If you’re interested in handicapping baseball then spring training is always a big question mark. As much as the MLB has become stat-driven, it still isn’t quite clear exactly how spring training stats transfer to the regular season. That goes for both individual performances and entire teams.
I’m going to make the case that spring training is not a source of good information for anyone. It isn’t enough like the regular-season conditions and the performance motivation is different. Studying these games isn’t going to help you beat the MLB lines.
First of all, it’s important to start off by saying that pitchers are not using their full arsenal of pitches in spring training. That affects both their stats and those of the opposing lineups. Pitchers spend much of the preseason trying to build up their fastball and getting to full strength.
The fastball requires a lot of power, obviously, so it takes time and effort for each pitcher to reach their full potential. That means they throw fastballs a lot more often than they will in the regular season.
Because of that, hitters also see a different set of pitches than what is typical.
Young hitters will often perform very well in spring training because of this. When the regular season starts their numbers drop a lot when they see off-speed pitches. Veteran hitters are used to how training works and spend the time honing their hitting motion and mechanics, so their numbers aren’t as high as they will be in the regular season.
The bottom line is that the way pitchers choose what to work on in spring training makes it hard to draw real conclusions about anyone.
In addition, the spring training period really is just a warmup period. Few of the players are trying their best to win games the same way they would if it counted. This is the time when the players are trying to get back on their feet after the offseason. Winning games isn’t as important as getting into midseason form as quickly as possible.
There is not much to gain from winning a spring training game, but it is precious field time to practice in game situations. That entails trying out different things, experimentation, and revisiting basic mechanics. Sometimes those goals conflict with winning the game at hand. As a result, the box score and other measures of both individual and aggregate performance aren’t representative of how players will act in the regular season.
Combine that with the fact that some players might need to make up some ground on strength and conditioning and it’s clear that it doesn’t make sense to treat spring training stats as a preview of the regular season. They are qualitatively different.
Moreover, not only are players trying to develop their form and power, they are also trying to avoid getting injured so early in the season. Getting injured during a meaningless game doesn’t appeal to most players. They’d rather play it safe and dial things back a little. That means they might not be running aggressively in these games. Players are not turning in the kind of effort that they will later on. It simply isn’t worth the risk to truly play all-out when the whole season awaits and there’s no real reward for trying that hard.
Finally, we have the historical argument. Even if you reject any of these arguments for why the preseason games don’t matter, it’s simply a historical fact that there is little correlation between success in the preseason and the regular season.
It would be a big stretch to expect that this is the year where preseason performance finally starts to be a meaningful predictor of the regular season. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that the two are just not the same. That’s another sign that you shouldn’t try to evaluate teams and players based on their spring training results. Whether you are trying to get a handle on teams for your early season MLB betting there are better sources of information at hand, like prior regular-season outcomes.
It’s hard to say exactly why the preseason doesn’t seem to indicate what will happen when the season kicks off, but it’s likely a combination of factors. The key is that while it might be entertaining to treat the preseason as a sign of things to come, you shouldn’t do much more than be entertained. The information you get just isn’t useful for predicting what will happen in the coming months. At best, you’ll see odd pitching stats, overperformance from rookie hitters, and underperformance from vets. At worst, nothing you see will be informative at all.
You’ll do better if you analyze things like the performances you saw last season, minor league appearances, and player transactions. Basically everything we recommend on finding improved teams. At least those feature how the players and teams did when there was something on the line. The preseason is not totally devoid of meaning because you can see if players are on track to be ready for the season opener, but try not to extrapolate more than that.