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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

March 3, 2009 at 10:57 AM

The meaning of spring success (or lack thereof)

One of my favorite rituals of spring training during the Lou Piniella era used to be the annual meltdown, when the Mariners would blunder their way through a Cactus League game and Mt. Lou would erupt. You could set your watch to it.

“I’ll tell you what: I ain’t looking at this expletive any more,” he’d fume. “We’re going to tighten it up, or I’ll start looking at other guys.”

I always felt that Piniella welcomed the ragged games, because it gave him a chance to establish a serious tone as the season neared.

Piniella never much sweated wins and losses in spring, because he knew how meaningless they really were. Think about it: Teams are using loads of players that will never get a sniff of action when the real season starts. And when they do use their regulars, they’re usually long gone in the later innings when the game is in the balance. Not only that, but established players, particularly pitchers, are concentrating the first few weeks on rounding into shape, not on results. Put all that together, and a team’s win-loss record really is mostly meaningless, at least until perhaps the last week, when teams attempt to sharpen up and play at full speed. But even then, teams will hold back their top players and curb down their pitching.

This comes to mind as the Mariners remain undefeated in five spring games. I’d caution not to get too giddy over this, even if they continue to romp in the Cactus League. I’ve never found there to be any correlation between spring success and regular-season success. Managers sometimes talk about “setting a winning tone,” and I’m sure the Rays felt their 18-8 record last spring propeled them into their hugely successful season. But for every story like that, I can counter with the 2006 Kansas City Royals, whose 17-10 Cactus League record set the tone for a 62-100 record. Conversely, the 2001 Mariners were 13-19 in spring, eliciting Piniella’s annual rant in mid-March. They recovered in time to win 116 games. Going the other way, the 2004 Mariners thought they had something going when they went 18-10-1 in spring, only to limp their way to a 63-99 record.

Here’s a look at the last five years that shows how impossible it is to gauge spring trends from win-loss records. I’ve taken the eventual World Series winner, the team(s) with the best winning percentage during the regular season, and the team with the worst winning percentage, and looked back at their spring records. Sometimes the World Series winner had a good spring, winning-wise, like the 2004 Red Sox. Sometimes, they had an average spring, like the 2006 Cardinals. And sometimes they had a lousy spring, like the 2008 Phillies. Draw your own conclusions:

2004

Spring record Season record

Boston Red Sox 17-12 (.586); 98-64 (.605)

St. Louis Cardinals 17-12 (.568); 105-57 (.648)

Arizona Diamondbacks 15-17 (.469); 51-111 (.315)

2005

Chicago White Sox 14-18 (.438); 99-69 (.611)

St. Louis Cardinals 15-11 (.577); 100-62 (.617)

Kansas City Royals 14-15-3 (.483); 56-106 (.346)

2006

St. Louis Cardinals 15-14 (.517); 83-78 (.516)

New York Mets 16-14-1 (.533); 97-65 (.599)

New York Yankees 15-16 (.484); 97-65 (.599)

Tampa Bay Devil Rays 13-16-1 (.448); 61-101 (.377)

2007

Boston Red Sox 15-12 (.556); 96-66 (.593)

Cleveland Indians 16-14 (.533); 96-66 (.593)

Tampa Bay Devil Rays 10-19 (.345); 66-96 (.407)

2008

Philadelphia Phillies 12-18 (.400); 92-70 (.568)

Los Angeles Angels 19-10 (.655); 100-62 (.617)

Washington Nationals 12-18 (.400); 59-102 (.366)

And here’s a look at the Mariners’ spring records and subsequent regular-season records in each of their 32 years of existence. What’s interesting is that in the early years, spring training was a pretty good indicator: they were lousy in spring, and lousy in the regular season. But once they broke through with their first winning record in 1991 (after a staggering 14 losing years in a row, starting at their inception in 1977), there appears to be no rhyme nor reason to the relationship between spring record and the regular season that followed.

1977: 9-15 (.375); 64-98 (.395)

1978: 12-13 (.480); 56-104 (.350)

1979: 9-13 (.409); 67-95 (.414)

1980: 8-12 (.400); 59-103 (.364)

1981: 11-18 (.379); 44-65 (.404)

1982: 10-12 (.455); 76-86 (.469)

1983: 11-14 (.440); 60-102 (.370)

1984: 14-13 (.519); 74-88 (.457)

1985: 12-16 (.429); 74-88 (.457)

1986: 13-15 (.464); 67-95 (.414)

1987: 12-17 (.414); 78-84 (.481)

1988: 15-15 (.500); 68-93 (.422)

1989: 16-15 (.516); 73-89 (.451)

1990: 7-9 (.438); 77-85 (.475)

1991: 17-13 (.567); 83-79 (.512)

1992: 13-16 (.448); 64-98 (.395)

1993: 16-14 (.533); 82-80 (.506)

1994: (21-9 (.700); 49-63 (.438)

1995: (5-8 (.385); 79-66 (.545)

1996: 13-15 (.464); 85-76 (.528)

1997: 16-16 (.500); 90-72 (.556)

1998: 18-14 (.563); 76-85 (.472)

1999: 20-12 (.625); 79-83 (.488)

2000: 13-16 (.448); 91-71 (.562)

2001: 13-19 (.406); 116-46 (.716)

2002: 15-17 (.469); 93-69 (.574)

2003: 13-18-2 (.419); 93-69 (.574)

2004: 18-10-1 (.643); 63-99 (.389)

2005: 13-16-3 (.448); 69-93 (.426)

2006: 11-18-1 (.379); 78-84 (.481)

2007: 14-20 (.412); 88-74 (.543)

2008: 13-16 (.448); 61-101 (.377)

Enjoy the Mariners’ spring success while you can. It probably will have absolutely no bearing on the season that follows.

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