The magic of Spring Training. The dew-glistened grass and the crack of the bat. All the things baseball fans miss the most about the Boys of Summer come rushing back when camps open and the Grapefruit/Cactus League schedule kicks into high gear.
This juncture of Spring Training (most teams are about ten games in) is exactly when something else kicks into high gear: total and complete separation from reality.
After ten games – ten MEANINGLESS games – an ever-growing segment of the population is either folding up the tents on the season or planning the victory parade for October. Ken Rosenthal, probably the best baseball reporter working right now, is already freaking out over the Braves slow Spring start. He mentions slow starts at the plate for Jason Heyward and shortstop-elect Tyler Pastornicky, wondering if the Braves 1-10 record might be hangover from last year’s September collapse.
It is worrisome stuff, right up until the money quote from an “unnamed excec” – “I don’t think it’s reflective of anything one way or the other.” Good call, because it is not reflective of anything, other than dog whistle column to stoke the fears of sensitive fans.
The games are meaningless for a host of reasons, best summed up in two words: Split. Squad. The Braves have played eleven games, the Cardinals and Tigers just seven. There is a lot of talent in a given Major League system but enough to support two full teams of players in two simultaneous games? Not so much.
The quality of competition is diluted. In these early contests, most big league starts only throw three innings. Most pitchers take the mound with a very specific mandate that isn’t “get them all out.” The annual “Roy Halladay gives up four runs in two innings because he is throwing 50% changeups” starts always brings out the wackos.
Looking for a dead giveaway that spring results need a heaping spoonful of salt accompaniment? Watch for the coded language and back-peddling that always precedes effusive praise. “Well, it is only against one big league regular, and that guy only got his job because of injury, but boy! Did Player X look sharp today!”
The soft language says one thing and the hard numbers backs it up. The worst spring team in 2010? The AL Champion Texas Rangers. The 2011 Arizona Diamondbacks lost more spring games than any team in baseball. They won the NL West going away.
In keeping with the tiny sample-sized and wholly unscientific theme, I compared \the spring records of all thirty teams in both 2010 and 2011 to their regular season action. Guess what? It doesn’t mean much.
Good teams have good springs, bad teams have good springs. Good teams have bad springs. Most importantly, spring training is so completely unlike regular season in just about every way, attempting to draw grand conclusions between holding the Nick Johnson-led Baltimore Orioles scoreless and actual regular season success is folly.
When watching spring games, I like to look for two things: home runs and strikeouts. Hitting home runs is good, provided they come off legit pitching. Strikeouts, especially swinging, are important when it is big league talent flailing away. Are pitchers hitting their spots? That matters too.
Other than that..let Spring Training be what it is: a fun exhibition, an opportunity for players to work themselves into game shape and chance for the clubs to line their pockets a little bit. That’s about it.