I’m sure you’ve heard it before: “Spring training stats don’t matter.”
Yes, the World Series is won in October (or November), not March. And yes, you can’t really believe all spring numbers when players and teams tinker and tweak during the largely meaningless games. But that doesn’t mean we toss out the spring sample altogether.
There are some spring stats that move the needle and have a history of predicting regular-season success. Here are three of those spring training numbers you should care about this year for your futures bets, fantasy leagues and preseason predictions:
Spring OPS matters for MVP Sluggers
An MVP season doesn’t just happen. Players don’t sleep all winter, roll out of bed for Opening Day and start mashing.
There’s a buildup, and for the best players in baseball, their MVP seasons start in the spring. The two most recent AL and NL MVPs all had spectacular spring trainings before their award-winning years. Last year, for example, Aaron Judge rocked four homers and posted a 1.347 OPS in the spring before he set the AL homer record during the regular season.
You have to go all the way back to Jose Altuve in 2017 to find a full-season MVP who posted a spring OPS below .800 before their big year. Through half of 2023 spring training, a few sleeper MVP candidates with a high spring OPS are St. Louis’ Brendan Donovan (1.030) and Philly’s Alec Bohm (1.041).
*Also a pitcher
Are Spring Training Wins Predictive?
There’s nothing seemingly more meaningless in baseball than spring training wins and losses. The regulars come out by the fifth inning, games end in ties, and innings can end without three outs even being recorded.
But recent World Series champs have found game success in the spring, too. In the last 15 seasons, only three eventual MLB champions have posted records below .500 in spring training. And in the last five years, the team that went on to win the title has posted an 86+ win pace in spring, or better.
|Year||Team||Spring Record (W%)|
|2022||Houston Astros||8-5 (.615)|
|2021||Atlanta Braves||15-13 (.536)|
|2020||Los Angeles Dodgers||13-7 (.650)|
|2019||Washington Nationals||17-12 (.586)|
|2018||Boston Red Sox||22-9 (.710)|
One potential cause for this success carrying over from spring to the regular season is the importance of depth in modern baseball. Teams regularly use 10 to 15 starting pitchers during the season these days, and spring is a time where that pitching depth is on full display. If you’re hucking out a hurler in the eighth inning of a spring training game who carves, that probably means you’re set up with good depth for the season.
This trend isn’t a great sign for World Series hopefuls like the Guardians (.313 spring W%) and Padres (.444) who both have spring records under .500 so far.
Since 2006 only 3 teams have had a losing record in Spring Training and won the World Series pic.twitter.com/IkQ1u8c1PN— Barstool Baseball (@StoolBaseball) March 8, 2023
Opponent Quality Is Key
Every season, there are young prospects and potential breakouts who post gaudy spring numbers. But one key to evaluating that March stat line is opponent quality. If the hits and homers come off Double-A players pitching in the last few innings of games, it’s not nearly as impressive as hitting nukes off Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander.
Baseball Reference has a metric to help with that evaluation called opponent quality. Ranked on a scale of 1 to 10, the number lets you know if players hit against Single-A pitchers, high-minors competition or all big leaguers. Even the best players match up against some minor-league players this time of year, so it’s rare to see ratings above 8 or 9 (with 10 being the highest).
Opponent quality is one reason I’m so high on Cardinals top prospect Jordan Walker this year. The 3B/LF is hitting .405 in 12 spring games, with three homers and a 1.135 OPS. Most importantly, his spring stats have come against a 7.8 rated opponent quality, per BR’s scale, not the low-minors fodder many other prospects pad their stats against at this time of year. Walker has faced a higher OppQual this spring than Aaron Judge, Bo Bichette and Christian Yelich.
20-year-old Jordan Walker's spring average: .385 pic.twitter.com/nevr3hTgYM— St. Louis Cardinals (@Cardinals) March 3, 2023
Walker missed some time this spring with a shoulder injury, but he’s back in game action already. If he breaks camp with St. Louis, or earns an early promotion, he’ll be one of the heavy favorites in NL Rookie of the Year odds.