The Cost of a Win in MLB

The amount of money in Major League Baseball is astonishing. The New York Yankees are worth $4.6 billion. The Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, and San Francisco Giants are all worth over $3 billion each. The smallest valuation, the Miami Marlins, is worth $1 billion. The average annual salary for a player in 2019 was $4.36 million, but players like Mike Trout, Nolan Arenado, and Manny Machado were making upwards of $30 million.

My question is simple: Are these highest paid players worth the money?

The most common way to determine this has been to use Wins Above Replacement (WAR). According to Baseball-Reference.com, the idea behind WAR is to see “how much better a player is than a player that would typically be available to replace that player.” Players are compared to averages in a complex variety of ways, ultimately focusing on runs contributed offensively and saved defensively. One win is estimated to equal about ten runs, so WAR values are presented with decimals. As a scale to refer the values to, Baseball-Reference.com lists < 0 as replacement level, 0-2 as reserve, 2+ as starter, 5+ as All-Star quality, and 8+ as MVP quality.

A difficult aspect becomes assigning a dollar value per WAR. This value is different for pitchers versus position players, as well as starting pitchers versus relief pitchers. Younger players with high WARs can also throw off the value since, as Dave Cameron of FanGraphs puts it, “players with zero to six years of service time have an artificially depressed salary due to not being able to qualify for free agency.” The value changes year to year thanks to inflation. Matt Schwartz, another writer for FanGraphs, states how $/WAR can change for a player within a contract from year to year. He says that, “Unsurprisingly, players decline over time. As a result, the $/WAR in a deal’s first year is generally higher than the $/WAR in later years.” Dave Cameron used money spent on free agents along with a weighted average of their win values to create a value of $4.5 million/win for the 2008 season. John Edwards used Cameron’s formula along with FanGraphs community research to determine the $/WAR values for starting pitchers, position players, and relief pitchers from 2006 to 2017. He determined that the cost of a win is $4.2 million for starting pitchers, $5.7 million for position players, and $10.9 million for relief pitchers.

We can use these numbers, and the help of FanGraphs’ Contract Estimation Tool, to determine the value of certain players. The Tool factors in a 5% inflation rate for the first five years of the contract as well as an aging curve. The aging curve adds 0.25 WAR/year for players from 18 to 27, 0 WAR/year for players from 28 to 30, subtracts 0.5 WAR/year for players from 31 to 37, and subtracts 0.75 WAR/year for players over 37.

The values are up to 2017 so let’s look at some of the top free agents from that year.

Let’s start with Eric Hosmer. He was coming off his best year in terms of WAR, in which he played first base at 4.1 WAR for the Kansas City Royals. He truly stepped up in a contract year, and got paid for that level of play. The San Diego Padres signed him to an 8 year, $144 million contract. Using the Contract Estimation Tool and setting the $/WAR to start at $6 million, the estimated value of the contract is $171.1 million. Based on this model, the Padres got a deal for a talented player. However, the model also assumes the player will maintain that WAR and only have slight decreases with age. If we look at how Hosmer actually played in 2018 and 2019, we see a different story. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Hosmer’s WAR in 2018 fell to 1.4, and it fell even farther to -0.3 in 2019. With a WAR of 1.4 and a $6 million/WAR ratio, the Padres should have only had to pay Hosmer $8.4 million in 2018. Much less than the $18 million he was actually owed and the $24.6 million he was expected to make using the Tool.

FanGraphs’ Contract Estimation Tool

Another big free agent from 2017 was starting pitcher Yu Darvish. He spent 5 solid seasons with the Texas Rangers then had a partial season stint with the Los Angeles Dodgers, before he was signed by the Chicago Cubs for 6 years and $126 million. The minimum $/WAR available on the Tool is $5.5 million, so even though John Edwards calculated the cost of a win for starting pitchers to be about $4.2 million, we will use $5.5 million. The Tool estimated a contract for Yu Darvish to be valued at $77.5 million. Darvish struggled in 2018 and also had a shortened season due to an elbow injury. His WAR dropped to -0.1. After an OK year in 2019, he posted a 3.3 WAR. Contracts for starting pitchers are hardly ever based solely on $/WAR. Teams value starters highly and most age well enough to not have as steep drop-offs over the years.

FanGraphs’ Contract Estimation Tool

Picking on all of the 2017 free agents would be interesting, but I want to check on one of the best players in the game with the largest contract in MLB history, Mike Trout. He has played for the Los Angeles Angels for his whole career, which began in 2012, and has been an MVP level player every year since then. He signed a 12 year, $428 million contract extension with the Angels in 2018. His “worst” year was 2017 when he was forced to sit out almost 50 games with a thumb injury, and posted a WAR of 6.6. Using that value, the Contract Estimation Tool still predicted a 12 year contract for him to be worth $453.7 million. When I used his career average WAR of 9.0, his 12 year contract value rose to $655.7 million. I then changed the Tool to say he ages well, meaning his WAR would not decrease with age as much, and his 12 year contract value jumped to $706.8 million. Seeing as he posted WAR values of 10.2 and 8.3 in 2018 and 2019, respectively, the contract estimations with the higher WAR seem more accurate.


Assigning the proper value to player contracts to determine the of wins they are worth is impossible. Teams pay players for much more than wins. They can pay an old veteran more than his expected $/WAR if they want some added leadership in the clubhouse. They can pay a relief pitcher more than his expected $/WAR if they are trying to make a playoff push. Teams can invest in a player to become the face of the franchise and improve fan engagement. A popular, but low WAR player may drive ticket sales better than an unknown, high WAR prospect. The variables that go into $/WAR are constantly changing. In order to properly analyze a players worth, many factors must be considered. The answer to my “simple” question is more complex than I could’ve imagined.

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Why the Way That You “root, root, root, for the home team” is Changing the Game

Written By: Brooke Brady

“What’s it been- 30 years now of the Sunday tradition coming to the old ball game?” Ben gleams. “Where’s Jim?” Ronald turns to him and asks. “Darn box office prices got to him again. These costs just keep soaring. I’m not sure if we can keep this weekly venture up…” Ben stiffens. Ronald looks around at the cold empty seats by his side. He reflects on the time when he could barely get a spot in the nosebleeds to see his favorite team play in the sweltering heat. Now, no one comes out to the plate anymore- it’s all seen on TV.

Bat and ball has become a whole new ball game for baseball lovers around the nation as more and more people are watching from the comfort of their home. With the rise of live stream and online viewing for sports, major decrease in fan attendance to the actual game has followed according to the NY times. Not only is accessibility a cause for decrease, but also the lack of actual game play. Sources such as The Washington Post have found that box office numbers are “directly tied to the rise in strikeouts and fall in base hits.”

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Baseball fans around the country have continuously complained of the changes the game is experiencing. From a major increase in strikeouts, to an excruciatingly long play time, baseball is said to be becoming the game with “not enough action” as said by the Boston Globe So what exactly does this mean for the future of baseball?

It means less money in ticket sales and less people in the stands for the entirety of the game. Wait times between plays have increased substantially. According to Sports Illustrated, “the average time between balls put in play is a staggering 3 minutes, 45 seconds.” USA Today reports that “the game is simply devoid of action, with players striking out, walking or hitting home runs in 34 percent of their plate appearances. So, for more than a third of every game, there’s not a fielder involved in the action.” 

On the contrary, sports columnist, Noah Frank, has decided that these claims are simply the “perspectives of people who watch the game every day, for work… while they may be some of the most informed when it comes to the minutiae happening on the field, they are necessarily blind to the fan perspective.”

He believes that baseball has been and always will be “entertainment.” He doesn’t think that people will stop coming to the game simply because it takes too long, but more so because it costs too much. Wtop sports reports, the truth is that “the value of such entertainment isn’t measured in pitch clocks or percentage of balls put in play — it’s measured in dollars and cents.” Frank continues to elaborate on his view that baseball as a sport is too costly. He incorporates the fact that parking has become outrageous, food prices are continuing to skyrocket, and even the ticket price has “doubled since the year 2007.” All of these factors build over time and eventually discourage people from attending the big game.

 

“I know it’s a hassle getting to the ballpark. I get it. Even if we’d have won 100 games, who knows if it would have been different?”

– Kevin Kiermaier (Rays outfielder)

 

Frank does turn to the numbers for support as well. Pointing out that the minor league has actually had a “increase in average attendance and overall since 2016.” This is because people view the minor league as the “best entertainment value” and a more “loyal fan base” found among the 160 teams.

There is no shortage of conversation among the fans and their fellow attendees. People have taken advantage of the internet and the ease of communication it has brung among the “common folk” and the big corporations which run many sports leagues.

One service in particular for users to directly interact with companies and sponsors is the social media network “twitter.” With only 280 characters, people have their opportunity to voice their concerns and opinions. The platforms main form of communication features “tweets” which are ultimately posts to a world wide bulletin board. After analyzing tweets containing the words, “mlb attendance,” it is easy to see that the dialogue around baseball turnout today isn’t a positive one. Overall, there is a trend of criticism combating the numerous claims of attendance lowering throughout the league. Audience members throw around the word “ratings” and claim that all MLB wants is to make more money.

To understand the fan-baseball attendance relationship, I decided to dig deeper and analyze the language and recurring media trends seen throughout the tweets. I found this collection of data as the best methodical approach due to the fact that many times, twitter conversations are typically candid and show a great depth of personality. They give a unique glance at the public’s reaction to minute events and show us how individuals use the network to make their voice heard. As a casual form of media, twitter engages users in a continuous conversation which can be seen by everyone. This distinctive feature distinguishes the platform from other forms of communication and social media.

There remains an open discussion among fans asking why this is happening and whether or not the patterns will continue. Many of the tweets feature linked articles or responses to prior conversations in the twitter world around MLB motivations. Most of the talk is streamed directly from personal accounts, but every now and then a touch of accredited news sources or organizations will pop up. What does this mean for the companies in charge of the big business of baseball? Are they hearing their fans out or are they simply doing what is best for the enterprise.


 

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Nationals play Seattle Mariners 5/25/2017

“This game was moved to 12:05 from 4:05 start to get avoid rain expected later. Resulting in rather low attendance as we watch the first Seattle batter come to the plate.” 

Michael Neubert, Getty Images



One user account, @ProblemsMlb, is dedicated to the sole purpose of striking up a conversation around the issues in the MLB. A specific conversation the account pursued brought in the perspective of the family. On December 6th, 2018, he wrote a response to an initial tweet made by WOWK 13 News linking their article on the “steep attendance drop” throughout the league. 

The additional use of hashtags to advertise ones tweet has also remained relevant in the discussion around MLB. Popular hashtags include: MLB, Fans, Attendance, and even things like the mentioned above, affordability. All of 

Screen Shot 2018-12-10 at 3.52.17 PM.pngthese factors point to the fact that the fans of the MLB want particular pieces of their tweets to stick out. The hashtag gives a user the ability to follow a certain word through a like strand of tweets containing the same tag. This gives the tweets more exposure and in the case of frequent tweeters such as @Problemsmlb, a consistent track of their previous comments and thoughts.

Everyday another account updates their twitter with an opinion about the MLB and their attendance policies. These postings can range from parody articles, to statistics, to angry rants, but the fact that there is still an ongoing conversation proves to be a good thing. As the saying goes, “bad publicity is still publicity” and it can be considered that the MLB will continue to take everything and make it a home run.

An additional piece of evidence worth understanding is the MLB year-by-year statistical report with average attendance, average attendance per game, and average number of pitchers used by individual teams in the season.

“Average attendance” provides average numbers  based on the amount of tickets sold during home games. The table shows a substantial increase from 2000 until 2007, when the numbers of average overall attendance begin to drop again. This trend downward may be due to the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007-2008 in which many people began to eliminate frivolous entertainment practices. From 2008 to 2009 is when we can see the biggest drop as explained by @ProblemsmlbSeason tickets are automatically renewed the year before, so this drop in 2009 as opposed to 2008 was probably due to the fact that people had to cancel their tickets later than they wanted to due to renewal constraints.

Screen Shot 2018-12-10 at 9.00.33 PM.pngIn the far left column of the table also stands the pitchers statistic. The only significance this pattern shows is the continuing increase in the number of pitchers teams keep on their roster. With more team members, comes more costs and more salaries to pay so as this goes up, so will prices, and then attendance will fall.

Dynamic pricing has also become a hot button for the people whom are purchasing tickets to the game. The algorithm many ticket specialists are using is said to “measure demand and price sensitivity to a particular game on a real-time basis” as fangraph explains. It’s not just a one and done deal for pricing consultants and teams alike, “many factors are considered, including the weather, a winning or hitting streak, the debut of a hot prospect and the price tickets are selling for on the secondary market, like StubHub.”

All in all, people are beginning to focus their interests and money elsewhere. After reading endless tweets about fan complaints and experiences, it was seen that people simply don’t want to spend the money and time anymore at the actual game. Families and even just regular old sports fans don’t like the amount of bills traveling from their wallet to the ticket stands. When they go to purchase their tickets or anything else included in the home game experience, they feel ostracized by their favorite sport. If prices of all aspects of baseball continue to rise, people will find cheaper alternatives to actually showing up to be the live audience.

Times are changing according to Beyond the Boxscore report which states that “the average age of a baseball fans is almost 55.” The average sports fan attention span is slowly degrading as big media companies are working towards making the next big sport faster, better and bigger. The NFL is bringing in the viewers who “don’t have the time to watch nothing happen.” Sports watchers want a lively game for their entertainment. Although baseball has remained prevalent in American culture, will it be able to save it’s long standing decline in attendance? Will it continue to be “America’s favorite past time”? It seems that question will be answered when you attend your next home game.

 

featured image from: http://fortune.com/2018/06/15/mlb-attendance-rate-declining/ 

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