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.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

"They always [talk about] the moneyball and all that … but I think this team just goes up to bat, has a great approach, and is going to be aggressive but also patient at the same time," said Youkilis after Game 1 last week, a 13-1 Sox rout.

Still, if good management and coaching win recognition, big-dollar stories stand out. Public interest and media attention tend to alight on stories that suggest a deep and irreparable imbalance – such as the current free-agency story involving New York Yankees superstar Alex Rodriguez, whose agent, Scott Boras, would like to see stay in the salary stratosphere. (Rodriguez stole some baseball headlines from the Series-winning Sox with an announcement Sunday that he would opt out of his Yankees contract without even sitting down to negotiate an extension.)

Those market values aren't necessarily undeserved.

"Not only do [players like Rodriguez and Barry Bonds] help the team win, but they get people excited about record-breaking," says Zimbalist. "And if the player is charismatic or classy on top of that, [then] they have still greater value. And if they're playing in a large market, then they have an ever-greater value.... The system rewards them for that."

It also, in turn, fuels winning machines, according to Paul Sommers, an economics professor at Middlebury College in Vermont who has written and coauthored books and papers on the business of baseball.

Dr. Sommers found that when team salaries in Major League Baseball were adjusted for the number of games won in each of 10 seasons (1992-2001), the "cost per win" was about the same for contenders as for noncontenders.

"In other words, large-market clubs (with deep pockets) can be expected to produce more 'output,' in this case, better win records," Dr. Sommers writes in an e-mail. "So, given the payroll disparity between the Red Sox and the Rockies, I would … expect [the] better performance from the Red Sox."

Salary cap unlikely

Any MLB intervention is unlikely, probably unnecessary, others say. A salary cap would not get past the players' association, Zimbalist says. He adds that the professional basketball and football leagues, which have salary caps, actually have a higher share of revenues going to players' salaries than baseball does.

Also, though some observers find faults in baseball's current system of revenue-sharing among teams, others see it working well.

"[It] has solved a lot of the major problems," says Matthews. "When you see the [small-market] Kansas City Royals spent $3.5 million, $4.5 million on their first-round pick this year, Mike Moustakas ... they're taking the money from revenue-sharing and they're investing into player development and into their scouting departments."

That – along with the parade of major young talents coming up through the minor league – points to a game where some 750 players, stars and unknowns, should make for plenty of October surprises, like the lean-payroll Florida Marlins of 2003.

"We've got seven World Champions in the past seven years," Matthews said Saturday night. "We've got competitive balance."

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