After Shortened Spring Training, MLB Players Rush To Be Ready For Regular Season
In each of his four full spring trainings as a major leaguer, Trea Turner received at least 50 plate appearances and played at least 90 innings in the field. That full quota of spring training reps often had him ready to go right away once Opening Day arrived. The Dodgers shortstop is a career .301/.365/.498 hitter in March and April, consistently his best months until after the all-star break.
This spring, with one exhibition game remaining, Turner has had only 33 plate appearances and played 58 innings in the field. With spring training cut in half to only three weeks this year, he is one of hundreds of major leaguers trying to be ready for Opening Day on an expedited timeline.
Whether Turner truly is or not, even he can’t say for sure.
“We all think spring training might be a little long as it is, so I think we’re all of the mindset that we can go with fewer at-bats or games than we’ve had in the past, but also at the same time this one felt pretty quick,” Turner said prior to the Dodgers exhibition against the Angels on Sunday. “I think a lot of guys felt like it was over almost too quick.”
The 99-day lockout delayed the spring training reporting date this year by nearly a month and resulted in the cancellation of 10-12 games from each team’s spring training schedule. Even though Major League Baseball delayed Opening Day from March 31 to April 7 to give players more time to get ready, players will still open the regular season at what would normally be half to two-thirds of the way through their usual ramp-up process.
In 2021, D-backs utilityman Josh Rojas led all hitters with 72 spring training at-bats. This year, with one day remaining, Angels outfielder Brandon Marsh has the most spring training at-bats with 40.
The difference is even more acute for pitchers. Mariners lefthander Marco Gonzales leads all pitchers with 17.2 innings this spring. In 2021, 34 pitchers threw as many innings or more.
“It’s a mixed bag,” Dodgers pitching coach Mark Prior said. “I think guys, for the most part, 95% of our guys came in pretty good shape and have been up to the challenge to really go in and attack their pitches and deliveries, where I think usually it's more of an easing in to make sure that they’re in shape. We had to basically find out where everybody was and see what kind of shape they were in and that kind of determined if we do anything, if we make adjustments. Because the last thing we wanna do is start tinkering with things and the guy is not in shape and the arm strength is not there or the delivery is not there and all of a sudden it is there and then you’re trying to unwind things that you were maybe putting some bandaids on, so to speak.”
To counteract the effects of the shortened spring training, some teams changed up their entire spring schedules. The Red Sox, for example, shifted when and how they go through team fundamentals. The effect was positive enough they plan on making the change permanent.
“I think we’re in a good spot,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “We actually changed a few things, and we'll keep doing it the way we did this year. We avoided team fundamentals early. Everything was building up the players and then towards the end, we hit the fundamentals with a smaller group. It worked awesome schedule-wise.
“But I think the players—not only our players but around the league—you talk to managers and the way they came in physically, it's a testament to who they are and what they want to do. The game is in a great spot because of who's playing the game. They’ve been amazing.”
Recent history provides some clues as to the effects of a limited ramp-up period.
Players had only three weeks of summer camp to get ready for the shortened 2020 season. While the circumstances were markedly different with teams limited to intrasquad scrimmages in their home stadiums by the coronavirus pandemic, the preparation process and timelines were similar. Players spent the months leading up to the resumption of on-field activities training at local fields or workout facilities. Once they returned to formal workouts with their organizations, they only had about half as much time as usual before the regular season started.
The negative effects of the shortened ramp-up were primarily seen on defense, where players were visibly not up to game speed once Opening Day arrived. The overall .983 league fielding percentage during the shortened 2020 season was the lowest in eight years. A total of 8.3% of all runs scored were unearned, the highest in nine years.
Turner, for his part, acknowledged players don’t always get enough defensive reps in shortened preseason scenarios. In that regard, he directly compared this spring to 2020.
“I don’t think I necessarily got what I needed in-game,” he said. “You still get enough work on the back fields and in BP and stuff. But especially in the game you can’t control how many ground balls you get. You get one a day maybe. Some days you get zero. I felt like I only had six ground balls maybe, but I feel like I’m putting in the work so you just kind of got to trust yourself, trust the coaching staff that you’re going to be in a good position and keep working so when the first month comes, you don’t make those mistakes.
“But I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a similar situation (to 2020).”
The other area where the shortened ramp-up period in 2020 had a particularly notable effect was on relief pitchers. With relievers getting as few as one or two innings of work before the start of the season, many struggled to hone their deliveries and battled their control throughout the abbreviated regular season. Relievers averaged 4.01 walks per nine innings in 2020, the highest rate in 20 years.
It could be a similar story this year. No reliever has made more than seven appearances this spring. In 2021, 142 relievers made more than seven spring training appearances.
“We’ve been telling everybody, specifically the relievers like, be ready to go at any time because we’re gonna do what we do with matching guys up, going back to back, up-downs, left on left, stuff like that,” Prior said. “They’ve been open-minded. They’ve been open to everything and have understood the situation that everybody was in.”
Added Cora: “The relievers are the ones that have quote-unquote suffered with this because you don't have time to actually do back to back, give them dirty innings. You see it schedule-wise. Guys are going six right away, they’re going 3-4-5-6. Usually you don't see that. Usually you have 1-2-3, and you’ve got time for the relievers to come in and do their progression. But we expect them to be ready. I think everybody's in the same boat.”
The effects of fewer at-bats, fewer innings and fewer defensive reps could very well lead to sloppy baseball the first few weeks of the regular season. A team simply playing sharper baseball than a more talented opponent could very well steal a few early-season wins. A player who put in extra time on the back fields to make up for the lost reps could very well get off to a hot start that fuels a career-best season.
It all remains to be seen at this point. With the regular season opening Thursday, the effects of a shortened spring training will reveal themselves soon enough.
BA correspondents Bill Plunkett and Alex Speier contributed to this story.