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Useless Facts: Team Payroll versus World Series success



The powers that be in baseball have long rung the bell of anti-competitiveness w/r/t payroll and success.  In fact, its the salient driving early topic of Michael Lewis‘s seminal book Moneyball ….

Tangent.  Moneyball has its faults, don’t get me wrong.  I may have gone on this rant before, but having recently re-read the book, I was reminded of these issues:

  • A huge part of the Oakland A’s success in the 2002 103 win season was due to their two best hitters (Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez) being home grown talents that pre-dated Billy Beane‘s tenure as GM.  Tejada was an IFA signed in 1993, Chavez drafted out of HS as the 10th overall pick in 1996.  Beane did not ascend to the job til 1997.
  • An even huger part of the A’s success was due to their rotation; three Ace-level arms under the age of 26 that season in Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder, none of which was paid more than $875k that year as pre-arb guys … and in fact Zito wasn’t even to arbitration yet.  Combined bWAR for these three: 15.8.
  • The much-ballyhood 2002 draft, which is the subject of most of the book and is the center of the movie’s conflict?  The one where the A’s had 7 first round or supp-1st round picks?  It was an abject failure.  Of the 7 guys they drafted in the 2002 1st round, 3 never made the majors and a 4th (the much-argued-about Alabama C Jeremy Brown) had a MLB career that consisted of 5 games.  A 5th player (Mark Teahen) had a combined career MLB bWAR of 2.6.  The remaining two players (Nick Swisher and Joe Blanton) had long careers of course … but Blanton had just 11.8 career bWAR across 262 games in 13 years, finishing his career with none other than the Washington Nationals and never once making an all-start team or gaining a single Cy Young vote: career ERA+?  95.  I’m sorry, but good drafting teams hit on their first rounders more often than not and the “bar” is MLB regular.  They got perhaps 1 and a half out of 7 picks right in this year, for all of the
  • That whole guitar-playing daughter movie BS?  Non-existent in the book.  Hey I get it; you gotta make Brad Pitt look likeable.  By all accounts in the book, Beane is … not likeable.  There were stories of him screaming in meetings, throwing furniture in the draft room, being incapable of watching the games with others because he got so worked up … to say nothing of his exploits as a professional hitter self-destructing in rage.  Pretty sure these behaviors wouldn’t fly in today’s climate.

I digress.

As pointed in Moneyball … during MLB’s investigation a pesky economist kept asking questions like, “If there’s a direct correlation between payroll and success, then  how does Oakland keep winning with these low payrolls?”  And nobody had a good answer. It got me thinking, in the wake of Washington’s well-funded World Series victory in 2019, what exactly was the history of payrolls to WS wins.  Well, here it is in tabular format.

Yearteampayrollhighlowmedianpayroll ranknotes
2018Boston23323365134133m more than #2
2017Houston124m2416313917Result of bottoming out strategy in 2013
2016Chicago Cubs171m250631316
2015Kansas City112m2826911817LA = 282; just crazy
2014San Francisco149m236451077
2013Boston150m22926934Houston = 26m
2012San Francisco131m21351946
2011St. Louis109m207399210
2010San Francisco97m212378411
2009New York Yankees203m2033781150M more than #2
2008Philadelphia96m213257813Miami = 25
2006St. Louis89m201168311Miami = 16
2005Chicago White Sox75m209306713
2003Florida47m153196925TB = 19
2000New York Yankees92m92165815m more than #2
1999New York Yankees91m111m more than #2
1998New York Yankees73m2
1996New York Yankees61m16m more than #2

Some thoughts looking at 2019 and going backwards:

  • 17 of the 25 WS winners since divisional play started had payrolls in the top 10 of the league
  • 14 of these 25 winners were top 5.
  • The Los Angeles Dodgers have spent an amazing amount of money to win nothing over the past 5-6 years.   They’re the “high” payroll for most of this decade, peaking at $282M in 2015.
  • The Nats just won the WS with the 4th largest payroll in the game, basically at the top of the luxury tax line.
  • Boston won it last year with easily the highest payroll in the game, fully $33M more than the 2nd highest payroll. Now that’s buying a title!
  • Houston’s 2017 title comes on the back of them absolutely bottoming out in 2013 and having successive 110+ loss seasons, so its status as an outlier doesn’t exactly hold water.
  • You have to go back to Kansas City’s 2015 run to see our first outlier … and it should be noted that Kansas City completely bottomed out their farm system to achieve those two years of success, immediately dropped to a .500 win team the year after and now have two straight 100+ loss seasons AND have by some accounts one of the worst farms in the game.
  • Before that you’re in the 2010-11 time-frame, where a 90-win St.Louis team with the 11th highest payroll went on a magical run to take out a bunch of teams with better records.
  • The 2008 Phillies were only the 13th ranked payroll; they were driven by career years of home-grown stars still confined by arbitration; within a couple of years Philly would be at the top of the league payroll list too.
  • Clearly 2003 Florida is the huge outlier; the only team with a payroll not at least in the top half of the game to take a series.  And I think we all know about that year…. i’m sure Dusty Baker and Steve Bartman remember it well.

So, does this data tell us anything?   Is it correlation or causation?  Or coincidence?

9 Responses to 'Useless Facts: Team Payroll versus World Series success'

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  1. I mean, how many times do you see a title with ‘useless’ in it and smile?

    Mark L

    6 Nov 19 at 12:22 pm

  2. I should have called it, “Useless xls work that was resultant of me chasing a rabbit hole to find answers to a question maybe nobody but me cared about which I turned into a quickie blog post so I could get content out of my xls work.”

    Todd Boss

    6 Nov 19 at 12:53 pm

  3. So, if we’re opening up a path towards ‘useless’ stuff, can we expand to ‘useless’ speculation?

    If they don’t keep Rendon, what about Didi to play 2b (contract guess = 3/$45m), with CK at 3rd, and AssCab to back up both spots? Good D, still young and I think he’ll hit again. Then Zim and Howie for 1B, unless Howie’s offers are too rich, then bring back Adams.


    7 Nov 19 at 7:33 am

  4. Wally; we need to put up a “GM for an off-season” post. i have done some of the roster machinations work already, just need to post.

    Todd Boss

    7 Nov 19 at 9:02 am

  5. I had also thought about Didi as a younger option.

    The mention of the 2008 Phils is the age/contracts story that has always haunted me. They gave out several big contracts to a bunch of guys who collectively fell off a cliff relatively young, in their early 30s. I brought up this story several times when they were trying to extend Desmond, who already seemed to be in decline (and was). Rendon certainly isn’t showing decline like Desi and Espy were, but then neither were Rollins, Utley, and Howard at the same age.

    Sort of the flip side of that story is the Giants, who also gave out some big contracts to some guys who ultimately didn’t age well, which has hamstrung them for the last few years, but they milked three titles out of the deal before that happened.

    Titles also require some magic, though, and there’s never any guarantee that it can be recaptured (although the Giants in 2014 was probably their mostly unlikely run). Boz often notes that Werth told him that the Phillie team that won the title was only the 4th-“best” club, talent-wise, while he was there.


    7 Nov 19 at 9:48 am

  6. Moneyball: I enjoyed the book and have reread a few times over the years to remind me of some of the canards that are out there. The moral, to me, was not that you don’t have to spend a lot of money; it was more that you need to spend it wisely. And yes, the book REALLY said very little about the fabulous, young, cheap rotation, concentrating a lot more on the lineup and bullpen.

    The Moneyball movie took a lot of liberties and was really cheesy, including the fake daughter and guitar. Making the Paul DePodesta character into the Jonah Hill goofball made no sense to me. (DePodesta is from Alexandria, played at Episcopal HS, and both football and baseball at Harvard. He was no Jonah Hill poofball.)

    I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the A’s 2002 draft. We’ve talked before about how difficult is it to judge draft classes when discussing Nat drafting failures over the last decade. From the A’s 2002 draftees, 13 had at least a cup of coffee in the majors, although 4 of those (including the future DC Strangler) didn’t sign with them that year. Swisher, as the #16 pick, posted a career 22.0 bWAR, and Blanton, at #24, put up a decent 11.8. In comparison, the Nats have had several recent drafts where only two or three guys are going to see the majors, and there’s a lot of doubt whether some will produce anything close to a 22 WAR player. (Fedde? Stevenson?)

    One Moneyball aspect the Nats have really embraced is looking more for guys with good OBP. The Nats had the #2 team OBP in baseball, behind only the Astros (AKA, the second coming of the ’27 Yankees). Six of the top seven teams in OBP made the playoffs (Bosox the exception), and seven of the top nine. The Nats were also tied for #4 in lowest K rate and probably will improve in that area even more with Adams and Dozier gone. They were #6 in the majors in runs scored (#2 in the NL behind LAD); seven of the top eight in that stat made the playoffs (Bosox again the exception).

    In keeping with the Moneyball contention that offense is more important than defense, by the FanGraphs team defensive WAR stat, only 5 of the top 14 teams made the playoffs. (The A’s were #15.) The Nats were #10, while the Astros were all the way down at #20 (see WS Gm 2).


    7 Nov 19 at 5:45 pm

  7. Todd, you actually missed the point (in italics below) while trying to make another one:

    An even huger part of the A’s success was due to their rotation; three Ace-level arms under the age of 26 that season in Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder, none of [whom were] paid more than $875k that year as pre-arb guys

    Everyone goes on this tirade about the pitching being the reason (and they’re right) but the fact of the matter is that the A’s stumbled on what is now common knowledge: if you can get MLB-caliber players–pitchers especially–to the majors quickly, you can be an Elks Club Pimp and get the most bang for your buck. Time it right, and you can squeeze six years of below-market-value production before the player hits free agency.

    Luke Erickson

    9 Nov 19 at 8:34 am

  8. Luke — Your point directly feeds this one: why is the Natosphere abuzz with calls for long-term contracts for Soto, Turner, in Robles? The Nats have the money to potentially bring back both Stras and Rendon precisely because they also have some cheap, controlled talent. Give Soto an Acuna deal? Well, Acuna counts $12.5M against the Brave payroll right now (his AAV), so an “Acuna contract” for Soto would increase Soto’s cap hit by almost $12M for 2020.

    I’m a little more sympathetic to the extension argument for someone like Turner, who has reached his arb years. Still, you would likely be increasing his cap hit by around $8M or so. So extending Soto and Turner right now would cost the Nats the opportunity to add $20M in personnel for 2020. That total might cover Howie, Zim, Cabrera, and Hudson, collectively.

    Yes, you secure the future with the early extensions, but you also do it with risks. I’d make that point in particular about Robles, who A) had only an average season, and B) plays with a lot of abandon, and thus has considerable injury risk. In the “A” column, I’d point to the now-gosh-awful extension of Elvis Andrus, which still has four years to go. He’s posted a 78 OPS+ the last two seasons. As for risks in the “B” category, well, we need look no further than the face of our franchise.

    Max has two more years on his current contract. That’s the “window” as things stand now. The Nats need to maximize what they can spend now. The future FA worries with Soto and Robles are a long time down the road. By then, we’re have a better handle on how good Robles is going to be, and how (potentially) great Soto is going to be. There’s no guarantee about that, either. The artist formerly known as #34 really plateaued (MVP season excepted) after flashing so young. But Trout didn’t! And he got a significantly larger contract.


    9 Nov 19 at 2:21 pm

  9. Hey luke … was the “pre-arb/controlled player” theory ever discussed in Moneyball? the book or the movie? I’m not sure it was. Lots and lots of emphasis on OBP and replacing runs of their departed FAs and embarrassing other GMs at the genius of Beane … but less about 0-3 players. i could be wrong/memory could be fading.

    Todd Boss

    11 Nov 19 at 11:30 am

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