Pitchers and catchers have officially reported. Now, the flurry of tweets and news stories about pitchers and catchers reporting generally only serve as a reminder of how uneventful pitchers and catchers reporting actually is. There's not much more than some footage of players arriving in parking lots at team facilities, and a handful of shots of players stretching on a field where it is much warmer than where you are.
Still, if pitchers and catchers reporting serves any useful purpose, it's that a signal of our national nightmare is over. Baseball really is about to return, if not entirely in earnest, with the commencement of spring training games in a matter of days. Now, with those unimportant but very real baseball games right around the corner, it's important to remember one thing: spring training doesn't matter.
Okay, that's not entirely fair. Spring training matters in that it allows players to get their sea legs back after a cold winter. It matters because heading straight into the regular season without warning wouldn't allow players or fans adequate time to prepare for meaningful baseball. But what really, really doesn't matter in spring training are the numbers.
It seems that every year, most on-lookers enter spring training with the knowledge that the statistics produced by these meaningless games are themselves meaningless, and every year, we find ourselves overreacting to some of them. It was only last year that the Orioles tried to back out of a multi-year deal handed out to Korean import Hyun Soo Kim after he started spring training with an 0-for-23 stretch (Kim ended up with a 119 wRC+ in 346 regular season plate appearances).
Before getting too worked up about any of the seemingly outlandish and noteworthy performances that emerge this spring training, remind yourself of all the odd things that have happened in recent springs, and how little they mattered. Barring a player hitting multiple home runs every game, or a pitcher striking out almost every batter he faces, every number that emerges this spring should be taken with a truckload of salt.
Look no further than just last year to find misleading spring performances. The two most impressive hitting performances for the Yankees probably belonged to Starlin Castro (.944 OPS in 49 at-bats) and Aaron Hicks (.856 OPS in 49 at-bats). Clearly that didn't mean much, as both posted regular season OPS figures more than 200 points lower.
On the pitching side, the talk of last spring was Bryan Mitchell, who unfortunately suffered a foot injury that cost him most of the season. Beyond Mitchell, Chasen Shreve was extremely impressive, as he was nearly perfect, allowing no runs and just two base-runners in 10 spring innings. He then posted an ERA over five as a reliever in 2016.
Going past just last year, it seems almost too fitting that the most impressive starting pitchers have generally been Michael Pineda and Nathan Eovaldi. Since 2014, Eovaldi has thrown 33.1 innings with a 2.50 ERA and 30 strikeouts in spring training, while Pineda has posted a sterling 2.25 ERA with 54 strikeouts in 48 spring innings. Add that to the running list of ways in which those two have managed to befuddle fans and evaluators alike.
There's just no way to assign meaning to spring numbers because the numbers are created under meaningless circumstances. Once the games are acknowledged as inconsequential, everyone involved no longer has to behave as if the results matter. Players can tinker with their approach in ways they would hesitate to in July. Managers can trot out minor-league caliber lineups. Small sample sizes allow the level of competition to skew the numbers: hitters who face an inordinate number of terrible pitchers get a bump, pitchers who have the misfortune of facing only major-leaguers face a disadvantage, and vice versa.
Now this isn't to say that spring training isn't worth any attention. Rather than focus on the numbers that are produced, we can focus on the players' underlying processes. Is a reliever throwing with significantly increased velocity? Has a starting pitcher unveiled an interesting new breaking ball? Has a position player introduced (or eliminated) a leg kick in his swing? We may not be able to glean anything from the results produced by such spring training adjustments, but they are still worth keeping an eye on, to see if they persist into the actual season.
Just don't get caught up in the moment and place undue importance on the stats. Doing so generally leads to embarrassing situations like the one the Orioles faced with Kim, as they tried to cut a valuable player because of a bad week or two in March. Instead of looking foolish, just try to accept spring training for what it is: a fun exhibition and a needed change from the long offseason, rather than a sure sign of what's to come when the real season starts.