(Ichiro scores during a recent spring game against the Dodgers. Photo by Associated Press).
I think we can all agree that spring training win-loss records have little bearing on the success (or lack thereof) to come once the bell rings. Here’s a study I did a few years ago that shows the fickleness of Cactus and Grapefruit League standings.
But with the Mariners tearing the cover off the ball through their first 12 spring games, I got to wondering if there’s any correlation between offense displayed in exhibition games, and how a team rakes during the regular season. Just to review, they are hitting .297 as a team (5th best in MLB), with an on-base percentage of .358 (8th), a slugging percentage of .492 (3rd) and an OPS of .850 (6th). They’ve scored more runs (85) than any other team, though to be fair they’ve played more games than all but two teams. However, their rate of 6.7 runs per game ranks among the best in the majors.
So, what does it all mean? First of all, it’s really hard to analyze spring stats for any number of reasons. One, teams in Arizona annually produce much more offense than teams in Florida, which probably has something to do with the air, the elevation, the hard-baked fields, and the dimensions of the ballparks. Secondly, much of the statistics is produced by players who won’t get a sniff of the major-leagues, so they’re largely irrelevant. Third, players round into shape at different rates. Fourth, players can be working on certain things in spring, and thus not going all out at all times. And remember, this year, the Mariners reported to camp a full week ahead of most teams, so it stands to reason that they would be more advanced early in spring.
With all that in mind, I looked at some numbers to see if I could see any trends. Here are the rankings of all 30 teams last spring in OPS (which I think is a nice, easy stat to measure all-around offensive prowess), followed by how they ranked in the regular season, and how much of a dropoff (or rise) there was.
1, Kansas City .894 (7th in regular season, .744, minus .150)
2, Milwaukee .864 (6th, .750, minus .114)
3, Texas .837 (2nd, .800, minus .037)
4, San Diego .834 (29th, .653, minus .181)
5, Cincinnati .828 (10th, .734, minus .094)
6, Arizona .827 (9th, .736, minus .091)
7, Chi. White Sox .819 (19th, .706, minus .113)
8, Baltimore .802 (12th, .729, minus .073)
9, Colorado .801 (8th, .739, minus .062)
10, Cleveland .798 (18th, .714, minus .084)
11, Washington .795 (23rd, .691, minus .104)
12, LA Angels .790 (17th, .714, minus .076)
13, Toronto .782 (11th, .730, minus .052)
14, Tampa Bay .766 (14th, .724, minus .042)
15, NY Mets .762 (13th, .725, minus .037)
16, Chi. Cubs .752 (16th, .715, minus .037)
17, Detroit .739 (4th, .773, plus .034)
18, Philadelphia .735 (15th, .717, plus 018)
19, San Francisco .733 (27th, .671, minus .062)
20, Seattle .725 (30th, .640, minus .085)
21, Pittsburgh .724 (26th, .676, minus .048)
22, Boston .721 (1st, .810, plus .089)
23, Minnesota .718 (28th, .666, minus .052)
24, Oakland .680 (24th, .716, minus .036)
25, NY Yankees .713 (3rd, .788, plus .075)
26, Florida .712 (20th, .706, minus .006)
27, Houston .708 (24th, .684, minus .024)
28, LA Dodgers .701 (21st, .697, minus .004)
29, St. Louis .691 (5th, .766, plus .075)
30, Atlanta .666 (22nd, .695, plus .029)
The variance tended to be much greater among Arizona-based teams than those training in Florida. Only five teams actually did better in the regular season than in spring, all of them based in Florida, and all veteran-laden, successful teams: the Red Sox, Yankees, Tigers, Braves and Cardinals. The Red Sox led the majors in OPS during the 2011 season, but were just 22nd in spring. I’d guess that means that these teams didn’t worry much about results in spring. Conversely, the Padres were a team that deluded their fans in the other direction, ranking fourth in MLB with a .834 spring OPS, then tumbling to 29th in the regular season at .653 — a drop of .181. But there does seem to be at least some predictive value from spring offensive numbers. Five teams that finished in the top 10 in OPS in spring also did so during the regular season. Eight teams that finished in the bottom 10 in spring (including the Mariners) also did so during the regular season.
Next, I looked more closely at the Mariners specifically over the past six years (because that’s as far back as I could easily access the spring stats).
The past two years, the Mariners didn’t hit much in spring, and they didn’t hit at all in the regular season. They teased in 2009, when they were one of the most potent offenses in the Cactus League, but struggled greatly during the regular season. The difference between the two OPS numbers was a whopping .146. In 2007, on the other hand, their spring numbers were almost exactly predictive of how they would do during the season. They had a .763 OPS in Arizona, a .762 OPS in the regular season.
Spring: 20th (.259/.324/.408/.725)
Regular season: 30th (.233/.292/.348/.642)
Difference in OPS: minus .083
Spring: 25th (.264/.336/.413/.749)
Regular season: 30th (.236/.294/.339/.637)
Difference in OPS: minus .112
Spring: 3rd (.312/.361/.501/.862)
Regular season: 28th (.258/.314/.402/.716)
Difference in OPS: minus .146
Spring: 18th (.288/.338/.428/.767
Regular season: 26th (.265/.318/.389/.707)
Difference in OPS: minus .060
Spring: 15th (.282/.340/.423/.763)
Regular season: 12th (.287/337/.425/.762)
Difference in OPS: minus .001
Spring: 17th (.293/.340/454/.794)
Regular season: 21st (.272/.325/.424/.749)
Difference in OPS: minus .045
What can we learn from all this? Not too much, I’m afraid. Sometimes spring numbers can be a harbinger of the performance to follow — but not always. It certainly wasn’t in 2009 for the Mariners, or last year for the Padres. It obviously can’t be viewed as a bad thing that the Mariners are hitting well right now. But it’s also no guarantee their success will continue throughout the year.