Thursday, September 29, 2011

Examining the Real Moneyball

Gratuitous use of a Brad Pitt image? Guilty as charged.

While the screen version of the "Moneyball" story is doing solid box office, the reality of how money affects Major League Baseball has become a rather complicated story.

As the dust settles on the improbable finish to the regular season, a look at this year's playoff teams makes it hard to argue that payroll perfectly correlates with success. Still, all things being equal, it's better to have than have not.

Of course, the poster children for free-spending success are back in the playoffs. Baseball's two biggest payrolls belong to the Yankees ($203 million) and the Phillies ($173 million), and the two fat cats posted the highest win totals in their respective leagues.

And but for its epic September meltdown, Boston (#3 in payroll at $161 million) would have joined the high-roller table. Instead, the unwashed Tampa Bay Rays have crashed the party. Their $41 million payroll ranks next-to-last in the Major Leagues (only Kansas City is lower). The Rays spend roughly a dollar for every 5 bucks spent by the Yankees.

Of course, technically, some of the money Tampa Bay spends actually comes from the Yankees, who annually pay into baseball's "luxury tax" fund designed to share the wealth. But it's a pittance, really; nowhere near enough to address the disparity between the top spenders and the poverty-stricken.

Still, this year's group of playoff teams puts the lie to the belief that payroll heft guarantees success in baseball. Here are the playoff teams and their payroll rankings:

American League
  • Yankees $203 million #1
  • Tigers $105 million #10
  • Rangers $92 million #13
  • Rays $41 million #29
National League
  • Phillies $173 million #2
  • Cardinals $105 million #11
  • Brewers $85 million #17
  • D'backs $54 million #25

Plenty of big spenders will be watching the playoffs rather than, you know, playing in them. The Red Sox (#3), Angels (#4), White Sox (#5), Cubs (#6), Mets (#7), Giants #8) , Twins (#9) and Dodgers (#12) are all $100 million teams whose money didn't buy them a playoff slot. In fact, four of those teams had sub-.500 records and the Twins managed to avoid a 100-loss season only by winning their final game.

The assumption around baseball is that the lessons of "Moneyball" have been learned and adopted by virtually every organization: seek undervalued assets and maximize the impact of whatever money you have. Yet if everyone is seeking undervalued assets, the guy with the biggest wallet will eventually prevail.

Still, there's hope for the underclass in all this. While it is true that 5 of this year's 8 playoff teams come from teams in the top 50% of payrolls, it's also true that two of the six lowest-spending teams (Tampa Bay and Arizona) are in. Smart? Lucky? Maybe some of both.

Bottom line: in baseball, as in life itself, it seems that money doesn't guarantee happiness. But it's nice to have.

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