Although pitchers and catchers have already reported to their new homes for the next six weeks, baseball fans are still anxiously awaiting the beginning of spring training games. For me, at least, the first games in spring training mark the real start to the baseball season.
As we prepare to see how our favorite players and teams will perform through the month of March—watching games, analyzing statistics, and writing about everything along the way—let's first take a look back over the past five years to see who the best teams were in spring training and whether that success translated into success in the regular season. To do this, I took the combined spring records of each team over the past five years, and broke them into groups.
The Royals are, by a fairly considerable margin, the best team in spring training in the past half decade. Unfortunately for the franchise and their fans, all of that March success has not translated into a single postseason appearance during that span. Still, spring training is often an opportunity to give young players more experience, so Kansas City's spring success could foreshadow future winning seasons if things turn out well for their top prospects.
The Tigers and Giants, on the other hand, have taken much of their March momentum into the regular season and postseason. Detroit has three playoff appearances in that five-year stretch, while the Giants have had two, both resulting in World Series championships. Who said spring training didn't mean anything?
The Very Goods:
The Twins, Angels, and Rockies have all been near the top of the March standings over the past five years, although being "very good" has only accounted for a combined four playoff appearances. However, at least one team will be showing off some young talent this spring, which may affect how successful they will be in the upcoming seasons.
For Minnesota, star prospects Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, the first and 14th ranked prospects according to Baseball Prospectus, will be on full display. If you believe they will accomplish anything close to their 2014 Oliver projections at the big league level—40 home runs and nearly five wins for Sano; 30 stolen bases, great defense in center field, and nearly four wins for Buxton—their games should be fun to watch this spring. And, if they get off to a hot start, Minnesota will likely be near the top of the standings once more.
The Pretty Goods:
Milwaukee Brewers (85-70, .548 Win%)
Atlanta Braves (85-70, .548 Win%)
St. Louis Cardinals (80-66, .548 Win%)
Toronto Blue Jays (81-68, .544 Win%)
Seattle Mariners (82-69, .543 Win%)
New York Yankees (82-70, .539 Win%)
In this pack, we have two of the most successful teams over the past five years: the Cardinals and the Yankees. In that time span, both teams have made the playoffs four out of five times, and both teams have hoisted the Commissioner's Trophy once (although the Cardinals made it to the World Series twice). Not too shabby.
Likewise, the Braves have made the postseason three times in those five years, and the Brewers have made it once. The Blue Jays and Mariners, on the other hand, haven't played past the regular season at all during this window.
The Just Above .500's:
This group might be the most intriguing of all. This group boasts the defending World Series Champions, as well as the two teams that played each other in the World Series in 2008, the year before this data starts. Overall, these three teams have been fairly successful in the past five years. The Red Sox have made the playoffs in two of those five years, and both the Rays and Phillies have made it three times each.
While spring training may not be the best predictor of regular season and postseason success, there are a couple noteworthy points in this data.
For one, the best 15 teams over this five year span have a combined 29 playoff appearances; the worst 15 teams have a combined 15 playoff appearances. Additionally, all five World Series Champions during this stretch finished in the top half of the league in the spring training standings, combining for a .550 winning percentage.
Moreover, in the season that each of those teams won the World Series, here's how they played in March:
|2009||New York Yankees||24||10||.706|
|2010||San Francisco Giants||23||12||.657|
|2011||St. Louis Cardinals||14||16||.467|
|2012||San Francisco Giants||18||15||.545|
|2013||Boston Red Sox||17||17||.500|
Clearly, it's not impossible to play poorly in spring training and still win the World Series—neither the Red Sox nor the Cardinals were very impressive in the years that they won. However, only two out of ten teams that finished last in their league in spring training made the playoffs that year.
Maybe getting off to a good start in March means more than we think.
. . .