In a now-crucial free agency period, there are a few teams that are losing, not saving, money by standing pat.
Anyone familiar with sabermetrics in some or fashion is familiar with the marginal value of a win. A win is not a win, as we all know, for the reason that a home run is not just a home run; if you’re a left-hander hitting a home run at Yankee Stadium, it’s perceived quite differently than at AT&T Park.
In the memorable Vince Gennaro book, Diamond Dollars, he lays out the difference between just adding a single win and that win actually mattering more depending on the club and their location on the win curve.
Let’s look at his publicly accessible example. The value of the 81st win (just that win alone) in 2006 was something like $1.4 million for the Mets at the high-end, and $500,000 for the Pirates at the low-end. At the 90th win, it’s $4.3 million for the Yankees and $1.6 million for the Twins. This is based on market size and overall fan reaction (via gate sales, merchandise, TV revenue, etc.), which is why bigger markets respond to winning teams differently.
Mind you, this is basic stuff that most people who read and know about baseball understand. The more you increase playoff probability while not going from say, 99 to 100%, the more valuable that win is. The reason why this doesn’t seem basic is that teams are either implicitly or explicitly putting the brakes on adding payroll even as they approach that critical 85-to-90 win threshold. This is also as revenue has doubled since that 2006 study, so while there are market adjustments I’m sure, the $8 million to pay for a win is worth the likely ~$5-8 million of adding the 89th to 90th win alone.
Which is what brings me to the teams where it only makes sense to spend, the point at which it’s actually inadvisable, because even if you use the basic $/WAR analysis, it would be actively losing revenue if they sit on the most valuable part of the marginal win curve and do nothing. Let’s take a look at those teams and their areas of need:
New York Mets – 85 projected wins by FanGraphs
Here are the Mets, straddling that magic line. The Diamond Dollars analysis, in 2006, had their value of going from 86 to 91 wins at $18 million, which would probably be something like $36 million in today’s market.
Even though they added Keon Broxton, we know full well that wouldn’t cut it. One acquisition like… Bryce Harper, for example, would add something like four or five marginal wins, clearly justifying the 2019 investment even by $/WAR, and even more so when you consider the long-term value to the market that they’re investing in the core of Brandon Nimmo, Jacob deGrom, and Noah Syndergaard. I highly doubt they do it, but I’m telling you now that the Wilpons would make and not lose money from such an acquisition.
Chicago Cubs – 87 projected wins
Could this be anymore obvious? They added Yu Darvish last year, yes, as well as Cole Hamels via trade, but they haven’t made a splash recently, and they’re sitting at a critical point in both the win curve and their contention window. They have an obvious spot for a Harper in the outfield and they could even use a starter or even a closer like Craig Kimbrel, all or some of which would get them to be the favorite in what looks to be a tightly contested divisional race.
The Diamond Dollars analysis is that five wins in that range was worth $15 million then, and that was pre-World Series, so one has to imagine they could shoot themselves in the foot considering the fact they have a ravenous fan base that already loves Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, and Kyle Schwarber and wants to see them perpetually on top. In their current configuration, they could duke it out until the final day like in 2018.
Tampa Bay Rays – 85 projected wins
This is a weird one, because they are definitely near the bottom of the win curve. But so is their current payroll projection, which finds them at just $56 million, a good $20 million below last season. Even without being able to catch the Yankees and Red Sox, they still managed to win 90 games last season and came reasonably close to a wild card spot position in a normal year, even if the Athletics blew them away in this particular one.
So let’s say adding those five wins is worth about $20 million for them, and they have about that to spend. A starter like Keuchel, for one, would help to patch together their non-Opener staff, and while they lost out on the Nelson Cruz and Josh Donaldson sweepstakes, one bat like Gonzalez or Mike Moustakas would go a long way to adding some offensive stability despite a weak remaining free agent class.
There are more that could dip their toes, but likely won’t or “can’t” for various reasons. The Cardinals are at 86 projected wins, but they’re already at their 2018 payroll and I wouldn’t even expect them to invest in someone like Kimbrel for his advertised rate, for example. The Angels are still dwelling in their mediocrity at 84 projected wins but they are also near their 2018 payroll; in fact, above it by a bit. Their rotation features Trevor Cahill and Matt Harvey, which were the only additions they could reasonably make, so I think even they know what kind of hole they were already in.
All in all, though, there are no excuses (not like there are even many for those above as well) for sitting on their hands during February and leading into March. They’re in mostly tight races with available players that will make them jump from merely-in-contention to a possible favorite, which boosts TV revenue, ticket sales, etc. to an extent that it even outweighs whatever measly concerns over $/WAR there are, if those could even be considered valid. If one of those teams just barely misses the postseason, you can take comfort that they deliberately chose their path.