Let me begin by saying I love spring training. Baseball is my first love, so any sign that the season is around the corner gets me giddy. There is just one problem… It’s too damn long. Pitchers and catchers reported mid-February and won’t play any meaningful baseball until April 2nd on opening day. That’s 6+ weeks of drills and meaningless baseball games, which can be hard for the casual fan to follow. An added challenge for most is that many games are not on TV or are afternoon games during the week.
Over the years I have developed a system for knowing what to look for (and not look for) during spring training games. Hopefully it helps you decipher what’s really important this time of year.
What to Watch For (and Ignore)
Watch for Pitcher Ramp-Up, Ignore Pitcher Stat Lines
The most reasonable explanation for a long spring training is the need for a slow build-up of stamina for starting pitchers (and even some relievers). In order to reduce injury risk, most pitchers slowly add workload throughout the month of games in order to be ready for opening day. Watch for starters to begin with an inning or two, around 20-30 pitches initially, then slowly add pitches and innings leading to a more normal-looking start in late March.
During that span, ignore pitcher stat lines. There is nothing more frustrating for me than to read an alarmist article about a starter giving up 4 runs in an inning in March. Every pitcher is unique and their throwing schedules vary greatly. Some pitchers will spend an outing just working on their fastball with very few (or no) secondary pitches. Some will work on their curveball almost exclusively at times to try and improve that particular pitch. ERA and record mean very little in the spring, unless you have a pitcher with a fragile level of confidence (a whole other conversation).
Watch for Quality At-Bats, Ignore Batting Averages
Another mistake made in the spring is looking at player batting averages and projecting regular season success based on them. There are sometimes the case of a young player getting hot in the spring and carrying it over into the season, and that shouldn’t be fully ignored, but the majority of the time it just doesn’t matter. If you are watching a spring game, take a look at how the player approaches an at-bat, how many pitches they see, how fluid and comfortable they look in the batters box. Those things can be much subtle, but also more telling than average.
Let’s take the 2016 Red Sox spring training as an example. David Ortiz played in 18 games, had 45 at-bats, and hit .178 with 2 doubles, 1 HR, and 10 Ks. In the first month of the regular season, Ortiz hit .321 with 5 HRs, 11 doubles, and 14 Ks (22 games, 78 at-bats). Ortiz came right out of the gate with a HR and double on opening day and played well in April, even though his spring was bad. Zero correlation in his case. It’s an extreme example, but proves the point.
Watch for Young Prospects, Ignore Records
After spending time telling you to ignore batting averages, I’m going to slightly modify my stance here in reference to young prospects. Spring is the best time to see young players get reps and try to impress their organization honchos. This may be the only time most fans are able to watch the young guns perform, so take advantage. Sometimes a strong spring for a young player will result in a longer look for a minor league promotion or even a future big-league roster spot. Just ask Jackie Bradley Jr. or Travis Shaw if spring can be the difference in making the MLB roster or not (hint: it did for both of them).
The absolute #1 thing to ignore in the spring is a win/loss record. It is by far the most meaningless stat, because players are slotted in prior to each game to give everyone appropriate playing time. It doesn’t matter if the team is up 10 or down 10, the manager has a plan for player usage and usually follows it closely. On top of that, it is rare that a full regular season lineup is all starting on the same day with an MLB caliber starter on the mound. It will be even less likely this year with the World Baseball Classic happening in conjunction with spring training games. For example, Xander Bogaerts left to play for team Netherlands on 2/28 and won’t play in another game for the Red Sox until at least mid-to-late March, and perhaps not again until the regular season. If you are hoping to see the Red Sox opening day lineup anytime soon, you will be disappointed.