Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The low-payroll pennant race

I recently heard a friend claim that the Cubs don't deserve their underdog status because in spite of their history, they are today just another big-market behemoth stomping the true underdog: his beloved Brewers. That argument made me wonder whether you could argue that the current Brewers are doing about as well as a team can given Milwaukee's payroll.

I translated that curiosity into a testable question: do the Brewers have the best record of any team with their payroll or lower? According to Ben Fry's chart, the answer is no, but I found the stats interesting beyond the simple question, so I constructed the standings of the Brewers-or-lower-payroll teams:

Cleveland 93-63 $62M 0
Arizona 88-69 $52M 5
San Diego 86-71 $58M 7.5
Colorado 85-72 $54M 8.5
Milwaukee 81-76 $71M 12.5
Texas 74-84 $68M 20
Cincinnati 71-86 $69M 22.5
Washington 71-87 $37M 23
Kansas City 68-89 $68M 25.5
Pittsburgh 67-90 $39M 26.5
Florida 67-90 $31M 26.5
Tampa Bay 65-92 $24M 28.5

Obviously, Cleveland has had a remarkable year. Milwaukee is just above the TEX-CIN median of the twelve. The selection criteria exclude a handful of higher-salary teams doing worse than the Brewers, so Milwaukee looks better in the context of the whole MLB, but still only a little above average for their payroll. I'm surprised by how competitive the mid-level payroll teams are. Arizona and (in the truly low-payroll division) Washington stand out as teams producing a lot of value for the money. And to go back to an old hobbyhorse of mine, Tampa Bay must be a very, very profitable team given that puny payroll and revenue sharing, and that is a great shame.

A bottom line: if the season ended today, these 12 teams at the bottom of the payroll standings would produce three of the eight playoff squads. Not bad.