Author’s note: I began this journey attempting to determine approximately how much a team should spend on starting pitching relative to the overall team budget. The first two posts are here and here with an additional article here. I have as of yet been able to find any kind of answer, and honestly, I’m probably further away from a legitimate answer than when I first started. Oh, and there’s also the little matter of being way off with my numbers yesterday, which was so egregious that I had to update the post because I’m too dumb to perform basic math. But, I keep trying.
As my daughter sings, quoting Daniel Tiger, “Keep trying, you’ll get better. Try. Try. Try.”
In a previous post I discussed how the average salary for a starting pitcher has grown by nearly 454.35% since 1985, outpacing what the average Major League team has spent for total salary in the same given timeframe (363.7%). After adjusting salary figures to 2015 dollars using the Consumer Price Index, starting pitchers have jumped from an average of around $1.1M in 1985 to nearly $6M in 2013.
In relation to other positions, is that atypical? I didn’t have an answer in the previous post, but I have one now.
I gathered my data using Sean Lahman’s database in R, which includes salary figures up to and including 2013. There is a newer version for Access and in csv with 2014, but since I’ve been using 2013 as my cutoff point in earlier posts, I’m sticking with it. Adding an additional year didn’t seem all that important.
For this post I gathered all the players who had played a position in the field from 1985 to 2013, separated them into position groups, and performed some dplyr, mean magic. For those players listed with multiple positions in the field, Ben Zobrist for example, I used the position where they appeared the most.
Play the Field
Before gathering the data and running the numbers, I assumed that catchers were likely to be poorly compensated compared to the other position groups. I was biased. Like NFL running backs, nobody in his or her right mind would pay a position that takes such a physical beating big bucks except for the rare Buster Posey or Yadier Molina. These are transcendent talents, MVP types, who deserve big bucks.
Nobody pays Jose Lobaton $3M as insurance for Wilson Ramos’ inevitable injury. GMs might do that with starting pitchers—smart teams like the Yankees take a flyer on Scott Baker for $1.5M or Gavin Floyd for $4M—but Neal Huntington isn’t sitting in his PNC Park office devising ways to overpay Francisco Cervelli.
I underestimated just how poorly catchers have fared.
Since 1985, catchers (the guys that are poetically referred to as “field generals” and represent well as real-life managers) have seen the average salary increase from $1.03M to $2.7M in 2013, or right around what starting pitchers averaged in 1998. First basemen haven’t averaged less than $2.8M since 1996. Catchers overall average salary has increased by 165.48% in the last 30-years. The cumulative rate of inflation has increased 120% in the same time period. For a highly skilled job that only a few people on the planet are capable of doing at such a level, outpacing inflation by 33% isn’t exactly making little kids give up their dream of being investment bankers for shin guards and a mitt. It’s a thankless job behind the dish.
Out on Spotrac there are only five catchers with an average annual salary above $10M. Compare that to second base (six), shortstop (seven), third base (seven), or first base (a whopping 14 with eight players averaging more than $20M a year). Catchers have to feel like second class citizens when the infielders dine together, and while they’re not exactly forced to carb load at buffets or feast at McDonald’s to make ends meet, images of a hobbled Jake Taylor from Major League in a Mexico hotel still come to mind.
Even second basemen, a group I thought would follow closely behind catchers, saw their average increase by 239.1% since ’85. They were third lowest with center fielders (neither Mike Trout’s extension had been negotiated yet nor Jacoby Ellsbury’s deal with the Yankees had been signed) being second lowest.
Well, here, in tabular format is the increase in average salary over the years across all positions, presented in 1000s:
Average Positional Player Salary in MLB Since 1985
If you needed further evidence that there was collusion in baseball in the mid-80s, the table above certainly offers a bit of insight. The average salary for position players decreased by 13.1% from 1985 to 1987. Only third basemen and right fielders saw an increase in average salary in 1986 (even starters saw the average salary drop 7.16%).
Speaking of right fielders, they were the only position group to outpace the average team spending increase, coming in just below the standard set by the starting pitchers. Right fielders increased by 419%. Some of those big money right fielders back in ’86-87 had names like Dave Winfield, Dale Murphy, and Jesse Barfield. In 2015 dollars, each of those gentlemen earned at or just above $4M dollars. Compared to the top earners of today, namely Giancarlo Stanton and Matt Kemp, that’s not all that overwhelming, but Winfield, Murphy, and Barfield were earning roughly 276% more than the average. Kemp is earning 266% more than the average right fielder so it’s comparable (still obscene).
Of course I’m discussing outrageous amounts of money. I haven’t yet looked into relievers, though if I guessed I’d imagine their salaries might be in the same ballpark (percentage-wise) as third and first basemen (314% or thereabouts).
Matt Wieters photo credit: Matt Wieters via photopin (license)