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Let me give you the stats of two relief pitchers thus far in 2009.

Gregg Marmol

Player 2 appears to be a power pitcher who strikes out his fair share of batters but also has trouble finding the strike zone, while Player 1 looks like a middling reliever who is lucky enough to be a closer.  Now suppose these two players are the same age and are both free agents following the 2009 season.  Who do you think gets the bigger contract?  My money is on Player 1 getting a bigger contract from some GM still living in the Stone Age because he accumulated saves and is a “closer”.

In reality, these two pitchers play for the Chicago Cubs, and are Kevin Gregg and Carlos Marmol.  Casual fans would argue that Gregg is more valuable to his team because he has 21 saves and is the closer while Marmol is just a middle relief pitcher.  In fact, the opposite is true.  Marmol’s average leverage when he enters the game is 1.63, compared to 1.52 for Gregg.  This means that Marmol pitches in more crucial situations than Gregg, even though Gregg is that oh so important ninth inning pitcher.  Marmol has also added more value to the Cubs.  Marmol has a Win Probability Added of 2.01 compared to Gregg’s 0.13, and also holds a distinct advantage in RE/24, 7.63 to 1.97.  Over the course of the year, that will probably add up to an extra win for the Cubs. 

This situation is interesting because the Cubs are one of the few teams who actually use their bullpen properly.  Marmol is having a bad year because he is walking way too many batters, but the general consensus is that he is their best relief pitcher.  However, they are not using him as their closer, as most teams would do, but in crucial situations at other times in the ball game.  The other team that immediately comes to mind is the Detroit Tigers, who used Todd Jones as their closer even though he was far from their best reliever.  The Cubs are lucky that Marmol has not made a fuss about playing second fiddle to two inferior pitchers the last two years, Gregg and former closer Kerry Wood.  The fact that he is not a closer is going to hurt Marmol’s bank account big time. 

I am fairly confident that every team in baseball understands the concept of leverage, but they continue to use their best pitcher to hold a three run lead in the ninth inning.  This is because you cannot just all of a sudden start using Joe Nathan or Mariano Rivera in the seventh inning of a tie ball game.  Even though this is what would be best for the team, it is not what is best for the ballplayer because he is paid to accumulate saves.  Until teams start compensating relief pitchers on a more useful stat then saves, I do not think we will see wide spread change.  However, as more and more GM’s become statistically savvy, I think this change will come. 

I say this because right now, a bona fide closer will not accept another role.  He knows that his compensation is tied to his saves.  It is like the article by Micheal Lewis (of Moneyball fame) about Shane Battier, where Battier refuses to shoot heaves at the end of a quarter because it hurts his shooting percentage, and he will not get paid as much.  Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey says “I tell him we don’t count heaves in our stats, but Shane’s smart enough to know that his next team might not be smart enough to take the heaves out.”  This is the same in baseball.  Sure, Battier making a full court shot at the buzzer might help his team win a game, just like Rivera pitching in the seventh might help the Yankees win a game.  However, it just is not going to happen because it will not help them get paid.  Until relief pitchers get paid based on their overall performance rather than saves, I am afraid the Chicago Cubs bullpen is going to be the exception, not the rule.

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With The Jays collapsing this year, and the dangling of Roy Halladay on the trade block, it appears that JP Ricciardi’s days in Toronto could be numbered.  Hailed as one of Billy Beane’s golden boys, expectations were high in Toronto when he was hired following the 2001 campaign.  Since then, the Jays have had only once finished above third place in the American League East, and most fans consider his tenure a failure.  I am one of the few who disagree, but unfortunately did not really have any numbers to back myself up. 

I decided to undertake a small project to put some numbers behind my claim. As I was working through the data, I became unsure that I was going to be able to find a solution.  However, the end product gave me the results I wanted.  Given the financial resources relative to their division, the Toronto Blue Jays under JP Ricciardi were outperformed in terms of winning percentage compared to their division only by Billy Beane’s Oakland Athletics and depending on your point of view, Terry Ryan’s Minnesota Twins.  These are arguably the top two GM’s in baseball over this time frame, so I would say JP is in pretty good company.  Now to the data.

Ricciardi was hired following the 2001 season, so I plugged the records of every team in the American League from 2002-2008 into Excel.  I then tabulated each team’s winning percentage over this time period, as well as the winning percentage of the other team’s in the division.  For example, the “Division Winning Percentage” box for the Tampa Bay Rays would include the records of the Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays and Orioles, but NOT the Rays.  I then calculated how much each team had spent on payroll (information from Cot’s MLB Contracts), and figured out what percentage of the division’s total payroll was spent by each team.  The results for the three AL divisions are as follows:

 AL East

 AL Central

AL West

 *Because the AL West only has four teams, I added a hypothetical fifth team that has a payroll that is the average of the other four teams.  This helps make the Percentage of Payroll constant across all divisions.

The numbers are not perfect, and could be refined further, but I think the general point I am trying to make is apparent.  Given his financial resources, JP Ricciardi did very well with the Jays.  He achieved a winning percentage only .010 lower than the rest of the division, while playing in the toughest division in baseball with the two best teams in the league.  You might be saying, well that is not very good, he was below average.  However, if you take a closer look, he did this while spending only 14.39% of his division’s total payroll.  The only other teams to spend similar or less were Baltimore (.087 lower winning % than division), Tampa Bay (.107 lower), Kansas City (.095 lower) and Oakland (.039 higher).  Among these teams, only Oakland was better.  With regards to Minnesota, they did spend 3.5% more than Toronto, but I would argue the .088 boost in winning percentage relative to the division is greater than the financial surplus.   

The two big failures were Detroit and Seattle.  Detroit spent 24.10% of their division’s payroll to be .058 below the rest of their division, while Seattle spent 23.18% to be .053 worse. 

So there you have it.  In my opinion, the JP Ricciardi era in Toronto has not been a failure, and he has actually done very well.  Other than a brutal 2004 season, the Jays have remained extremely competitive with the Red Sox and the Yankees despite financial limitations.  A lot of this depends on how you label success.  Some would argue that Tampa Bay has done a better job because they won a division title and a pennant with even smaller resources than Toronto.  To that I would say, “oh really, how did you enjoy the six 90+ loss seasons prior to 2008?”  I do not think success can be attributed to one good year, so overall, I think the top three general managers in the American League from 2002-2008 were Billy Beane, Terry Ryan and JP Ricciardi.

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After the Tampa Bay Rays emerged as one of the top teams in baseball last year due to their improved defense, stats geeks and baseball fans alike fell in love with the Ultimate Zone Rating statistic.  While the stat is the most comprehensive one we have to quantify defence, and there has been proven correlations between increased UZR and wins, many writers are taking it way too far. 

In an article on Sports Illustrated today written by Ben Reiter, he talks about how an improved defense has helped the Los Angeles Dodgers in one-run ball games.

Dodgers players and coaches believe that their newly stingy defense has not only allowed them to prevent runs on the whole, but also to prevent them when it matter most: in tight ball games. “When it comes down to close games, that’s when you really notice it,” Kershaw said. “The sure-handed teams seem to win those close games.” L.A. is a remarkable 19-9 in games decided by one run.

Yes, LA improved their UZR/150 from -6.0 to -.6 from 2008 to 2009, and seen their record in one run games improve from 19-24 to 19-9.  However, this is only one team and there are a variety of other factors that could explain the improved record.  The Dodgers have also lowered their Fielding Independant Pitching from 3.86 to a MLB best 3.67 and their bullpen ERA from 3.34 to a MLB best 3.21.  These are other stats that can have huge implications on a team’s record in one run games. 

My other problem is that 71 games is a fairly small sample size.  I want to take a look at how UZR/150 correlated to win loss record during the 2008 season for all teams.  This is 681 games worth of data.  For starters, I ran the numbers in Excel and there was no correlation between winning percentage and UZR/150.

We can also take a look at these numbers with the naked eye.  I split the league into three tiers, the top ten UZR/150 teams, the middle ten and bottom ten.  What a surprise.  The top tier had a winning percentage of .499 in one run games, the middle tier .489 and the bottom tier the best percentage with .513.  Good defence does not necessarily win close ball games.  I am sure if I ran the data in different years I would have different results.  A team’s record in one run games cannot be predicted with UZR/150.

So please baseball writers, stop asking baseball players and managers who are not statistic oriented to comment on something that they do not understand.  I am sure Kershaw thinks that his team’s new and improved defence is winning them ball games, and it makes for a great story, but the numbers do not back it up.  It also looks silly when your entire article is based on how UZR improvement correlates to more wins.

If there is one downside to the statistical revolution in baseball it is that everyone thinks they are an expert, and I am not excluding myself on this one, which leads to some pretty dumb things being said and written.

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A couple of days ago I wrote an article for Inside The Majors discussing the future of Albert Pujols in St. Louis.  As much as Cards fans hate to admit it, the end of the 2011 season is quickly approaching and Pujols could be gone.  While I covered all of the factors that affect the Cardinals, I did not discuss in depth something that applies to every Major League club.

“The other big question is whether it is even worth it for a team to spend 25-30% of their budget on one player, but that is a story for another day.”

That day has come.  While it is very rare for a player to make more than 25% of a team’s total payroll, it could be the reality in St. Louis, with Pujols eating $25 million out of approximately a $100 million payroll.  I want to look at the success rate of teams where they have a player who takes up more than 20% of the team’s financial resources.  After examining the numbers from 2006-2008, I lowered my threshold to 18%, still very high, to get a larger sample size of data.  All salary information is from USA Today, and these were my discoveries:

Over the last three years there have been eighteen occasions where a single player has made up over 18% of a team’s total salary.

20082008 25%

 

  

  

  

  

  

 

2007

2007 25%

 

  

 

 

 2006

2006 25%

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you can see, these teams as a whole have not been very successful, with an overall record of 1398-1517 for a winning percentage of .480.  The only playoff clubs among the group are the 2007 Rockies, and the 2006 Tigers, A’s and Padres.  That means 22% of these clubs have made the playoffs, while the rest of the teams in the league made the playoffs at a 28% clip.  Not a huge drop off, but significant enough.

There is also a lot of repetition among the teams, with the Rockies appearing all three years, the Royals with three players in two years, and the A’s, Marlins, Pirates and Giants all making two appearances each.  Other than the Giants, these are all small-budget teams, and it does not take much to eat up 20% of their payroll.  You will never see a Yankee make 20% of the team’s salary simply because the denominator of $200M is way too big.  On the other end of the spectrum, Willis ate up 29% of the Marlins salary in 2006 while only making $4.35M

So far, I have shown that these eighteen teams have performed below the major-league average in terms of winning percentage in playoff appearances.  However, what I have failed to mention is the total payrolls of these teams.  If you sort all of the MLB teams by total payroll each year and rank them, the eighteen teams on this list rank an average of twenty-two.  The 2006 teams are an average of $16M below league average, the 2007 teams are 20$ million under, and the 2008 squads are a whopping $31 million under the league average.  Only three of them ( ’06 Giants, Astros and Tigers) are in the top half, and thirteen out of eighteen are in the bottom third.  These teams are actually quite successful considering their financial limitations.  If you were to tell me I could run a team for $20 million less than the average but only have a 6% chance less of making the playoffs, I think I would take you up on the offer.

I honestly thought going into this that I would discover that it would almost without fail be disastrous to have one player take up a huge chunk of your payroll.  There are occasions where this is true, most notably the 2008 Royals who spent 40% of their money on Meche and Guillen, two barely above average players.  However, it is also very possible for these small market teams with one high-paid star, like Todd Helton, to succeed.

After my analysis, the original point from my Inside the Majors article stands.  John Mozeliak, get Pujols locked up.  If there is one player that is worth of that much money and such a large percentage of your payroll, it is him.    

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Every year you hear the same arguments coming from the fans of small market teams to justify their team’s futility.  They range from “we just do not have the payroll to compete” to “it is those darn Yankees and their $200 million payroll stealing all of our talent”.  I have always felt that these arguments, while passionate, were completely unfounded.  I believe that when the first pitch is thrown to open Spring Training, any team has the chance to still be playing in October.  However, that is a difficult argument to make without any numbers to back it up.  So I decided to run the numbers and this is what I have come up with.

The Numbers

 

 

I started by listing every individual team since 1998 (the first year that MLB had thirty teams) by total payroll.  I then added wins, losses, playoff appearances and World Series titles.  For example, the row for the 1998 Atlanta Braves would have a $59.536 million payroll, 106 wins, 56 losses, a playoff appearance and no World Series.  Then year-by-year, starting in 2008, I ran regressions with payroll as my dependant variable.  What I found was that in no way was total payroll indicative of wins, losses or World Series titles.  There was, however, a very loose relationship between payroll and playoff appearances, but nothing substantial enough upon which to found an argument.  So to all the Yankees and Red Sox haters out there, I am sorry but there is not much in the numbers to back up your argument.

Of course, the data that Excel spits out is not the only way to interpret the information, so I decided to have a look with the naked eye as well.  Two things I can say for certain are that a high payroll does not equal success, and well-run teams can compete even with below-average payrolls.

 

Money Doesn't Buy Happiness

Money Doesn't Buy Happiness

What Were They Thinking?

 

 From 2001 to 2004, the New York Mets had payrolls that ranked 4th, 6th, 2nd and 4th in the league, with a final outcome of 294 wins, 352 losses, one season above .500 and as you can probably guess, no playoff appearances.  The 2003 squad was particularly inept; their 66-95 record the product of a $117 million payroll, second only to the Yankees.

From 1998 to 2000, the Baltimore Orioles were 24 games under .500 despite payrolls that ranked 1st, 8th and 3rd.  After this, ownership wisely decided to stop spending truckloads of money as it became clear the team was going nowhere.   

Bang For Their Buck

On the flipside, there are other teams that were consistently good over several years despite budget limitations.  Billy Beane’s Moneyball A’s made four consecutive playoff appearances from 2000 to 2003 despite a payroll in the bottom six in three of those years.  From 2001 to 2008,Terry Ryan’s Twins were 117 games over .500 despite a payroll that never cracked the top seventeen, and three times found itself in the bottom six.

The Three Tiers

The final way I looked at my charts was to split the league into three tiers each year, with the top 10 payrolls occupying one tier, the middle ten another, and the bottom ten the final tier.  Here is how it played out.

Top Tier  

  • Payroll: $10.696 billion
  • Wins: 9,633
  • Losses: 8,175
  • Playoff Appearances: 53
  • Word Series Titles: 6

Middle Tier

  • Payroll: $7.124 billion
  • Wins: 8,840
  • Losses: 8,975
  • Playoff Appearances: 23
  • Word Series Titles: 4

Bottom Tier

  • Payroll: $4.381 billion
  • Wins: 8,240
  • Losses: 9,563
  • Playoff Appearances: 13
  • Word Series Titles: 1

As you can see, the top ten teams essentially spent as much money as the bottom twenty to win on average ten more games per year, make seventeen more playoff appearances and win one more World Series title.  On average, this means that the playoff pool consists of five teams from the top tier, two from the middle and one from the bottom.    

Conclusion

I think this helps proves that anyone has a chance to make the playoffs and win the World Series during any given year.  While low-payroll teams do not have success as often as the high-payroll teams, it is not impossible for a $55 million team to put together a winning season or even make the playoffs.  Fans of perpetually bad teams like the Pirates, Royals, Nationals and Orioles need to stop blaming cheap owners and payroll limitations, and start focussing their anger at poor management and bad drafts.

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