Payroll Numbers or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Roster Construction

Research, get your research here! In high school I hated doing research for most of the papers that I had to write. It took too long, and I wanted the answer right away instead of having to research it. Surprising I know. The one thing that did intrigue me was doing research with numbers. There the answers were able to be found right away. You didn’t have to look around a long time to find something intriguing, and if I could find a pattern, whoo boy was I going to be there awhile. So with the yearly whining about the Mariners being mediocre because they didn’t sign the coveted free agent, I wanted to see what the numbers bore out.

I went to look and see what the Mariners’ payroll numbers looked like compared to the rest of the league. I hopped on to see the payroll numbers that I could pull. The first season that they had full payroll information for all MLB teams was 1985. While I was doing my research Shipwrecked: A Peoples’ History of the Seattle Mariners came out, and I figured that a much better writer/researcher covered that topic better than I ever could. I decided to change what I was researching. What did intrigue me was looking at the payroll information that I had gathered. There were quite a few interesting things that I was noticing in the numbers. Here is a link to the spreadsheet if you would like to play around with it. Some of the things that I saw when I looked at these numbers that stuck out to me are:

  • Since 1985, the average payroll has increased a little over 900%.
  • During that time period, the Yankees payroll has increased a little over 1400%.
  • The Mariners, though, have the biggest gap from their lowest payroll to their highest payroll during that time period, with a $4.61 million payroll in 1985 as the lowest and $117.67 million in 2008 as the highest, which is a little over a 2500% increase.
  • Based on adjusted payroll, the Pirates have spent the lowest amount on their team over these seasons. Their highest payroll was $57.70 million in 2001. It amazes me that they have never topped a $60 million payroll in any season.
  • Take a wild guess on who has spent the most. I’ll just tell you the total: $2.68 billion.
  • Top 5 spending teams (adjusted): Yankees (ok, so I told you), Red Sox, Diamondbacks, Mets, and Dodgers. Unadjusted, it is Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, Dodgers, and Braves.
  • Bottom 5 spending teams (adjusted): Padres, Royals, Marlins, Nationals, and Pirates. Unadjusted, it is Diamondbacks, Nationals, Pirates, Marlins, and Rays.
  • Unadjusted, the Mariners rank 10th in spending, and adjusted, they rank 12th.
  • The Mariners have the lowest payroll over these years, spending $4.61 million in 1985. The Yankees have the highest payroll over these years, spending $208.31 million in 2005.
  • There have been 5 seasons where clubs have at least doubled their Opening Day payroll from the year before. The biggest jump from the Opening Day payroll one year to the next was by the Rockies, going from $10.35 million in 1993 to $23.89 million in 1994. Both the Rockies and the Diamondbacks at least doubled their payroll from their first season to their second season. The biggest jump by a club that had played more than one season is by the Blue Jays, going from $19.90 million in 1991 to $44.79 million in 1992.
  • There have been 3 seasons where clubs have at least cut their payroll by half. The biggest decrease from the Opening Day payroll one year to the next was by the Marlins, going from $60.41 million in 2005 to $14.67 million in 2006. We all know about the Marlins fire sales after their World Series victories, but what I didn’t realize is that their payroll cuts came 2 to 3 years after they won not the next year. I guess I always associated their fire sales coming within that next year.

Since I did originally start this research looking at the Mariners numbers, I want to highlight some of the things that I noticed in the following spreadsheet (color coordinated to the different ownership groups):

  • As you can see at the bottom, their average payroll rank is 15th, placing them right in the middle. Since Nintendo has taken over that number moves up to 12th.
  • Out of the 27 seasons, 15 of them they were in the top half, 8 of them they were in the top third and 3 of them they were in the top quarter. All of these seasons have taken place over the 20 seasons of Nintendo ownership.
  • In the seasons that they finished first or second in the division, their average payroll rank was 11th. In their most successful seasons (1995, 1997, 2000 and 2001) they ranked 13th, 15th, 14th and 11th in payroll, respectively.
  • Since 1995, their payroll has been above the league average every season. There’s only been 2 seasons where they spent below the league average payroll since Nintendo bought the team.

Another thing that I wanted to look at was the spending of World Series winners over that time span. Here’s a table showing the highest payroll for that season along with the World Series winner and where their payroll ranks:

  • The Yankees have had the top payroll in 17 seasons while winning the World Series 5 times and only 3 times have they had the highest payroll while winning it.
  • There have been only 5 seasons where the team with the top payroll has won the World Series. That grows to 12 if you expand that to the teams with a top 5 payroll and 16 for teams with a top 10 payroll.
  • The team with the lowest payroll rank that won the World Series was the 2003 Marlins who had the 24th highest payroll that season.

Looking at this reinforced my belief that throwing money into a team does not guarantee winning a World Series, but that it is much more about roster construction (ahem, hello 2008). We all know that the Mariners have made some big blunders with their roster moves over the years, but as this article points out, they haven’t done too badly in producing major league players (the cynic will say for other teams to poach). Put Varitek in that lineup as catcher in the middle of the Aughts, and the Mariners probably would have made a couple of more playoff appearances giving them a greater number of opportunities to make the World Series. Hopefully with the talent that GMZ has been adding we will see a swing like the early 90s Mariners had going from relative obscurity to playoff relevancy perennially. Will we ever see an offensive core that can put up career numbers like this again: Edgar .312/.418/.515, Griffey .284/.370/.538, Alex .301/.386/.566, Buhner .254/.359/.494? I certainly hope so. I don’t currently see the lineup that we have being able to get all of those, but there is certainly promise in this lineup compared to previous years.

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