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Value For money, Part II: The History of the Diamondbacks

In the first part of the series, we explained the principal of Marginal Wins and Margin Cost, as a way of looking at team expenditure in relation to success. We found that the amount teams spent above the minimum possible, per victory above the minimum likely, ranged widely - from 0.67 for the Marlins, to 6.46 for the horrifically underachieving Mets. After the jump, let's look at the history of the Diamondbacks, in terms of marginal cost and marginal wins, and compare this season against previous ones.

When you are looking at the history of a franchise over time, rather than comparing teams at the same point in history, things get tricky. You now have to adjust for inflation as well as the change in minimum salary over time. Fortunately, our team's history is relatively short, so from a variety of sources, I was able to track down information on the minimum salary paid in baseball for each year since 1998. Below is a table which shows the data, and the resulting Marginal Cost per Marginal Win amount for each year since we got going in 1998. The final column is that, adjusted for inflation into 2009 terms.

Year Salary ($m) Min. wage ($k) Wins MC/MW ($K) Adj. MC/MW ($K)
1998 28.94 170 65 1.47
1999 70.37 200 100 1.26
2000 79.23 200 85 2.02
2001 85.25 200
92 1.84
2002 102.82 200
98 1.97
2003 80.66 300
84 2.04
2004 69.78 300
51 25.58
2005 62.33 316
77 1.88
2006 59.68 327
76 1.84
2007 52.07 380 90 1.00
2008 66.20 390 82 1.66
2009 73.52 400 70 2.91

Sources: Salary data from USA Today
Inflation Calculator from Bureau of Labor Statistics

I think what stands out - or perhaps,. doesn't - is how consistent the results have been. With one exception, which I'll get to in a moment, the inflation-adjusted MW/MC has been between one and three every year in the team's history - I haven't compared this against all the other teams, but I would certainly have expected to see much more variation, given the team's wild swings in fortune and finance in their short time in the game. However, I did run the same numbers for our expansion brothers in Tampa. Even excluding their highest number [4.50 in 2002, when they lost 117 games] the range was still greater, between 0.68 [last season] and 3.83 in 2001, before inflation. 

The obvious outlier for the Diamondbacks is 2004. That year, we weren't the first team to lose 110 games - that had been done six times before. We were, however, the first to do so with a near-$70 million payroll. Even when the then Devil Rays were at their nadir, losing 107 in 2002, their payroll was half that. And even the Tigers the previous season - the first in 40 years to end up with less wins than replacement - spent below $50m. How did we shell out the equivalent of nearly $80m in today's money, yet perform only fractionally above replacement level?

Looking at Arizona's salary bill, one stands out: Randy Johnson earned $16 million, making him among the best-paid players in baseball that year. However, he wasn't the problem, going 16-14 - and deserving better, with the team scoring twice or less in seventeen of his starts. If you look at Arizona performance by WARP2, he was worth a startling 11.4 Wins Above a Replacement Player (WARP), the fourth-most in the majors. However, the fall-off from there was steep. The six below RJ in the payroll list cost a total of $39m and combined for a total of 1.3 WARP. To put that into perspective, this year, Esmerling "minimum wage" Vasquez was worth 1.3 WARP, by himself.

Particularly grim was Luis Gonzalez, $8.25m, and 0.7 WARP. However, like this year, medical issues certainly played their part. Gonzalez struggled with an injury that left him barely able to throw at all. He eventually succumbed to surgery, hitting only .259 in 105 games. He wasn't the only one. Slugger Richie Sexson barely saw a hundred trips to the plate, and closer Matt Mantei needed an operation to deal with bone spurs in his shoulder. He earned seven million dollars and had an 11.81 ERA in a dozen appearances - I think this is likely why we have never paid anywhere near as much for a relief-pitcher since. Still, this team was 16 games worse than any other in the NL; good health can only help so much.

It's probably no shock that the young i.e. cheap overachievers of 2007 returned the lowest number. However, the second-best figure is from the 1999 roster, one often lost in the glare of two years later. They scored over nine hundred runs, 89 more than any other year, and conceded only 676, just two above the best figure ever. If not a particularly "cheap" team - the cost works out to over $90 million in today's terms - almost without exception, the cash went to players who produced. If you look at the team's salary list, the only real exception is Todd Stottlenyre, who tore his right rotator cuff and missed half the season; he still had an ERA+ of 113 in seventeen starts.

That year, all four NL playoff teams won 97 or more games - contrast this season, where no team in the league had as many victories [perhaps a sign of greater competitive balance?]. Pitching dominated the league, and it was pitching that Arizona used, posting a collective ERA+ of 122. That was the result of a 3.77 team ERA, and every single pitcher who started a game for the Diamondbacks had a winning record; our worst arm, Andy Benes, had an ERA+ of 96. Meanwhile, the offense piled on the runs, led by Jay Bell (38 HR) and Matt Williams (35, plus 142 RBI), with significant contributions off the bench from Bernard Gilkey, and July call-up Erubiel Durazo.

The 1999 Diamondbacks are certainly the most under-rated squad in franchise history, and in many ways were the best ever to pull on the jersey - they won eight more games in the regular season than our World Series team, and it was a surprise when they lost in four to the Mets. Since then, the only team to win 100 games while spending less money has been the A's, who somehow managed to get 102 and 103 victories in 2001-02, with payrolls of $34m and $40m. The former had a MC/MW number of 0.53, the lowest by any playoff team in recent history. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is perhaps why they wrote a movie about Billy Beane, with Brad Pitt playing him.

The final part of this series will look at the current state of competitive balance in the majors - which team has the hardest task, because the opponents it encounters most often have big budgets?