Spring training has existed in some form since the 19th century, but to this day no one really knows what to do with the statistics that are generated in that prelude to baseball’s regular season. The tendency of fans to get excited about good performances while writing off bad ones as meaningless has created an ambiguity that the sport seems unable to shake.
But with pitchers and catchers set to report this week, an earnest attempt to derive meaning from last year’s small sample of spring training results shows that there is at least some relationship between the successes and failures of spring and those of the regular season — although nothing is guaranteed in either direction.
Hope for some correlation can be found in the examples of the New York Mets and the Kansas City Royals, two breakout teams in spring training last year that went on to face each other in the World Series.
On the other hand, Seattle Mariners catcher Mike Zunino provides a particularly stark example of how spring training can be misleading.
In the Cactus League last spring, Zunino posted a 1.287 on-base plus slugging percentage, a mark that left him behind only Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels among spring regulars. He hit seven home runs, which put him behind only Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs, and looked as if he could have been on the verge of the breakout some had expected since he was drafted with the third overall pick in the 2012 draft.
Unfortunately for Zunino and the Mariners, it was all a mirage. He went on to post a .530 OPS during the regular season, the worst mark in the majors among hitters with at least 350 at-bats. Zunino hit 11 home runs but had just 61 hits in 112 games, and by the measure of Baseball-Reference.com, he was 51 percent worse than the major league average when his OPS was adjusted for his league and his ballpark.
The disastrous season led to his demotion to the minors on Aug. 28. The Mariners said at the time that he could be back in the majors quickly, as long as he got out of his slump. But he did not play in another game with Seattle.
“We hoped that he would come around,” Lloyd McClendon, then the manager of the Mariners, told reporters when Zunino was sent down. “But I think it got to the point where the offensive pressure was starting to get to him from a defensive standpoint.”
Zunino serves as a cautionary tale, but as one might expect, the best players during the regular season were among the best in spring training as well. Among the top 10 players in baseball in adjusted OPS during the regular season, only Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds could be described as having struggled in spring training, when his .725 OPS was nowhere near the 1.000 OPS he went on to post. Like Votto, the star players Brett Gardner of the New York Yankees, Russell Martin of the Toronto Blue Jays and Anthony Rizzo of the Cubs had terrible springs that did not portend regular-season collapses.
But the bottom of the pack in spring training OPS was also predictably filled with players who produced poor results in the regular season. Alcides Escobar, the Royals’ starting shortstop, was among the worst hitters in the spring with a .477 OPS, and he had a terrible offensive season, even if his defensive reputation and his strong early batting average led to an All-Star Game appearance.
Emilio Bonifacio, who was trying to rebuild his sagging career with the Chicago White Sox, posted a .452 OPS in spring training, which was a fairly accurate preview of the .390 OPS that he delivered in 47 regular-season games before he was released in August.
From a team perspective, the results were similarly mixed. While Mets and Royals fans were justified in their preseason excitement, the other top team of spring training was the Oakland Athletics, who went from a 22-11 record (.667 winning percentage) in the Cactus League to a 68-94 record (.420) in the regular season, tying for the fourth-worst mark in the majors and finishing last in the American League West.
It is hard to take the records of the winning teams in spring training all that seriously since five of the 10 best spring training teams ended up in the playoffs and the other five all ended up with losing records. The performances of the bad spring training teams were just as confusing: Nine of the bottom 10 missed the playoffs, but six finished with a record of .500 or better.
It seems that, as just about anyone would suspect, it is better to be good in spring training than it is to be bad. But when the games get going, it will be worth remembering that if a performance seems too good to be true — as Zunino’s and the Athletics’ did — it probably is.
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