Megdal: How the Astros do spring training

From SABR member Howard Megdal at Baseball Prospectus on March 27, 2015:

Roaming cyborgs menace outfielders shagging fly balls. Infielders need to stop after every groundball and log it at a nearby computer. When player performance drops below a certain proprietary algorithm, a trap door opens below that player on the Osceola County Stadium field, and that one-time Astro is never heard from again.

I can confirm that this is not how spring training works for the Houston Astros.

Still, spring training is a notorious breeding ground for poor decisions made on incomplete, inaccurate or just plain useless data—the sort of bad-sample trap that should drive a Process team nuts. This isn’t some progressive Astros conclusion, but a generally understood reality within the sport. I heard Mets manager Terry Collins make an umprompted argument against spring performance as a decision-driver last week, and few people have pegged Collins as some kind of hyper-sabermetric strategist. And yet: no one has moved to abolish spring training. So what does a team like the Astros, whose front office is quite aware of the limitations of spring numbers, use that time for?

For a bit of evaluation—the Astros do utilize spring performance as data, though carefully, and tacked on to what the team already knows about a player. As a significant teaching period that allows the Astros to codify coaching approach throughout the organization. And as a large dose of emotional and psychological interaction that the Astros believe will have a dramatic if still unquantifiable impact on the season.

“When we show up here, it’s the one time when we have 200 players in the same place, we have 60 coaches in the same place,” Astros assistant general manager David Stearns told me as we sat in his office, a few minutes before the March 20th game between the Astros and Nationals. “It’s a tremendously important time for player development. So put the evaluation aspect to the side for a moment, you think about the coach-to-player ratio during spring training, and it’s about as good as it can possibly get at any time of the year. And so the amount of individual attention and specified instruction that can go on between our players and our coaches is better this time of year than anything else. For me, as I look at this for the organization as a whole, that’s what gets me really excited about spring training.”

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Originally published: March 27, 2015. Last Updated: March 27, 2015.