Inspired by the Yankees’ loss of Robinson Cano, I got to thinking about how teams have coped with missing stars in the past, which led to this post published earlier Tuesday. Setting an arbitrary “star” threshold of 6 WAR, the data sample wasn’t huge over 25 years, but on average teams that lost stars fared only a little bit worse than teams that kept them. And I didn’t even control for circumstances by, say, including payroll information. Basically, stars are great and more or less replaceable if you can prepare for a departure and spread resources around. The Yankees should survive a Cano-less existence.
The first comment below the post points to an obvious follow-up:
Obligatory: How teams fare gaining a star level player
So, now this is that.
The definition’s the same. For our purposes, a star-level player will be a player coming off a season worth at least 6 WAR. Again, this is arbitrary, and as recent examples, it misses the Angels signing Albert Pujols, the Angels signing Josh Hamilton, the Marlins signing Jose Reyes, and the Blue Jays trading for R.A. Dickey. As it happens, those acquisitions didn’t turn out to help a lot, but a cutoff is a cutoff and this is how I proceeded. I examined the 25-year window between 1989-2013, and I found 40 instances in which a team added a 6-WAR player over the offseason. You might notice that, earlier, there were 34 instances in which a team lost a 6-WAR player over the offseason. The numbers don’t match up because I excluded seasons in which a 6-WAR player changed teams, like Cliff Lee in 2009, or Cliff Lee in 2010. Those seasons work, for this post. They didn’t work, for that post.
The following table contains all the relevant information. There are the players, and the players’ new teams. There’s the winning percentage with the player, following the winning percentage the year before. There’s the change in winning percentage. There’s the team payroll with the player, following the team payroll the year before. There’s the percent change in payroll. Payroll information was taken from Baseball-Reference, and depending on your sources there’ll be small disagreements, but these numbers should convey the right ideas. We don’t need to be perfectly accurate to the dollar.
|2011||Carl Crawford||Red Sox||0.549||0.556||0.006||165||167||1%|
|2001||David Wells||White Sox||0.586||0.512||-0.074||32||66||107%|
|1998||Pedro Martinez||Red Sox||0.481||0.568||0.086||44||57||31%|
|1997||Roger Clemens||Blue Jays||0.457||0.469||0.012||31||47||54%|
40 instances in which a team added a 6-WAR player. Out of those 40:
- 26 instances in which the winning percentage went up
- 2 instances in which the winning percentage didn’t change
- 12 instances in which the winning percentage went down
Between 2003 and 2004, the Yankees added both Gary Sheffield and Alex Rodriguez, and both years they finished 101-61. The biggest gain belongs to the 1999 Diamondbacks, who went from expansion to contender overnight. The biggest loser is the 2010 Mariners, who added both Chone Figgins and Cliff Lee and then wound up one of the worst teams in baseball. Lee didn’t survive the season; Figgins didn’t last his whole contract.
But, okay, we care about averages. On average, in the years before, these teams won 53.2% of their games. In the years with the new star players, these teams won 55.3% of their games, an increase of about 3.5 wins over a full season. And remember, that’s not just a 3.5-game improvement — the teams were also fighting regression to the mean, which would’ve taken them closer to .500 as a group. Immediately, the new players helped, just as you’d expect them to. When you get a star, you figure his best season under your control will be his first.
But the table doesn’t just have winning-percentage data. On average, payroll went up about 22%. Which is exactly what you’d expect, since a team that acquires a star player is usually going for it and going for it implies some extra spending. There were actually a few instances in which a team acquired a star and trimmed payroll, as the 2010 Mariners did, or as the 2004 Orioles did. But these are exceptions, and in a dozen cases, payroll increased by 30% or more.
When you increase payroll, you increase your win expectations, because money buys players and players are wins in short-sleeve costumes. So you’d expect the teams to get better anyway, just from spending more, even if they didn’t get stars. I can’t say by how much you’d expect them to get better, but here are some interesting points:
- in these 40 instances, teams increased payroll by an average of 22%, and they improved by 3.5 wins
- in 32 instances, teams increased payroll, coming out to an average gain of 30%, and they improved by 5.3 wins
- in 27 instances, teams increased payroll by at least 10%, coming out to an average gain of 35%, and they improved by 4.5 wins
- In 14 instances, teams increased payroll by at least 25%, coming out to an average gain of 50%, and they improved by 4.9 wins
Take those 32 instances in which teams increased payroll. The 16 teams that increased payroll by the greatest percentage added about five wins. The 16 teams that increased payroll by the lowest percentage added about six wins. The first group had an average payroll gain of 42%. The second group had an average payroll gain of 13%.
For fun, let’s further mix some signals. Between 1998-1999, the Diamondbacks more than doubled payroll, adding Randy Johnson, and they went straight from 65 to 100 wins and a berth in the playoffs. Between 2000-2001, the White Sox more than doubled payroll, adding David Wells, and they went from 95 to 83 wins and a third-place finish. The next-biggest payroll hike belongs to the Dodgers between 1998-1999, when they added Kevin Brown, and they went from 83 to 77 wins. There’s a correlation between money and success. The coefficient isn’t 1.
The gist: of course, on average, teams who add star-level players tend to improve, at least in year one. They improve, on average, by a handful of wins, but they also tend to increase payroll, sometimes by kind of a lot, and any increase in payroll should lead to greater success on the field because money buys numbers and numbers are wins. I don’t know enough to say whether things are changing, but it’s worth keeping in mind additional recent cautionary examples like the Angels, Marlins, and Blue Jays, who have gone for it and gotten burned. They added stars that didn’t quite meet the threshold above, and they didn’t succeed. Yet, the Phillies were thrilled to have added Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. There’s a time and a place, and it’s always important to do things wisely, even if you feel like one player can put your team over the top.
The long and short of it is that the Yankees should be fine without Robinson Cano, relative to the Yankees with him. And the Mariners should be better with Robinson Cano, at least right away, but they probably won’t be better by leaps and bounds unless they do plenty more or end up getting lucky. Stars are the best players in baseball, but the best players in baseball are a relatively small part of baseball.
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