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.

16 Responses to “Spring Training: Not Not Serious Business”

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  1. Hurtlockertwo says:

    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.

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  2. Jaack says:

    Using ‘lest’ and ‘atrophy’ in the same sentence. I’ve got to give credit where credit is due.

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  3. PackBob says:

    Process, not results, in spring training, although results are nearly always quoted and considered when talking about a player’s progress. We revert to what we know well and can measure. Spring training is a wannabe regular season.

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  4. Steve says:

    8% of all regular season games result in someone being ejected? Does that strike anyone else as being insane?

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    • rusty says:

      That would imply that ejections are independent of one another, when it seems intuitively like they would cluster. Brawls result in multiple ejections, and the same sort of close game that creates circumstances for one manager to get angry and tossed seems like conditions conducive to the other one getting ejected as well.

      What weirds me out is the odd number of games considered over the 2008-2012 period. Are we including tie-breaker games as part of the regular season?

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      • FanGraphs Supporting Member

        Sometimes teams don’t make up postponed games and finish having played a 161-game regular season.

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        • Right, but there should always be an even number of teams that play 161, since if one game is cancelled, two teams lose a game.

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        • Newcomer says:

          Correct, the would-be winner and would-be loser of that ONE game. So it could still make an odd number of games.

          But the tiebreaker games are also counted as regular season games, at least by MLB. Excluding the new Wild Card play-in game.

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    • Gil says:

      The precise ratio is ejections to games played, which indicates an “on the average” figure. This post regarding soccer red cards elucidates on MLB ejection figures compared to other sports. Presently at 8.2%, MLB is higher than NHL (7.1%), NBA (6.8%) and NFL (5.0%) but significantly lower than MLS soccer (27%) and UEFA football/soccer (31%).

      However, the NBA has given over 900 technical fouls thus far in 2012-13 and the season is not over… Regardless, basketball averages approximately one technical per game during the season, football will have several personal fouls or unsportsmanlike conduct penalties any given Sunday. Baseball really has no equivalent “intermediate” step; hence, the higher ejection rate compared to other major sports, save for soccer, which is absolutely insane in its red card rate.

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  5. FanGraphs Supporting Member

    I see Anthony Rizzo was also ejected from a game yesterday.

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  6. AJS says:

    So one manager gets ejected per day on average during the MLB season?

    That’s much higher than I would have expected.

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    • AJS says:

      Edit: I realize it’s not only managers, but players as well. Still, that seems really high.

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  7. James says:

    Also, it’s possible (likely?) that some managers and umpires really dislike each other. Maybe the manager is baiting the umpire just to be a jerk. Maybe the umpire makes an unwarranted ejection just to be a jerk. It’s human emotion, sure, but it wouldn’t prove they actually care about the game.

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  8. joser says:

    It’s not just about the present game. In many cases, the manager or umpire is trying to send the message “don’t do that again” — and in spring training, the message is “don’t do that again in a game that actually counts.” Of course that’s never the immediate result, but it may have a tiny lingering effect that puts a finger on the scale in some crucial situation down the road… or at least that’s what they hope.

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  9. Dave says:

    Jeff – you are so awesome and this post is so awesome and I love you a little bit.

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  10. George says:

    Good post. Another perhaps-meaningful measure of “meaningfulness” is the rate at which there is lefty-lefty and righty-righty matchups. I suspect at least slightly more of those types of matchups during the regular season.

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