A 1-0 loss to the Red Sox? A pitchers duel between a pair of talented young starting pitchers, one on each side of the legendary rivalry? Under normal circumstances last night’s game in Tampa would have been a dagger to the heart of Yankees fans. But of the course the game was played in Tampa and had no bearing on American League Eastern division standings. The Yankees, 5-7 and near the bottom of the Grapefruit League, started Doug Bernier at shortstop. The Red Sox, a much better 7-2, played Alex Hassan in left. The game didn’t matter – or rather, the story of the night was Ivan Nova’s performance rather than his team’s loss. It’s as it should be and as it always will be. Baseball fans just don’t care who wins and loses in March.
Yet as little as we care about the wins and losses, as many times as we hear that nothing that happens between now and Opening Day really matters in the grand scheme of things, it’s tough to ignore abject failure. For those of us who do catch the games or check in on the box scores, some success is desired. And when failure occurs consistently in one or more facets of the game it’s difficult not to worry, not to let the thought cross your mind that maybe something is wrong with a key player or two and maybe the team that on paper looks to be among the best in recent memory is fundamentally flawed. We’re human beings. We have doubts and we often seek information that would confirm these doubts. Spring Training numbers and performance is a case in point.
So while fans have historically shown great maturity in dealing with Spring Training (in large part, I believe, because fans often ignore these games) there is the potential for a more informed fan to take a look at the Yankees’ performance thus far this spring and especially should it continue over the coming weeks and worry. While the Yankees pitching has been for the most part up to snuff, the same cannot be said for the offense. Entering last night’s shutout the Yankees had a .650 OPS in the month of March. Only two teams have hit fewer home runs, the Mets and the Orioles, and league rival Detroit has 19 bombs to New York’s 4 in the early going. This is despite the Yankees having played in more games than all but three Major League teams.
While the past couple of games and their respectively poor offensive performances got me thinking about team-wide statistics in spring, my initial thought was to dismiss entirely the numbers we have so far seen with the caveat that a full month of poor performance would be somewhat worrisome. As to the former I believe I was correct. After all, 13 games is hardly a lifetime in baseball. The Yankees have sent just over 400 batters to the plate and while this may be a reasonable sample size when evaluating a single players performance, a unit as variable and diverse as a team is subject to more rigorous examination. Plus, how many of those poor at bats were taken by players like the aforementioned Mr. Bernier who are highly unlikely to see any playing time in 2012?
A few. But of the Yankees nine regulars (I’ll count Andruw Jones here) only three – Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson, and Nick Swisher – have started the spring with an OPS north of .600! The other six, two thirds of the lineup, are hitting like minor leagues against pitchers who theoretically have an inherent disadvantage. The sample size is tiny but things aren’t going perfectly from a results standpoint. And that’s ok. After 13 games, there’s no need to panic. No one is panicking and hopefully very few will in the coming days and weeks. The more salient question is whether a full month – 25 or 30 games, over 1200 trips to the plate in aggregate – of poor performance would be something to worry about? If the team is hitting like this in two weeks, how concerned will and should we be?
On this issue, I had somewhat conflicting thoughts. Obviously spring doesn’t count, the sample sizes are tiny, and the numbers for individual players rarely cary over. But if in 1200-1400 trips to the plate this roster can’t hit inferior pitching, and still isn’t hitting at the end of the month, I’d have to give this some thought. Except… history shows us it really, truly, completely doesn’t matter. History shows us that even over the course of a full month, dozens of games, well over a thousand at bats, the sample size and environment is still nowhere near sufficient to make any judgements.
Just how insufficient is it? The Yankees ranked 25th in team OPS last spring. They ranked 27th the year before. They ranked 8th in 2009, though given the historic nature of that offense this could be viewed as a vast underperformance. But it’s not just the Yankees. Generalize this analysis to the entirety of Major League Baseball last season and we see a very, very poor correlation between spring training OPS (even over 1200-1500 plate appearances) and similar team performance in the regular season.
Perhaps a more interesting question would be whether the above data identified any surprisingly successful or unsuccessful offenses in 2011. The short answer is yes. The Kansas City Royals led all of baseball in OPS during Spring Training, and moved up more than ten spots in the regular season rankings over 2010. Meanwhile, the Twins proved a major disappointment as their poor spring may have indicated. Yet these “predictions” were the exception, not the rule. The Padres and White Sox certainly didn’t have big years, nor did the Yankees or Red Sox struggle to produce offensively after a rough spring.
Among fan overreactions, spring training failure is actually very tame. Fans tend to realize these games don’t matter. Few of them are televised and even the hard core among us are unlikely to poor over box scores. But while sabermetric research has demonstrated some minor correlation between breakout performances and exceptional springs among individual batters, no such connection can be found among teams in general. Even over 1200-1400 at bats, little can be gleaned. Even if the Yankees continue to hit for a .650 OPS into early April, this should be a source of absolutely no concern.
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