Even without looking at numbers, it should seem logical that how a team fares in the standings in spring training ought not to have bearing on their regular season performance. It’s not the game results that matter in spring training, nor are the results of individual games indicative of what will happen when there’s a degree of consistency in the lineups.
Besides, spring training lasts merely a month — in the regular season, one month hardly tells the entire story of a team’s season.
If you want data, that’s out there. A search for “does spring training record matter” turns up multiple studies, and the general consensus is that any correlation that exists between spring training and regular-season winning percentage is pretty weak.
Still, when the Dodgers lost seven games in a row this spring, maybe some people started to worry. Maybe it concerns Dodger fans that the seemingly formidable Diamondbacks finished atop the Cactus League, while the Dodgers ended their spring a game below .500.
To see if there was any sort of correlation between the Dodgers’ spring training and regular season win-loss records throughout the years, I looked at data spanning 32 seasons, from 1984 through 2015. (Results from before 1984 are not readily available online.)
In 12 of these years, the differential between spring training winning percentage and regular-season winning percentage has been greater than .100 (in bold). There have even been three instances in which the differential in winning percentage has exceeded .200 (bolded and italicized): 1999, when the Dodgers went .700 in spring and .475 in the regular season; 2004, when they went .353 and .574, and 2014, when they went .368 and .580. One hundred-plus points is a pretty drastic difference, and in 37.5 percent of the years examined.
In slightly more than half the years listed (18), the Dodgers’ regular-season winning percentage was better than their spring training winning percentage (in blue); therefore, the opposite was true in slightly less than half of those years (14, in red). In other words, there’s no consistency in whether the Dodgers under- or over-perform their spring training winning percentage.
Does a sub-.500 spring training winning percentage give us any idea about the likelihood of a sub-.500 regular season record? How about vice versa? We can answer that more easily by putting the above data into a scatter plot:
From this graph, we can see that, in five years where the Dodgers went sub-.500 in spring, they also went sub-.500 in the regular season. On the other hand, there were 10 years in which the Dodgers went sub-.500 in spring before posting a winning percentage of .500 or higher in the regular season. (Interestingly, in three years — 2004, 2013 and 2014 — the Dodgers had a spring winning percentage in the .300s before going on to win the division.)
In 14 years where the Dodgers had a record of .500 or higher in spring, they also had a record of .500 or higher in the regular season. There were only three seasons in which the Dodgers went .500 or higher in spring only to fall short of the .500 mark in the regular season. This includes 1999, when their best-ever spring winning percentage, .700, was followed up by a lackluster .475 regular season performance.
What does all this mean, then? Well, if nothing else, it’s a nice reminder that the Dodgers have been pretty watchable for a large portion of the last few decades (if “watchability” is defined by playing better-than-.500 ball; I’m sure plenty would take issue with those parameters — insert Time Warner joke here). I’m also taking it to affirm that the Dodgers’ 2016 spring winning percentage of .481 by no means serves a reliable predictor of their regular season win-loss record.
There are plenty of legitimate reasons to be concerned going into the season, most of which are related to injuries. But don’t count the Dodgers’ place in the Cactus League standings among them.