I’ve had a lifetime love for baseball. Born a Yankees fan, I remember staying up late into the night watching the Yankees win the World Series in 1998, 1999, and 2000 (only to watch the Yankees’ heartbreaking collapse in 2001) with some of the best teams in baseball history. I loved listening to baseball games on mute, pretending to be an announcer with my younger brother (also a fanatic) who did the color commentary. We watched all the games, played backyard baseball, created countless fantasy teams and played countless video games, and we collected baseball cards–assembling a collection that would later make my brother a fortune on eBay. But baseball, like most things I was interested in when I was 10 or 11, eventually faded for nerdier pursuits.
It was about two years ago when I became interested in baseball again, following the league and discussing the game with my friends and family. My brother was still an expert, and I started living with Will, a formidable Boston Red Sox fan who I had to deal with on Red Sox Nation turf. Part of what drove my interest in baseball was Michael Lewis’ famous book Moneyball, an investigative journalist-style inquiry into baseball’s sabermetric revolution, its impact on the low-budget Oakland A’s, and Oakland’s eccentric General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt will play Beane in a Moneyball movie in 2011).
I had already been familiar with the statistical revolution that was overtaking baseball, being a statistical nerd myself, but the book sparked my interest once again: I began spending way too much of my time on Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs, and various other baseball blogs.
Part of what interested me in the statistics was how it played into baseball as a business: with the explosion of statistical sports commentary on the web, teams were constantly being criticized for their front office moves. Did an aging slugger’s statistical performance merit his new contract? Using advanced statistics, the decisions of General Managers could be analyzed not just for their contribution to performance on the field but also for their cost-effectiveness. The change had an impact on me as a fan, but it had a bigger impact on front offices: though Moneyball chronicled a low-budget team trying to catch up with the big boys, even big spending teams like the Red Sox and the Yankees began using advanced statistics to find undervalued and underrated players.
But what teams are doing the best job at getting value for money in the Major Leagues today? One could take a look at the standings, divide each team’s salary by their number of wins, and determine which team has paid the most in order to get where they have (and which teams have spent the most per win) but a central insight of the statistical era in baseball is that many wins and losses in baseball are due to statistical noise–in other words, luck. The statistic “batting average on balls in play” (BABIP) for example, measures how many times a batter gets a hit per each time he puts the ball in play. Since BABIP tends to be uniform in the Major Leagues for all hitters season-to-season (with slight variations for players who beat out a lot of infield hits), one can use the statistic to determine whether a hitter has been lucky (missing fielders or taking advantage of bad ones) or if his batting average is a result of higher performance.
Wins Above Replacement is a great statistic to determine how much a team’s performance is a result of luck and how much a team’s performance is a result of prudent front office decisions: the statistic measures how many wins a player contributes to his team, compared to an average player the team could have picked up off the waiver wire or Triple-A (click the link above for a fuller explanation, I’ve probably oversimplified it a bit). Overall, it correlates better with winning than most other stats, and when it doesn’t, it’s likely due to luck.
So what teams get the most WAR for the money? Baseball-Reference makes that calculation easy by providing salary and WAR information for all Major League teams. According to my calculations, the team that’s spent the least money per WAR so far this season (winning what I like to call the “Moneyball Cup”) is the San Diego Padres: spending just $1.9 million per WAR. It’s not just because they’re bargain hunters, either: The Padres are currently in first place in the NL West. Here’s the rest of the top 10:
1. San Diego Padres - $1.9 million per WAR 2. Toronto Blue Jays - $2.9 million per WAR 3. Oakland Athletics - $3.4 million per WAR T-4. Texas Rangers - $3.6 million per WAR T-4. Cincinnati Reds - $3.6 million per WAR 6. Tampa Bay Rays - $4.1 million per WAR 7. Minnesota Twins - $4.2 million per WAR 8. Kansas City Royals - $4.3 million per WAR 9. Cleveland Indians - $4.5 million per WAR 10. Atlanta Braves $4.6 million per WAR
Unfortunately, as a Yankees fan, I have no bragging rights in this contest (not that I expected any): While the Red Sox are around league average at $6.5 million per WAR, the Yankees pay quite a bit more: $9.1 million.
Interestingly, it’s a little tricky to determine which team is the worst. Both the Houston Astros and the Pittsburgh Pirates have compiled negative WAR this year. What does that mean (after all, you can’t lose negative games…)? By compiling -2.2 and -2.6 WAR, respectively, the players on the Astros and Pirates have done worse than what one would expect from a team assembled off the waiver wire, the Minor Leagues, and free agency. Ouch. Both teams have thus basically wasted the money they’ve spent on payroll this season, though it’s probably worse for the Astros, whose payroll is over $91 million (the Pirates’ payroll is approximately $34 million).
Here are the rest of the worst:
5. Seattle Mariners - $15.1 million per WAR 4. Los Angeles Angels - $18.7 million per WAR 3. Chicago Cubs - $39.4 million per WAR T-1. Pittsburgh Pirates - $34.4 million for negative 2.6 WAR T-1. Houston Astros - $91.5 million for negative 2.2 WAR
Of course, the Major League standings don’t mimic these standings. The Yankees have the best record in baseball (though several of the best teams are contenders, like the Rays and Rangers), and plenty of other teams use big budgets to win as well. Since teams like the Sox and Yankees have more money, their use of statistical analysis has allowed them to continually assemble competitive teams. Meanwhile, teams like the A’s struggle (still under Billy Beane, they haven’t made the playoffs since 2006). Baseball, the only major professional sports league in America that does not have a salary cap, remains a game that favors big market teams and free-spending owners (heh… go Yankees!). For everyone else, though, there’s always the Moneyball Cup!
Beyond the jump, I have the full standings.