The Relationship of Payroll to Post-Season Success

MLB likes to insist that it’s achieved competitive balance, so that low-payroll teams have a reasonable shot at post-season success.  Commi$$ioner Rob Manfred naturally couldn’t pass up the chance this year to tout the fact that Oakland and Tampa Bay reached the playoffs with payrolls down near the bottom.  Of course, neither advanced at all except when they played each other.  Yes, low-payroll teams do reach the post-season, although not at a high rate, but how do they fare once they do?  Not well, as we’ll see.

I decided to look at the relationship of payroll to post-season success.  I went back to 2007, because that was Bob Nutting’s first season as principal owner.  Since that time, only one team has failed to rank higher than the bottom quarter of MLB in payroll.  No, it’s not the Rays or A’s, it’s the Pirates.  So I want to examine not only Manfred’s silly insistence that payroll doesn’t matter, but also Nutting’s insistence that Pirates can “win championships” while maintaining a bottom-feeding payroll.

To do this, I looked at playoff teams and playoff series winners that ranked in the bottom quarter, bottom half (including the bottom quarter) and top half of payrolls.  I used Cot’s calculations of the season-ending payroll cost for each team’s 40-man payroll, except for 2019.  The season-ending figures aren’t at Cot’s yet, so I used the site’s estimates of 40-man payroll at the beginning of the season.  I counted wild card teams — the wild card was instituted in 2012 — as “playoff teams,” but I did not count the WC game as a “playoff series.”  I also added the World Series teams, including the winner.  Obviously, there’s no winner for 2019 yet, but we know the winner will be a top six payroll team (Houston ranked sixth and the Nationals fifth), so it doesn’t matter.

First, I’ve got the average payroll rank each year for playoff teams and series winners.  For the latter, each year the WS winner counts three times, the WS loser twice, and the two LCS losers once each toward the average, because that’s how many series each won.  Years with * are pre-WC.

Avg. playoff team: 11.8
Avg. series winner: 14.7

Avg. playoff team: 10.3
Avg. series winner: 13.6

Avg. playoff team: 9.5
Avg. series winner: 4.3

Avg. playoff team: 12.8
Avg. series winner: 11.6

Avg. playoff team: 13.4
Avg. series winner: 12.1

Avg. playoff team: 12.9
Avg. series winner: 5.7

Avg. playoff team: 15.1
Avg. series winner: 5.4

Avg. playoff team: 12.1
Avg. series winner: 11.6

Avg. playoff team: 12.6
Avg. series winner: 14.0

Avg. playoff team: 10.2
Avg. series winner: 9.9

Avg. playoff team: 12.0
Avg. series winner: 10.0

Avg. playoff team: 12.4
Avg. series winner: 5.9

Avg. playoff team: 12.9
Avg. series winner: 6.2

As you can see, the average series winner in most years had a higher payroll than the average playoff team, often by a large margin.  In other words, it’s harder to win in the playoffs with a low payroll than it is to reach the playoffs.  The exceptions were 2007 (due to Colorado), 2008 (Tampa Bay) and 2015 (Mets and Royals).  Interestingly, since the wild card was instituted, lower-payroll teams have found it a little easier to reach the playoffs, but in most years have had much less success there.  Since 2007, only in 2013 did the average playoff team rank (barely) in the bottom half in payroll, and that year the lower payroll teams all got wiped out in the playoffs quickly.

Next, I’ve got the percentages of playoff teams and series winners that came from the bottom quarter, bottom half and top half of payrolls.  I’ve broken it down into pre-WC, post-WC and the totals for 2007-19.

Playoff Teams Pre-WC

Total: 40
Bottom quarter: 4 (10%)
Bottom half: 13 (32.5%)
Top half: 27 (67.5%)

Playoff Teams Post-WC

Total: 80
Bottom quarter: 10 (12.5%)
Bottom half: 28 (35%)
Top half: 52 (65%)

Playoff Teams

Total: 120
Bottom quarter: 14 (11.7%)
Bottom half: 41 (34.2%)
Top half: 79 (65.8%)

Playoff Series W/L Pre-WC

Bottom quarter: 4-4 (.500)
Bottom half: 9-13 (.409)
Top half: 26-22 (.542)

Playoff Series W/L Post-WC

Bottom quarter: 0-6 (.000)
Bottom half: 10-17 (.370)
Top half: 45-38 (.542)

Playoff Series W/L

Bottom quarter: 4-10 (.286)
Bottom half: 19-30 (.388)
Top half: 71-60 (.542)

I think the numbers speak for themselves, especially the fact that no team in the bottom quarter in payroll has won a playoff series in the WC era.

Finally, the World Series:

WS Teams (26 total)

Bottom quarter: 2 (7.7%) (none since 2008)
Bottom half: 7 (26.9%)
Top half: 19 (73.1%)

WS Winners (13 total)

Bottom quarter: 0
Bottom half: 1 (7.7%)
Top half: 12 (92.3%)

Still think payroll doesn’t matter?  Still think the Pirates can win anything, much less contend every year, with a bottom-quarter payroll?