Money Doesn’t Win Championships in MLB, or Does It?

After the Red Sox eliminated the Yankees in the AL Wild Card on Tuesday, it added another year to the Yankees championship drought. The loss naturally resulted in a flurry of memes and stats, including the amount the Yankees have spent on payroll since winning their last championship. That got my mind racing about whether the pay-for-title model the Yankees and others have employed over the years is actually true and results in success. Let’s examine.

For the purposes of this analysis, I’m looking at data from 2011 through 2020, a 10-season span. Obviously things can, and will, change this year as the playoffs progress and a champion is named, but a 10-season sample should give sufficient data to make some conclusions about recent trends in the MLB. For the purposes of this analysis, I used two metrics: CPW (cost per win) and CPWW (cost per win weighted for the postseason). CPW is fairly straight forward and takes the team salary and divides it among the number of wins a team amasses in the regular season and/or postseason. That metric didn’t feel like it captured the importance of postseason wins, so I created a modified version, CPWW, that assigns extra value to postseason games, increasing by each round. For example, if a team advances to the division series, each win is worth more than a wild card win and less than a championship series win. Now, to the numbers.

Over the last 10 completed seasons (2011-2020), the Tampa Bay Rays have the lowest cost per win (CPW) when you factor in the playoffs at $764,184.25 ($721,391.52 below the league average). When using the weighted metric I created (CPWW), it is even more impressive at $743,359.33 per win, which is $730,145.55 below the league average. That essentially means the Rays are operating at half the cost of the average team in the league and 1/3 of the cost of the top teams, which is astounding. While the Rays haven’t won a title in the last 10 years, they were a runner-up last season and have won 17 postseason games in 10 seasons, more than 19 other franchises. By comparison, the 2nd lowest CPW is the Oakland Athletics at $888,723.41 per win (over $124,000 per win more than the Rays) and they have only won 8 total postseason games in the last 10 years, never advancing past the division series round. It can easily be argued that the Tampa Bay Rays have accomplished more with less than any other franchise, and it’s not even really close.

On the flip side of that coin, the New York Yankees have a staggering $2,257,967.25 CPW including playoff games, which is the highest in the MLB over the 10-season span. How has paying 3x more per win than the Rays helped them this past decade? It really hasn’t. The Yankees have only won 6 more playoff games (23 total) over the same span and have not even reached the World Series, while the Rays did once. When using the weighted CPWW, the Yankees are still on top of the pile of cash at $2,193,311.80 per win, edging out the Seattle Mariners by around $100,000. Based on a Yankees/Rays comparison, you could correctly argue that money does not win championships, but it’s important to zoom out a bit to see the league trends overall.

Of the 10 teams to win the World Series, 50% have a 10-year CPWW below the league average and expanding it out a little, 50% of the 20 teams playing in those 10 World Series were in the bottom half of the league in CPWW, which is quite staggering. There has only been 1 World Series matchup in the last 10 seasons that pitted 2 teams in the top 10 CPWW against each other and that was the 2018 Boston Red Sox vs Los Angeles Dodgers series (#3 vs #4).

Year Winning Team (CPW rank) Losing Team (CPW rank)
2020Los Angeles Dodgers (#4)Tampa Bay Rays (#30)
2019Washington Nationals (#12)Houston Astros (#26)
2018Boston Red Sox (#3)Los Angeles Dodgers (#4)
2017Houston Astros (#26)Los Angeles Dodgers (#4)
2016Chicago Cubs (#8)Cleveland Indians (#27)
2015Kansas City Royals (#20)New York Mets (#10)
2014San Francisco Giants (#18)Kansas City Royals (#20)
2013Boston Red Sox (#3)St. Louis Cardinals (#19)
2012San Francisco Giants (#18)Detroit Tigers (#5)
2011St. Louis Cardinals (#19)Detroit Tigers (#5)
*Data compiled and calculated by Brian Phair

Just looking simply at total wins (including the postseason) for each franchise compared to their CPWW further proves the point that money does not win games or championships on the whole. The top two franchises in win totals over 10 seasons are the Dodgers (#4 in CPWW) and Yankees (#1 in CPWW) which isn’t super surprising, but then 6 of the next 9 franchises on the total wins list are in the bottom half of the league in CPWW, including the bottom two teams in CPWW, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Oakland Athletics. I’ve inserted the table below to show you all of the rankings. There are definitely some surprises in the list.

TeamTotal Wins
(including playoffs)
Rank of
CPW
Rank of
CPWW
Total Playoff
Wins
Los Angeles Dodgers9323446
New York Yankees8821123
St. Louis Cardinals879151936
Washington Nationals855121219
Cleveland Indians833272712
Boston Red Sox8302323
Tampa Bay Rays821303017
Oakland Athletics80229298
Atlanta Braves799212112
Chicago Cubs7958819
Houston Astros794242636
Texas Rangers7879912
Milwaukee Brewers787262511
San Francisco Giants783171825
League Average771.64n/an/a12.64
Pittsburgh Pirates75728283
Arizona Diamondbacks75622223
Los Angeles Angels753770
Toronto Blue Jays751111110
New York Mets74810108
Detroit Tigers7415617
Seattle Mariners724420
Kansas City Royals724202022
Philadelphia Phillies720652
Baltimore Orioles72014146
Cincinnati Reds71719172
Minnesota Twins70716150
Colorado Rockies69613131
Chicago White Sox69118161
San Diego Padres68823232
Miami Marlins67025242
*Data compiled and calculated by Brian Phair

Once I started down this rabbit hole, I fully expected that higher payroll and higher cost per win (CPWW) teams would have a decided advantage with a few exceptions (i.e. the Rays), but I was proven almost completely wrong. While this analysis does not say any team can win a championship on any payroll because there are a million other factors, it does definitively prove that having a high payroll does not guarantee anything in the current MLB and it is absolutely possible to win with less, even for teams not named the Tampa Bay Rays. What are your thoughts?

Want to learn more about the CPWW metric? Reach out via email.

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