Pitchers & Teams: Starting with Average

Cliff Lee was one of the highest paid starting pitchers in 2013. In 1985, the owners probably would have paid him bupkis.

Cliff Lee was one of the highest paid starting pitchers in 2013. In 1985, the owners probably would have paid him bupkis.

I haven’t abandoned the idea of attempting to identify what teams should spend on starting pitching. Or if it’s even possible. Or if there’s any reason to question the whys and hows of Major League teams in regards to overall spending and maybe I should just wait for spring training and be distracted with actual baseball. If you’re interested, the first two posts are here and here (with a quasi-related article here).

Why so much time between posts? Grad school. Also, I’m trying to account (ba-da-bum) for a sizable gap in knowledge needed to discuss this issue and my current level of knowing—or, in another word, studying.

Price of Pitching

I began reading Pay Dirt by Quirk and Fort, which discusses a great many things about the business of professional sports (it’s in the book’s title and everything– Pay Dirt: the Business of Professional Team Sports) but one section in particular discusses the average salary of MLB players and why they make so much. I won’t go into all the details, but I was curious how the rise in average salaries across positions matched up against the increase in overall team salaries over the years. Was there a position that benefited more than all the others? What position was neglected? In essence, is there some hidden value?

Since I’m currently working on starting pitchers and had that data handy, I thought I’d look here first.

Adjusting dollar figures to their 2015 equivalents, using the consumer price index1, I noticed that starting pitchers have fared well compared to overall team spending. Since 1985, starting pitchers have seen their average salary increase by 454.35%, from slightly over $1M to slightly under $6M in 2013. In comparison, average team spending has increased by 363.7%. In 1985, the average team spent $22.17M to the $102.8M spent in 2013.

If you like visuals (of course you do), here are a few line graphs to illustrate the findings:

AvgStartingPitcher Average Salary for Starting Pitchers Since 1985

AvgTeamSpendingAverage Team Spending Since 1985

There’s a legitimate argument to be made to exclude data earlier than 1990-91. In 1987 the owners were found guilty of collusion, conspiring to suppress the cost of free agents, so any associated money for players is sketchy at best. It would likely take 3-4 years after the decision for the numbers to shake out, and you absolutely see a huge jump in both team spending and the average starting pitcher salary in 1991 (62.8% and 32.5% respectively). There’s another sizable jump in 1992 as well with team spending jumping up 27.6% from the year prior and starting pitchers averaging 23.6% more.

I keep the information because I’ve introduced it in earlier posts. If we understand it’s there, we can at least deal with it.

Since I’m discussing the percentages, here’s a line graph with both starting pitchers and team spending:

SalTeamYearly Salary % for Starters and Teams

From 1994-95, there’s a 12.4% drop in average salary for starters, which I found odd considering that in 1994 Jimmy Key was the max earner in my data, making $5.35M ($8.55M in modern day dollars) while in 1995 David Cone made $8M ($12.4M) in the last of a four-year deal he’d signed with the Royals in 1992. He started that season with the Royals, was traded to the Blue Jays in April, then traded in late July to the Yankees. 1995 is largely the reason we think of Cone as being a hired gun.

In terms of actual dollars, the drop from 1994 to ’95 was about three-hundred thousand dollars in current dollars. That’s a sharp decline, but perhaps it’s related more to my data and the players listed. Perhaps someone was hurt. 1995 was the rookie years for Hideo Nomo, Andy Pettite, Steve Sparks, and Ismael Valdez. Heck, 1995 was the season the Mets debuted Bill Pulsipher and Jason Isringhausen, raising my hopes to unreasonable levels that once Paul Wilson arrived they’d be unstoppable.

Lesson learned: don’t believe the hype.

Public Enemy. Because.

Anyway, salaries jumped back to 1994ian levels by ’97 and have typically increased every year since. In comparison, average team spending has been much steadier over the years. There were large spikes in 1997, 1999, and 2001, but average spending has increased by around 2-3% every year since ’01.

It is interesting, however, to see how starting pitchers are used less and less but make more and more (showing at least in one way that teams see the importance of starters). In 1985 (with four-man rotations no less) starters averaged 140 2/3 innings pitched (with the median coming in at 148 1/3) while in 2013 that number had dropped to 113 2/3 (116.5 median). That’s not a bad life is it? Make 454.6% more while pitching nearly 24% fewer innings.

Innings isn’t the only difference. Complete games have dropped from an average of 3.5 in ’85 to 0.5 in ’13 and games started from 21.5 to 18.7. Bah. I’m not here to talk about the good old days or try to argue something else entirely.

Just an observation.

My curiosity has gotten the better of me, and in posts to come I’ll look at the other positions and see how they compare. I have forgotten my original question, and I’m not refusing to give an answer.

I just need to figure out how to answer it with some certainty.

Cliff Lee photo credit: San Francisco Giants 1, Philadelphia Phillies (San Francisco, California – Wednesday April 18, 2012) via photopin (license)

  1. I’m sure there’s a better way and my methodology is flawed. Alas. I’m not a finance expert, so if there’s a better method I’m open to hearing, learning, and applying it.

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