours ago (view)

    3 dot crew represent.  i didn't have an opinion, but now i'm 100% on board.

     

  • Charlie 1 day 2 hours ago (view)

    I agree on most of this, but I especially support three fillable dots for the outs--and fill in the third before cutting to a commercial!

    Not doing homework on the players in a Spring Training broadcast is pretty forgiveable, but ESPN is really bad about it pretty much all year. It would be nice if they made a habit of picking up a local color commentator and sort of interviewing them throughout games.

     

  • George Altman 1 day 6 hours ago (view)

    The single thing I want in a sports broadcast is to become smarter about the sport,  to learn something from the broadcast crew.

    Stone does that, Romo does that, Eddie O on hockey, and that's about it. I watch sporting events with the sound down very low or off. I forgot more about baseball than most broadcasters will ever know, and I'm always shocked when I see something in a football game that the crew doesn't,  and I know about NOTHING about football. 

     

  • First.Pitch.120 1 day 8 hours ago (view)

    Also... what is with only having 2 dots as the outs counter? I know that you don't really need the 3rd dot, but I find it counter-intuitive. If the dots fill in, then only having 2 throws me off b/c it's natural to subitize "3" associated with outs. You quickly see 0/3, 1/3, 2/3.  If the graphic does not have fill-in dots, then just put the #.  eg - OUTS: 1  It's minimalism for the sake of minimalism, not graphic design for effective communication.

     

  • crunch 1 day 9 hours ago (view)

    tight shots + insane amount of screen real estate being taken up with graphics is a bit of a plague...especially the ones with a non-stop bottom news ticker.

     

  • First.Pitch.120 1 day 9 hours ago (view)

    General comment on baseball broadcasting... I think that the color comentator (CC) needs to talk about 30% more & the PBP about 30% less. I would love a more stream of consciousness from the CC outlining what they would be looking for in a given situation. To that end, why not have 2 CC for national broadcasts - one a pitcher & one a position player. Would love for them to banter back & forth on micro strategy from their perspectives. I think this would turn the game's pauses between action into more of an asset.