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How Should We Look at Spring Training Stats?

Gerrit Cole might be making the most anticipated Yankees debut of a player in some time later this season. I bring this up because Cole is also ripe to face criticism for every bad outing he has.

Such an opportunity came earlier than most fans would expect – he was pounded in a Spring Training outing. Against the Tigers two outings ago, Cole got completely decimated, allowing six runs and four home runs in two innings.

To say that Cole was blasted by the people would be a bit of an overstatement, but it does bring up an interesting question that comes up every year: how much should spring training performances be valued? In my opinion, these performances should be looked at with a grain of salt, as the players are still prepping for the season and are not nearly at full strength.

Also, the lists of players who either flopped after having great springs or excelled after struggling in February and March would be too long to count. One example of a massive Spring Training flop turned star is Shohei Ohtani. In his first spring, Ohtani struggled both at the plate (.125/.222/.125 slash line) and on the mound (9 runs, three home runs, and two walks allowed in 2.2 innings). So, naturally, Ohtani went on to excel both at the plate (.285/.361/.564 slash line) and on the mound (3.31 ERA, 63 strikeouts in 51.2 innings) en route to winning rookie of the year.

Madison Bumgarner serves as a more experienced example. The southpaw ace has a career 4.31 ERA in Spring Training, with five completed Spring Training seasons with an ERA above 4.90. His career ERA? That would be 3.13, more than a run lower. As for the seasons he struggled in the spring, his ERA in said seasons was, respectively, 3.00 (2010), 3.21 (2011), 2.93 (2015), 2.74 (2016), and 3.90 (2019). So, his poor spring training performances were not indicative to bad seasons overall.

To look at a former Yankee, CC Sabathia was a noted poor spring training performer. Since 2006 (as far back as MLB.com has published), Sabathia had a 4.90 ERA in the spring. His overall career ERA was 3.74, which is, again, a full run lower than his spring ERA. Once again, Sabathia is another example of a player who’s Spring Training performance has no correlation to their regular season performance.

Clearly, these player’s performances show that Spring Training performance and regular season performance do not relate. But, what about a more general look at players? Neil Paine of the FiveThirtyEight looked at this back in 2014 (a little dated, yes) and found that the correlation between a players’ regular season and spring training wOBA has little correlation. In fact, the only time when Spring Training performance can be predictive occur when a player either has an extremely good or bad spring – and such performances only increase their wOBA by a matter of about .010 points total.

Which is to say, that Spring Training statistics are probably not to be taken too seriously. A player like Gerrit Cole or Madison Bumgarner or CC Sabathia having a bad Spring does not most likely mean that said player will have a poor season, or vice versa. As long as players are healthy coming out of the spring, anything can happen after Opening Day.

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