Spring Training Baseball: The Last Bastion of the “Eye Test”


As I mentioned in a post earlier this month, spring training can be absolute torture for  baseball fans. About five innings into listening to today’s spring opener on 670 AM, I remembered just how mind-numbingly dull spring baseball is. Yes, it’s relieving and refreshing to tune into the radio or TV and hear the broadcast of a live baseball game. It’s a terrific feeling which truly, in my opinion, rings in the new year. It feels great to know that the White Sox are in Glendale…but that doesn’t’ mean it’s fun to watch.

The obvious reason for this is because the games simply don’t matter. While newspapers inexplicably compile Cactus and Grapefruit league standings tables for their back pages, it’s all irrelevant. There are more than a few examples of teams who have lost a majority of their spring training games, and gone on to win the pennant. There seems to be little to no correlation between spring training results and regular season results. Similarly, the history of spring training baseball is replete with examples of players whose spring training statistics simply do not translate to regular season performance.

What’s the fun of  watching or following the spring season, then, if it seems to exist in a wholly different realm from the game we know and love for six months of the year? What’s the use of watching Adam Dunn hit 20 home runs in March if it doesn’t mean he’ll have a strong April and May once the team goes north? Why the hell are these things even televised?

The spring baseball conundrum makes a little more sense if we frame it in a different way–the sabermetrics debate. Fans and journalists these days like to talk about a divide, real or imagined, between two schools of thinking on the game: the new-wave analytical statheads and the staunch traditionalists who find the old “back of the baseball card” stats more than enough and instead rely on their intuition, baseball “expertise” and the infamous “eye test.” While the “debate” is obviously more along a spectrum, and not this black and white confrontation, let’s go along with this assumption for now.

What is spring training about? One we often hear is “getting into shape” and “getting healthy.” This is understandable in the case of someone like Adam Dunn, Paul Konerko, or Jake Peavy. These are established players who have proven that they can perform at the major league level. Spring stats are unimportant. You just want these guys to get back into top shape and ready to go in time for April.

But what about those guys who are on the bubble, fighting for that final bullpen spot or utility infielder role? Brent Lillibridge, Lucas Harrell? They’re not just preparing for the upcoming American League season. They’re duking it out for their jobs. What do you go by to determine their success? Can you really use statistics, considering that we dismiss those out of  hand for other players? Nope.

It seems to me that the way that coaches and scouts evaluate these players in the spring is one of the last strongholds of the “eye test.” When Don Cooper watches Philip Humber or Gregory Infante pitch over the next few weeks, he’s not looking at WHIP or FIP or BABIP. He’s probably not even looking much at ERA. He’s looking at mechanics and body language and attitude. Because the statistics “don’t matter” in spring baseball.

When you approach it this way, the spring seems to be the traditionalists’ final stand against the sabermetrics movement.