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|
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: