First, let's start out with a simple basis of efficiency: what each team spent per win for the decade. Take total payroll (in this case, opening day payrolls), divide by the number of wins, and you get Cost Per Win (CPW):
Cost Per Win is good, but it's only a start. CPW doesn't consider what a team achieved, and because the gap in payrolls is far greater than the gap in wins, CPW skews toward small-market teams who don't spend and don't contend often. The goal in pro sports is to win titles, not just games.
That brings us to Step 2: what did the team achieve in the past decade? There are five levels of achievement in baseball:
1. Give your fans a pennant race (defined here are finishing within five games of a playoff spot).
2. Make the postseason.
3. Win a postseason series.
4. Win the pennant.
5. Win the World Series.
Now comes the fun part. I assigned teams what I call Achievement Points for every level reached, with graduating values the more they advanced through the five levels: one point for being in a pennant race, two points for making the playoffs, three for winning each postseason series, four for winning a pennant, and five for winning a World Series. A team could accrue a maximum of 21 points for a world championship season.
Now let's look at Achievement Points for the decade, broken down by Pennant Races (PR), Postseason Appearances (PA), Postseason Series wins (PS), Pennants won (P) and World Series wins (WS):
So now we know how much teams spent per win and what they achieved. Put those factors together and you can define how efficiently the clubs operated, or to borrow the precise language of economists, bang for the buck.
Think of Achievement Points as write-downs of what it cost to run a team. A pennant-winning season, for instance, is money well spent when compared to a last-place finish. So take each team's Cost Per Win basis and subtract its Achievement Points, and you're left with a measure of efficiency I'll call the Efficiency Rating (ER). The Efficiency Rating is meant more for fun than for scientific purposes; it's not intended for vetting by the Brookings Institution. It's a shorthand gauge of what kind of bang for their buck teams managed over the last decade.
That said, here are the five most efficient teams of the past decade:
The Marlins run a very lean operation -- too lean according to the union, which won a major concession last week when MLB essentially put Florida on probation for the next three seasons. The Marlins either must start putting more of their revenue-sharing handouts into payroll or the union can take them to arbitration. (The Marlins quickly responded by completing a $39 million extension for pitcher Josh Johnson.)
Florida took advantage of the system over the past decade. The Marlins found a way to spend as little as possible and win just enough -- well, maybe. They did win one world championship in the decade but gave their fans only one other pennant race. Here's a good question for fans: would you take one world championship every decade if it meant punting eight of the other nine years?
If your answer is no, then the Cardinals are your choice for the most efficient team. They spent almost $300 million more than the Marlins and were in a race every year but one. St. Louis achieved virtually as much as the Red Sox but did so spending $325 million less. (Okay, it helped that they didn't have the Yankees in their league.) Much of the credit for St. Louis' efficiency has to go to manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan, who have saved the franchise millions of dollars by maximizing personnel, and to the incomparable Albert Pujols, who was a relative bargain for what he gave St. Louis. The Cardinals are unlikely to be so efficient this decade if they are to keep Pujols with the recently signed Matt Holliday.
And now the bad news . . . The five least efficient teams in baseball over the past decade:
How badly run are the Mets? Think about this: the Mets played in a World Series and still were the least efficient team in baseball. They spent $737.5 million more than Florida and won four more games than the Marlins.
The Orioles stand as a reminder of why the worst mistake in baseball is to spend when you are not ready to win. Instead of trying to hang with the Yankees and Red Sox, Baltimore would have been better off to strip down its payroll. Payrolls are like undivided highways: the worst place to travel is the middle of the road.
And here are the rest of the clubs that form the middle of the efficiency pack:
Here are some other observations about the results:
• Who knew the Mariners were run this badly? They have received a pass for running an inefficient operation. Competing with only three other teams in their division, they managed to take part in only three pennant races in the decade while seeing the playoffs twice. And only seven teams in all of baseball spent more money.
• Speaking of the AL West, has anybody had an easier go of it than the Angels? Each year they only have to be better than three teams to make the playoffs -- two of them were among the six least efficient teams in baseball and the third spent the fourth-lowest total in the league on players.
• The Yankees spent 31 percent more than the next biggest spender, Boston. By laying out $1.6 billion dollars, it would have been difficult for them to be among the most efficient teams in baseball -- but not impossible. All they needed to do to crack the top five in efficiency was to win the 2003, 2004 and 2008 World Series in addition to their 2000 and 2009 titles.
• Eight of the 13 most efficient teams reside in the NL. Why? They don't have to deal with the Yankees and Red Sox unless they reach the World Series. The rivalry between New York and Boston -- what it does for the economic system, interest, ratings, etc. -- could be considered the single most powerful engine that drove the game in the past decade.
And how much did they dominate the AL? The Yankees and Red Sox won 19 postseason series -- more than the rest of the league combined (16).