Do spring training records matter? The answer often depends on whom you ask, and how well their team is currently doing during the exhibition season. But, what does the data say?

Top-10 Spring Training Records, 1984-2016

Note: Excludes the 1990 and 1995 exhibition seasons, which were shortened by work stoppages. Tie games excluded from winning percentage calculations.
Source: espn.com, mlb.com and springtrainingmagazine.com

Yankees’ Historical Spring Training Performance, 1962 – Present

Note: 1995 data excludes record compiled by replacement players.
Source: Yankees media notes (h/t @LouDiPietroYES ‏)

With the Yankees in the midst of a strong spring campaign, Joe Girardi is likely to find some virtue in March success. However, a more dismissive attitude from John Gibbons should be expected. Not only have the Blue Jays struggled during this exhibition season, but it wasn’t too long ago when Toronto parlayed a historic spring performance into a fourth place finish during the regular season. There’s enough anecdotal evidence to support both sides of the debate, so let’s look at the aggregate data.

Distribution of Playoff Teams by Spring Training Winning Percentage, 1996-2016
Note: Tie games excluded from winning percentage calculations. Chart compares playoff and non-playoff teams within defined winning percentage range.
Source: espn.com, mlb.com and springtrainingmagazine.com

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Spring training crowds during the first week of the 2017 exhibition season have been relatively sparse across both Florida and Arizona. With the exception of the Braves, Cubs and Red Sox, the average crowd size for every team has been down double digits compared to 2016. It must be time for the World Baseball Classic!

Y/Y Comparison of Spring Training Attendance: First Week 2017 vs. 2016 Total

Note: 2017 data is as of March 3. Attendance includes only games played against major league teams at typical spring training facilities.
Source: ESPN.com

Since the inaugural WBC in 2006, spring training attendance has taken a hit in each year that the tournament has been played. However, the decline has only been temporary. In the year following the WBC, attendance levels have immediately snapped back and continued their gradual ascent. Is this a quadrennial coincidence, or has the WBC discouraged fans from attending spring training games?

Average Spring Training Crowds Before and After WBC Years

Note: 2006-2008 data is for 15 current Grapefruit League teams only. Attendance includes only games played against major league teams at typical spring training facilities.
Source: Yahoo.com, ESPN.com and sportsbusinessdaily.com

There are a few reasons why the WBC might cannibalize spring training crowds. The most obvious is the earlier start to spring training necessitated by the tournament schedule. With a week’s worth of games in February, nearly one-quarter of the schedule takes place before a typical exhibition season begins. If these earlier games do not coincide with normal travel patterns and the habits of local residents, the result would be smaller crowds in February and an overall decline in average attendance caused by the resultant dilution. Continue Reading »

(This updated post was originally published on February 16, 2011)

For 20 years, Tampa has been the Yankees’ spring training home, but it still seems like just yesterday when the team’s camp was located down the coast in Ft. Lauderdale. I am sure most fans who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s still reflexively harken back to those days of yore, while the real old timers’ memories take them all the way back to St. Petersburg, where Yankees’ legends from Ruth to Mantle toiled under the Florida sun.

Over the years, spring training has evolved significantly. Once upon a time, it was a pre-season retreat designed to help out-of-shape ballplayers shed the pounds added over the winter. In the early part of the last century, before even reporting to camp, players would often attend spas in places like Hot Springs, where they would purge their bodies of the iniquities from the offseason. Then, games would either be played among split squads (in the old days, the camps would be split into teams of veterans and hopeful rookies, the latter often called Yannigans) or against local minor league and college ball clubs. Finally, the teams would barnstorm their way back up north before finally kicking off the regular season.

Today, spring training is more big business than quaint tradition. Thanks to the growing competition between cities in Arizona and Florida (each state now hosts 15 major league clubs), teams have been able to extract sweetheart stadium deals, allowing them to turn the exhibition season into a significant profit center. Still, at the heart of spring training is hope and renewal as teams begin the long journey that is the baseball season.

The Yankees’ spring history has been a journey all its own. Below is an outline of some significant mileposts along the way.

Yankees’ Spring Training Homes Since 1901

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Is Jim Palmer the most overrated pitcher of all time? Disciples of defense independent pitching stats (DIPS) have often pointed to the right hander’s mediocre strikeout rate and extraordinary success on balls in play to support that claim, and the slight hasn’t gone unnoticed by Palmer. During a recent roundtable discussion convened by ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick, the three-time Cy Young award winner took on his critics with a statistic of his own.

I asked a writer I know, ‘You’re into sabermetrics. Can you look up, with a runner on third and less than two outs, did my strikeouts go up?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, they went up 17 percent.’ Well, why do you think that is? Because I didn’t want to give up a run.”

Palmer’s comment was a rebuttal to the claim that his performance was aided by luck (and the Orioles’ defensive proficiency).  At first glance, the argument sounds like an off-shoot of “pitching to the score”, but Palmer’s protest isn’t theoretical. Not only is the claim intuitively logical, but it is easily verified. So, is it true?

In order to verify Palmer’s claim, we need to establish the appropriate points of comparison. For this purpose, K/9 rates do not seem sufficient because they measure the number of strikeouts relative to outs. A more relevant comparison is between strikeouts and batters faced, but with one small adjustment. Because intentional walks have historically been four to eight times more frequent in situations with a runner on third and fewer than two outs, it makes sense to remove them from the equation. After all, the purpose of this exercise is to measure the pitcher’s intent, which, when handing out a free pass, is clearly not to record a strikeout.

MLB Rate of Intentional Walks, 1955-2016

Note: Play-by-play data is considered mostly complete from 1955 -1974, and complete from 1975 to 2016.
Source: baseball-reference.com

Before focusing on Palmer, it’s interesting to note the gradual decline in the number of intentional walks with a runner on third and fewer than two outs. With the influx of power arms and overall increase in the rate of strikeouts, this trend might suggest pitchers are more confident in their ability to get a big strikeout than, perhaps, set up a double play by putting a man on first. Has that been a successful strategy? We’ll get back to that later.

Jim Palmer’s Strikeout Rates

Note: Strikeout rates are as a percentage of batters faced, excluding intentional walks: K/(TBF-IBB).
Source: baseball-reference.com
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The Dodgers opened up their wallets again this winter, but no one should be surprised. According to final payroll data reported by major league baseball, Los Angeles has retained its ranking as the game’s biggest spender for the third consecutive season.

2016 Final Payrolls


Note: Final payrolls represent actual amounts spent (salaries, benefits, earned bonuses and pro-rated shares of signing bonuses), but not AAV valuations used for luxury tax purposes.
Source: MLB release published by AP

Although the Dodgers’ $255 million payroll in 2016 easily outpaced all other teams, it also represented one of the largest year-over-year declines. Compared to 2015, L.A. trimmed nearly $40 million from its ledger, or almost two-thirds of the Milwaukee Brewers’ league-low $65 million payroll. The Dodgers’ diminished player expense also resulted in a much smaller luxury tax assessment. With a final average annual value (AAV) calculated at $252.5 million, Los Angeles’ tax bill came to almost $32 million, the third highest figure ever recorded, but a fraction of the whopping $57 million owed last year.

Year-Over-Year Payroll Changes (Final), 2016 vs. 2015
Note: Based on base salary of contract year plus pro-rated items, earned bonuses.
Source: MLB releases published by AP

Year-Over-Year Payroll Changes (AAV), 2016 vs. 2015
Note: Based on Average annual value of contracts plus pro-rated items, earned bonuses, and defined benefits of $12,953,201, which, according to AP, includes items such as health and pension benefits; club medical costs; insurance; workman’s compensation, payroll, unemployment and Social Security taxes; spring training allowances; meal and tip money; All-Star game expenses; travel and moving expenses; postseason pay; and college scholarships.
Source: MLB releases published by AP Continue Reading »

Most in the baseball media have declared management as the winner in the sport’s latest round of labor negotiations. Over the last two days, I’ve portrayed the outcome as a split decision by illustrating how the new CBA will do little to change the prevailing trends in the game. But, that begs the question: is the status quo good for the players?

Rise in Luxury Tax Threshold, 2003-2021


Source: MLB

The first step toward answering that question is to consider the history of the current luxury tax system, which dates back to 2003. Since then, three new agreements have amended the structure, resulting in a rising threshold, but decreasing capacity as a percentage of revenue. This latter trend has been cited as a failure by the MLBPA, but that criticism is baseless. The reason why luxury tax capacity compared to revenue has declined is because the sport’s business fundamentals have improved dramatically, not because the threshold has limited salary growth. After all, in 2015, the last year for which there are official numbers, there was a $1.3 billion gap between capacity and actual player compensation, so even if the new CBA provided for no increase in threshold, there would still be plenty of room for salary growth. However, the new agreement does call for an 11% bump in the tax trigger over the next five years, which is double the rise that resulted in the previous accord. So, even if big spenders like the Yankees and Dodgers are deterred from spending more, the other 28 teams have more than enough room to pick up the slack.

Luxury Tax Capacity as a Percentage of Net Revenue, 2003-2015
Note: Revenue is net of stadium debt service.
Source: MLB, Forbes (net revenue)
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Was the CBA process hijacked from the players? Are payrolls likely to stagnate? And, is the deal so one-sided that the seeds of future discord have already been sewn? All of these assessments are based on the premise that the new CBA will discourage spending, but is that true?

As illustrated yesterday, the additional penalties imposed by the new luxury tax scheme are likely to only effect two teams: the Yankees and Dodgers. Even if other teams exceed the new thresholds, none are habitual offenders and all are unlikely to spend at levels that wouldn’t trigger the new surcharges. So, any analysis of the new system’s dampening effect should center on how it will influence the Yankees’ and Dodgers’ willingness to spend.

Comparative Tax and Rate for Hypothetical Payrolls (chart and graph), 2016-2021


Note: Assumes payroll is taxed at the maximum rate and surcharge (i.e., applies to habitual offenders). Green shading in the chart indicates where total tax is lower than would have been under 2016 rules.
Source: Proprietary

The new CBA will impose more stringent tax rates on habitual big spenders, but these gaudy percentages look more imposing when divorced from the proper context. As illustrated above, in dollar terms, the tax paid out on a commensurate payroll will gradually decrease over the agreement’s five year term. And, for  payrolls around $265mn or lower, the fine levied will be less from 2019 forward than it would have been under the 2016 rules. In other words, the new surcharges will only have a significant impact on sustained payrolls approaching $300 million. Continue Reading »

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