Major League Baseball and its lack of a salary cap have created a situation where teams that are not in the Top 10 for payroll spending generally do not win the World Series. There are some exceptions, when teams do well in the draft and in free agency to suddenly catch fire and hoist the championship trophy, but overall, it pays to spend.
Just looking back to 2011 using data from Spotrac.com, we see that six World Series champions have been in the Top 10 payroll for the season where they won it all, while the 2015 Kansas City Royals and the 2017 Houston Astros fit the latter description above. So just in recent years, 75 percent of MLB champs have come from big-spending organizations.
- 2011 St. Louis Cardinals: 10th
- 2012 San Francisco Giants: 7th
- 2013 Boston Red Sox: 3rd
- 2014 San Francisco Giants: 5th
- 2015 Kansas City Royals: 13th
- 2016 Chicago Cubs: 5th
- 2017 Houston Astros: 17th
- 2018 Boston Red Sox: 1st
Of course, teams like the Oakland Athletics and the Tampa Bay Rays have perfected the art of winning on small budgets, even though neither club has managed to break through to win a championship under the current MLB financial structure despite multiple postseason appearances each in the last two decades.
So how are teams faring this season? Here are the Top 10 teams in payroll and their win-loss records through July 16:
- Boston: 51-44
- New York (AL): 60-33
- Chicago (NL): 51-44
- Los Angeles (NL): 63-34
- San Francisco: 46-49
- Washington: 50-43
- St. Louis: 47-46
- Houston: 59-37
- Los Angeles (AL): 50-46
- New York (NL): 43-51
Eight of the Top 10-spending teams are above .500, with five of those currently holding down postseason slots. The Yankees are leading the American League East; the Cubs are leading the National League Central; the Dodgers are leading the NL West; the Nationals are the top wild-card team in the NL; and the Astros are leading the AL West.
The Cardinals are one game out of a playoff berth, and the Angels are 5.5 games out of it. Even with their losing records, the Giants (three games behind Philadelphia) and the Mets (5.5 games behind) are still in NL wild-card contention, strangely enough.
Now, let’s compare to the Bottom 10 teams in payroll, currently:
21. Detroit: 29-61
22. Toronto: 36-60
23. San Diego: 45-49
24. Kansas City: 34-62
25. Chicago (AL): 42-49
26. Oakland: 54-41
27. Pittsburgh: 45-49
28. Miami: 35-57
29. Baltimore: 28-66
30. Tampa Bay: 56-41
This is interesting, as five of these bottom-spending teams are performing in line with their expenditures. While the aforementioned A’s (tied for second AL wild-card spot) and the Rays (holding down top AL wild-card spot) are playoff favorites right now, three other teams—the Padres, the White Sox, and the Pirates—are getting comparable bang for their buck to the Giants and the Mets, organizations paying a lot more for their similar results.
What does this all mean? Generally, we can assume with confidence that the World Series champion will probably come from this group: Boston, New York (AL), Los Angeles (NL), Chicago (NL), Washington, and Houston. If not, then teams like Oakland, Tampa Bay, Atlanta (14th in payroll), Milwaukee (15th), Cleveland (19th), and Minnesota (20th) have a 25 percent chance of crashing the party.
In a world where MLB is the least democratic of North American professional sports leagues, the status quo is being maintained … again.