05 March 2012
Has the Era of "Moneyball" Analytics Made Spring Training (even more) Redundant (and Potentially Harmful)
Major League Baseball preseason, "spring training" has historically been akin to the American dream in the minds of baseball professionals and fans. For the "rookie" it is a chance to show what you have to the "big club", to become a long-shot overnight success. Preforming with the big boys of summer, instead of putting in your work in the minor leagues, to earn your shot, more cliches, etc.
It is my opinion that in the current incarnation of professional baseball, where statistical analysis can, and is* done at every level from high school on to the show, that the chances of "playing your way onto a big league team" in spring training are pretty much over. The chance of going from zero, to big league hero in the preseason was always slim, just like becoming part of the 1% in terms of American capitalism, but there have been enough success stories over the years to keep the masses (of minor league players) believing.
Now that analytics are king, and even people who are just Brad Pitt fans, and don't know shit about baseball, know that being able to draw a walk in junior college generally is strongly correlated with your ability to draw a walk in big league baseball, and drawing a walk is damn important to winning, what are big league teams really learning about their prospects from spring training games? Any positive/negative/neutral performance in February and March is not a statistically relevant sample, and even if it was, it is often a sample against other minor league players who are trying to "make it" on the other team.
What are coaches really learning from spring training games? How players behave socially, and how they respond to situations such as playing an infield spot beside their childhood hero?
Yes, I am sure they are learning some of these less quantifiable things about their players, but these things can't be entered into a spreadsheet, and baseball has just recently become modern in its epistomology. I can't imagine that front offices are close to making the leap to postmodern, overdetermination in analyzing players. If any team is someone ought to give me a job offer any day now in the scouting department.
So a player's projected statistical performance is what determines their potential value as a professional ball player. Stats are generated over seasons of high-school, college and minor league baseball. So, what is the purpose of spring training now that we have computers? Possibly for established players to find their "groove". Isn't this what practice is for?
Spring training certainly isn't for the fans. The only people who follow spring training are residents of Florida, Arizona, and super dorks like myself (and industry professionals, even if they shouldn't). The average baseball fan is still trying to pretend they are interested in hockey or basketball to avoid spending time with their family at this time of year. Even the family is more interesting to most than watching a bunch of players never before seen compete in games that mean nothing.
Which brings me back to why we have spring training for more than a week and a half at all? In this era of pitch counts, innings limits, and players (including hitters) asking their bodies to do more than the human body was ever designed to do (we are not physiologically designed to throw a ball 100mph, or to take whatever chemicals Ryan Braun is putting in his body), the length of spring training could possibly be doing nothing other than shortening the length of player's careers? Certainly this argument is made in "higher impact" sports like professional American Football. I concede that concussions in football are more of a hot button issue than a pitcher in his early 20s needing Tommy John surgery. Still I have to wonder if more than a month of spring training games are doing more harm than good to the bodies of the players?
Teams have the stats to evaluate players without such a lengthy spring season, and 2 weeks of "meaningless" games should be enough to get timing, etc. down for current big leaguers as long as the players have stayed in shape in the off-season? Or not? Perhaps I should do some regression analysis to find out?
But first thing is first. I think someone, (myself if I find the time), needs to run the numbers, to find out if the number of young players that "make the team" each spring has declined as statistical analysis, instead of "gut feeling" has become a bigger part of scouting and player development over the past thirty years.
Either way, it has been great to listen to the Tigers on the radio the last three days. That being said, I wish that I only had to wait another week instead of 6 before I start to actually care what happens on the field. ..
* at least by the teams that realize that a whole pack of statisticians being paid less than $100 000 a year each, more than pay for themselves, with the first contract improvement of the year.