Predicting the Fall in the Spring

Posted on May 9, 2006 by

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This was originally posted at The Sports Economist on April 19. 

Like all sports fans, I want to know the future. I don’t want to wait around until October to see who will win the World Series. I want to know right now.

Well, what do we know right now? We know how each team did in spring training. And there is indeed a statistical link between how each team has done in the spring over the past three seasons and where the team finished in the corresponding fall. Unfortunately, it is not a very strong link. Only about 4% of the variation in final standings can be explained by spring records.

Although 4% isn’t much, is it enough to give us some insight into who makes the playoffs? Of the 24 teams who made it to the playoffs from 2003 to 2005, 10 looked like playoff contenders in the corresponding spring. From this we see that only 42% of the time spring training performance correctly identified playoff participants in the fall.

What about the identity of the World Series champion? If spring training mattered, the last three World Series titles should have been won by the Royals (2003), Twins (2004), and Angels (2005). This year the Marlins, based upon their Grapefruit league performance, should be planning a parade. Okay, I may not know much, but I know the Marlins won’t be champions this fall.

A quick confession: before looking at the link between spring training records and final outcomes I suspected there wasn’t much of a relationship. The link between spring and fall is important to note, though, because it is similar to the link between team payroll and final records.

Yes, there is a statistical relationship between what teams pay and how much they win. Like spring and fall records, though, the link between pay and wins is not very strong. As I show in a forthcoming book with Martin Schmidt and Stacey Brook, The Wages of Wins, team payroll only explains about 18% of the variation in team wins in baseball.

If we just think about playoff participants, from 1995 to 2005, the amount teams spent correctly predicted 51% of baseball’s finalists. So all in all, payroll is a bit better than spring records, but only a little bit.

What about the World Series? The leading payroll teams in each league this season are the Yankees and Mets. So a subway series is in our future? Well, if payrolls truly predicted final outcomes, 2006 would be our fourth consecutive subway series. And the Yankees would be playing for their eighth consecutive World Series title.

So do we know the future today? If all we know is spring records and payroll, it looks like we are still guessing. Unless, of course, you are a Marlins fan. If that is the case, you should have had your parade in April, because there won’t be any parade this fall.