Last year, I wrote an entry called "The Cruelest Month?" As most Phillies fans would have been able to tell you without reading anything other than the title, it was about April and the Phillies' woes at the start of the season. I concluded that something bad or inept at the organizational level must be going on, as the team just can't perform well in April, despite huge roster turnover over the course of the past decade or so.
But in titling that piece, I neglected an even crueler month: March. We're in the middle of another awful spring training this year, with the Phillies tied for the worst record in baseball (5-12 with the lowly Pirates).
If it seems like the Phillies have been here before, it's because they have. Only once in the past 7 years have the Phillies had a winning spring training: a 19-11 record in 2006. In the other years, their records have been 12-14, 12-14, 10-17, 10-21, 11-18, and 11-18. Overall, in the past 7 years, the Phillies have a .429 winning record in the pre-season. That's awful.
But should we really care? During that same 7 year stretch, the Phillies have had a .530 winning percentage in the regular season. Obviously then, the team's awful spring trainings have not carried over to the regular season.
Individual season comparisons show this even more starkly. For each year, this chart shows the team's record in spring training along with its winning percentage, followed by its record in the regular season and its winning percentage. The last column shows the team's improvement (or lack thereof if the number is negative) in winning percentage from spring to the regular season.
Thus, only in 2006, when the team was excellent in the spring, did its performance in the regular season not get markedly better. Moreover, in the last 5 seasons, the team's regular season record was over .100 different than its spring training record.
What does overall record in spring training mean for the Phillies? Nothing.
But maybe something else is going on. Maybe the Phillies' terrible springs translate to their performance in what I had previously thought of as their cruelest month - April. That theory sounds plausible - they may get better, even much better, over the course of the entire season, but their awful springs must carry over into the next month. After all, as every manager tells us in the newspaper at least once (or a hundred times) each spring, it's not like you can just flip a switch once April comes around. And the Phillies have been awful in April, as we all know.
The trouble with this theory is that it's not borne out by the numbers:
In five Aprils, the Phillies were better than they were in the spring; in three of those five, much better. In two Aprils, they were worse; in fact, in both of those Aprils, they were much worse.
At best, someone trying to make the argument that spring training records mattered could possibly claim that while the team gets better in April, it gets much better throughout the course of the year, so it seems to need time to rev up after its poor spring. That theory is also plausible, but at this point, I think we're getting too close to guesswork.
Until more is shown to develop that theory, it seems quite clear to me that the team's spring performance, which has been quite dreadful of late, does not carry over into the regular season. But it also seems quite clear that March is the team's true cruelest month.