Red Sox are rich, but more than fat payrolls at work
Although some experts see justification for high-paid players, they also cite other factors in winning such as solid management and player development.
When Daisuke Matsuzaka worked the mound against the Colorado Rockies in Denver Saturday night in the World Series, his strike counts and earned-run average – even two RBIs from a rare at-bat – were the numbers generating chatter.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet lurking in the background, as always, is that other number: the $103 million it took the Boston Red Sox last November to sign the former Seibu Lions ace in a move that encapsulates the big-franchise, fat-wallet approach to roster-building.
The two teams' payroll disparity – $143.1 million versus $54.4 million this year – became a major means of comparison before the Series began, even renewing years-old talk of a salary cap for Major League Baseball, the only big professional league that lacks one.
But framing this year’s Fall Classic – which Boston won Sunday night with a four-game sweep – as some kind of athletic class struggle might be an act of oversimplification. "If you do a statistical analysis [of] the relationship between team payroll and team win percentage, you find that 75 to 80 percent of win percentage is determined by things other than payroll," says Andrew Zimbalist, a noted sports economist and professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.
Other things being equal, an ability to dangle bigger checks provides a bit of an advantage, Mr. Zimbalist says. "But clearly if three-quarters or more of the variation in win percentage is affected by nonpayroll factors, then good management, good drafting, good player development, good trades, good chemistry, good luck – all of those things are going to come into it."
Boston – which has now won two MLB titles in this decade and seven total in franchise history – is a team stacked with high-paid stars including Manny Ramírez (about $18 million per year) David Ortiz ($13 million), and Curt Schilling ($13 million). But so far, success has really come from well-distributed player contributions, says Alan Matthews, an analyst and writer for Baseball America.
"What makes the Red Sox such a compelling team … is that, yes, their payroll is higher than, what, 27 other teams out there," says Mr. Matthews. "But … when they really started going was when [Kevin] Youkilis and [Dustin] Pedroia started hitting down the stretch in August, when Ramírez was out of that lineup."
"And those guys are home-grown," developed from within, Matthews says in an interview from Florida, where he is watching high-school teams.
First-baseman Youkilis, he says, is another key "lunch pail" performer.
Sizing up the Rockies
Not that the Rockies players are all recent minor-league call-ups making short money. Todd Helton is paid more than $16.5 million. But his highest-paid teammate, star Matt Holliday, earns less than $4.5 million.
To some degree, Boston's success with players like Youkilis – as well as with luring superstars – reflects the so-called "moneyball" approach pioneered by Oakland A's manager Billy Beane. The approach takes a deeper look at up-and-coming, even bargain, players who don't necessarily display overpowering skills but who perform very well, statistically, in specific situations.
Matthews does caution that the label is overapplied, and Red Sox players seem to agree.