The Meaning Of Spring

Photo: AP/Keith Srakocic

It's an annual argument. Do the stats that a player puts up in spring training give any clue to how they'll perform once the regular season begins? Maybe a look at former MVP and Cy Young winners will give us a clue.

Voting for the MVP Award and Cy Young Award don't include stats from the postseason, and they certainly don't include stats from spring training. There are postseason awards - not to mention a World Series title - to honor big numbers in the Fall, but what about those numbers that get posted in the Spring? Maybe we should start to look at those numbers as a bit of a precursor for things to come.

The last five MVP Awards have been won by four different players in the National League and three different players in the American League. On the pitching side, there have been five different players to take home the National League Cy Young Award over the same number of years, while four different pitchers have captured the American League version of pitching's top honor. So, just how did those players produce in spring training?

With most of the players that we looked at, Spring means a lot. For instance, Alex Rodriguez has won the AL MVP Award in each of the last three odd numbered seasons and hit a combined .318 in those seasons and just a combined .253 in the two seasons sandwiched by the MVP years. Overall, A-Rod is a .296 hitter in spring training. Justin Morneau put up a .375 average in the Spring of 2006 - compared to his .324 overall spring training average - and picked up his only MVP honor that season. On the National League side, the Phillies have swept the last two MVP Awards and both players who won them had above average Springs. In 2006, Ryan Howard hit .341, almost a full 50 points over his career Spring average - and garnered the award, while last season it was Jimmy Rollins hitting 80 points over his .291 Spring average to finish camp with a .371 average and go on to win the MVP Award. The trend continues with 2005 winner Albert Pujols, who hit .458 which is high even for the perennially hot spring training hitter, who averages .372 in the Florida sunshine. Leave it to Barry Bonds to skew the results. Bonds averages .364 in camp, but hit .289 in 2004 and .400 in 2003 and won the MVP Award in each of those seasons.

It's even more interesting when you look at the Cy Young winners.

Jake Peavy picked up the honor in the National League last season and we should have known it by his spring training numbers. Last Spring, Peavy posted a 3.52 ERA, much better than his career mark of 4.42. It's also interesting to note that Peavy had a big season in 2005 when he finished with a 2.88 ERA in the regular season, but lost out in the Cy Young voting to Chris Carpenter. That Spring, Peavy had a 2.13 ERA in spring training. We also should have been able to guess that 2003 and 2006 would be somewhat down seasons for Peavy since he posted a 6.35 mark in '03 and a 5.00 mark in '06. Those seasons ended with Peavy's ERA above 4.00, above his 3.31 career regular season ERA. Meanwhile, Carpenter's ERA in 2005 was 3.38, right around his career Spring mark.

Roger Clemens isn't much of a fan of spring training for the past couple of seasons and probably wasn't one even before that, since he's posted a very mundane 4.60 ERA in camp. In 2004, however, he had a 2.25 ERA and finished the season with a new Cy Young Award for his mantle. Of course, you could argue that he had a better season in 2005 when he finished the regular season with a 1.87 ERA, but no Cy Young Award and he also had a horrible Spring, posting an 8.80 ERA. Brandon Webb also is somewhat unspectacular in spring training with a career 4.53 mark. In 2007, he posted a 1.64 Spring ERA which turned into a 3.01 ERA in the regular season; good, but not good enough to make him a repeat winner of the Cy Young Award. The previous season, Webb did win the award, but it came on the heels of a bad Spring, when his ERA was 6.35. Roy Halladay, Bartolo Colon and C.C. Sabathia have all had above average spring training numbers prior to winning the Cy Young Award. Sabathia was a full run under his usual Spring numbers last season, while Halladay was slightly under his Spring average in 2003. Bartolo Colon, who has a career 4.33 ERA in spring training, was a rather nice 2.21 when he won the award in 2005.

If you're looking for an exception to the rule, look at Johan Santana. The savior of the New York Mets pitching staff has a career Spring ERA of 3.54, but had pretty bad experiences in 2006 and 2004 - 4.66 and 4.95 ERAs respectively - but still went on to win the Cy Young Award.

While you can't completely predict how a player is going to perform based on his Spring numbers, it appears that there are at least some tell-tale signs that can be pulled from spring training. Scouring the stats, you can find plenty of examples of players who followed up their spring training season with a regular season that mirrored their success or failure in the Spring. Of course, you can also find players who consistently put up opposite type numbers from spring training to the regular season. So, what is the meaning of Spring? The meaning is that there is a full season of baseball right around the corner and none of us can know with any degree of certainty, just what's going to happen, or who's going to do what. It's baseball, pure and simple.


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