Today spring training games begin. They mean absolutely nothing for the regular season, but it will be great for Rays fans to see all of their favorite players and plenty of top prospects getting into game action and simply to know that the start of the season is right around the corner. Wait a second- are spring training games completely meaningless? Before the Rays’ shocking 2008 run, they went an outstanding 18-8 in spring training, and since 2008, the Rays have made the playoffs the three times they have been above .500 and not made it the two times they weren’t. Has there really been an association between the Rays winning in spring training and them winning in the regular season? Actually, yes.
From the Rays’ inaugural season in 1998 until 2012, there has been a relatively strong .684 correlation (out of a possible 1) between the Rays’ spring training winning percentage and their regular season winning percentage. The correlation is even higher, coming in at .769, between the Rays’ spring training winning percentage and their finish in the regular season. The Rays have made the postseason every season but one that they finished above .500 in spring training and missed the playoffs every time they finished .500 or worse in the spring. What does any of this mean? Not very much. But what stands out is how well the Rays have performed in spring training in seasons where the pressure has been on. From 1998 to 2007, the Devil Rays never finished above .500 a single time in the regular season, and the same held true in spring training, except for 2004. That season, D-Rays management expected big things after bringing manager Lou Pinella in the fold, and the Rays responded by going 11-8 in spring training. The much stronger examples, though, are 2008 and 2010. Spring training in 2008 was exemplified by Elliot Johnson breaking Francisco Cervelli‘s wrist in a collision at a home plate, the moment where the Rays officially made the statement to the rest of baseball saying that they were for real. The Ray new the pressure was on with a new name and new team mentality, and they responded by going 18-8 in spring training. Then entering 2010, people thought that the Rays might just be a one-year wonder after they won just 84 games in 2009, and the Rays went on a mission to prove their doubters wrong, going an even-better 20-8 in spring training. Essentially, when the Rays have something to prove, they’re able to turn up their level of performance in spring training. They still made the playoffs after going 15-14 in 2011 and still won 90 games after going just 10-16 in 2012, so it’s not like the Rays are primed for a bad season if they don’t do well this spring, but when they do, it does seem to be a good sign.
This spring training, the Rays are going out with something to prove. They failed to make the playoffs in 2012 and traded away James Shields following the season, making doubters believe that their strong run of the past five years is going to come to an end. But the AL East is anybody’s game this year with no team jumping out as a clear favorite, and the best all-around team in the division could very well be the Rays. It likely has nothing to do with their regular season performance, but it would be nice to see the Rays make another statement with a huge spring training performance and get fans excited for what the Rays hope will be a banner season.