Ranking The Top 10 Spring Training Storylines

This week, pitchers and catchers flock to Arizona and Florida as baseball once again awakens from its deep, long slumber over winter.

Nothing beats those sounds of pitches smacking gloves and sights of pristinely kept fields baking in the early-year sunshine.

And whilst spring training undoubtedly goes on for far, far too long, it serves an important purpose as a tune-up site for players looking to shake off the rust after an offseason spent in sporting hibernation.

More importantly, it serves as a fertile breeding ground for soundbites and clichés, for oft-repeated storylines disguised as small nuggets of wisdom, for rumours about diets, regimens, workouts and, yes, grainy photos on backfields of athletes getting loose.

So consider this the undisputed power rankings of all of our favourite spring training clichés, and feel free to join me in an unofficial game of storyline bingo this spring…

10 – LASIK Surgery

A doozy to get us started. No explanation for a hitter’s woes at the plate is as seductively all-encompassing as vision trouble. It stands to reason of course that if you can’t see the ball, you can’t hit the ball, and even minor eye trouble can be debilitating in a game of lightning-fast reactions.

A list of players including Freddie Freeman, Wilson Ramos and Tomas Nido have all undergone the procedure in recent seasons with… varying levels of subsequent success. As far as gripping February storylines go though, few beat the prospect of a slugger with 20:20 vision.

9 – Back to the basics/fundamentals

This feels like a bit of a cop out selection because the ‘back to the basics’ cliché transcends spring training, indeed it transcends baseball altogether as maybe the most popular meaningless soundbite in professional sport.

But the list would feel incomplete without its inclusion. Mindless chatter about controlling the run game, working good counts or – gulp – laying down bunts. You get it from players, coaches and commentators from game one of spring. Baseball has truly arrived when teams are focusing on the fundamentals.

8 – Out to surprise people

This is just a nice way of saying ‘hasn’t been very good at baseball’. It almost universally applies to teams coming off an awful season who for some reason think they’ll be better despite making few changes to the roster. You won’t hear anyone claiming that the Dodgers are ‘out to surprise people’ but I’ll bet you any money that there will be a piece claiming the Tigers want to ‘prove people wrong’ in 2021.

7 – Incredible clubhouse chemistry

An oldie but a goodie. This is a quote that you’ll typically get from a veteran player who has just joined a new club, and just like the previous cliché, it usually applies to bad teams. Good teams don’t really need great clubhouse chemistry because players are generally happy just to win games.

This is also a perfect line for players who have an axe to grind with previous organisations and make a point of telling us what a ‘great group of guys’ are in the clubhouse or front office, whilst beat reporters are frequently guilty of reporting how tight-knit a group seems after two weeks of uncompetitive baseball.

6 – Spent time with Driveline

This is a recent entry into the pantheon of spring training storylines but has gained considerable momentum in recent seasons, especially among pitchers. From Trevor Bauer to Clayton Kershaw, the facility has helped improve the fortunes of players all across the talent spectrum and has almost taken on a mythical quality as a place where velocities magically increase and spin rates go to the moon.

The science behind Driveline’s success has become largely accepted by the wider baseball community (founder Kyle Boddy is now employed by the Reds) and the pandemic will have affected players ability to travel and train but there will still be more than a few bulked-up pitchers whispering about plyo balls and Rapsodo cameras this spring.

5 – Trialling a new pitch

You haven’t lived until you’ve been suckered in by this bad boy. Tuning into the fifth inning of a meaningless spring training game just to see that new changeup that will definitely unlock your third starter’s potential this season.

The allure is too strong to resist: a new grip learned off Pitching Ninja’s YouTube channel or a bullpen experiment that has turned into an elite weapon. All I can do is preach caution.

4 – Finally fully healthy

We’re into the big hitters now. This is an elite spring training storyline, a cure-all explanation for previous struggles and a reason to believe in a clean slate. Part of what makes Major League Baseball so difficult to succeed in is the sheer volume of games and the wearing down effect they have on the human body.

A winter of rest and recuperation can have fans dreaming of an injury-free Aaron Judge, or a finally-healthy Shohei Ohtani – but just surviving spring can sometimes be an arduous task in itself.

3 – Out to prove himself

The cousin of number eight, this spring training cliché applies to individuals rather than teams and is generally reserved for players entering contract years. It’s always struck me as quite offensive to those players – the implication of course being that players don’t give maximum effort until they’re impending free agents – but it crops up every year regardless.

This year’s prime candidates are likely to be Kris Bryant, Trevor Story and Carlos Correa on the free agency side, although the storyline can also apply to players returning from injuries or failing to live up to big contracts.

2 – Revamped his swing

The position player version of ‘learned a new pitch’, this tempting spring training storyline can be found somewhere on every team, every year. And it’s not hard to understand why – swing adjustments have led to incredible career resurgences for guys like Justin Turner, J.D. Martinez and Mike Yastrzemski.

In the launch angle era we find ourselves in, it’s increasingly tempting for hitters to adjust their approach in the pursuit of elevation but it’s worth remembering that only for a very select few does the revamped swing lead to revamped results.

1 – Best shape of his life

I know, I know, it’s almost too obvious. But this really is the unbeatable spring training cliché. From whispers of strict diets to Instagram clips of workout regimens to those grainy backfield photos, we are addicted to stories of body transformation. And most of these stories are lighthearted fun. I’ll never forget seeing Noah Syndergaard on the mound looking like a damn Roman sculpture in one spring training game.

But for players like Pablo Sandoval and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. it has probably become a source of stress and inconvenience – especially because baseball has shown time and again that body shape and size is not particularly relevant to success.

So there you have it, the definitive list of meaningless storylines, clichés and quotes. First one to spot them all this spring wins the most coveted prize of all: a quote from an unnamed source calling you a ‘real leader’ in the clubhouse.

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