Here are the Opening Day payrolls for every Major League Baseball team for the 2013 season, ranked in increasing order by $/win, except for the Yankees at the top, who we all get to cruelly laugh at. You could also think of the rank as wins per dollar spent. (All data at bottom; WAR is fWAR from fangraphs.com; sorry the table doesn’t display perfectly.)
Right off the bat, you’ll notice our leaders in this department are the two worst teams in baseball: the Astros and the Marlins. What! you are heard to declare. Why’d you make a table with such bollocks at the top!
Well, because bad as they may be, they may at least be smart about it. Like Philadelphia in the NBA, Houston has been very upfront about its decision to pursue a long-term rebuilding project that relies on stashing prospects and avoiding unnecessary and frustrating mediocrity. The Marlins probably deserve a little more acrimony, based on owner Jeffrey Loria’s general meddling and misanthropy, but could be said to be pursuing a similar strategy. These organizations are doing much better, by this metric, than the Phillies, Giants, Angels, White Sox, or Blue Jays, all of whom are stuck in a high-priced purgatory.
Our champions by this metric are the low-budget, high-performing contenders out of Oakland and Tampa. This comes as no surprise to anyone who has been following baseball since the Rays’ surprise run to the 2008 World Series. How these organizations perform at such a high level is the subject for a longer post…but it’s too tempting not to give a cursory run-through now. (The Pirates, Indians, and Braves are also model organizations in this regard, though they do not face as harsh of budget constraints as the A’s or Rays.) Common factors include:
- Relying on a young, cost-controlled core
- Defensive shifting (Rays and Pirates out front here)
- Matching your pitcher types with defensive skillsets or environment (i.e., surrounding sinkerballers with good infielders, or the A’s reliance on fly-ball pitchers in light of o.co’s cavernous interior)
- Aggressively pursuing platoon advantages (Indians and A’s ranked 1-2 in league for platoon advantage frequency at the plate)
- Courting the almighty walk… (Rays, 1st; A’s, 3rd; Indians, 4th; Red Sox, who also had a very good year on the field and in the front office, 5th; Braves, 6th)
- …and not overpaying for singles (none of the five organizations identified ranks in the top 10 for league batting average)
Fewer common strengths emerge on the pitching side. The A’s and Braves don’t walk anyone, I guess. The A’s, Indians, Rays, and Pirates have all had great success with reclamation projects (Colon, Kazmir, Rodney, Liriano, respectively), and all rank in the top half of the league for under-25 pitcher fWAR.
The past ten years have seen an explosion into research onto how to evaluate the disparate parts that make up a baseball team. The digitization of discrete events has played a huge role in this, culminating in that holy grail of holistic player evaluation, WAR.
However, organizations looking for that 2% advantage will be hungrily eyeing the number at the bottom of this page: 0.71. That’s the r-squared value for the relationship between WAR and wins. R-squareds show the fit between two sets of data. WAR is the cutting edge of player evaluation, but it comes up short in evaluating the entire system of play. There will always be an element of luck in play, but the team that can explain and explore the additional 0.29 gap between WAR and wins will be in a position to succeed (and I believe the smartest teams in the league are already doing so by pursuing the strategies above).
In order to do so, I suspect that the next generation of analysis will have to a step further and look at the synthesis or interaction between these parts. How do the front office, managerial style, on-field decisions, and playing environment (field and even fans or travel conditions) interact? Many of the tactics detailed above have started down that path. Examining player statistics individually, without respect to the environments those statistics are put up in, will not yield the insight that platooning two players might be more productive than just starting the “overall” better one. Pitch selection based in part on defense–and defensive shifting based on batter or pitcher tendencies–is another inroad to be exploited. There is an entire program of research to be explored, based on principles of interaction, endogeneity, and holism.
Though neither the Rays, nor the A’s, Indians, Pirates, or Braves remain in the playoffs, their victories may be ultimately more impressive than whatever emerges out of the beautiful, happily random luckfest that is October baseball (I plan, in my fantasy future where I have oodles of time, to examine whether money prevails in the playoffs more often than it does in the regular season–if there is some sort of “star factor”). Of course it would be cool if we started placing more emphasis on regular season champions, but here’s to the Rays, this year’s champion of being good and cheap.
|WINS R SQ||WAR R SQ|
Funnily enough, this suggests that (this year, at least), money was better at buying WAR than it was at buying actual wins. In case you’re curious, here’s the leaguewide r-squared for the relationship between WAR (x) and wins (y).
|WINS/WAR R SQ|