William Shakespeare provides the most elegant description of Spring training in Macbeth:
“…it is a tale…Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.”
Except to serve as a happy harbinger of the imminent arrival of The Summer Game, as well as an opportunity for media morons to practice their hyped Happy Horseshit routines, and get a tan, Spring training is virtually insignificant.
The Three Fallacies of Spring Training:
- Statistics predict how players and teams will perform in the coming season.
- The Phenom Phantasy, where a Minor league prospect forces his way onto the Major League roster. And, just might be “The Next [Big Star].”
- Warm weather and exercise allows players to “round into shape.”
One of the first principles of statistics is sample size and validity; the larger the sample size, the more likely the derived projections will be predictive.
Still, baseball “fanatics” become intoxicated by the bubbly brew that issues from the mouths of pretentious prophets feverishly working to fill the air-time for their profit-driven, corporate media masters.
“To those who think Spring Training is meaningless….
Is Matt Harvey’s performance this afternoon meaningless.
He was near 100 on the slow gun, hitting every spot…………”
So spake betting website prophet, Steve Nash [no relation to NBA star or author.]
The baseball rube reads volumes into a syllable. Would you take betting advice from a guy who doesn’t know that most Major league hitters can crush a 100 MPH heater, unless it has some movement?
Odds are better than even that he also believes that a player who has hit an inordinate number of HRs in Spring training is bound for The Show.
“Split squad” games are common, where the Spring training rosters are broken into two unevenly talented teams, usually a mix of proven veteran players and scrubeenies, so one needs to look at the boxscores to see just who was pitching against this “Next Babe Ruth.”
Consider: “In Spring Training you’re just trying to get outs, and guys are trying to work on their own stuff,” There’s times you’ll throw a pitch to a guy and probably get him out, but because of what he might be trying to work on that day, you’ve just got to kind of throw it out the window.” [A. J. Pierzynski, MLB catcher]
Even if a player is racking up hits and HRs against veteran pitchers, it is typical that the hurlers are trying out a new pitch, or working to refine a weak one. In the last few games, the veterans finish their experiments and the results are a bit more realistic.
“…it’s not often that pitchers showcase their full repertoire of pitches, especially early on. There are also days where a specific pitch might be the focus for a pitcher, meaning he’ll throw his sinker in counts where he’d throw a breaking ball during the regular season.” [A. J. Pierzynski, MLB catcher]
Sports Illustrated’s Sky Andrecheck, a confessed statistician by trade, in his article “Spring training games aren’t as meaningless as they may seem,” had to stretch his Official Major League Baseball Licensed Replica Lycra Jersey to find anything numeric note.
“Going back to 2003, there is a small but noticeable correlation (r-squared of .21). That’s not a very strong correlation, but it certainly is more informative than nothing. “
Q: What is less informative than nothing?
Shakespeare: “Nothing shall come of nothing.” [King Lear]
The Sensible Seamheads over on FanGraphs ran their fancy formulas and squeezed out two significant stats from Spring training:
- K% and BB% may help identify breakout and bust performers for the upcoming season.
- Spring ERA is completely useless.
Over on Bleacher Report you can find this parsed farce: Mid-Spring MLB Power Rankings.
“The truth is out there somewhere.” But it will not likely be found in a world of illusion and certainly not in Spring training statistics.
[Skully, The X-Files TV series (1993-2002)]
(NOTE: Also see Spring training stats post on this website by Aiden Flynn.)
Cultures use mythology as a means of explaining the fundamental questions of existence; Americans like a good story, like author Horatio Alger’s books for boys featuring the “rags to riches” myth; some Americans still believe that any child can grow up to be President of the United States.
Baseball’s hoary lore says it started with Phenomenal Smith [LHP, Phil., 1884]; whatever the origin, the myth persists: “The Phenom”– a Minor league player with phenomenal talent, wows the coaches in Spring training, makes the Major league roster, and becomes a star, maybe even on Broadway…”Start spreading the news…I’m leaving today.”
While some International veteran players, especially from Cuba, have burst on the scene and realized instant success–Luis Tiant, Yoenis Cespedes, Aroldis Chapman, Yu Darvish—Mike Trout and Bryce Harper and rare exceptions to the Kid Crashes The Show myth.
Mickey Mantle? The “Commerce Comet,” “The Next Joe DiMaggio”?
“Mantle was invited to the Yankees instructional camp before the 1951 season. After an impressive spring training, Yankees manager Casey Stengel decided to promote Mantle to the majors as a right fielder instead of sending him to the minors. Mickey Mantle’s salary for the 1951 season was $7,500.
“He’s the greatest prospect I’ve seen in my time, and I go back quite a ways. I’ll swear I expect to see that boy just take off and fly any time.” —Bill Dickey on Mickey Mantle
Mantle was assigned uniform #6, signifying the expectation that he would become the next Yankees star, following Babe Ruth (#3), Lou Gehrig (#4) and Joe DiMaggio (#5). Stengel, speaking to SPORT, stated “He’s got more natural power from both sides than anybody I ever saw.”Bill Dickey called Mantle “the greatest prospect [he's] seen in [his] time.”
After a brief slump, Mantle was sent down to the Yankees’ top farm team, the Kansas City Blues. However, he was not able to find the power he once had in the lower minors. Out of frustration, he called his father one day and told him, “I don’t think I can play baseball anymore.” Mutt drove up to Kansas City that day. When he arrived, he started packing his son’s clothes and, according to Mantle’s memory, said “I thought I raised a man. I see I raised a coward instead. You can come back to Oklahoma and work the mines with me.” Mantle immediately broke out of his slump, going on to hit .361 with 11 homers and 50 RBIs during his stay in Kansas City.
Mantle was called up to the Yankees after 40 games with Kansas City, this time wearing uniform #7.”
In the World Series that year, the young Mantle, baseball’s archetypal “Hero,“ was tripped up by Fate and would never realize his full potential:
“In the second game of the 1951 World Series, New York Giants rookie Willie Mays hit a fly ball to right-center field. Mantle, playing right field raced for the ball together with center fielder Joe DiMaggio who called for the ball. In getting out of DiMaggio’s way, Mantle tripped over an exposed drain pipe and severely injured his right knee. This was the first of numerous injuries that would plague his 18-year career with the Yankees.” [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mickey_Mantle]
When Yankee manager Casey Stengel was asked if Mickey Mantle was the greatest player ever, he accurately replied:
“[He was] the best one-legged player I ever saw.” [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mickey_Mantle]
Yes, there were three 17 year-old kids who not only were successful “Phemoms,” but also made it all the way to the Hall of Fame: Bob Feller, Jimmie Fox and Mel Ott. And there was the exceptional Joe Nuxhall, who made his debut on June 10, 1944, one of the war years when players were scarce, at the tender age of 15:
|I was pitching against seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders, kids 13 and 14 years old… All of a sudden, I look up and there’s Stan Musialand the likes. It was a very scary situation.[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_Nuxhall#Teenage_debut]|
But these players were the exceptions to the rule; they are far outnumbered by the “Can’t Miss” list of Failed Phemoms; to wit:
Brien Taylor, Ben Grieve, Lastings Milledge, Sean Burroughs, Drew Henson, Shawn Abner, Delmon Young Andy Larkin, Tyler Pastornicky, Anthony Vasquez, Brandon Wood, Steve Jeltz, Munenori Kawasaki, Dave Skaugstad.
How many of their Rookie cards did you use to start your wood fire?
ROUNDING INTO SHAPE
Warm weather and exercise allows players to “round into shape.”
From the time it began in the 1890’s until around 1972 Spring training had some relevance.
Today’s Commissioner Bud Selig and MLB are mounting an aggressive promotional campaign for Spring training 2013:
“Sun, scenery, history!”
So, let’s recall a bit of history:
“According to the autobiography of former Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck, avoiding racism was one reason the Cactus League was established. In 1947, Veeck was the owner of the minor league Milwaukee Brewers and the team trained in Ocala, Fla. Veeck inadvertently sat in the segregated section of the stands and engaged in conversation with a couple of Black fans. According to Veeck’s book, the local law enforcement told Veeck he could not sit in that section, and then called the Ocala mayor when Veeck argued back. The mayor finally backed down when Veeck threatened to take his team elsewhere for spring training and promised to let the country know why.” [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spring_training#History]
Brilliant baseball innovator, Branch Rickey, essentially invented the “farm system” for developing in-house talent and in 1942, he along with the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Minor League director Buzzy Bavasi, set up the first spring training facility. In Vero Beach, Florida, they took a 104-acre civilian small-craft airport and converted it into the prototype of all Major League facilities.
Rickey also initiated the first batting helmets, batting cages, pitching machines, and a string to outline the strike zone for pitchers working on their control.
“The back of Ken McMullen’s 1973 baseball card has a little cartoon that shows him holding the nozzle to a gas pump (he’s wearing his baseball uniform, naturally) with the caption: “Ken works in a service station in the offseason.” [http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=caple/110126_MLB_second_jobs&sportCat=mlb]
The need to have a “real job” during the off-season changed dramatically in 1972:
In 1969 a courageous St. Cardinals’ OF, Curt Flood, later christened “Dred Scott in Spikes” by conservative columnist George Will, challenged the reserve clause. Although the Nixon Supreme Court refused to end the indentured servant status of baseball players, 5 to 3 in 1972; Marvin Miller persevered and pursued and won free agency for the players in 1975.
The Major League Baseball Players Association became a labor union in 1966. Marvin Miller, an economist with the United Steel Workers of America, was chosen by the players to be the Association’s first executive director.
Since that time, players have had the time and money to hire personal trainers, hit the gym daily, or even build their own exercise facility.
In the Old Days, players working a second job did not have the money or resources to take time to stay physically fit and Spring training did serve the purpose of allowing them to round into playing shape.
Last season  a Major league player’s average salary was $3,213,479; the minimum salary for the 2013 season is $490,000.
Today, players arrive at Spring training in regular season shape and use their pre-season weeks in Florida and Arizona to reacquaint themselves with the finer points of their timing and mechanics.
Despite the over-amped efforts of the media mob to “make it count,” it is no longer necessary for modern day players to “round into shape.” Today, they don’t toss around a medicine ball, they do long toss and then head to the clubhouse for a shower, a massage, a health drink; then, they blow dry their hair, check the stock market on their iPhone, and head out for an upscale dinner in their Bugatti Veyron Super Sports, Austin Martin One-77, or Hummer.
If Shakespeare were alive today, he might find Spring training amusing and observe:
“What fools these mortals be.”*
*Puck, “A Midsummer Nights Dream,” Act 3, scene 2, 110–115.