Is Spring Training predictive for the St. Louis Cardinals?
Spring training is underway, with the St. Louis Cardinals’ first game against the New York Mets on Saturday, February 22nd. But how predictive are Spring Training results for a great, average, or poor regular season?
Spring Training is split across two leagues, the Grapefruit League based in Florida, and the Cactus League based in Arizona. Since 2010, these two leagues have had the same 15 teams in each league, playing between 27 and 33 games. The St. Louis Cardinals play in the Grapefruit league.
It is widely believed that Spring Training is not predictive and has no relevancy on the regular season. Players are shaking off the rust from the off-season, minor leaguers are looking to push their way into the manager’s line of sight, and new players are trying out for roster spots.
But do the outcomes and numbers from Spring Training really matter?
Looking back over the last few years across the majors:
- In the 2019 Grapefruit League, the top three positions were held by the New York Yankees (lost in the American League Championship Series), Houston Astros (lost in the World Series) and Washington Nationals (won the World Series).
- In 2018, the two teams across both Spring Training leagues with the best records were the Boston Red Sox (won the World Series) and Houston Astros (lost in the ALCS).
So over the last two years, Spring Training standings are starting to look like a reasonable estimation for the upcoming season. Prior to that, though, comes the randomness everyone talks about:
- 2017 Spring Training was topped by the New York Yankees (lost in ALCS), the St. Louis Cardinals (marginally above .500 and didn’t make the playoffs) and the Pittsburgh Pirates (finished 4th in the NL Central).
- The 2016 Grapefruit league finished with a top three of Washington Nationals (lost in NLDS), Toronto Blue Jays (lost in ALCS) and the Minnesota Twins (worst record in MLB).
Overall a real mixed bag of outcomes ranging from teams succeeding in Spring and then going deep into the playoffs, to teams finishing in the top three of Spring Training and then going on to have the worst record of the 30 Major League teams in the regular season.
Looking specifically for the top players from Spring Training, in 2019 the best offensive players by OPS were Ryan McMahon (1.232 OPS in 24 games), Juan Soto (1.117 OPS in 20G) and Yoan Moncada (1.110 OPS in 19G).
Now we all know about Juan Soto having a breakout year in 2019, so this was predictive for Soto. Plus Moncada was the strongest bat for the White Sox with a .915 OPS and 25 homers. On the other hand, Ryan McMahon finished 2019 as the Rockies 4th lowest OPS among qualified hitters.
Then from a pitching perspective, Spring Training is a key time to try out a wide variety of pitching. Shown well in 2019 with the lowest ERAs coming from Frankie Montas (0.56 ERA in 16IP) who finished as the A’s best starter, Pablo Lopez (0.90 ERA in 20IP) who finished as the Marlins worst starter and Jeremy Hellickson (0.95 ERA in 19IP) who only made 8 starts for the Nationals then was put on the 60 days IL in May and has since retired from baseball!
Pitching certainly isn’t an indicator of regular-season success.
How does this compare to the St. Louis Cardinals specifically:
Unsurprisingly there are no real correlations between a good Spring Training and a good regular season for the St. Louis Cardinals. Looking back to 2006, in the years the Cards finished in the top five of Spring Training they either finished below .500, didn’t make the playoffs or lost in the NLDS. Whereas in the seasons they finished in the bottom half of Spring Training (aside from 2016), they either won the World Series (2006 & 2011) or made it to the NLCS (2014 & 2019).
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The Cardinals do though currently hold the longest streak in Spring Training of years without two consecutive losing seasons (since 1985/86), which is the most by 12 years. They also hold the 3rd longest streak in the majors without two consecutive losing seasons (since 1994/95) which is bettered by only the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. So this perhaps shows a link between the consistency in Spring Training and the regular season.
Delving into a little more detail of the Cardinals 2019 Spring Training, the signs of what was to come in the regular season were telegraphed early on.
The Cards finished Spring Training last year with a losing record, 4th bottom in the Grapefruit League and with the 8th worst record overall. Now they performed strongly defensively (allowing the 7th fewest runs per game) which was mirrored in the regular season, but the teams offensive woes were pretty obvious as early as Spring Training.
The St. Louis Cardinals finished spring with the second-lowest average runs scored per game (4.5) which was more than a run lower than the average (5.7) and nearly three runs fewer than the Spring Training leading Chicago Cubs. This was evidently an early look ahead to the regular season with the Cardinals finishing their 162 games with the 6th worst offense in the National League, and producing very little in the NLCS.
Spring Training also gave us a good indication of who the big performers would be in 2019. At the plate, the teams strongest players were Paul Goldschmidt (.939 OPS) who was the home run leader for the St. Louis Cardinals, followed by Tommy Edman (.903 OPS) who finished 2019 with the Cards highest OPS among qualified hitters.
At the bottom of the list was Harrison Bader who finished Spring with a lowly .543 OPS. This was closely mirrored in the majors by his .680 OPS that was way below the .758 league average for 2019.
Finally, on the mound, the top Cardinals pitchers were Dakota Hudson who had the lowest ERA (1.25 in 21.2IP) and most wins which he backed up in the regular season by having a stellar 2019. Followed by Jack Flaherty and his 2.12 ERA in 5 Spring Training games, which as we all now know led Jack on the course to fighting for a Cy Young and lots of excitement ahead of 2020.
As you can see, there’s a definite lack of linkage between Spring Training and the regular season. But there are certain things to look out for this Spring which could be a real indication as to how the 2020 St. Louis Cardinals are going to perform, and whether there could be another playoff run in the coming year!