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Value for money, Part III: Divisional Disparities

Looking at salaries in general, the gap between the NL and AL continues to increase. The average American League team spent $93.3m, the National League $84.4m - five years ago, the same figures were $75.5m and $70.9m. However, almost all of the current gap is due to the Yankees - the other thirteen AL clubs averaged a player payroll of $85m, basically the same as the NL.Initially, it doesn't seem like there was too much of a variation between divisions, outside of the budget-busting efforts of the Red Sox and Yankees, in the AL East:

  1. AL East: $106.8m
  2. NL Central: $86.3m
  3. AL West: $85.8m
  4. AL Central: $85.7m
  5. NL East: $81.7m
  6. NL West: $75.1m

However, the parity is masked by the wide disparity within a division. Competitive balance is not just about how much you spend, it's also about how much the teams you face most often spend. After the jump, let's take a look and see how things stack up.

Not all teams in a division are created equal. In the NL East, for example, the Mets and Phillies each spent more - in the former case, over $50m more! - than their rivals, the Nationals and Marlins, combined. As a result, the Mets were up against four teams whose average salary bill was $73.8m - but the Marlins faced four spending $104.8m. To look at who had the toughest job, salary-wise, I broke down the schedule for each major-league team, and allocated the appropriate portion of the opponent's salary. For instance, we faced LA 18 times, so that counts for 18/162 * 100.4 = $11.2m.

Doing the same for the rest of the schedule, and each team [thank heavens for spreadsheets, that's all I can say!], gets the following results. The columns are the salary of that team, the aggregated opponents' salary, and the ratio of one to the other. A value greater than one means a team outspent its opposition - a number below one means they were outspent. This is based on the pre-season schedule - the unexpected 163rd game between the Tigers and Twins was not included; the scheduled but never played Cubs-Pirates one was.

NL East Salary Opp. Ratio
Mets 149.4 83.3 1.79
Phillies 113.0 85.8 1.32
Braves 96.7 88.2 1.10
Nationals 60.3 91.0 0.66
Marlins 36.9 94.1 0.39
NL Central
Cubs 134.8 80.1 1.68
Astros 103.0 82.9 1.24
Brewers 80.2 85.6 0.94
Cardinals 77.6 86.1 0.90
Reds 73.6 85.2 0.86
Pirates 48.7 88.1 0.55
NL West
Dodgers 100.4 80.9 1.24
Giants 82.6 81.5 1.01
Rockies 75.2 82.4 0.91
D-backs 73.5 82.0 0.90
Padres 43.7 87.1 0.50
AL East Salary Opp. Ratio
Yankees 201.4 86.4 2.33
Red Sox 121.7 93.8 1.30
Blue Jays 80.5 97.2 0.83
Orioles 67.1 100.5 0.67
Rays 63.3 98.3 0.64
AL Central
Tigers 115.1 86.3 1.33
White Sox 96.1 90.4 1.06
Indians 81.6 91.1 0.90
Royals 70.5 90.5 0.78
Twins 65.3 92.9 0.70
AL West
Angels 113.7 88.5 1.28
Mariners 98.9 88.4 1.12
Rangers 68.2 93.3 0.73
Athletics 62.3 93.8 0.66

The charts above give a stark portrayal of the gap between the have and the have-nots in baseball - or perhaps we should say, the spenders and the spend-nots. Part of the advantage that the Yankees have is not just that they are the Yankees, but also that they don't have to face the Yankees eighteen times a year. Even with the second-highest payroll team in their division, the composite salaries of their opponents is still less than almost every other team in the American League [the Tigers are slightly less, albeit by an amount that could probably be found down the back of the sofa in George Steinbrenner's office].

The other thing that comes out is just how amazingly well the Marlins did this year. They don't only have the least amount to spend in the National League, they also have to contend with the highest opposition payroll, teams who are outspending them by a horrendous amount - Florida spends only 39 cents for every dollar available to their opponents. Given this, the fact that they managed a winning record this season is mightily impressive; to find another team above .500 in the NL, you've got to go all the way up from 0.39 to the Cardinals' 0.90 ratio. This is partly why I can't understand the Marlins' owners contemplating firing manager Fredi Gonzalez. If he can take what would be the Cubs' petty-cash and win four games more than the Northsiders, what might he do with an extra $10m?

At the other end of the spectrum are the Mets. No matter how you cut the numbers, they suck. Teams that spend 80% more than those they face, should end up with ninety-two wins, not losses. Yes, they lost some of their most expensive players to injuries this season; unlike the Diamondbacks, they can't use payroll as any excuse as to why they failed to have adequate coverage. The Cubs weren't far behind in ratio terms, and couldn't capitalize on having the cheapest opponents in baseball. Overall the AL seem better at spending than the NL: of the top four AL ratios, three made the post-season and the fourth lost a one-game playoff. In the NL, the qualifiers were evenly split between those who were out-spent by their opponents and those who did the outspending.

Ok, I think I've ground this particular avenue of research into the ground for a while. But on a semi-similar topic, I want to welcome the latest SB Nation blog, Front Office Fans. This is the blog wing of Project Franchise, which is a plan to buy a majority stake in a sports team, allowing them basically to run it by popular vote. They've already decided that they're going after a minor-league baseball franchise, and are now working on putting together the capital to make it feasible. I think it's a fascinating concept, and wish them all the best.