It’s the same every spring…your favorite player’s success, mediocrity or outright failures are quickly draped in a caveat heard by each MLB fan every single year:
“It’s only spring training.”
Whether being weaponized by rivals or stockpiled for self-comfort, this swiss-army phrase comes in handy to most of us at one point or another. But the answer to the question of whether spring stats matter, like so many other things in baseball, is extremely contextual.
Every player’s approach to the game is his own. Sure, things follow a general pattern based on positional and situational factors, but it’s the minor distinctions a player develops that best fit his biological/psychological profile that sets him apart from others.
In other words, a player’s production can “matter” relative to his approach.
MLB’s John Smoltz recently asked Miguel Cabrera what his goals were for this spring. Miggy told him he wanted to “see everything.” He wanted to get jammed inside, he wanted to see down and away, wanted to hit opposite field, hit ahead/behind in a count. He basically wanted to get at least one look at everything he knows he’ll see in a real MLB season. Nick Castellanos, when asked the same question said, “I just want to get my body ready for a full season.”
As you can see, neither of these approaches are focused on spring production. Roster security allows veteran players like these to take a much more tailored approach in their playing time.
Now contrast that against a guy trying to make an MLB roster for the first time. Or an aging journeyman trying to make a comeback or hold onto his career. The focus is going to be much different. Spring production is going to matter in a different way and tell us a different story. And we’ve just begun to scratch the surface of nuance here. Imagine how much a player’s approach can change depending on intra-game situations and matchups.
What about the young prospect pitching against the veteran hitter, or vice-versa? Coaching philosophies, analytical strategies, position battles, injury rehabs, all can change the field of approaches considerably and in different ways when the final score doesn’t count.
Spring stats matter; to what degree is less definitive and incredibly contextual. Bottom line is you’ll always be able to spot someone’s overall bias on a player/team by how they refer to them in spring training. They may not be considering all the factors and environmental contexts in play.
But when it comes to baseball, like players, every fan’s approach to the game is their own.