Cardinals, Dodgers, Red Sox, Tigers prove payrolls still matter
This season, Koji Uehara has proven himself to be one of the best free agent bargains in recent memory, and on Tuesday night against the Rays he again showed why. The Red Sox' closer entered what was a potentially series-clinching ALDS Game 4 with two outs in the eighth inning, and with his club nursing a 2-1 lead, and he did what he has so often done during a year in which he had a 1.09 ERA and a 0.57 WHIP: he got everybody out.
Uehara whiffed David DeJesus to end the eighth, and then, after Boston tacked on an insurance run in the top of the ninth, he got Wil Myers to fly out, James Loney to ground out and Evan Longoria to strike out. The Rays were finished, and the Red Sox were advancing to the ALCS, in part due to the brilliance of a reliever to whom they gave just $4.5 million in 2013 -- a pittance, as he was their 14th highest-paid player.
If $4.5 million represents an insignificant sum to the Red Sox, though, it does not to the Rays, the club they rather easily dispatched to central Florida's golf courses. In a last ditch attempt to avoid that fate, Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon sent nine pitchers to the mound on Tuesday night, trying his best to exploit whatever slim matchup advantages he could against Boston's stacked lineup. Not one of those nine pitchers earned as much in 2013 as Uehara did, and none even came particularly close: The highest paid player among them was setup man Joel Peralta, who was paid $3.0 million. As a group, the Rays who pitched in Game 4 made a total of approximately $10.4 million this year. The Red Sox used just four pitchers on Tuesday, as starter Jake Peavy preceded Craig Breslow, Junichi Tazawa and then Uehara. Boston shelled out $21.9 million for that quartet's services (see chart below).
On Monday, my colleague Jay Jaffe smartly analyzed how a number of factors -- including revenue sharing, the luxury tax and an increasing number of teams in the postseason -- has leveled baseball's economic playing field, as far as the correlation of clubs' financial resources to their ability to earn a chance to play in October. The average Opening Day payroll ranking of the 10 teams that made this postseason, Jaffe showed, was 14.7, an all-time low.
Making the playoffs, however, and advancing within them are two very different tasks. In a span of four consecutive days this week, each of the middle- to lower-class clubs that reached the Division Series was eliminated by a team that spent a great deal more on player salaries than they did. The gap ranged from 1.4 times as much, in the case of the Cardinals and Pirates, to 2.6 times as much, in that of the Red Sox and Rays.
On back-to-back nights this week, smaller-payroll teams had to play a double-elimination Game 5 with rookie starting pitchers who make the league minimum -- the Pirates' Gerrit Cole and the A's Sonny Gray -- against established aces who combined to make $32 million this season. The rookies pitched respectably, allowing nine hits, five runs and five walks against eight strikeouts in a combined 10 innings of work. The aces, the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright and the Tigers' Justin Verlander -- were spectacular. Between them, they threw 17 innings, allowing 10 hits, one run and two walks and striking out 16 to advance their teams to the NLCS and ALCS, respectively.
We are now about to embark on a pair of championship series that will include four participants that not only all ranked in baseball's upper tier as far as Opening Day payrolls -- the Dodgers were second, the Red Sox fourth, the Tigers fifth and the Cardinals 11th -- but were the four highest-salaried teams to make the postseason.
In an age of supposedly increasing parity, this is not a new trend. Baseball's final four has for years been heavily comprised of teams that are among the league's financial elite. Since the Rays made their stunning run to the World Series in 2008 with a payroll that ranked 29th, just one similarly tightfisted team has even reached the LCS: the 2010 Rangers, who ranked 26th. That Texas team, though, was driven by a cadre of maturing players who were on the cusp of demanding wages that far exceeded what they were then earning, and whose demands the Rangers were largely able to meet.
Of the other 19 ALCS and NLCS participants since '08 (see chart below), one, the 2011 Milwaukee Brewers, made it with a payroll in the league's bottom half -- and those Brewers, at 17th, barely qualified.
The problem might be one that a Moneyball-era Billy Beane once neatly summarized: "My [stuff] doesn't work in the playoffs."
Following Beane's lead, modern small-market general managers have pursued a number of tactics that have allowed their clubs to contend through the long haul of the regular season, and even to reach a playoff structure that now includes one-third of all major league teams. They assemble rosters that are deep and filled with platoons, in part to minimize the effects of an arduous 162-game schedule. They acquire and groom young and inexperienced players, who are both talented and cheap. They search for inexpensive veteran castoffs, who might have something left. They are deeply knowledgeable about cutting-edge baseball analytics, so that they might seize any advantage they can via batter-pitcher matchups or approaches, or fielding shifts.
In the distilled, small sample size environment of the playoffs, though, such tactics continue to prove less effective. Here, pure quality usually trumps depth. These short series -- in the context of baseball, even those that last seven games are short -- tend to be won by teams that have several in-their-prime sluggers, who usually cost a lot of money; by those that have a couple of Cy Young-caliber starters to eat up most of their innings and dominate in win-or-go-home games, who usually cost a lot of money; by those that have a 38-year-old closer with an unhittable splitter who, even if he costs $4.5 million, would still rank among the top six highest earners on the Rays, A's and Pirates, and would represent a player who costs, relatively, a lot of money to them.
During spring training, I asked the general manager of a team whose payroll is not among the league's upper echelon for his thoughts on the widely held belief that the luxury tax, which is assessed on teams that spend more than $189 million, has helped engender an era of competitive balance. He laughed. For one thing, only two teams, the Yankees and Dodgers, appeared set to exceed the limit, and only one of those -- the Yankees -- seemed to care about it. For another, the $189 million barrier is so high as to be unthinkable for most clubs. Of the league's 30 teams, 16 couldn't even get halfway there in 2013.
The vastness of the disparity between Major League Baseball's highest- and lowest-spending clubs can hardly be overstated. "If a team can't spend 189 in an optimal way, it's doing a lot of [things] wrong," the GM told me. Of course, several rich teams did a lot wrong this season -- seven of the top 10 highest-spending teams missed the playoffs -- but those that did not are once again the last ones standing, and will virtually always be the heavy favorite in a financially mismatched series.
Those within the game, players included, understand this. This spring I asked Dustin Pedroia, whose Red Sox lost 93 games a year ago, what he and his teammates thought about their perceived underdog status. "I don't think anybody's thinking about it," he said. "Got a $170 million payroll, so -- you know what I mean?"
One of these years, a team with a sub-$80 million payroll -- like this season's A's, Indians, Pirates and Rays -- might beat the financial odds and advance not only into baseball's final four, but do what Tampa Bay's '08 iteration did not and win a championship. It is certainly possible, especially given the entropic element that the sport's ever broader and ever more convoluted playoff structure has introduced. If it happens, though, it will be an outlier, given baseball's continuing economic realities. When it matters most, cash is still king.