With each passing day making a normal spring training and normal regular season both farther away and less likely, we’re left to contemplate an abbreviated schedule. What can we learn from previous work stoppages and delays, and are there common statistical anomalies that will be useful predictors in fantasy?
Before addressing those questions, though, it’s important to note that the impact a shortened season and spring training have on fantasy team rosters and decisions is of little consequence compared to the real-life impacts that missed games will have on players’ and the families’ lives, as well as others who rely on baseball games for their job. The slight potential for edges in fantasy is obviously not the most crucial aspect of a very complex and real-world labor dispute. Baseball, though, does provide us with a distraction and entertainment—and if the owners are locking out players (as well as fans, once games are missed), we’re still entitled to have a little fun discussing the game we miss.
With that caveat out of the way, let’s begin with our sample seasons to pull from to see what we can learn. There have been nine work stoppages in MLB’s history (at least since the players had a coherent organizing union). Three have delayed the start of the season. The 1972 strike spanned 13 days to start the season, but a full spring training was played. That leaves the 1990 lockout and the strike that lasted from 1994-1995 as the only work stoppages that have led to an abbreviated spring training to compare.
Taking those seasons, I wanted to compare how players performed on a shortened spring training compared to a “normal” season. To do so, I looked at the stats for hitters and pitchers in those “short” years and compared them to the prior year, when players had a full spring training schedule. Of course, other factors can have an impact on league-wide statistics, especially with early-season weather effects. To control for that, I compared the first month of the “short” seasons with the corresponding month of the previous year. In 1995, that was May as the strike was still unresolved throughout the spring and games did not begin until April 28. In 1990, it was April as games were only moved back a week to accommodate a 3-week spring training.
The general consensus heard every spring in baseball, average year or not, is that pitchers are ahead of the hitters in the early going of the season. The thought is that the most difficult thing to do in baseball—hitting it—takes longer to adjust and ramp up to than “simply” throwing hard or locating the pitch. As such, I expected that with a much shorter spring training, as was the case in 1990 and 1995, pitchers would have a much more distinct advantage over hitters in the first month of the season.
In the years players returned to play after an abbreviated spring training, however, league-wide ERA and WHIP were actually up overall from the previous years, when players had a full spring training, albeit slightly and to such a degree that could easily be random variance, and without a distinct pattern to support it.
Strikeouts ticked up slightly in the shortened spring training years, and batting averages dipped slightly while OBP remained fairly consistent. That may lend some credence to hitters needing more game action to get their timing right. It could be that hitters “see” the ball just fine after an abbreviated spring training in terms of distinguishing balls from strikes, but actually “hitting” the ball and making contact needs a bit more time to catch up.
So what’s there to make of our expectations for how players perform coming off a short spring training?
Fortunately, we don’t have enough work stoppages in baseball history to perform a full analysis, so any comparison will by its nature be a small sample size. (I intentionally left out the abbreviated “spring” of 2020, just because there are too many other confounding variables in the extremely unique circumstances of the COVID-shortened year in baseball.)
From the small samples of these couple of years, there’s probably an argument to be made that strikeouts will be up a bit if, in fact, hitters haven’t had the full time required to get their timing and contact down. That could largely be offset by pitchers still trying to gain a “feel” on their secondary pitches, as elevated OBPs and ERAs in those first months of the short-spring years indicate.
If the regular season is shortened, those early-season games will take up a bigger proportion of the season than usual, simply because the total number of games is smaller. You might expect those trends from previous shortened years to hold– if the season starts in May, for instance, perhaps strikeouts and ERA are a bit elevated from May 2021. That’s not entirely helpful during a fantasy draft.
The lesson instead may be that patience is a virtue when it comes to fantasy rosters in the early going. There may not be an edge when it comes to drafting players that can give a decisive edge in the early part of the season, but knowing that there is bound to be some weirdness around control for pitchers and contact for hitters may help fantasy managers find some under-performing players in the early going to roster and watch in what hopefully turns into a complete (or nearly complete) season.
Featured image by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)