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How efficient was National League spending in 2010?

Looking at WAR and player payrolls to determine which clubs got their money’s worth.

By Ian Walton

Through the growth of sabermetrics, baseball fans have been flooded with a host of new statistics with which to dissect their beloved game.  Although they have received considerable backlash from the traditionalists, one can glean many insights from their application.  Among the more interesting of sabermetric stats is WAR, wins above replacement.  WAR attempts to boil down a player’s performance and express it in terms of wins, namely the number of wins a player has provided his team beyond what an everyday, readily available, league minimum-earning player would provide.

For the purposes of this article, I have utilized Baseball Reference’s WAR values.  They define a player with a rating of eight wins or above in a season to be an MVP-caliber player, a player worth five wins to be all-star quality, a player worth two or more wins to be worthy of an everyday starting job, a player worth zero to two wins to be equal to a bench player, and a player worth zero or less wins to be replacement level or worse, meaning that an equivalent or better player could easily be acquired from Triple-A, free agency, or through trade for a very marginal player in return.

Beyond measuring a player’s worth to his team in the most basic and fundamental of ways, wins, one can equate those wins into dollar values.  Typically, one can use these numbers to measure the value of a free agent’s potential contribution.  If, for example, a player worth one win could earn $3 million, a player worth two wins could earn $6 million.  For our purposes, we will examine all players in the National League and not simply free agents.  In order to calculate the dollar value of a win provided by a position player, which includes offense and defense, I simply combined the total WAR of all NL batters and divided that by the sum of the above-minimum salary of those same batters.  I then did the same for all NL pitchers.  This allows us to examine which teams received the most production from their money spent, as all teams clearly do not spend equally.

Before we delve into the numbers, I should offer a few disclosures.  This methodology, while useful to demonstrate trends, should not be taken to claim exact, absolute value and worth.  The team salaries used in the following tables were provided by Baseball Reference, which appears to have been generated by Opening Day payroll.  That means that any players called up later in the season and any trades made during the season are not considered here.  Furthermore, the hitters’ salaries were calculated by subtracting the pitchers’ salaries from a team’s overall salary.  This causes a bit of uncertainty, as there were a very few hitters who were used as pitchers at some point during the season and thus were included as the latter for salary purposes.

The following table shows the combined hitters’ WAR of each National League team from 2010.  These ratings combine both offensive and defensive contributions, but for ease of labeling say “hitters.”

Table 1: National League Team Hitters’ WAR and Salary Comparison

Team Hitter WAR Hitter Salary Hitter SAR Paid Hitter WAR Hitter WAR – Paid Hitter WAR Hitter WAR Savings
CIN 29.6 $24,300,042 $19,100,042 8.0 21.6 $51,775,044
SDP 19.9 $14,401,100 $9,201,100 3.8 16.1 $38,448,029
MIL 23.4 $29,435,500 $24,235,500 10.1 13.3 $31,794,129
ATL 25 $39,000,000 $33,800,000 14.1 10.9 $26,060,714
ARI 18.9 $27,630,166 $22,430,166 9.4 9.5 $22,824,534
STL 23.6 $45,684,780 $40,484,780 16.9 6.7 $16,023,734
SFG 19.6 $49,715,500 $44,515,500 18.6 1.0 $2,415,300
FLA 10.5 $30,734,500 $25,534,500 10.7 -0.2 -$393,000
COL 13.8 $41,802,000 $36,602,000 15.3 -1.5 -$3,558,886
WSN 11.7 $39,452,000 $34,252,000 14.3 -2.6 -$6,237,186
LAD 16.7 $57,315,683 $52,115,683 21.8 -5.1 -$12,128,726
PHI 24 $79,164,046 $73,964,046 30.9 -6.9 -$16,497,760
PIT -4.4 $15,541,500 $10,341,500 4.3 -8.7 -$20,876,986
NYM 17.4 $77,701,569 $72,501,569 30.3 -12.9 -$30,838,512
HOU 3.4 $55,506,500 $50,306,500 21.0 -17.6 -$42,165,443
CHC 6.1 $76,451,000 $71,251,000 29.8 -23.7 -$56,644,986
Total 259.2 $703,835,886 $620,635,886 259.2 0.0 $0

In the above, SAR stands for salary above replacement, the money that a team spent on their offense above the minimum salary ($400,000 each) for an assumed 13 position players on the 25-man roster.  Paid WAR is the number of wins above replacement that a National League team should have expected, on average, to receive in exchange for the salary spent (beyond the major league minimum).  Beside that column is the difference between the WAR a team’s players produced and what that team paid for.  Finally, WAR savings are the amount of money a team “saved” as a result of those differences between actual and expected production (or money “wasted” for negative values). The above table is listed in WAR Savings order from best to worst.

For instance, the 2010 Cardinals spent $40.5M upon their batters above league minimum salary (Hitter SAR).  On average, this should have provided them with 16.9 wins above a replacement level team (Paid Hitter WAR).  Since their offensive players produced 23.6 WAR instead (Hitter WAR), the Cardinals got 6.7 WAR beyond what they paid for (Hitter WAR – Paid Hitter WAR), worth a savings of $16M (Hitter WAR Savings).

In contrast, the Astros, which paid for 21.0 WAR and received 3.4 WAR, wasted $42M in salary to batters that simply didn’t live up to their contracts.  They were only the second-worst offender in the league, however, as the hapless Chicago Cubs paid $71M for an expected 29.8 WAR and only received 6.1 WAR in return.  By these estimates, they wasted over $56M on their hitters.  The Pirates, despite coming in a close second for lowest salary paid to their players, were the only NL team to actually perform below replacement level in aggregate, showing that they possibly would have been better off employing a AAAA squad.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Cincinnati Reds hitters provided the best value in the league, outperforming their collective paychecks by nearly $52M.

The following table displays the same data as above, except for National League team pitching staffs and is also listed in best to worst order for Pitcher WAR Savings:

Table 2: National League Team Pitchers’ WAR and Salary Comparison

Team Pitcher WAR Pitcher Salary Pitcher SAR Paid Pitcher WAR Pitcher WAR – Paid Pitcher WAR Pitcher WAR Savings
SDP 15.5 $22,985,400 $18,185,400 5.7 9.8 $31,464,457
FLA 14.7 $26,295,219 $21,495,219 6.7 8.0 $25,592,064
SFG 21.4 $48,470,833 $43,670,833 13.6 7.8 $24,878,001
COL 17.6 $42,022,000 $37,222,000 11.6 6.0 $19,154,611
WSN 7.8 $18,147,000 $13,347,000 4.2 3.6 $11,638,089
ATL 14.6 $45,021,166 $40,221,166 12.6 2.0 $6,545,796
PIT 6.1 $18,991,500 $14,191,500 4.4 1.7 $5,348,121
HOU 10.8 $36,033,500 $31,233,500 9.8 1.0 $3,361,239
STL 12.5 $47,855,971 $43,055,971 13.4 -0.9 -$3,015,764
LAD 8.9 $37,637,833 $32,837,833 10.3 -1.4 -$4,329,206
PHI 16.6 $62,764,333 $57,964,333 18.1 -1.5 -$4,790,938
NYM 12.3 $55,052,373 $50,252,373 15.7 -3.4 -$10,852,809
CIN 8.3 $44,345,500 $39,545,500 12.3 -4.0 -$12,958,803
CHC 13.9 $69,333,000 $64,533,000 20.1 -6.2 -$20,008,290
ARI -2 $24,588,000 $19,788,000 6.2 -8.2 -$26,194,433
MIL 0.2 $51,272,778 $46,472,778 14.5 -14.3 -$45,832,135
Total 179.2 $650,816,406 $574,016,406 179.2 0.0 $0

The 2010 St. Louis Cardinals did not fare as well in this category, spending $43M for a projected 13.4 WAR and only receiving 12.5 in return.  This demonstrates a waste of approximately $3M in pitcher salary.  The least efficient pitching staff by far belonged to the Milwaukee Brewers, which paid for what should have been 14.5 WAR but received only 0.2 WAR in return.  The Padres made the most out of their pitching salary spent, followed by the Marlins, Giants, and Rockies.

The final table below shows the combined WAR, salaries, and savings for all National League teams.  A final column, Performance Worth, was included to represent how much money a team’s performance on the field was actually worth (in contrast to how much they paid in reality). It is listed in order of total savings from best to worst.

Table 3: National League Team WAR and Salary Comparison

Team Total WAR Salary Total Paid WAR Total WAR – Total Paid WAR Total Savings Performance Worth
SDP 35.4 $37,386,500 9.5 25.9 $69,912,485 $107,298,985
CIN 37.9 $68,645,542 20.3 17.6 $38,816,241 $107,461,783
ATL 39.6 $84,021,166 26.7 12.9 $32,606,510 $116,627,676
SFG 41 $98,186,333 32.2 8.8 $27,293,301 $125,479,634
FLA 25.2 $57,029,719 17.4 7.8 $25,199,064 $82,228,783
COL 31.4 $83,824,000 26.9 4.5 $15,595,726 $99,419,726
STL 36.1 $93,540,751 30.3 5.8 $13,007,970 $106,548,721
WSN 19.5 $57,599,000 18.5 1.0 $5,400,903 $62,999,903
ARI 16.9 $52,218,166 15.5 1.4 -$3,369,899 $48,848,267
MIL 23.6 $80,708,278 24.6 -1.0 -$14,038,006 $66,670,272
PIT 1.7 $34,533,000 8.7 -7.0 -$15,528,865 $19,004,135
LAD 25.6 $94,953,516 32.0 -6.4 -$16,457,932 $78,495,584
PHI 40.6 $141,928,379 49.0 -8.4 -$21,288,699 $120,639,680
HOU 14.2 $91,540,000 30.8 -16.6 -$38,804,204 $52,735,796
NYM 29.7 $132,753,942 46.0 -16.3 -$41,691,321 $91,062,621
CHC 20 $145,784,000 49.9 -29.9 -$76,653,276 $69,130,724
Total 438.4 $1,354,652,292 438.4 0.0 $0 $1,354,652,292

The San Diego Padres, who finished only two games out of their division lead and one game out of the wild card race in 2010 despite operating on a shoestring budget, indisputably made the most out of their money.  Yet had they spent just a bit more, they might have made the post-season. The Cubs, who led the NL in spending and ended up amongst the bottom dwellers in the standings, spent their money least wisely by a significant margin.  The Cardinals, despite falling short of the playoffs, did at least outperform what they spent, paying $93.5M to field a team worth $106.5M in results.

In our next article, we will examine the performances of individual St. Louis Cardinals players, the money that they were paid, and which were responsible for either elevating or dragging down their team.

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