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Bucco breakfast: Some payroll comparisons

Wild Card Game - Cincinnati Reds v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

The Pirates from time to time have bragged about how they’ve increased payroll every year since Bob Nutting took over as principal owner. Of course, we haven’t seen that claim lately and, as you’ll see below, it wasn’t true before, either. I’ve always found it irritating, though, because payrolls have increased sharply MLB-wide. Merely increasing payroll means nothing; what matters is where a team’s payroll goes in relation to the rest of MLB. So I decided to illustrate it.

The chart below compares the Pirates’ average payroll to the MLB average. The Pirates’ figures come from Cot’s and are the full, 40-man roster figures. That includes minor league salaries and some player benefits, so the numbers are higher than opening-day payrolls, which is what people usually cite. The MLB averages come from Forbes. I think the figures are for the full payroll, but I’m not quite sure. It’s not necessarily important, though, because I’m not trying to illustrate how far below the average the Pirates have always been. We already know about that. I’m trying to illustrate the relative changes in the Pirates’ payroll versus the MLB average.

Pirates = black
MLB avg. = green

Two things are striking about this chart. One is that the Pirates’ payroll has increased only six times in the dozen years since Nutting took over, if you include 2019. Speaking of which, here are the 2019 payrolls currently projected by Cot’s. This, again, is the entire 40-man projection, not just the projected, opening-day 25-man payroll. At least a few of these figures will increase sharply as the remaining top-tier free agents sign. The Pirates aren’t rumored to be interested in any current free agents of any note, so the most likely, meaningful change to the Pirates’ figure will come if they ditch Francisco Cervelli’s contract.

Anyway, the second thing that’s striking about the first chart is the remarkable degree to which the Pirates’ spending has tracked MLB as a whole. When you think about it, the odds that any particular team would track MLB spending over such a long period have to be very low. MLB spending as a whole logically should depend on larger business factors such as the economy, inflation and the labor agreement. Spending by individual teams, on the other hand, should be influenced by fluctuations in attendance and on-field performance, the beginning and end of large contracts, and the general influence of the success cycle.

So the next question is whether the spending of similarly situated teams tracks overall MLB spending so closely. The next chart shows the payrolls of the Pirates and, arguably, the four most similarly situated teams since 2007, including 2019. I was going to include a few more teams, but the program wouldn’t take more than five. I don’t think, though, that teams like Oakland, Tampa Bay and Miami can be compared all that closely to the Pirates due to their ballpark situations and other factors.

Pirates = black
Reds = red
Brewers = orange
Royals = blue
Indians = green

Obviously, what the chart shows — apart from the fact that the Pirates are the lowest-spending of the five teams — is that the other teams all have seen much sharper increases and decreases in their spending since 2007. Well, with one exception, that being the very sharp drop in the Pirates’ projected spending for 2019. It’s easy to check what was happening with the other four teams as their payrolls fluctuated. When they had a chance to win, they all sharply increased spending. When they didn’t, they retrenched or rebuilt. Payroll fluctuated in large part based on the teams’ needs on the field.

In the Pirates’ case, nothing of the sort happened. Payroll increased steadily as attendance grew steadily from around 19,000 per game in 2009-11 to over 30,000 in 2014-15. But no sharp increase ever happened. And the sharp reduction they’re headed for in 2019 comes after a winning season and at a time when the Pirates claim not to be rebuilding or retooling. The inescapable conclusion is that, unlike the rest of their peer group, the Pirates don’t base their payroll even partially on the team’s on-field needs. It’s strictly dictated by the profit margin that ownership mandates.

Daily Links

  • Eric Longenhagen has a writeup of the Blue Jays’ return for Russell Martin, which he describes as two “fringe prospects.” It probably gives us some idea of what the Pirates might get for Francisco Cervelli. Martin shouldn’t be worth as much as Cervelli, but then the Jays picked up most of Martin’s salary, which the Pirates won’t likely do with Cervelli.
  • Did Deadspin cross the line?
  • Baseball Prospectus thinks Elias Diaz’ “out-of-nowhere production (in 2018) appeared legitimate from a batted-ball standpoint.”