Spring Training is a staple of the Major League Baseball calendar that serves an important role for teams ahead of the regular season. So what is Spring Training, how does it work, and can it serve a useful role within baseball betting? Read on to find out.
What is MLB Spring Training?
Preseason training and games in Major League Baseball (MLB) are referred to as Spring Training. Spring Training traditionally commences in mid-February and continues until Opening Day of the MLB regular season, which is in the last week of March.
Spring Training has become increasingly popular among baseball fans.
In 2021, as a result of a delayed start to the season caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of MLB teams started Spring Training on February 17 before matches begin on February 27 and run until the regular season Opening Day on April 1.
The concept of Spring Training is believed to have been devised by Chicago White Stockings (now the Chicago Cubs) president Albert Spalding, who took his team to Hot Springs, Arkansas to prepare for the new season in 1886. They responded by winning the National League, after which other teams adopted a similar approach and began playing preseason games against each other in the city.
Spring Training has witnessed several notable moments in baseball history. Perhaps most prominently, in March 1918 injuries forced Boston Red Sox pitcher Babe Ruth to play a game at first base, the first time he had ever been deployed in such a position. Ruth hit a 573-foot home run in the match, which was the catalyst for his eventual success as a revered slugging outfielder for the New York Yankees.
Today, Spring Training is enjoyed by baseball fans who like travelling to warmer states to watch their team play, as well as college students on spring break. In 2011, the Spring Training games in the Arizona-based Cactus League were attended by a record 1.59 million people.
How does Spring Training work?
Spring Training is usually conducted by MLB teams in three phases. Firstly, the pitchers and catchers report back for initial training by themselves, then a few days later the position players return for full squad workouts, and a few days after that, the preseason games get underway.
MLB teams approach Spring Training with a group of typical priorities: to build up their players’ fitness ahead of the new season; try out and/or re-establish tactics and line-ups; integrate any new players into the squad; and establish which players deserve a spot in the starting team.
As a result, certain players tend to feature heavily during the Spring Training schedule and then earn limited appearances during the regular season.
However, Spring Training does not follow the same structure as preseason in other sports such as soccer, where it is commonplace for the biggest teams to travel around the world in order to play a selection of money-spinning friendlies. Instead, MLB teams are both based in close proximity to and regularly face off against each other as part of their preparations, often playing over 30 games.
With a few exceptions, the majority of western-based teams complete Spring Training in Arizona, whereas the eastern-based teams do so in Florida. The exact split of teams is outlined below:
Arizona (Cactus League)
Arizona Diamondbacks, Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Colorado Rockies, Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland Athletics, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers
Florida (Grapefruit League)
Atlanta Braves, Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers, Houston Astros, Miami Marlins, Minnesota Twins, New York Mets, New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals, Tampa Bay Rays, Toronto Blue Jays, Washington Nationals
Teams based in Arizona and Florida compete in the Cactus League and Grapefruit League respectively. While the results and standings of these leagues do not officially contribute to the MLB season, they are somewhat closely observed by baseball fans and their rankings are available to access on the MLB website.
As the number of preseason matches a MLB team plays is at their own discretion, teams are ranked by their win rate as opposed to the number of matches they won. For instance, in the 2019 Cactus League, the Braves (who topped the league) played only 22 matches, whereas the Brewers contested 33 – exactly 50% more.
There are also notable features of both leagues that are important to bear in mind. For instance, in the Cactus League, teams often share venues, with only the Angels, Athletics, Brewers, Cubs, and Giants playing in their own designated home stadium among the 15.
Meanwhile, the teams based in Florida are split between the Atlantic Coast and Gulf Coast, with the Astros, Cardinals, Marlins, Mets, and Nationals situated on the former and the remainder based on the latter. As a consequence, the Grapefruit League often witnesses teams play the majority of their preseason games against those on the same coast, while only contesting a few against those training on the opposite coast.
While MLB teams play the majority of their preseason games against each other, they will also often play other opponents, such as colleges and minor league baseball clubs.
They can also take part in intra-squad games, whereby members of the same team play against each other, split-squad games, which involves a team playing two games in one day by splitting into two squads that play one game each, and B Games, which are deemed unofficial Spring Training games for which statistics and standings do not count towards the two leagues.
Can Spring Training inform baseball betting?
The significance of Spring Training and the extent to which it determines the MLB regular season is a long-standing source of debate among baseball fans, coaches, and players alike. However, a growing consensus has developed in recent years that there is a small but consistent relationship between the pair.
Spring Training can be used as a minor indication of whether a team will carry particularly strong or weak preseason form into the regular season, but not much in-between.
For instance, there are firm arguments for and against placing importance on Spring Training results. A study that analysed every Spring Training game between 2006 and 2017 discovered it produced a standard deviation of just 0.091 with regular season results.
This meant that if you used a team’s Spring Training win rate to project their regular season win rate, only 68% of teams performed within the wide margin of 14.7 wins. As the MLB regular season is 162 games, this margin is highly unreliable and would struggle to predict whether said team could make the playoffs.
However, there is arguably less noise on this front at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Between 2016 and 2019, of the eight teams to post the highest Spring Training win rate every year, 18 of the 32 (56.25%) went on to reach that year’s MLB playoffs. Similarly, during the same years, of the 24 teams that finished bottom of their regular season division, 15 (62.50%) had posted a Spring Training win rate of 0.500 or worse.
This suggests that Spring Training can be used as a minor indication of whether a team will carry particularly strong or weak preseason form into the regular season, but not much in-between.
In terms of analysing individual players, it is more proficient to utilise Spring Training to assess likely team line-ups and how these may play against each other than study specific performances. A run of preseason games will produce volatile data for any given MLB player and in the vast majority of cases, will not be as reliable or significant as their stats over the course of an entire season.
On the other hand, there is some evidence to suggest that Spring Training can offer useful takeaways for a team’s offensive performance as a collective. Historically, if a team has underperformed or over performed against their pre-spring on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) projections, more often than not this has been maintained into the regular season.
A prominent example of this occurred in 2015, when the Minnesota Twins posted an unexpectedly low Spring Training OPS of 0.701, which lowered their regular season projection by 0.013, or equivalent of two to three wins. They then went on to record 83 wins in the regular season, which notably proved to be just four short of enough for a playoff place.
By its very nature, Spring Training will never be able to inform accurate predictions for the MLB regular season to any large extent. However, ironically for a sport that is regularly decided by fine margins, scouting the results and stats for large improvements or deficiencies in a team’s performance could provide handy benefits for gauging how the remainder of their year will play out.