April. Just Enjoy It.

Well, it’s here. The beginning of the baseball season nationwide.  According to the temperature gauge, it is warmer in some places than others. But for most of us, especially in Cleveland, it is sign of things to come. The nostalgia that is the first month of the season has it’s pro and cons; most pros are subjective, most cons are objective. True, a majority of baseball fans don’t care about statistics. They don’t care about what most statistical analysts think about on almost a daily basis in the summer: numbers that involve highly sophisticated mathematical formulas. However, April is the month that excites the non-numbers baseball fan and humbles the quantifying one. There are several reasons to just enjoy the first month of the season, and not get too wrapped up in the numbers. Numbers amassed in late February and March are littered with contextual flaws. One day, Fausto Carmona might face the Columbus Clippers, working on his slider, while the next day Justin Masterson has to deal with a full-fledged White Sox lineup. The variances are much different than what transpires over the course of a major-league season, when everyone does whatever they can to win, and as bad as certain teams might be, they can still school minor league rosters. In spite of the problems with context, what occurs in spring training represents the first new information that has become available, and the only data from the current year, which can be extremely difficult to simply brush aside or normalize in your head. But if the contextual issues were all resolved, we would still have to deal with sampling problems. If Josh Tomlin and Carlos Carrasco enter the spring vying for the same spot in the Indians’ rotation and produce numbers of opposite extremes—and we assume the competition they faced and the quality of defense behind them were equal—the lack of certainty inherent in 15 or so frames renders most of the numbers moot. Even if Tomlin finished the spring with a 0.50 ERA to the 14.62 mark of Carrasco, we cannot be sure that the former is better than the latter. Streaks like this take place all the time over the course of a six-month regular season, but this is conveniently forgotten when a tangible anchoring point can be traced. This is why many people begin workout regimens or diets on a Monday, or the first of the month as opposed to a random Wednesday the 12th, and why stats produced in April often influence a fan’s opinion of a player for that entire season. But it is so incredibly tough to block the numbers out, especially when there is seemingly nothing else to go on. If Tomlin and Carrasco posted the numbers above and the Indians went with Carrasco in their rotation while demoting Tomlin to the minor leagues or relegating him to the bullpen, many would be confused, and understandably so. And the brass would likely have to answer questions from fans and the press as to the basis of its decision. How can you choose someone with an ERA thirty times worse? Again, this is an extreme example, but the waters would be very muddy in comparisons between pitchers with ERAs of 3.75 and 4.80, where it might not be clear as to which pitcher performed better. We know the numbers don’t mean much, but they are all we have to go on, and from a front office perspective, decisions still need to be made. How can a team make a decision based on what happens in the spring—uncertainty—when such decisions normally require certainty? The treatment of spring training performance described above might not embody the modus operandi of every major-league team, but it likely isn’t too far off. Spring training does matter in the sense that decisions have to be made regarding certain spots in the rotation, bullpen, lineup, or bench, and for certain players it marks the first time their employer sees them up close and personal. But the decisions are rarely, if ever, based on the stats. If a player goes 42-for-47 at the plate, it isn’t the .894 batting average that will earn him a job, but the fluidity of his swing and the potential the coaches see when he comes to the plate. Numbers are useful when drawn from useful environments. When the environment isn’t beneficial to statistical analysis, it’s best to focus on the qualitative information, be it spring training or individual platoon splits. It’s the beginning of the season and a highlight of the year, for sure, but don’t be shocked if Fausto Carmona posts a 5.4 BB/9 after just two free passes in 26 spring innings, or if Mark DeRosa doesn’t hit 30 home runs after mashing six in March. Their numbers were not fake, but illusory, and focusing on what happens when the games matter is a much better way to go. One cannot tell anything based on numbers in March or April. Just enjoy the games. -Mike Melaragno

Quantcast