“Buying Championships” Is Harder Than It Looks

For the purposes of this article, all WAR measurements are through Baseball Reference.

 

So the Dodgers are in the World Series, and to some degree they are wearing the Black Hat of the villain. Though they haven’t won the World Series since 1988, their payroll tops baseball, and those of us who have gone our whole lives hating the Yankees for buying championships may well have a distaste for the Dodgers for using the same playbook.

When I think of the Dodgers, though, I don’t really think much about their high-wage stars. Sure, Clayton Kershaw made more than $35M for his 5.0 WAR 2017, but it’s not like he was “stolen” via free agency from some also-ran; he was a product of the Dodgers’ system. Three of Los Angeles’ next four top earners were brought in via free agency or trade, which fits the complaint of “buying a championship” a bit better.

 

That said, those four high-earning players pretty much tripped and fell down the stairs all season. Adrian Gonzalez ($22.3M), Scott Kazmir ($17.6M), Andre Ethier ($17.5M), and Curtis Granderson ($15M), combined for -1.6 WAR, and that’s with Kazmir not even throwing a major-league pitch all year.

 

Maybe I’m splitting hairs a little bit, because the Dodgers’ top WAR guy was Justin Turner (5.7), a free-agent signing making $13M in 2017, but stick with me for a second. Take a look at the top 10 Dodgers in WAR this season:

 

Player WAR Salary (in $M)
Justin Turner 5.7 13
Corey Seager 5.6 0.575
Clayton Kershaw 5.0 35.6
Chris Taylor 4.8 *
Cody Bellinger 4.2 *
Yasiel Puig 3.7 8.21
Kenley Jansen 3.0 10.8
Alex Wood 2.9 2.8
Austin Barnes 2.6 0.540
Yasmani Grandal 2.1 5.5

* – no figure was provided at Baseball Reference or Cot’s Contracts; the MLB minimum is $545,000. Don’t ask me how the Dodgers apparently paid Barnes less than the minimum.

 

There are a couple of big pieces there: Turner, Kershaw, and Jansen, but Turner and Jansen both make a touch less than Nelson Cruz did in ’17. If you trimmed Gonzalez, Kazmir, and Ethier from the roster, that’s more than $56M, easily enough to take them out of the top payroll spot in the league based on opening day payrolls, and moving them to #4, between Detroit and Toronto.

 

Hopefully you see what I’m getting at: a lot of the Dodgers’ value comes from low-cost players. Looking at that made me wonder about recent championship teams’ spending. How often does it happen that a club buys their way to a championship by signing big-ticket players who really carry the load?

 

Let’s take a look at the 2016 Cubs: Jon Lester made $25M, Jason Heyward $21.6M, John Lackey $16M, Miguel Montero $14M, Aroldis Chapman $11.3M, Jake Arrieta $10.7M, and Ben Zobrist is the last one to crack 8-figures with $10.5M. There’s some good value there to be sure: Lester had 5.2 WAR, Arrieta added 4.2, Zobrist 3.9, and Lackey 2.2. That’s four players in their top 10 for WAR (though it’s worth noting that Chapman had a 2.4-WAR season splitting time with the Yankees), but it’s not the top two spots. In fact, four of the Cubbies top five WAR producers didn’t come from this $10+M list: Kris Bryant (7.7 WAR, $652K), Anthony Rizzo (5.8 WAR, $5.0M), Kyle Hendricks (4.9 WAR, $541K), and Addison Russell (4.3 WAR, $527K) led the charge.

 

The 2015 Royals were pretty weird from a payroll perspective. They didn’t pay anybody more than the $12.5M they gave Alex Gordon (their fifth best player in WAR), but man did they hit on Lorenzo Cain, who was their WAR leader (WAR hero?) with 7.2 while making just $2.72M.

 

That brings us to the Giants, who managed to win three World Series in five years. They started their string paying Barry Zito, Aaron Rowand, and Edgar Renteria some pretty big money, over $10M each, but only getting 2.3 WAR combined from the trio. Instead, they were led in WAR by Aubrey Huff (5.7, $3M), Andres Torres (5.3, $426K), Matt Cain (4.3, $4.5M), Buster Posey (3.9, –), and Tim Lincecum (3.6, $9M).

 

Strangely, they got good production from older free agents: Huff and Torres were 33 and 32 years old, respectively, but the Giants weren’t pouring a bunch of money into the pockets of those two at the time.

 

When they won again in 2012, Posey took the lead with 7.3 WAR, but he was still making just $615k. Melky Cabrera was #2 at 4.7 ($6M), and they were finally paying Cain some serious cash for his value at 4.6 ($15M). Angel Pagan at 4.0 ($4.85M), and Brandon Belt at 2.8 ($481K) rounded out their top-five. In the meantime, cash was being allocated pretty poorly: they were paying Huff $10M for a job well done in 2010, but he certainly didn’t do so in 2012, checking in at 0.2 WAR. Similarly, Lincecum had become a negative-WAR pitcher overnight though his salary doubled to $18M. Huff concluded his playing career after that season, but Lincecum was still owed $17M from the Giants for the 2014 season when they somehow pulled it off again.

 

How was that somehow? Well, you may recall Madison Bumgarner coming out of freaking nowhere in the ’14 postseason. He led the Giants in WAR at 5.3, making $3.75M in his sixth season pitching for San Francisco. He’d never been fantastic on the hill, though he was perfectly good by providing more than 2.0 from the mound each of the previous four years. Perhaps the most interesting thing about his 2014 was that he contributed 1.3 WAR with the bat, which propelled him to the top spot.

 

On the salary side, the 2014 Giants good value for the money they spent on Hunter Pence, who checked in with 3.7 WAR; his WAR and payroll totals ($16M) made him third on the team in each category. The Giants’ dead money went to Cain ($20M) and Lincecum, who wound up at a combined near-zero WAR total. In the meantime, Posey was starting to make his money at $12.5M (and 5.3 WAR, second on the club), and they squeezed 3.4 and 3.3 WAR out of Pablo Sandoval ($8.25M) and Brandon Crawford ($560K) respectively to round out their top-five in terms of value.

 

Great teams often wind up failing to get good value for their big-ticket expenses, but they make up for it with low-cost players putting together high value seasons. That might make you optimistic for the Mariners as they stare down the barrel of a likely decline from Canó, Cruz, and Felix, because it won’t be a special task. While it sure would be nice to have star-level seasons from that trio, they’ll also need some big-time seasons out of guys like Mitch Haniger, Mike Zunino, and James Paxton.

 

Off the top of my head, the last team I think really bought themselves a championship by bringing in high-profile guys and getting value out of them was the 2009 Yankees. Their top producers were Derek Jeter, CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Robinson Canó, and A.J. Burnett, and they ranked 2, 5, 3, 11, and 4 in payroll on the team, respectively. Payroll #1, of course, was Alex Rodriguez, but the Yanks still got pretty good value from him: he landed seventh in WAR for the team just ahead of Mariano Rivera, their sixth highest-paid player.

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