Spring Training Secrets

Seven things you might not know about spring training...

To be perfectly honest (a recently adopted policy) what follows are not exactly secrets. They’re more like things someone says when you’ve been around so long they forget you’re a reporter and accidentally blurt out something insightful, immediately followed by requests that you not use their name when you write about it.

But I liked the title “Spring Training Secrets” because of its semi-alliterative qualities and the fact that it sounds like a soft porn movie about a young man and his enormous Louisville Slugger.

Face it: if you’re reading this, the title got you to click on the article so whatever happens next is pretty much your fault. While I’m guessing some of you are enormously disappointed this isn’t actually soft porn, bear with me and I’ll try to keep you entertained.

So let’s get right to secret number one. 

1. They probably already know who the Opening Day pitcher is

Every spring reporters badger managers to name their Opening Day starting pitcher and every spring managers play coy and says it’s way too soon to know.

Maybe…but probably not.

This season the Kansas City Royals open in Chicago on March 26th. Starting pitchers throw every five days and at some point teams have to get their Opening Day starter lined up to pitch that first game.

So if you’ve got nothing better to do, count back every five days from March 26th and the guy pitching on those days is most likely the Opening Day starter. Be aware that a pitcher’s name might not show up in a box score because he got his work in while pitching on one of the backfields – more on that shortly.

So if teams know who’s pitching on Opening Day, why not say so?

Smart managers see no point in announcing Opening Day starters before they have to, just in case something changes. Then the manager would have some explaining to do, the team might look indecisive and the guy who is now starting on Opening Day knows he wasn’t the first choice.

Why take the risk just so a reporter has something to write about?

2. You might not want your best pitcher opening the season

Most of the time teams want their best pitcher opening the season because that’s allows him to make the most starts over the course of the summer.

But what if that pitcher is a head case?

The number one pitcher in your rotation will match up against the number one pitcher in opposing teams’ rotation for the first month or so until rainouts and days off throw things out of whack.

Since he’s facing the best the other team has to offer, an Opening Day starter can pitch his ass off for a month and still wind up with a 1-4 record. So you want that Opening Day starter to be mentally tough and if you’ve got a guy with a million-dollar arm and a ten-cent head he might be better off pitching further down in the rotation.

3. Someone might fake an injury

In the old days spring training had to be six weeks long because ballplayers had off-season jobs and got out of shape. Now most big league ballplayers’ off-season job is working out.

Pitchers need more time to get their arms ready, but a position player might feel like the season is too damn long already and he doesn’t need six more weeks of baseball to get prepared, especially if he played winter ball.

This is a touchy subject because you’re accusing some players of malingering, but let’s just say it’s not unheard of for a guy to shorten spring training by pulling a muscle or suffering some other injury that won’t show up on an X-Ray.

Those guys tend to have a miraculous recovery two to three weeks before the regular season begins.

4. They’re not trying 100 percent 100 percent of the time

Before I hung around big league ballplayers and saw how a single injury could destroy a team’s playoff chances, I bought into that “give 110 percent” crap which is not only bad math, but bad baseball.  

You don’t want players going all out all the time.

Getting someone hurt in a meaningless spring training game is not smart. Players have to recognize when to back off and when to go for it and that can mean different things to different players.

For instance:

If a pitcher knows he’s made the team he might not throw sliders most of the spring because he knows he’ll throw a ton of them once the season starts. Everybody wants to do well, but if a veteran on a long-term contract has a lousy spring it’s not the end of the world. The main thing for a veteran is to get in game shape and be ready for Opening Day.

If a pitcher is trying to make the team, he might want to throw his best stuff at every opportunity.

5. Some numbers are more important than others

If I counted right the Royals play the White Sox nine times in the first month of the season so a smart pitcher might not want to give them any extra looks at his stuff or reveal how he’ll try to get them out.

In that case the pitcher might work on hitting spots with his fastball, getting his slider where it needs to be or just getting his arm in shape. If so, don’t be surprised if that pitcher gets lit up like Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

Or the pitcher might go to a back field and throw his real stuff in a minor league game. Another alternative is to wait until he faces a team he won’t see during the regular season, then throw everything he has to see where he stands.

The numbers a pitcher puts up when throwing his best stuff are more important than the numbers he puts up when he’s just getting his work in.

6. Teams try to change the scouting report

Scouts from other teams are at every game and smart teams and players use that to their advantage.

Once in a while you might see a weird pickoff play or double steal attempt in a spring training game that you’ll never see during the regular season. The idea is to get the play into the other teams’ scouting reports and make them worry about something you’re never going to do when it matters.

7. Winning is nice, but not mandatory

You probably already know that – or at least you should – and yet without fail some reporter will ask the manager of the team that finishes first in the Grapefruit or Cactus League how much it means.

Frankly, not much.

Last season only two Grapefruit League teams did worse than Tampa Bay and yet Tampa Bay went to the postseason. Only three teams played better than Miami in spring training and yet Miami lost 105 regular season games.

Things get goofy in the spring because teams and players have other priorities that come before winning meaningless games.

Apparently, Jim Leyland once said going .500 in spring training was just about perfect; he had other stuff to worry about, but wasn’t all that interested in getting his ass kicked on a daily basis either.  

If you already knew all this stuff, great; if not, I hope it helps explain some of what you see during spring training.