MLB Playoffs And Payroll Rankings: Charting How Much The Cost Of A Roster Matters

PHOENIX, AZ - SEPTEMBER 27: John McDonald #16 and Chris Young #24 of the Arizona Diamondbacks celebrate after Ryan Roberts (not pictured) hit a walk off grand slam during the 10th inning of the Major League Baseball game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Chase Field on September 27, 2011 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Diamondbacks defeated the Dodgers 7-6 in 10 innings. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

This year, the teams with the second-lowest and seventh-lowest payrolls have made the MLB playoffs. Meanwhile, seven of the top 10 richest teams missed out. How unusual is this? Take a look at our chart.

Sports Illustrated's Jon Heyman made an observation Thursday:

payroll rankings of playoff teams: 1, 3, 10, 11, 13, 16, 24, 29. so not in are 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. #moneyball

This is as good a time as any to note that I dig his lower-case style. At any rate, that is a pretty fun set of numbers. That a couple of teams reach the playoffs with low payrolls does not surprise us in the year 2011, but the rankings of teams that missed out is sort of staggering.

A couple of those misses are near-misses, such as the No. 2 Red Sox, whose story you already know, and the No. 8 Giants, the defending world champions who missed out on a wild-card spot by a handful of games. But, y'all, let's also consider the No. 5 White Sox, No. 6 Cubs, No. 7 Mets, No. 9 Twins... these teams ranged from subpar to terrible.

Now, before we go further, let's acknowledge that payroll numbers are highly dependent upon context. The numbers alone don't tell us that Buster Posey and Joe Mauer were lost for most of the season, or that a new general manager was saddled with an old GM's long-term deals, or any number of things that could make teams more or less impressive than they appear on this chart.


(Payroll data via CBS Sports and Baseball Chronology)

But I went ahead and charted the data anyway, because it's fun to look at.

A few observations:

  • The team with the second-highest payroll has made the playoffs only three times in the last 12 years. In other words, if you had the second-lowest payroll in baseball within the last 12 years, you were just as likely to reach the playoffs as the team with the second-highest payroll.
  • Since 2001, the teams that missed the playoffs with the second-highest payroll are made up entirely of the Red Sox (five times) and the Mets (three times). It would be easy to beat up on these teams for these failures, but remember that the Red Sox have played in the toughest division in baseball, and that the Mets have played in a pretty tough division and are the Mets.
  • This visualization doesn't illustrate how large the payroll gap between the highest team and, say, the fifth-highest team has been. The Yankees, as you don't need to be told, led the league in payroll almost every year reflected in this graph. The lone exception fell in 1998, when the Orioles leveraged baseball's largest war chest into a fourth-place finish in the A.L. East.
  • Notice how the colors look during the mid-to-late 1990s. Nearly every single team had a payroll that was better than the median. Everything gravitates so firmly to the left. And then, almost as though a switch was flipped, the playoff teams began to diversify in terms of payroll in 2000, and it has more or less been that way ever since.
  • There are plenty of factors at work here, but one could look at this data and see the effects of the Moneyball philosophy. In 2000, Theodore Moneyball proposed that baseballs be used as a supplemental form of internal currency within the league. Being baseball teams and all, teams had a ton of baseballs lying around, and the result was greater economic parity throughout the league. That is not true at all and I'm really sorry for goofing around when all you're trying to do is look at a dang chart.
  • If the Rays reach the World Series this year, they will be the fourth team in the last five years to make it to the Series with a payroll that ranks in the bottom six. That would give them a greater success rate than the top six. That is incredible.

I'm sure that plenty of folks smarter than myself could make more interesting observations. In the meantime, I am advertising myself for hire as a front-office advisor, my sole advice being: never rank exactly 22nd in payroll.

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