MLB races show success of small market teams (not named the Twins)

The Boston Red Sox celebrate after clinching the AL East with a 6-3 win over the Toronto Blue Jays in a baseball game at Fenway Park, Friday, Sept. 20, 2013, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

It’s almost playoff season in Major League Baseball, so the annual debate over the role of money in baseball is underway. Do big-spending teams have an unfair advantage over smaller market teams?

This year, a friend on Twitter pointed out to me today, if the playoffs were to begin today, four of the bottom 10 teams in spending would make the playoffs.

What does this prove?

That Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig was right to water down the playoffs by adding another team in each league to play a one-game playoff for the right to get into the “traditional” playoff round.

At present, the #26 and the #21 spending teams — Cleveland and Pittsburgh — benefit from Selig’s move, which raised the ire of purists. But they’re not objecting in Pittsburgh, where the team had its first winning season since George H.W. Bush was president (1992).

Cleveland could still be left watching. Texas (#8) is only one game away, has a superior team, but doesn’t get to play the the Twins in the final series of the year as the Indians do.

It’s true the top spending team — the Yankees — missed the playoffs, mostly because of injuries. But #2 didn’t. The Los Angeles Dodgers are West Division champions in the National League.

And in the American League, Boston (#4) and Detroit (#5) captured their divisions. So did Oakland, the 27th cheapest team in baseball.

They’re the Moneyball team, a team of legend which has put together decent teams without spending much. That, Allen Barra of The Atlantic notes today, was mostly fiction. Until this year.

But as I wrote in 2011, the legend doesn’t really hold up under scrutiny. Even after losing Jason Giambi to free agency (and to the New York Yankees after 2001), the A’s had several players who were in the superstar category; shortstop Miguel Tejada was in fact the league’s MVP for the 2002 season.

All-Star third baseman Eric Chavez had 34 home runs and drove in 109 runs, and their powerhouse trio of starting pitchers — Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, and Mark Mulder— won 57 games. For some never-explained reason, these five players were scarcely mentioned in Michael Lewis’s book and not at all in the movie.

Some of the Athletics’ key players, like Scott Hatteberg, were not acquired at bargain prices; in 2001 Hatteberg was paid a little over $1 million by the Red Sox and over the next three seasons with Oakland he made almost $5 million. Moreover, the 2002 A’s didn’t have an exceptional OBP  (on base percentage) finishing the in the AL. They won because of their pitching, which delivered the lowest ERA in the American League.

And they didn’t lose in the playoffs to a bigger-market team; they lost to a smaller one, the Minnesota Twins. According to Forbes, for the 2002 season Oakland’s operating budget was No. 24 at $172 million with an operating income of $6.6 million while the Twins were ranked 27th at $148 million with an operating income of $400,000.

This year, however, is different. There really are no superstars on the team, and no team has done more with less, Barra says.

Now the team will get to challenge another reality: Moneyball doesn’t win championships.

This is all important for team #23 — the Minnesota Twins — who are about to turn in their third straight 90-loss season.

With the departure of Justin Morneau recently, the Twins could have up to $53 million to spend in free agency over the winter, The Twinkietown blog notes, although there’s little chance general manager Terry Ryan will be allowed by the Pohlad family to spend that much.

  • Jack Ungerleider

    Cleveland may get to play the Twins (and White Sox) but Texas has Houston and the LA Angels of Anaheim. While the Angels aren’t a pushover I don’t know how much more of a fight they’ll put up than the Twins. (For your sake and that of other long suffering Indians fans I hope they make it.)

    • I haven’t gotten caught up in the Cleveland Indians playoff fever. Neither have a lot of other fans in Cleveland. It’s a manufactured “fever.” The team isn’t anywhere near as good as the standard defined by the term “playoff team” once represented.

  • John Peschken

    Money can solve a lot of problems, but you can still mess it up just like in real life. Curt Carlson’s kids, G.W. Bush, and Mitt Romney had a head start in life. They took advantage of it and succeeded to their own credit. Major market MLB teams have the same kind of advantage.

    The Yankees and their ilk can fill gaps in their lineup with expensive free agents, and they can keep doing so until one succeeds. Small market teams just can’t do that to the same degree. i think the fact that these teams are not showing the expected results is a reflection poor management choices than an indication that money does not matter.

    • Yes, that’s right. I certainly won’t argue that money is what win championships. Talent does. But money allows you the freedom to make mistakes, as you point out.

      But the other thing money does is allow you to retain talent. Part of Moneyball involves letting it go, but keeping replacement level talent developing in the minors.

      Pittsburgh has some good young talent (and a guy named Liriano) but it’s unlikely they can survive arbitration. John Hart’s recipe for success with the Indians in the 90s was buying out the players’ arbitration years and extending their contracts.

      That worked until other teams started doing the same thing and eventually the core of the team — Ramirez, Colon, Belle, Thome — all went to big money teams and all — except for Colon, I think — won championships with their large market teams.

      But in a small market, you’ve got to hit on every single decision, get lucky, and have everything come together at the same time.

      • David

        Sadly, of the guys you list only Ramirez has a World Series win.

        There was just a good post on Fangraphs about Pittsburgh’s roster arguing that a big piece of the success there was to castoff pitchers/reclamation projects whose underlying statistics (nerd numbers such as xFIP) were better than the headline numbers (for example ERA, W-L, etc).

  • Dave

    The Pirates haven’t had a winning record for over 20 years, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t profitable during that time.

    • tboom

      I don’t follow the Twin’s financials, but I’ll bet they’ve been extremely competitive in profitability versus other major league teams since moving to the new field.