Why Spring MLB Games Matter (Sort of): And Other Baseball Thoughts

Or do they count more than we imagine?
I usually do a preliminary evaluation of the Major League Baseball season sometime around the All-Star break. This year, though, I want to turn my attention to other matters, including the old adage that spring training games don’t matter at all and those in April and May hardly matter. These are, at best, half truths.

Confession time: I ignored the New York Yankees impressive spring training record and picked them to finish last in the American League East. They currently sit atop it. I still don’t think the season will end that way, but simple math makes my last place prediction unlikely. By the end of May, the Yankees had already won 30 games and unless they fall apart completely, they will put to rest the notion that early games don’t matter. There are 112 games left to play. Tons of baseball, right? Yes and no. To finish the season with a winning record, the Yankees can go a paltry 52-60 (.464). Tweak this slightly. If the Yankees play .500 ball (56-56) they will finish with 86 wins, possibly good enough to get into the postseason.

The Astros, at a blistering 38-16, would have to implode not to make the postseason, but let's consider the Cubs, last year’s World Series champs. At the end of May they were a mediocre 25-27. I still think they will win the weak NL Central, but there’s almost no chance of them duplicating last year’s 103 wins. They’d have to go 78-32 to do so, a stunning .709 pace. None of these numbers mean that the Yankees or Astros will go to World Series or that the Cubs won’t, but they are provocative.

Sheath Your Sabermetrics:

The fast start of the Yankees and the unexpectedly decent ones of the Twins, Brewers, and Rockies fuel my saber-skepticism. I don’t reject all sabermetric analysis, but there sure is a lot of junk science lurking among the useful stuff. The two worst categories are UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) and WAR (Wins Above Replacement value). UZR only works if every batted ball goes consistently into apportioned zones, each chance is of equal difficulty, and all external variables are taken into account (field conditions, shifts, weather, the quality of the pitchers, etc.). Impossible. But nothing is as dumb as WAR, a form of voodoo math that purports to measure how many wins or losses an existing player brings to the team in comparison to a theoretical replacement player. A what!?

Those who actually watch baseball instead of spinning algorithms know that among the game’s beauties is its ability to defy logic. Show me the WAR cipher who, in 2016, said that if the Yankees benched Brian McCann—a player most WARmongers like way better than I—that Gary Sanchez would rise from the minors and hit 20 homeruns in 53 games. That was, of course, a statistical fluke. This year he has four after 52 games and that’s my point: you can’t come up with foolproof models for a sport with this many variables. That’s why unexpected players end up as heroes in situations where the models say they should fail.

By the way, that I still think win/loss records matter for pitchers. There are lots of guys with “great stuff” and great stats who can’t seem to miss bats in crucial situations. Witness this year's Cubs' starters (which I predicted, by the way).

On the Field:

Although the Yankees probably won’t bring up the rear as I predicted, I’m not seeing enough pitching to avoid a tumble down the standings. Mashiro Tanaka’s agent is the only reason Tanaka isn’t undergoing Tommy John surgery; it would ruin his chance to use his opt out clause and squeeze a few more bucks out of some sucker. The Yankees have ridden big bats and a great bullpen thus far. The bats are likely to cool at some point and the pen is already exhausted from a subpar five innings and out starting staff.

I will say, though, that it would delight me if the Yankees ragtag pitchers took them further than the Red Sox dream staff of Sale, Price, Porcello, Pomeranz, et. al. Don’t think it will happen, but I’d love to see the sabermetrics crowd try to explain that one.

I’m enough of a Stathead to think Ervin Santana’s 7-2 start is a fluke. Bet the Twins can’t wait to get a haul for him before his past catches up with him. I’ll bet they also wish they could find a taker for Brian Buxton, the new poster child for the Can’t-Miss-But-Did prize. I’m afraid I still don’t believe in the Twins—not yet, anyhow. I might have to rethink the Diamondbacks, though. As for the Rockies, who the hell knows in that ballpark?

I didn’t think the Phillies would be good, but I thought they’d be better. I also thought the Mets would be good enough to win, but I sure didn’t foresee most of their pitching staff succumbing to injuries. The Giants have the same problem. Lousy April-May records will make it hard for either to make up ground. Pittsburgh sure has looked bad as well. Lucky for the Bucs they are in that weak NL Central.

Of course, just about anything could happen. Remember how the Jays went from hopeless to first two years ago with an August/September burst? Or how the Braves and Red Sox fell off the cliff in 2011? But I'm not sending in advance orders for Twins/Rockies World Series tix.  

 Rob Weir

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