What, Me Worry? Phillies Spring Winning Records

At least the Phanatic still has his mojo in March. - Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Are the Phillies a better regular season team than spring training team?

Another spring of underwhelming Phillies performances on the field.  Which leads to freakouts on WIP and elsewhere in the panic-driven reactionary-thought world.  Which leads to endless "spring training doesn't matter" posts on The Good Phight and elsewhere in the rational-thought world.  It seems we do this every year, doesn't it?

That's actually a good question.  It sure seems that we're here every year, but are we?  Let's put this truthiness to the test.

I could find spring training team records back to 1984.  Since then (and not including this year), in spring exhibition games, the Phillies have gone 398-435 for a winning percentage of .478.  To put that in perspective, the equivalent regular season record for a .478 winning percentage is 77-85.  In other words, this is not good, but it's also not that bad.

Maybe more interesting is how their spring training record compares to their regular season record.  After all, we don't care about spring training records by themselves.  We care about them if and only if they are some measure of how the team is going to do in the regular season.

On that, the results are actually quite enlightening.  From 1984 through 2013, the Phillies were a .478 spring training team but a .499 regular season team.  In other words, overall spring training isn't something that predicts the team's regular season demise.

But breaking the stats up into two different eras gives even more interesting results.

Years Spring % Reg % Diff
1984-2013 0.478 0.499 +.021
1984-2000 0.496 0.466 -.030
2001-2013 0.457 0.541 +.084

From 1984 to 2000, the Phillies were pretty much a .500 spring training team.  But, they were a worse regular season team, so they lost 30 winning percentage points from spring to the regular season.

But then something changed in 2001.  In 2001, the Phillies started playing much worse in spring training, dropping almost 40 points in their overall winning percentage.  At the same time, the regular season team improved drastically, increasing their winning percentage by 75 points.

During the past 13 years, in other words, the Phillies spring training record has borne absolutely no resemblance to the regular season record.  The Phillies have played better regular season baseball by 83 winning percentage points since 2001.

There are possibly three different explanations here:

1) Spring training results are all noise without any signal, so this is just randomness at work. In a random distribution, some teams are going to be better than others, and the Phillies are on the worse end of the bell curve.  The shift from 2000 to 2001 has nothing to do with spring training and everything to do with the regular season, when the Phillies saw a decidedly not-random change in their fortunes.

2) The Phillies changed their approach to spring training sometime in the early 2000s. Maybe they decided to play more minor leaguers.  Maybe their emphasis for the regular guys was to work on particular skills rather than overall performance.  Maybe they changed how they ramp up over the month-plus of play.  Whatever it is, their new approach changed their spring training performance from average to sub-par.  However, since the regular season results were so much better from 2001 forward, it was clearly working so no need to change it . . . despite how frustrating it might be to the WIP folks to watch the team struggle in March.

3) Spring training results are, over time, inherently flattening because overall team talent isn't rewarded. Thus, there are no great spring training teams and there are no really bad spring training teams.  The difference between the best and worst teams over time is much smaller than in the regular season because everyone is playing around with all sorts of different approaches.  Thus, the Phillies spring record is, by design of spring training, going to be much closer to .500 than the drastic shift in the team's performance during the regular season that we saw right around 2000.

Of course, there may be some mix of more than one of these factors or even all three (or something completely different).  Whatever the reason, one thing is definitely clear here: the Phillies spring training record is no indicator of what the team is going to do over the regular season.

So stop worrying.

-----------------------------

In case anyone is interested, here's the year-by-year breakdown of spring training record compared to regular season record:

Spring Regular
W L % W L % Diff.
1984 13 16 0.448 81 81 0.500 0.052
1985 14 10 0.583 75 87 0.463 (0.120)
1986 16 10 0.615 86 75 0.534 (0.081)
1987 13 11 0.542 80 82 0.494 (0.048)
1988 13 17 0.433 65 96 0.404 (0.030)
1989 12 16 0.429 67 95 0.414 (0.015)
1990 10 5 0.667 77 85 0.475 (0.191)
1991 12 17 0.414 78 84 0.481 0.068
1992 9 19 0.321 70 92 0.432 0.111
1993 16 10 0.615 97 65 0.599 (0.017)
1994 14 13 0.519 54 61 0.470 (0.049)
1995 7 4 0.636 69 75 0.479 (0.157)
1996 11 18 0.379 67 95 0.414 0.034
1997 17 13 0.567 68 94 0.420 (0.147)
1998 16 14 0.533 75 87 0.463 (0.070)
1999 14 15 0.483 77 85 0.475 (0.007)
2000 15 18 0.455 65 97 0.401 (0.053)
2001 12 14 0.462 86 76 0.531 0.069
2002 12 14 0.462 80 81 0.497 0.035
2003 10 17 0.370 86 76 0.531 0.160
2004 10 21 0.323 86 76 0.531 0.208
2005 11 18 0.379 88 74 0.543 0.164
2006 19 11 0.633 85 77 0.525 (0.109)
2007 11 18 0.379 89 73 0.549 0.170
2008 12 18 0.400 92 70 0.568 0.168
2009 13 19 0.406 93 69 0.574 0.168
2010 15 12 0.556 97 65 0.599 0.043
2011 21 14 0.600 102 60 0.630 0.030
2012 14 16 0.467 81 81 0.500 0.033
2013 16 17 0.485 73 89 0.451 (0.034)
Total 398 435 0.478 2389 2403 0.499 0.021
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