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Useless Facts: Team Payroll versus World Series success

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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
2019Washington197236601264
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
2007Boston147m19525872
2006St. Louis89m201168311Miami = 16
2005Chicago White Sox75m209306713
2004Boston128m18527632
2003Florida47m153196925TB = 19
2002Anaheim61m126346115
2001Arizona85m11123648
2000New York Yankees92m92165815m more than #2
1999New York Yankees91m111m more than #2
1998New York Yankees73m2
1997Florida52m5
1996New York Yankees61m16m more than #2
1995Atlanta47m4

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?

Movie Review: Moneyball

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Brad Pitt playing the part of Billy Beane. Photo movie still via splatf.com

Yes I know, I’m probably one of the last people out there who take the time to write a baseball-themed blog to actually see the movie Moneyball, the film adaptation of Michael Lewis‘ seminal baseball book by the same name.  We took some time last weekend during a period of relaxation to order it on PPV from DirecTV and watch it.  Here’s some thoughts;

First, I’ll freely admit that I struggled to appreciate the movie for two primary reasons:

  1. I read the book, several times over, digesting the analysis that Lewis offered for the success of the Athletics in the early 2000s, following the narrative of Billy Beane‘s rise from backup outfielder to advance scout and eventually the front office at such a young age and reading along for the primary story line revolving around the strategy employed during the infamous 2002 draft.
  2. I could not get over the distraction of so many parts of the story being purposely changed (changing Paul DePodesta‘s character to be the fictitiously named Peter Brand) or outright fabricated (the entire storyline involving Beane’s daughter).

I’ll leave aside my primary criticism of the book in general; as I’ve stated in this space and in other forums, Lewis really did not discuss the fact that the 2002 Athletics were blessed with a quartet of starters that has only been matched a few times in the last 40 years or so, and they were a huge part of the team’s success.  For me, yes the construction of the hitters on that team was unique and interesting, but that team doesn’t win 103 games without three starters who each posted a 125 ERA+ or (in some cases significantly) better.

From a movie critique stand point, I thought Brad Pitt did a pretty good job of portraying the engimatic Billy Beane, if anything toning down the violent temper as it was portrayed in the book.  Jonah Hill‘s portrayal of the DePodesto character was, to me, bland and lacking depth.  I was really surprised to see him get an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor frankly.

The entire storyline in the movie about Beane getting into the fight with the head scout was completely manipulated from how it really happened; in the movie they were talking about free agents but in the book they were talking about amateur players during the 2002 draft.  I suppose from a storyline perspective the conflict needed to occur when it did; a movie that was supposed to tell the tale of how Beane selected all these undervalued players in order to make the 2002 on-field team win wouldn’t really work if the primary conflict was about a bunch of 21yr old draftees that wouldn’t even feature in the majors (if at all) for 3-4 years onward.  But as someone who knows the actual details, it made understanding the storyline that the movie was telling that much more difficult.

In the end, my wife thought it was a “good movie” so its subsequent accolades seem in order.  Hollywood can’t really make a movie that appeals to the fraction of 1% of baseball fans who read that book and understood its statistical analysis.  You have to appeal to the masses for commercial success.

But I found myself struggling to decide whether I thought the movie was “good” or not.  It was entertaining.  The actors were ok, I guess.  I know many have criticized the Art Howe portrayal in the movie … but then again many criticized the portrayal of Howe in the book as well.  Lewis seemed to belittle many people in the book as a way of playing up his primary character.  But nothing about the movie really convinced me it was a seminal movie, that it was some great masterpiece of filmmaking that was worthy of an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.

What did you guys think?

Written by Todd Boss

March 9th, 2012 at 3:28 pm