Monday, October 15, 2007

A Rant About Baseball Economics

Feel free to skip this, but it's that time of year and I feel that I've kept myself pretty well in check...

Another season over for the Yankees, and another nail (one hopes) in the coffin of one of the stupidest myths in sports, which is that a team can "buy" a championship. There's no question that the Yankees' outrageous spending over the past few years has helped them make the playoffs, though money doesn't even guarantee that. (I think another team in New York, which was the biggest spender in the National League, could testify to the point.)

I can understand Yankees haters getting worked up about the size of the team's wallet. Their spending drives me crazy, too -- I had no desire at all for them to sign Roger Clemens for another half-season, to choose one of many examples. But I'm stuck with them, a fan for life.

This wasn't always pleasant. When I was growing up, the Yankees were hardly a juggernaut. In fact, from 1965 to 1993, they won the World Series twice, which is the same number of times the Florida Marlins have won it in the 15 illustrious years they've been playing. From 1982 through 1993, from the time I was eight until I was nineteen, the Yankees never made the playoffs. In 1990, they finished 67-95, the worst record in the American League.

When the team returned to the playoffs, in 1996, it did have the biggest payroll in the game, but not by much, and the money was certainly not the reason for its success. For example, the biggest individual contract that year went to Ruben Sierra, a washed-up slugger who was making $6.2 million and was traded in the middle of the season. Likewise, pitcher Kenny Rogers was pulling down $5 million. After a mediocre regular season, he gave up 11 earned runs in seven innings of postseason work. Millions more were wrapped up in average players (at that point in their careers) like Tim Raines, Wade Boggs, and Jimmy Key.

Meanwhile, three of the team's most important players -- the young trio of Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera -- were making a combined $456,125. Homegrown talent has always been crucial for any franchise's success, and the Yankees are no different. This year's roster of overpaid stars was bailed out by the late-season addition of young farmhands like Joba Chamberlain, and the future certainly rests on him and other players who won't be eligible to make big money for a few more years.

But the most stunning argument against economic determinism came in 1998. The Yankees still had that core of young, homemade, underpaid players -- Pettitte and Bernie Williams were multimillionaires, but Jeter, Rivera and new addition Jorge Posada were making six figures. The Yankees total payroll that year was seven million dollars lower than that of the Baltimore Orioles. The Yankees won a record 114 games. The Orioles went 79-83.

When the Yankees won the World Series the next two years, 1999 and 2000, their payroll was tops, but the disparity was not great (in 2000, they spent just two million dollars more than the Dodgers, who missed the playoffs altogether). It's since 2002 that the Yankees have really financially separated themselves from the rest of the league, culminating in 2005, when they spent $209 million (the Red Sox spent $124m that year, the Mets $102m). Note that the Yankees haven't won a World Series -- haven't come close, really -- while the biggest gaps in spending have occurred.

Again, I don't say this because I'm looking for sympathy. I'm saying this as a baseball fan. The past few years, I haven’t had a good feeling -- at all -- about the Yankees' chances, despite the dollar signs. That's just not how the sport works. Does money help? Most likely, though you wouldn't know it from this year's playoffs, where the teams remaining have the 2nd, 23rd, 25th and 26th highest payrolls in the game. (The second-biggest, if you're curious, belongs to those "scrappy" Red Sox.) The Rockies are 25th. They have a payroll about one-quarter of the Yankees', and they've won an unprecedented 20 of their last 21 games.

An anomaly, you say. Well, last year's World Series featured teams with the 11th and 14th largest payrolls. The 2005 Series featured the 12th and 13th highest. Whoever finishes on top in baseball each season will have played at least 173 games. In a sport of infinite angles and frequent bad bounces, that leaves a lot of room for error. Like in every other area of life, money only means a certain amount of security, and sometimes not even that -- it doesn't impart taste or wisdom. Many owners -- Steinbrenner included -- overpay for players way past their prime, or pay a bunch of guys who don't play well together, or simply get unlucky when important players are injured or suddenly ineffective.

This was going to be a post about Joe Torre, because he was winning titles when the Yankees weren't outspending everyone by leaps and bounds. The constant for this team over the past 12 years hasn't been money, it's been Joe. It might be best that they let him go rather than bring him back only to put him through all this nonsense again, but I'm rooting for him to return.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You obviously know and care about baseball much more than I ever will, but come on, even in your apologia for Yankee mediocrity you admit that "it helps" that they have so much money to throw around. That certainly gives them "first dibs" on available players. It makes it even more pathetic that they spend all this money and still can't go all the way. that just means that on top of being the money bags of the league with a sense of entitlement, they also don't make the best personnel decisions. There is also the intangible that the Yankees are one of those marquee teams, so when some player is trying to decide which deal take, they are more likely gonna want to play in the big city and bright lights and history of the Yankees vs., say, The Rockies or the Diamondbacks. These other teams have to sell themselves even more, in addition to not having as much money to spend on talent. That is all the more impressive. The Yankees strike me as a team with entitlement issues, they expect to waltz through the playoffs and feel done wrong with their opponents don't seem to roll over in the face of the mighty Yankees. As if the very name of the team demands that they be given an edge. They are the Lakers of baseball.



12:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If out-spending nearly everyone else in the league by a 2:1 margin doesn't impart a real and significant advantage, then why do the Yankees do it?

The Yankees' spending habits give them a distinct advantage in getting the best players on the field, and the discrepancy right now is insane.

I won't rehash the figues, except to say that the Yankees' 2007 payroll was $189 million, and the D-Rays' (their division rivals) payroll was $24 million. ... The Yankees had 3 players whose individual salaries were over $20 million; they've got 11 players with salaries over $10 million. One of those $20 million players was Alex Rodriguez, who this season had one of the most dominant MVP seasons in memory.

For everyone else, getting into the playoffs is a successful season because it gives you a chance to get hot and win it all. And yet, Joe Torre is about to get fired after making the playoffs in every single one of his 12 seasons with the Yankees. Under Torre, the Yankees won 3 World Series in a row (1998-2000). Every other team in the league would throw roses at his feet for that kind of record, and yet he's about to get canned by the Yanks.

So if the Yankees' don't believe their incredibly high payroll should buy them championships, then why do they have such incredibly high expectations?

-- Comish

8:31 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

Comish and Dezmond, you're both doing something that would drive you crazy if someone else did it -- you're ignoring the facts. Dezmond, you admit you're not a baseball fan and you just want to equate the Yankees with the Lakers, who also don't win every year. And certainly neither team expects opponents to "roll over." That's ridiculous. Your complaints about NY and LA teams make me think maybe you have some coastal envy. (I know that suggestion will send you up the wall!)

Comish, I'm not talking about what the Yankees expect -- yeah, their expectations are insane. So what? A middle-aged bald guy might expect to date a supermodel if he buys the right kind of sports car, but that doesn't mean it's gonna happen. All I'm saying in this post is that money is an advantage, but only one of many, and recent history shows that it's not very reliable. But if the Indians close out this series against Boston, you're not going to see many stories that take the economic angle -- "How did Boston's $143 million payroll lose to Cleveland's $61 million?" Because no one pays that much attention to the finances of baseball unless it's the Yankees or an underpaid team like Oakland that has some success year after year. The fact remains that the last three years have seen the Yankees spend more than ever, and they haven't made it past the first round of the playoffs (in other words, the money has bought them the honor of being one of the best eight teams in baseball -- yippee). Baseball is the same as anywhere else; people make mistakes with money. Ask the Red Sox how thrilled they are to have paid JD Drew $14 million this year.

Again, I'd rather be the top payroll than the bottom. Sure. But I also like that my team's owner cares about winning and puts his massive resources back into the team, which not all owners do. Come on, you two are big defenders of capitalism -- why does it irk you so much when it rears its head in baseball? Should we just give a title to a different team every year to make everyone feel good?

11:57 AM  

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