March 31, 2012; Port Charlotte, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox right fielder Darnell McDonald (54) singles in the third inning against the Tampa Bay Rays during their spring training game at Charlotte Sports Park. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Spring Training Statistics Mean Nothing

Spring is a season full of optimism. The greening of the grass, the warm rays of sunshine against your face, and the sound of that familiar crack of the bat. These indelible reminders are what make spring such a great time of the year.  Unfortunately, people mistake this time for optimism as a poor justification for reckless aspirations. It continues to amaze me how people fall for the same old song and dance every spring. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. Perhaps it is just my inherent cynicism. But every year, people mistake spring training success as a predictor for imminent achievement and accomplishment.

Unfortunately, the general public puts way too much stock in spring training statistics when assessing a player’s future performance. I understand it, I really do. People simply want their team’s players to do well, and spring training success acts as a confirmation bias of sorts.

For example, a player on your favorite team hits .400 and suddenly, he’s primed for a breakout season. Or maybe a career journeyman catches fire, and is now expected to be  a legitimate starter for a club with playoff aspirations. Perhaps a strong spring justifies the big contract given out to a player the previous winter. Yet, when the games actually begin to MATTER, some players fail to live up to the pre-season hype. It’s not that the players succumb to the pressure of playing major league ball. These guys have been playing baseball their entire life; playing games that matter shouldn’t alter their psyche or approach. It’s the idea that expectations based on incredibly small sample sizes are meaningful at all.

In fact, all of the above examples were real cases of 2012 spring training success stories but regular season disappointment. Eric Hosmer, following a superb rookie campaign, hit .398 and led the circuit with 29 RBI in the spring. When it mattered, he hit .232 and saw his power disappear, hitting only 14 home runs and slugged .359. Longtime journeyman Darnell McDonald tried to make his spring performance a launch pad for his career, hitting .427/.512/.816 in eighteen games. However, once the regular season began, McDonald remained the same old McDonald, and was later designated for assignment in June. Additionally, Albert Pujols hit .385 and had a league leading 7 home runs following the inking of his mega-contract signed earlier that offseason. While Pujols was still productive, it was the worst season of his career and certainly did not match the expectations produced from his contract and productive spring.

Incredibly, year after year, people continue to fall for the farce of spring training statistics. Statistically speaking, there is practically no evidence linking spring training numbers to regular season production. Using the coefficient of determination (r2), a number’s correlation to other data can be determined. It may seem a bit math-y, but it is really quite simple.  An r2 value close to zero (0) represents data that has practically no correlation while values closer to 1.0 show data that greatly supports and correlates with the data. I know in Earl’s piece, he stated there was an r2 value of .21 for spring training statistics, but more recent data suggests even less correlation. In a piece from Beyond the Box Score, Lance Rinker found that a hitter’s average, on-base, and slugging numbers had r2 values of .034, .002, and .052, respectively. This correlation is as close to meaningless as possible, and further proves the lack of predicative value spring training numbers provide.

Just as Earl perfectly detailed in his piece, spring training is full of fallacies. One such example was that of the young phenom, who is prematurely labeled as baseball’s next big thing. Sure, while there are guys like Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, who blow past every expectation imaginable and truly live up to the hype, most players are not Trout and Harper. Unsurprisingly, following the seasons put together by last year’s rookies of the year, people are already clamoring for baseball’s next young star.

To many, that next young star is Jackie Bradley Jr. Bradley has hit a robust .484/.590/.645 this spring with plenty claiming he should start the season in the majors. Don’t get me wrong, I am plenty excited for Bradley to be in a Sox uniform. It’s just that rushing him to the Majors because of a couple of spring training at-bats is short-sighted and lazy. First off, the Sox have no nowhere for him to play. A little more seasoning never hurt anyone and would almost certainly benefit from playing every day. Furthermore, it is unfair and ridiculous to think that just because Bradley has crushed spring pitching, it is a foregone conclusion that he will perform at the Major League level. It is common knowledge that pitchers specifically work on things in spring training and quite honestly just do not give 100% in effort to stay healthy. Lastly, the sample sizes seen in spring training numbers are way too minute to credibly give any definite conclusion regarding a player. Just like a coin flipped twice might land twice on heads, it doesn’t mean there is an 100% chance of getting heads; it is simply too small of a sample.

So please, stop quoting spring training statistics and act like they mean something. They don’t.

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Tags: Jackie Bradley Jr. Spring Training

  • Wendy L Wheeler-Brackett

    I agree that using Spring training as your Only gauge would be stupid and wrong BUT when evaulating players you have to use some of what you see in Spring training, some of what they’ve done in the past and marry those together some how in order to get a complete and overall “value” for said player. I would pay particlar attention to Hitters & Pitchers toward the End of Spring training ad see who performing the best at that time. In other words if Carp is hitting .275 at that time and Nava is hitting .220 I would keep Carp on the big squad over Nava, afterall you are supposed to field the best possible team in an attempt to win right?
    As far as Bradley he has a strong history in the minors to go along with this great Spring training. As far as there not being a place for him to play I strongly disagree. Gomes is and always has been a part time player. And IMO he should have been signed to be our 4th OF’r not the primary LF’r. But because of service time I WOULD send Bradley jr to the minors for the first month of the season to prolong his Red Sox service time.
    Ellsbury should have been traded well before now and if he were this wouldnt even be an issue, Bradley jr would be up to stay. I would give Ellsbury that 1 month to pull himself back together ( combined with Spring training) and if he doesnt he should be gone regardless of return and Bradley jr should be inserted in CF to stay. Jackie is the future, not Jacoby and jr has a brite future IMO.

    • Aidan Flynn

      Wendy, thanks for commenting. Clearly, the goal of every major league team is to field its best players. However, my point is that a sample size of 40 at bats is way too minute to base roster moves on. Add in the fact that these numbers rarely, if ever, correlate to regular season performance, and it just further proves that these numbers are pretty much worthless. Maybe if both players were previously neck-and-neck for a job and one had a far superior spring, his numbers could justify his spot. But even with that, I would look at handedness, positional versatility, youth, and a host of other factors before looking at spring numbers.

      As for Bradley, let me say I absolutely LOVE him as a player. He hits for average, walks, has good speed, and is a superb defender. There is no reason why he shouldn’t be the leadoff hitter on Opening Day 2014 for the Sox. However, I think he needs everyday at-bats and guaranteed playing time. I agree Gomes isn’t much of an outfielder, but with money tied to him and Victorino, along with Ellsbury implanted in CF (or at least until he gets hurt), fact of the matter is Bradley wouldn’t be getting that everyday opportunity. I think he is ready for the Majors, whether he hit .220 this spring or .480. Yet, combine the facts that he wouldn’t play everyday and a stay at AAA would keep his arbitration clock from starting, and I think it is clear as to what the decision should be. Very good comment Wendy

    • John Fahrer

      Ellsbury will be fine. The best return will likely come in the form of two draft picks if he departs as a qualifying offer eligible free agent. If they fall out of contention, they could try to trade him. Not many teams are crazy about dealing something equal to two early round picks with that new CBA rule (if a player is traded, he will not be eligible for a qualifying offer).

      But if Bradley rakes in Triple A for the first few weeks, he’ll be up with the big club. And he’ll be in center while Ellsbury shifts to left.

      • Victoria Roberts

        Why would they get two draft picks? I though you only got one if you made a qualifying offer.

  • Earl Nash

    Moving a prospect onto a MLB roster is an art form. Move the player too soon and you could ruin his confidence. “We will serve no wine before it’s time.” Most of the significant action in Spring training takes place on the practice fields, batting cages, and bullpens; these are the places where the coaches evaluate progress and potential.

  • John Cate

    Bob Welch went 0-3 with a 17.72 ERA in spring training in 1990. Then, when they started playing real games, he went 27-6, 2.95. That is all you need to know about how meaningful spring training stats are.

  • Victoria Roberts

    “old Macdonald” was as absolutely brilliant turn of phrase.