Starting Pitching, the Mets, and Budgets

Matt Harvey

Matt Harvey is awesome. Here is an obligatory picture.

In the first post in this series, I explained that because of an article for District on Deck I started questioning the logic of spending big on starting pitching. Of course, that led me into wondering what teams should spend on starting pitching or if there’s any real answer to that question, and that led me here, to the second part of an undetermined number of posts meant to find some sort of answers.

I’m not naïve enough to believe that I’m going to figure this out. These franchises have teams of business analysts, economists, statisticians, lawyers, and spiritual counselors to facilitate a long term strategy. Me? I’m some guy who’s spending the offseason learning a few things, abusing a few terms, and otherwise making a big mess of an incredibly complex subject. I forgive you if skip out on these posts. My feelings won’t be hurt. If you stay, however, we’ll spend some time working through fun things like the Gini coefficient, Lorenz curves, more boxplots, and snarky comments about the Mets.1


Before I begin with any critical examination, let me first explain my methodology. I gathered all my figures from two places: Sean Lahman’s database and Fangraphs. Lahman’s database, available in R as well, includes salary information dating back to 1985 while Fangraphs allows me to pull the fWAR for teams dating back to baseball’s beginnings. I won’t go back that far because that would be silly and it doesn’t match up with the salary information previously mentioned, but there you are.

I’m looking at data from 1985 to 2013. 29 years of data should reveal some trends I hope. Also, in using Lahman’s database, it became apparent that for players that were traded in season, the salary information for the traded player was not listed for the acquiring team. This made it much easier on my part to not have to determine a way to prorate that salary across service time (dealing with the possibility of injuries being a big hurdle), but it does leave the actual salaries not 100% accurate in terms of what teams paid. The difference is huge for the people who cut the checks, but for this examination it won’t matter.

Why not 2014?

2014 is available over at Spotrac and was handy for looking at the Max Scherzer article I wrote, but I decided against using it here. Lahman’s data does not include 2014 yet, so I wanted to keep the source consistent.

I also calculated the sum of total team salary and rotation salary. That’s it. Team salary is obvious. Rotation salary includes every player who started at least one game for the team that season. It doesn’t really matter if it was just one start or 32 starts; the player’s salary is included in the total. Also, a more worrisome issue, the total does not include any players that missed the entire season. For example, the Twins paid Scott Baker $6.5M in 2012 even though he missed the season due to TJ surgery. His salary is not included in this examination, but there’s little to be done about that. I wanted to be honest with you. You deserve to know. Our relationship should be built upon trust after all.

New York, New York

Before attempting to find trends across all of baseball, I wanted to examine a team I’ve some familiarity with over the years: the New York Mets. Frequent readers of my blog (thanks, dad!) will recognize my proclivity in discussing the Mets, so choosing them should come as no surprise here. I thought it would be interesting to work out my ideas with the team I’ve grown up with, and in this way, before attempting to find some common understanding for all of baseball I’d find it with the Mets first.

Intuitively this approach makes sense as well. If I’m going to test a theory shouldn’t I construct that theory first? I’ll use the Mets to do this, spend lots of words in the process, and I’ll probably mention a few economic principles that don’t necessarily apply. Doesn’t that sound like fun? You bet it does.

0% 25% Median Mean 75% 100%
0.092 0.253 0.279 0.284 0.34 0.45

Summary of Mets Rotation / Total Salary Since 1985

I’ll start the discussion with the table above. It’s a fairly straightforward table with the minimum, maximum, median, mean, and interquartile ranges for the percentage of team dollars allocated to starting pitchers since 1985. This doesn’t really mean much in and of itself. This table neither tells us why in 2011 the Mets allocated just 9% percent of team salary to the starters nor why in 1990 about 45% went to Dwight Gooden, Bob Ojeda, David Cone, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, and Frank Viola.

We’re not ending here. This is simply the beginning.

Here’s a scatterplot of the percentages with a lines across representing the average and the interquartile range. This is a nice visual. For the most part, in the last 29 years the Mets have neither blown the budget on starting pitching nor pinched their pennies. This is relative to internal team philosophy and not associated with the larger world of MLB, but we’ll get to that in time. For now, just from the numbers above and the scatterplot below, the Mets appear to be a team that budgets 25-34% of their dolla, dolla bills toward the starters.

metsRotationPercentageI have a few questions that immediately come to mind, which I’ll work through. One thing that I notice from the information presented is that I can’t determine what kind of philosophy the Mets have embraced over the years. Do they value hitting over pitching? Is what they spend on starters in line with what other teams spend? Also, the most immediate question that comes to mind is this: was it worth it?

Did increasing or decreasing the percentage of money directed towards starting pitching have any effect on win shares? I suspect that it doesn’t. I suspect that there’s very little correlation at all, but it’s easy enough to find out: 0.217. The closer to 1 the stronger the correlation, and our value of 0.217 might as well be nonexistent. I created a scatterplot and it looked like Braille. This is not the variable you’re looking for.

FIP was even worse. It was -0.089. I even went so far as to calculate the average age of the starters for each season and see if there was any correlation between average age and fWAR (there wasn’t), percentage of monies (nope), and FIP. Well, with FIP there was a correlation coefficient of .587, which still doesn’t mean all that much but it’s the best I’ve seen so far. Maybe there’s something there with age that I’m overlooking. I’ll keep that one in the dataset just in case.

Looking at the rest of MLB since 1985, the Mets have remained in the same vicinity as what other teams are budgeting towards starting pitching. Here’s the summarized data from the other franchises:

0% 25% Median Mean 75% 100%
0.034 0.209 0.270 0.271 0.332 0.705

Summary of MLB Rotation / Total Salary Since 1985

My eyes nearly popped out of my head when I saw that a team spent nearly 70.5% of their payroll on starters. The 2013 Tigers? No. That number belongs to the 1987 Rangers, which makes sense because my data currently has their bullpen having 0 dollars spent. Eh. I need to clean up the data in a few places then. Anyway, judging by the summarized data, I can at least begin to see the Mets have allocated more towards starting pitching than the rest of MLB since 1985. That’s something. I don’t know why they do what they do—did they have more of the top pitchers over that time? Did they employ the most expensive starters in the game? Did they play a premium to pitch in NY?

Still lots of questions.

To determine the Mets philosophy towards filling out a 25-man roster, I’ll just retrace my steps and look at the percentage of funds spent on the position players. Here are the min, max, median, mean, and interquartile ranges:

0% 25% Median Mean 75% 100%
0.396 0.5021 0.564 0.567 0.597 0.780

Summary of Mets Position Players / Total Salary Since 1985

The scatterplot further illustrates the summarized data above. There were peaks when the Mets allocated large portions of their budget toward position players. Notably the team directed 77% of their budget in 1985 into the pockets of position players such as Gary Carter, Keith Hernandez, and George Foster. 1986 was more of the same with 70.5% going to the men shagging fly balls and fielding grounders. Similar to the scatterplot from the rotation, in 1990 the team allocated less than 40% of the budget to fielders while in 2011 the team directed 78% to the likes of David Wright, Jose Reyes, and Jason Bay. That year Bay topped 100 games (reaching 123) for the only time with the Mets. Reyes won the batting title. R.A. Dickey won the Cy Young. Other than Wright missing 1/3 of the season due to a stress fracture in his lower back and the team losing 85 games overall, things weren’t so bad. Dickey’s pitching was amazing to watch.

I digress.

hittersPercentageScatterI’ll end here for now. I still have lots of questions without too many answers, and in the next post I’ll see if I can clear away all of this confusion.

Matt Harvey photo credit: chrisswann26 via photopin cc

  1. I don’t know when it became necessary to watch sports, have an MBA, and study statistics to write a blog but it’s reaching that point. Sorry for my whining interlude.


    • Robert Thacher on February 17, 2015 at 7:26 pm
    • Reply

    I will make this simple. In the largest Baseball market in the world, the Mets should never be concerned about payroll,but with cheapskate Sandy Alderson running the team, they will not win any time soon.

    1. Don’t even get me started on this. I couldn’t agree with you more. In December, I wrote this in my holiday shopping post:

      “This offseason? Sandy Alderson apparently has a mandate from up high to keep the payroll at 100 million, which is ridiculous. According to Spotrac, the Mets have the 19th largest payroll in the Majors as of right now. They play in the number one media market, the largest city in the United States by population, and are by complete accident a damn icon despite their best efforts to alienate their fans. Never mind the team has pissed away the best years of David Wright’s career on shaky, no defense outfielders (still ongoing) or chasing B-Level free agents because the owners are broke.”

      Tell me, has anything changed in the 2 months since I wrote that? No. What’s worse is that I actually have hope and optimism for the upcoming season, which will all be dashed by August when reality sets in.

      Like every year.

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