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Spring Training is a con artist

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With no real facts in the spring, we fall back on our tendency to believe in stories.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Miami Marlins Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

HBO’s new documentary Q: Into the Storm illustrates the familiar way the adherents of that crazy nonsense believe they have found truth. The mysterious “Q” uploads hundreds of vague posts to some website for bottom-feeders, and every now and then, something that was posted seems to line up with something that actually happens.

For these Q-Anon cranks, it’s confirmation that all of their delusional fantasies are real. For the rational, it’s shit being thrown at the wall, a million monkeys typing for a million years... choose your metaphor.

While the message and the medium are new, the technique is familiar. These are the time-honored tactics of the con-man. People have fallen for them, fall for them now, and will always fall for them, because that is simply how we are wired.

And that brings me to Spring Training.

We believe in Spring Training for the same reason we fall for con artists. Human beings crave narratives, seek them out even where none exist, then defend them with our lives. In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari makes a compelling case that it was our ability to construct and believe a shared narrative that allowed Homo Sapiens to rise to the top of the food chain and eliminate the less advanced human species, like the Neanderthals.

This is pretty primal stuff. So whether we’re making an offering to the Fire God, posting to Facebook about a global cabal of Democrats and Hollywood celebrities, or buying into John Nogowski as a bench bat, the process is more or less the same.

That’s not to say that each of these fictions is necessarily false. Nogowski may well make a solid bench bat. But we don’t really have the data to make a sound decision from Spring Training. What we have is narrative.

Here are the facts of Spring Training: Most position players will make between 25 and 50 plate appearances. That’s the equivalent of between one and two weeks of the regular season. For pitchers, the workload is roughly the same. Were this in the middle of a regular season, virtually no performance over one or even two weeks could be so good or so bad to significantly change your overall view of a player.

It goes beyond just the small sample size. The quality of the sample is also poor. In the regular season, every batter and pitcher is - by definition - major league quality. In spring, by the 3rd or 5th inning, there might be no major league caliber players left on the field. So no matter how good a guy’s stat line might look, it may have come off Max Scherzer or it may have come off a guy wearing #97 with no name on his jersey.

And yes, there are the soft factors as well. Pitchers in particular - and especially in the first few weeks - might be “working on stuff.” If a guy who is only throwing his fastball gets lit up, it tells you nothing about how he or the batters who lit him up will do in the regular season when that pitcher is delivering his full menu of stuff.

So to recap: Spring training is a ridiculously small sample size, the quality of competition varies wildly, and the players aren’t always trying. We can all look at that logically and say these numbers are meaningless.

And yet! We are all susceptible to looking for meaning during spring training for the same reason we fall for con artists. As this piece in the New York Times on the pervasiveness of cons put it:

Stories are one of the most powerful forces of persuasion available to us, especially stories that fit in with our view of what the world should be like. Facts can be contested. Stories are far trickier.

In a strange way, because the facts of spring have no meaning, the stories are even stronger. If you believe John Nogowski is a viable bench bat, I don’t have any facts from Spring Training to convince you otherwise... and vise-versa.

I’m only using Nogowski as an example, but the same is true for all the perennial conversations of spring training: Who’s at the back end of the rotation? The last few bullpen arms? The utility infielder?

It’s virtually impossible for us not to form opinions on these from spring training. And like a Q-Anon follower or a rube listening to the rambling patter of a psychic, we’re likely to remember only the instances where something turned out right.

What’s the takeaway here? Don’t put any stock in spring training, but know that you will anyway. Nothing you see will be meaningful, except a few things will. Think about it and talk about it because it’s fun and we’re excited, but don’t take anything too seriously.