I’ve noticed a concerning trend on Twitter, cropping up in causal conversation, and, I’m ashamed to admit, even my father is participating in this ungodly practice: taking spring training seriously. Listen to any broadcast this March and you will reliably hear a commentator utter the phrase “it’s spring training for everyone” in reference to a blown call by an ump, a mask slipping down the face of a manager, a bat boy knocking over a rack of lumber, or the beer man dropping a Ball Park frank. You know why you’ll hear that platitude? Because it is spring “training”, not spring “mid-season form”. Pitchers are finding their release points, batters are cleaning up their swings, and Eloy Jiménez is deciding how many buttons on his jersey he wants to undo this season. For fans, spring training should signal a return to baseball, nothing more. A ritualistic preparation for the impending season, not a premonition of what is to come. It should be appraised with the same seriousness that is attributed to children’s tea parties and the Thanksgiving Day Parade. Spring training is extra baseball, an opportunity to reunite with the players, coaches, and voices that fans have sorely missed for the past several months while also becoming acquainted with future stars taking their first hacks around Major Leaguers before being shipped back to Double-A. My point is, the season does not hinge on a team’s spring training performance, beyond getting arms and bats prepared for the grind of the season, and fans should treat it as such. To prove spring training’s irrelevance to predicting the regular season, let’s take a look at the last few years of ST and compare what happens in March to the full 162.
Because the summer camp for 2020 was weird and abnormal, let’s jump back to 2019 to start this exercise. The LA Dodgers had a monster year, racking up 106 wins only to get edged out in the postseason by the eventual champion Washington Nationals. In spring, though, the Dodgers went a measly 14-15, not even drawing to an even .500. On the flip side, the Miami Marlins had a killer March, posting a 15-13 record, en route to a 57-105 regular season tally. Ouch.
Turning the clock back another year to 2018, The Atlanta Braves had a very respectable 90-72 season, good for a .556 winning percentage and the National League East title. They started their year by dropping 18 spring training games, only trimumping in 13, a negative record. On the opposite coast, the San Diego Padres posted a division-worst 66-96 record in regular season contests, but kicked off their spring by taking 15 of 25 games, making them the second most winning team in the Arizona Cactus League.
Just to really rub it in, let’s check out a year at random: 2006. Kansas City tore through the Cactus League, notching a 17-10 record and leading all teams in a rather competitive division. That performance swiftly evaporated in the following months, with the Royals limping to the finish line carrying an abysmal 62-100 record, staring at dead last place in the AL Central. Whereas the New York Yankees didn’t even walk out of spring training with a positive win percentage at .484 (15-16), and proceeded to capture the AL East division by a ten-game gap (97-65). Make it make sense.
Now, did some teams have great springs and go on to also have stellar seasons? Absolutely. Did other teams perform atrociously during their exhibition games and play just as painfully in the regular season? Of course they did. My illustrations were not meant to provide an air-tight argument or carry untouchable credibility, but rather gently persuade that spring isn’t a true indicator of a team’s talent and playing ability. Let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that any pitch thrown in the Cactus or Grapefruit league matters outside of building arm strength, training batters’ eyes, and making for some entertaining Tweets.
Spring training could be a quiet affair, far from the discerning, hawkish stares of fans, in which the players physically and mentally prepare themselves for another year of aching muscles, tired shoulders, and inevitable slumps. But, blessedly, it isn’t. The league allows the fans to engage in spring training because baseball means something intangible and beautiful to the millions of faithful who, no matter what outcome their team faced the year before, enter the new season with relentless hope and optimism. Perhaps their underperforming team might underdog their way into contention, or their powerhouse squad is poised to make a deep run into October. Both could happen, or neither. That’s the thing about this game, it is a master of subversion. Nobodies become somebodies and titans are brought to their knees with almost no warning. The beginning of a fresh season is magical because, miraculously, anything can happen. Don’t let that magic fade because a writer for your local paper needed a headline. So, next time your favorite media member publishes an article entitled “X Player Looking Lost In Spring: Why You Should Freak Out”, maybe relax a little, savor the magic, and enjoy the sound of cowhide-wrapped yarn being sent 430 feet to dead center field.
‘Cause baseball is almost back, baby.
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