Spring Training: Not Not Serious Business

Two stories for you, one shorter than the other: Not long ago, much of the FanGraphs staff was down in Arizona, and on one particular Friday night a lot of us went over to Peoria to watch the Mariners play an exhibition game against the Kingdom of the Netherlands. There was absolutely nothing at stake, although I suppose you could argue Jon Garland was sort of pitching for a job. Anyhow, it was a friendly, but somewhere in the early innings the Dutch dugout started to chirp about a questionable call. The first-base umpire basically paused the game so that he could shout at the dugout and tell them to shut up. This was a quiet exhibition and the ballpark was otherwise pretty silent, so, yeah, that was weird and audible. Tempers flared in a nothing baseball game.

Wednesday afternoon, the Mariners played a Cactus League game against I don’t remember who. It doesn’t matter. What matters, for our purposes, is that Eric Wedge got ejected. The Mariners’ manager was ejected from a pointless competition. Maybe the umpire was a little too hasty or aggressive, but there was some sort of provocation. Again, tempers flared in a nothing baseball game.

Everybody involved will tell you spring training doesn’t really matter. Well, at least in terms of statistics and wins and losses. Everybody involved will first tell you that spring training is way too long, and then they’ll tell you that the numbers don’t really matter. Players and coaches aren’t concerned about W’s and L’s — they’re concerned about getting prepared and getting the necessary work in. It’s practice, and you can’t win or lose at practice, even if you’re keeping score.

But for as much as spring training doesn’t matter, on Wednesday Eric Wedge got ejected. On Monday, Don Mattingly got ejected. Ejections don’t happen if people truly don’t care, so what seems to be the case is that people care at least a little bit, if only fleetingly. It’s human nature to want to emerge victorious from any competition, and a practice baseball game looks a lot like a real baseball game. There are pitches and hits and outs and everything, and everyone wants to do their best. Everybody cares less about spring training, but I don’t think it can be said that no one caresĀ about spring training. Humans will compete simply for the sake of competing.

So that’s all well and good, but how about measurements? Is there anything we can do here, statistically? I think there is, sort of. We can’t very well ask every player and coach for a percentage estimation of how much they care about spring training, relative to the regular season. That isn’t feasible, and it’s also a weird question to ask that wouldn’t get a lot of honest responses. But the numbers can provide some clues. In spring training, there are intentional walks. In spring training, there are sacrifice bunts. And in spring training, there are ejections. Each of these, in some way, reflects a competitive spirit. The first two have to do with strategy, and strategy has to do with winning. The last one has to do with simple, human emotion.

Let’s go in order and establish some fairly arbitrary windows. According to MLB.com, since 2008, there have been 70 spring-training intentional walks. There have, over that span, been 222,358 spring-training plate appearances, yielding an IBB rate of 0.03%. During the regular season, between 2008 and 2012, there were nearly 6,000 intentional walks in more than 900,000 plate appearances, which yielded an IBB rate of 0.64%. The spring training IBB% is about 5% the regular season IBB%.

Now, a consideration: this isn’t all about strategy. A spring-training intentional walk might be about improving odds of winning, but it might also be about giving the pitcher some experience in the ensuing situation. It might be about seeing that pitcher against a hitter of the same handedness, or seeing that pitcher try to induce a double play. But intentional walks are way down in the spring, because the games don’t matter. Yet the intentional walks don’t disappear completely.

Now then. According to MLB.com, since 2008, there have been 1,038 spring-training sacrifice bunts. There have been the same number of plate appearances as noted above, yielding a sac bunt rate of 0.47%. During the regular season, between 2008 and 2012, there were 7,851 sacrifice bunts, and the same number of plate appearances as noted above, yielding a sac bunt rate of 0.84%. The spring training sac bunt rate is about 55% the regular season sac bunt rate.

A similar consideration: this isn’t all about strategy. A spring-training sac bunt might be about improving odds of winning, but it might also be about seeing if the hitter can put down a decent bunt. Bunting is a part of the game, and bunting requires practice, lest the bunting skills atrophy. Spring training is practice, so we see bunts. We see fewer bunts, but we see bunts more than half as often. It’s evident that strategy is less important in the spring.

At last we turn to ejections, fueled by this invaluable resource. The last two springs, we’ve seen seven ejections, in 885 games. Using games as a denominator, we get a rate of 0.79%. During the regular season, between 2008 and 2012, there were 950 ejections, in 12,147 games, yielding a rate of 7.82%. Put another way, on average, we’ve seen a spring ejection once per 126 games. Meanwhile, we’ve seen a regular-season ejection once per 13 games. The season frequency is about 10 times as often, and an ejection has nothing to do with practice. It has to do with human emotion, related to the players, the coaches and the umpires.

In the ejection numbers, we predictably see reduced intensity, because, well, it’s spring training and who cares? But there are still ejection numbers, and while maybe it has to do with over-aggressive minor-league umpires, ejections generally don’t come out of nowhere. There’s some sort of argumentative cause, which demonstrates caring. Even if it’s just caring about one individual pitch or one individual play, people want the results they feel they deserve, even if at the end of the day they won’t care about the results. Even in spring training, people won’t be completely OK with being wronged.

Put it all together and, indeed, the numbers show people don’t care about spring training very much, even when they’re directly involved. The results are secondary, and the work is most important. But the results aren’t completely, 100% irrelevant, presumably because competition is competition and even friendly competition has a winner and a loser. Give people long enough to think about it and they’ll agree that spring-training results are meaningless. Yet in the heat of the moment, it’s still the heat of the moment.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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There are a lot of people that deeply care about spring training because their jobs are at stake. We are also a competitive society, everything becomes a competition.