As baseball fans we know that what happens on the diamond is a business, but we still tend to view it as a sport. Those of us with a rooting interest understand the economic side of things to an extent, but most of our conversations revolve around things like hitting, defense, and baserunning. I think when we forget about dollars and cents we miss one of the core components of what made this team very good in 2013, and one of the key factors that will determine whether it stays that way for the long-term.
W.A.R. and Dollars per W.A.R.
One of the new statistics to make its way into the lexicon of the baseball fan is Wins Above Replacement, or WAR for short. The basic idea behind WAR is an attempt to quantify how many more wins a player adds to a ball club than a nondescript bench player. It isn’t a perfect tool, but it comes as close to anything in determining how much value a certain player has for a team.
One additional facet of WAR is that we can use this handy little stat is to estimate how much each win above replacement is worth. This dollar amount allows you to gauge a ballplayers production with a financial component of their performance. The idea is not that these dollars are a perfect gauge of what a player makes, or necessarily will make on the open market, but rather to take how production is paid for on the market and use that as a gauge for how much worth a player is giving a team. The good folks over at Fangraphs have a great explanation of the concept, and we will be using their formula for the rest of this piece.
What we see when we look at the WAR dollars for the 2013 is a very easy way to figure out why the Cardinals won 97 games. The team’s payroll last year was in the neighborhood of $116 million. The key to winning in business, and in baseball when you are not the Dodgers or Yankees, is to make sure that you are getting good returns on your investments. Last season ten players (Matt Adams, Jon Jay, Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, Allen Craig, Lance Lynn, Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright, and Matt Carpenter) were paid just a shade under 48 million dollars. What was the WAR dollar figure for those ten players? 185 million. That is some serious bang for the team’s buck.
The High Return on Investment (ROI) Guys
Adams, Miller, Rosenthal, Lynn, and Carpenter all played last year for around $500,000 apiece. Those players responded by playing at a level worth $81 million. Since I am something less than a math whiz I texted my banker brother-in-law about this level of return. He tells me that in 2013 these five players gave the Cardinals a 3,140% return on their investment. Despite all of our grousing as a fan base about a couple of these guys, one of the ways that a team wins 97 games is by paying a player half a million dollars and seeing that same player compete at a level much higher than their salary.
The Worth Every Penny Guys
In 2013 Wainwright, Molina, and Holliday were paid $43 million. Their production was indicative of such large salaries. Together their play equaled $81 million worth of value. They provided the same value as the previous group of five guys, but at a considerable higher, though undoubtedly worthwhile cost. For whatever reason, Cardinals fans seem to love Wainwright and Molina, but Holliday never seems to have enjoyed the same level of support. It is worth noting that Holliday has completed four years of a seven-year contract. He gets paid $17 million a year, and he has outperformed his contract every single year thus far. His defense may be an adventure (and this is being kind), but the idea that Hollliday needs to be sent packing has nothing to do with a failure to live up to his part of the deal he signed with the team. Complain that his range in left field is the size of your cubicle at work, but let’s not act like his contract is a bad one for the team, at least at this point.
It is far from a revelation to say that David Freese had an off year last season. The Cardinals paid him $3 million, and he played worth $1.3M. This is why he will be playing baseball two time zones farther west in 2014. I was also not surprised to see that Pete Kozma, Daniel Descalso, and Tony Cruz had performances that underwhelmed, even at their modest salaries. I was surprised to see, however, that Carlos Beltran’s production actually lagged behind his salary in 2013. Beltran performed well in 2013, but his salary actually exceeded his performance by $3 million. Beltran’s performance was still worth $10 million, but certainly not deserving of the $45 million over three years to which the Yankees committed themselves. Let us all pause to again to thank God in heaven for John Mozeliak.
What Does This Mean For 2014 And Beyond?
One of the great challenges facing this franchise over the next few years will be the proper handling of all of these up-and-coming players as their salaries increase. For example, if Lance Lynn keeps performing at the level of a $16 million salary, eventually he will need to be paid well or the team will need to move him. This team is littered with young players making contributions that exceed the team’s financial investment in them, which is exactly how this team intends to operate. If the Cardinals continue to get performances that exceed contracts the next few years will look at lot like 2013 on the field.