More Fun With Payroll Efficiency
Last time we discussed the 2008 Rays and how remarkable it was that an efficient team made the post season out of the AL East. The bottom line in regards to the AL East is that payroll efficiency is a luxury one cannot afford if one hopes to compete for post season berths, division titles, and World Series wins. Of the twenty-two AL East teams in the sample (1995-2010) only two were in the top ten in payroll efficiency for their respective years, two more were in the middle third, and the remaining 18 were in the bottom third with fourteen in the bottom four.
In the AL East, in a very real sense, inefficiency pays.
It is easy and trite to blame the Yankees but it is in large part, true. The sample contains thirteen years of data so there are thirteen teams ranked thirtieth in efficiency in their year. Five of the thirtieth ranked teams made the post season, all of them Yankee teams. Four 29th ranked teams made the post season, three Yankees, one Red Sox. Two 28th ranked teams made it, one Yankees, one Red Sox. Four twenty-seventh ranked teams, two Yankees, one Red Sox, one Indians. For those slow with the math, that’s eleven of the thirteen Yankee teams in the sample. The Yankees didn’t make the post season with a 30th ranked team in 2008 and they did make the post season with a 20th ranked team when they won 114 games in 1998.
So what does everyone else do? When you’re either not willing or not able to outspend your competition by tens of millions of dollars every year, how does one make the post season and how does one win the World Series?
For starters, it doesn’t really pay to be too efficient. Excluding the Yankees there are 20 teams that played in the World Series and only six (2008 Rays, 2010 Rangers, 2003 Marlins, 2007 Rockies, 2002 Angels, 1998 Padres) were among the ten most efficient teams in their respective seasons. Five more (2004, 2007 Red Sox, 2009 Phillies, 1999 Braves, 2000 Mets) were in the bottom third. That leaves nine teams in the middle. It’s not a huge sample size but there’s a bump in the middle just like there’s a bump in the middle when looking at teams that merely made the post season.
In general, we find that teams make the post season for multiple seasons. There are twenty-five teams that made the post season at least once and four of them made it more than once.
One of those was the Florida Marlins who seem to have perfected the technique of renting a team just long enough to win a championship. The 2008 Brewers were a mostly mediocre team with a couple fresh young studs named Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun who rented C. C. Sabathia who pitched brilliantly enough to nudge them a game ahead of the New York Mets for the Wild Card. The players sent to Cleveland in that deal never amounted to much so one rather suspects that they wouldn’t have made much of a difference to Milwaukee either.
The 2010 Reds were a mediocre pitching team that bashed the ball around enough to outscore the rest of the NL on the backs of Joey Votto’s best season (OPS+ of 171) and solid contributions from pretty much everyone else. They also benefitted from a bit of a down year by the Reds.
The 2006 Tigers rode the best pitching in the league and a solid offense to a rather easy Wild Card win. It was Justin Verlander’s first full season, Nate Robertson’s only good season, and almost the last good seasons for Kenny Rogers and Jeremy Bonderman.
While the Brewers made a bold move to try to take advantage of a decent team by renting a great player and had it pay off somewhat, the others were trying to do it the “right way” and just had enough injuries and bad luck prevent them from maintaining the success they had.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, when the barriers to entry are lower, the varieties of success are higher. The Diamondbacks made the post season three times largely on the backs of Curt Schilling (trade) and Randy Johnson (free agent). Any number of teams make it by getting a couple good young players and making a run for a couple years.
The Saint Louis Cardinals probably make the best case study since they have the most extended period of success, making the post season seven times in our sample including two World Series appearances and one World Series win. Our sample, remember, does not include their 2011 World Series victory.
So how did they do it?
The Cards’ run started in 2000 which just happens to have been Rick Ankiel’s first full major league season. It’s odd to think of it now but he was an excellent pitcher for that one season. He was joined by J. D. Drew’s first really good season as a full time player and the first of Edgar Renteria’s better seasons after coming over from the Marlins fire sale.
While Ankiel blew up in 2001, the Cards brought over Woody Williams who excelled after the trade. He joined Darryl Kile who was excellent in 2000 and even better in 2001. Also, a young man named Albert Pujols showed up.
The remarkable thing about the Cardinals is how different their pitching has been over the years. In the 2004 World Series they started Woody Williams, Matt Morris, Jeff Suppan and Jason Marquis. In 2006 it was Anthony Reyes, Jeff Weaver, Chris Carpenter, and Jeff Suppan. In 2011—though it isn’t in our sample—it was Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse, and Edwin Jackson. Over a seven year period, the Cardinals went to the World Series three times with almost an entirely different rotation each time.
Here’s the bottom line. One great player, a generational talent surrounded by several good players and several players who are simply not terrible is enough to get you to the post season and once you’re there everything is possible.
From 2000 through 2010 the Cardinals bounced around that middle area, making the post season seven times with a lowest efficiency rating of 20 and a highest of 11. They no doubt benefitted from being in a weak division especially in 2006 when they only won 83 games, not to mention 2011, but they also managed to win 95 games or more four times including two seasons with a hundred wins or more.