Moments after news broke that Jacoby Ellsbury would sign a seven-year, $153M contract with the NY Yankees, I received a text from a close friend and fellow baseball fanatic. Last season, my friend made a life changing decision. He stopped being a Yankees fan and started rooting for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
If there was ever an off-season to sell the Yankees and buy the Pirates, last year was it. While I can’t deny his baseball instincts, as a fan of a small market team, I often remind him that maintaining a winning baseball organization is hard enough. Continually doing so, while also being drastically outspent, is almost impossible.
A lot of baseball strategy is about playing the percentages. Sabermetricians preach it. Tom Tango devoted a book to it. It’s a cornerstone of the “Moneyball” philosophy. Obviously, large market teams play with percentages too. And they know the best one in the game– 91%. Those are the odds of a team making the playoffs if the organization does one simple thing – lead the league in payroll.
It’s not a hard calculation for them to figure out either. Over the last eleven seasons, the 2008 Yankees were the only team to lead the league in payroll but not make the playoffs. With odds like that, who could fault the Yankees and Dodgers for spending the way they did? It works.
So why would my friend walk away from the Yankees, a team with a strategic organizational advantage, to cheer on the Pirates? His answer was simple. He would rather root for a team that has to win the “hard” way.
Now, I think I understood what he meant when he said the “hard” way. He meant that the Pirates would have to draft well, develop impact talent, and shrewdly sign free agents. As opposed to the “easy” way, which involves using a gigantic payroll to cover the cracks in an organization.
By “win”, I assume he meant the World Series. If that’s not the end goal, the ultimate “win”, then I don’t know what is? I’m sure that my friend sees that the Pirates have a window. They’re a good mix of young talent, motivated veterans, and club friendly contracts. A team primed to leap to the next level. But, as a former Yankees fan, I’m not sure if he understands how fast windows can come crashing down on small to mid-market teams. If the Yankees have shown the baseball world anything, it’s that a large payroll provides one clear advantage – it keeps windows propped open.
How much of an advantage? Well, I wasn’t sure. But I had reason to believe something was there. Billy Beane has turned the A’s into contenders yet has no World Series rings. The same goes for Tampa Bay. Yet, Boston uses a similar organizational philosophy, backed up by a ton of money, and wins three World Series in ten years. I had to know. Could cash tip the World Series scales that much?
So I looked at the payrolls of every playoff team from 2003 to 2013. Using figures courtesy of Baseball-Reference, I color coordinated the playoff teams to denote whether the team’s payroll was in the top, middle, or bottom third of the league.
A playoff team with a payroll in the league’s top tier (1-10) is listed in red. Middle tier spenders (11-20) are in black. And teams on the lower third of the payroll spectrum (21-30) are blue. World Series winners are in bold. World Series runners-up are italicized. For comparison, I also listed where Milwaukee’s payroll ranked each season.
2013 Playoff Teams
- LA Dodgers $254,161,000 (1st)
- Boston $177,930,500 (3rd)
- Detroit $154,407,000 (4th)
- St. Louis $112,583,000 (10th)
- Cincinnati $106,255,535 (12th)
- Pittsburgh $96,205,000 (14th)
- Atlanta $95,618,750 (15th)
- Cleveland $87,342,433 (17th)
- Tampa Bay $71,163,500 (23rd)
- Oakland $69,440,000 (24th)
Milwaukee $86,455,000 (18th)
- NY Yankees $197,977,900 (1st)
- Detroit $131,394,000 (5th)
- Texas $124,119,900 (6th)
- SF Giants $117,637,350 (8th)
- St. Louis $112,071,000 (9th)
- Washington $90,586,000 (15th)
- Atlanta $86,208,000 (16th)
- Cincinnati $80,309,500 (19th)
- Baltimore $76,704,000 (22nd)
- Oakland $61,202,500 (28th)
Milwaukee $95,717,000 (13th)
- NY Yankees $206,275,028 (1st)
- Philadelphia $172,976,379 (2nd)
- Detroit $106,875,231 (10th)
- St. Louis $105,433,572 (11th)
- Texas $93,799,264 (14th)
- Brewers $86,636,333 (17th)
- Arizona $54,823,166 (25th)
- Tampa Bay $41,053,571 (29th)
- NY Yankees $210,733,389 (1st)
- Philadelphia $141,928,379 (4th)
- SF Giants $98,641,333 (9th)
- Minnesota $97,559,166 (10th)
- Atlanta $84,423,666 (16th)
- Cincinnati $75,321,542 (19th)
- Tampa Bay $71,923,471 (21st)
- Texas $56,474,374 (28th)
Milwaukee $81,108,278 (18th)
- NY Yankees $210,330,039 (1st)
- Boston $125,439,499 (4th)
- LA Angels $117,769,000 (6th)
- Philadelphia $115,479,046 (7th)
- LA Dodgers $102,117,592 (9th)
- St. Louis $90,928,409 (13th)
- Colorado $79,250,200 (19th)
- Minnesota $67,804,266 (24th)
Milwaukee $81,384,502 (17th)
- Boston $133,390,035 (4th)
- Chicago White Sox $121,189,332 (5th)
- Chicago Cubs $120,345,833 (6th)
- LA Angels $199,216,333 (7th)
- LA Dodgers $118,588,536 (8th)
- Philadelphia $97,879,880 (12th)
- Milwaukee $80,937,499 (15th)
- Tampa Bay $44,970,597 (29th)
- NY Yankees $207,039,045 (1st)
- Boston $143,026,214 (2nd)
- LA Angels $109,251,333 (4th)
- Chicago Cubs $101,670,332 (8th)
- Philadelphia $89,428,213 (13th)
- Cleveland $61,673,267 (23rd)
- Colorado $54,041,000 (25th)
- Arizona $52,067,546 (26th)
Milwaukee $70,986,500 (19th)
- NY Yankees $194,663,079 (1st)
- NY Mets $101,584,963 (5th)
- LA Dodgers $98,447,187 (7th)
- St. Louis $88,891,371 (11th)
- Detroit $82,612,866 (14th)
- San Diego $69,896,141 (17th)
- Minnesota $63,396,006 (19th)
- Oakland $62,243,079 (21st)
Milwaukee $57,970,333 (24th)
- NY Yankees $208,306,817 (1st)
- Boston $123,505,125 (2nd)
- LA Angels $94,867,822 (5th)
- St. Louis $92,106,833 (6th)
- Atlanta $86,457,302 (10th)
- Houston $76,779,000 (12th)
- Chicago White Sox $75,178,000 (13th)
- San Diego $63,290,833 (16th)
Milwaukee $39,934,833 (27th)
- NY Yankees $184,193,950 (1st)
- Boston $127,298,500 (2nd)
- Anaheim $100,534,667 (4th)
- LA Dodgers $92,902,001 (6th)
- Atlanta $90,182,500 (8th)
- St. Louis $84,340,333 (9th)
- Houston $75,397,000 (12th)
- Minnesota $53,890,000 (19th)
Milwaukee $27,528,500 (30th)
- NY Yankees $152,749,814 (1st)
- Atlanta $106,243,667 (3rd)
- Boston $99,946,500 (6th)
- SF Giants $82,852,167 (9th)
- Chicago Cubs $79,868,333 (11th)
- Minnesota $55,505,000 (18th)
- Oakland $50,260,834 (23rd)
- Florida $49,450,000 (24th)
Milwaukee $40,627,000 (28th)
So how much does a payroll advantage affect playoff baseball?
Over the last eleven seasons, teams in the top third of payroll spending have claimed 52% of playoff spots (48 of 92). They have won 55% of the World Series (6 of 11) while also accounting for 50% of all teams that made the World Series (11 of 22).
Teams with payrolls in the middle of the pack landed 30% of playoffs spots (28 of 92). Won four of the eleven World Series (36%) and made 7 total appearances at the World Series (32%)
Finally, teams that spent the least on payroll have taken only 17% of playoff spots (16 of 92). Mainly thanks to Oakland and Tampa Bay, who have each made the playoffs four times and accounted for half the tier’s total playoff appearances. Also, only one team from this tier, the 2003 Florida Marlins, won the World Series. That’s 1 out of 11, a lackluster 9% of the time.
Want to make that number even scarier? Divide the league down the middle. Then the 2003 Florida Marlins become the only team in the last eleven years to win the World Series with a payroll in the bottom half of the league. How does that affect the Brewers’ World Series chances? Well, during that same period, the Brewers’ payroll landed in the top half of the league only twice, 2008 & 2012.
Personally, I love the new life that sabermetricians and “Moneyballers” have brought to baseball. It has changed the sport in positive ways but it’s not enough. Oakland and Tampa Bay are proof that winning baseball doesn’t have to expensive. Boston is proof that winning a World Series is.
The advanced statistics and ability to get “value” from inexpensive players can only go so far. Until MLB institutes a salary cap, or increased penalties on big spenders, the league will stay starkly divided. No matter how many fans pack Miller Park, or how many brats and/or souvenirs sold, the Brewers’ economic situation will pretty much stay the same. The Brewers will continue to hover near the dividing line and, more often than not, land on the lower side of it. Surrounded by teams that have managed to win only one World Series out of the last eleven. Wanting to get better but unable to afford its true price.
I bring this up because baseball’s winter meetings start Monday. Through an onslaught of signings and trades, some teams will add tens of millions of dollars to their books for next season. All in an attempt to make it magical.
And then there will be the Brewers with $10M to $15M to spend. Just hoping to make the most of it. Hoping to find an answer for first base. Hoping that their players stay just healthy enough to not expose their lack of depth. That their young pitchers can carry the back-end of the rotation. Hoping, against all odds, that next year they can find a way to win it all the “hard” way.