Free agent value and building teams from within

Doug Pappas introduced a revolutionary way of looking at the performance of front offices in 2004 when he looked at marginal payroll per marginal win. The idea is simple: if you fill a team with fringe players available on the free agent market for the league minimum salary, you would win about 43 games and spend about $12 million. Therefore, a team should not be evaluated only on how many wins it can get beyond that baseline of 43, but on how efficiently it can use its resources to exceed that number.

For example, the Rangers averaged 85 wins and $74 million from 2007-2011, so they spent $62 million above league minimum to get 42 wins above a replacement-level team. They spent about $62 million to get about 42 wins, which equals $1.47 million in marginal payroll per marginal win.

The idea changed baseball analysis—efficiency is an essential concept for team construction. However, if we look at how teams rank in this crucial statistic, we start to see its limitations.

Looking at the last five years, the Marlins are unsurprisingly on top and the Yankees are unsurprisingly at the bottom. However, despite the fact that the Marlins have been able to average about 79 wins per season (about 36 wins beyond what a team of retreads would cobble together) at a rate of $0.78 million per marginal win, that does not mean that the Yankees could have realistically achieved their 17 extra wins per season at the same efficient clip. To win 17 more games, the Yankees used mostly free agents, who cost an average of $5.4 million per fWAR (the Fangraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement) over the last five seasons.

Here are the rankings for 2007 through 2011. This is just the top five and bottom five. The full table is at the bottom of the article.


Unlike winning pennants, the way to win the marginal-payroll-per-marginal-win prize is to not spend money on free agents. About 70% of all major league WAR comes from players who are not eligible for free agency in the first place, so the average team would go 69-93 by retaining all players in its system until they were eligible for free agency.

But it’s neither good business nor good baseball to sit on your hands at that point. Opening up your checkbook may put you over the top and into the playoff race, which could be far more profitable than sitting tight near the 70-win mark.

Performance from players yet to reach free agency

There are really two different sources of per-dollar efficiency when we look at marginal payroll per marginal win:
(1) How well a team gets production from players not yet eligible for free agency
(2) How efficiently a team spends on free agents

So, for the following analysis, I will use two classifications of players that are particularly important.
(1) NM = Non-Market Players, who are either bound to their team by the reserve clause or eligible for arbitration
(2) AM = Auction-Market Players, who are eligible for free agency or are at least eligible for auction by being professional amateurs from countries like Japan and Cuba.

Taking the analysis further, I considered two different definitions of a Non-Market player:

{exp:list_maker}NM Drafted & Signed: where the signing team gets credit for the player’s performance, even if that team had traded him to another team. For example, Neftali Feliz’s WAR is credited to the Braves (who signed him as an amateur).
NM Players: where the team that holds the player on its roster gets credit for the player’s performance. In this case, Neftali’s Feliz WAR is credited to the Rangers (where he played). {/exp:list_maker}
Players who are playing for the team that originally signed them are included in both definitions.

Both versions exclude any player who had six years of service time (or was signed as a professional out of Japan, Cuba, or elsewhere). To estimate the impact of a specific player, I calculated the difference between the team’s record and the player’s WAR.

The Red Sox, for example, would have won an average of 79 games per season by keeping players from their system who had not yet reached free agency, but traded away about 11 wins, leaving them with 68 wins from NM Players still on the team. They then supplemented those 68 wins with 25 wins from the free agent market or by acquiring free agents signed by other teams.

On the other hand, the Dodgers’ payroll averaged $110 million over the last five seasons, but they might have been just as good if they had just retained their own draftees and amateur signings. The only cost would have been about $30 million in arbitration and league minimum salaries, and they would have been about as good as they were spending $110 million.

The following table ranks teams by the amount of non-market talent they developed, regardless of whether they held onto that talent of traded it away. The first column sums up the talent they originally signed, the second column sums the wins from non-market players on the team and the third column reflects the team’s actual performance.

In other words, the difference between the second and third columns is a reflection of how much talent each team signed through free agency.

Retroactive Review: Ace
Looking back at some of Justin Verlander's most interesting moments.

Using this metric, we can see which teams had the most productive systems, and gave themselves the best jumping off point, and which teams had the worst head starts.

The Braves, like the Dodgers, traded away a lot of young talent, but they at least supplemented the talent they lost with free agents that made a difference. The Dodgers lost 16 wins of non-market talent they had in their system and only added 18 wins of auction-market talent back, while the Braves lost eight wins of non-market talent that they had in their system and added 17 wins of auction-market talent back on to their total.

The Diamondbacks and Rockies were good at scouting and acquiring amateur talent, and good at retaining it too, but they both did a relatively poor job supplementing this talent with free agents necessary to put them into the playoffs continuously.

The Padres, Royals, and Astros have been unsuccessful in recent years primarily due to a dearth of in-system amateur talent. While none were particularly spendthrift when it came to free agents, they had terrible starting points, and would only have been able to cover so much of this gap by opening their wallets.

Bang for your buck

The other element of front office efficiency is getting the most bang for your buck when you do supplemental your non-market talent with free agents. As you can imagine, there were large differences between teams in terms of how efficiently they spent their money. The Cardinals were able to buy wins at a rate of approximately $3.3 million per WAR. On the other hand, the Athletics, despite their prowess in terms of marginal-payroll-per-marginal-win, had to spend over $13 million for every WAR they acquired on the free agent market.

The $/WAR numbers below include an adjustment for the WAR lost from draft picks lost due to free agency signings, as well as the bonus money saved. This is most obvious when we look at the Pirates. The Bucs only managed to purchase 2.5 WAR from free agents, but did so at the expense of a few draft picks that actually were worth about 2.6 WAR.

All salaries are considered relative to the yearly league minimum as well, and then credited to the team that signed the deal (so Manny Ramirez’s WAR in 2009 as a Dodger went to the Red Sox).

Table 3 below lists teams $/WAR from free agents alone. Notice that even though the Cardinals generated a lot of their efficiency by buying Albert Pujols’ wins on the cheap, they had good contracts on a lot of players.

Note: The Pirates lost 2.6 WAR from the value of their draft picks, so their net $/WAR was negative.

Putting it all together and building a team

Comparing the rankings in terms of marginal payroll per marginal win in Table 1 to the equivalent statistic for free agents in Table 3, we see stark differences.

The Marlins had the best ranking in the Table 1, getting wins at a rate of $0.78 million, while the Yankees’ $3.71 million puts them at the back of the pack. However, Table 3 shows both teams are square in the middle in terms of how much they spent on free agent talent—the Yankees spending $5.4 million per win, and the Marlins spending $5.6 million per win.

The real difference was that the Marlins averaged 35.4 non-market WAR and only 2.0 auction-market WAR, while the Yankees averaged 18.7 NM WAR and 33.0 AM WAR. The Yankees spent far more than anyone else on free agents, presumably because they got the most value from doing so. Winning in New York is valuable. They were only okay at producing talent from within, but they were not at the bottom of the pack.

Looking at the teams at the top and bottom of the rankings, we can learn a little bit more about what these front offices have done. The Padres were actually quite efficient when they did spend money, but they just didn’t spend that much. Their position in the Table 2 explains why. The production from within their system was so weak that they would have gone broke trying to supplement it with free agents.

The Rays were second on the marginal payroll per marginal win ranking for a few reasons. They were above average with 30.7 WAR from their amateurs who had less than six years of service time, and also made some great trades to supplement this, leading the league with 38.8 non-market WAR for their players. On top of that, they still only spent $3.8 million per WAR for free agents. The reason that they were not running away with the AL East every season is that they just didn’t spend that much money.

Below I provide the full tables for all 30 teams. Each team’s story becomes a little bit clearer when looking at Table 2 and Table 3 than looking at Table 1. Marginal payroll per marginal win is useful, but it does not differentiate between being productive by buying underpriced talent and by being cheap. The Marlins may have looked very efficient from 2007 to 2011, but I bet they’ll make more profit with their newfound approach to spending on the free market.

Appendix of Tables

Table 1A: Marginal Payroll per Marginal Win, 2007-11

Rk Team (2007-2011) Avg. W-L Marginal $/Win
1 Marlins 79-83 $0.78
2 Rays 86-76 $0.88
3 Padres 78-84 $1.16
4 Diamondbacks 80-82 $1.41
5 Rangers 85-77 $1.47
6 Athletics 76-86 $1.52
7 Pirates 65-97 $1.53
8 Indians 78-84 $1.57
9 Rockies 82-80 $1.58
10 Brewers 85-77 $1.61
11 Reds 79-83 $1.80
12 Twins 82-80 $1.80
13 Blue Jays 82-80 $1.84
14 Nationals 68-94 $1.87
15 Braves 84-78 $1.96
16 Royals 69-93 $2.01
17 Cardinals 86-76 $2.02
18 Giants 81-81 $2.08
19 Phillies 95-67 $2.25
20 Angels 91-71 $2.31
21 Dodgers 85-77 $2.36
22 Tigers 85-77 $2.56
23 White Sox 81-81 $2.63
24 Astros 73-89 $2.67
25 Orioles 67-95 $2.75
26 Red Sox 93-69 $2.76
27 Cubs 82-80 $2.95
28 Mariners 72-90 $3.05
29 Mets 81-81 $3.29
30 Yankees 96-66 $3.71

Table 2A: Production from Within, Retention of Young Talent, and Actual Records

Rk Team NM Drafted & Signed NM Players Average W-L
1 Dodgers 83-79 67-95 85-77
2 Red Sox 79-83 68-94 93-69
3 Angels 78-84 77-85 91-71
4 Diamondbacks 76-86 77-85 80-82
5 Tigers 76-86 70-92 85-77
6 Phillies 76-86 76-66 95-67
7 Braves 75-87 67-95 84-78
8 Rays 74-88 81-81 87-75
9 Rockies 73-89 75-87 82-80
10 Rangers 73-89 75-87 85-77
11 Mets 73-89 65-97 81-81
12 Brewers 72-90 75-87 85-77
13 Giants 72-90 69-93 82-80
14 Mariners 71-91 61-101 72-90
15 Pirates 70-92 65-97 65-97
16 Twins 70-92 73-89 82-80
17 Athletics 69-93 73-89 76-86
18 Yankees 67-95 62-100 96-66
19 Nationals 66-96 62-100 68-94
20 Blue Jays 66-96 70-92 82-80
21 Marlins 65-97 77-85 79-83
22 Indians 65-97 73-89 78-84
23 Orioles 64-98 61-101 67-95
24 Cardinals 63-99 63-99 86-76
25 Cubs 63-99 57-105 82-80
26 White Sox 63-99 66-96 81-81
27 Astros 63-99 61-101 73-89
28 Reds 61-101 71-91 79-83
29 Padres 61-101 72-90 78-84
30 Royals 57-105 64-98 69-93

Table 3A: Team Dollars per WAR from Free Agents

Rk Team FA fWAR FA $/fWAR
1 Cardinals 24.9 $3.30
2 Padres 6.3 $3.60
3 Braves 14.2 $3.60
4 Rays 4.7 $3.80
5 Rangers 12.7 $4.00
6 Cubs 24 $4.40
7 Blue Jays 12.4 $4.40
8 Twins 9.2 $4.80
9 Brewers 8.4 $4.80
10 Red Sox 22.8 $4.90
11 Indians 7.9 $5.00
12 Nationals 6.5 $5.00
13 Phillies 18.9 $5.40
14 Tigers 15.1 $5.40
15 Marlins 3.5 $5.40
16 Yankees 32.2 $5.60
17 Astros 10.7 $5.80
18 White Sox 14.7 $5.90
19 Dodgers 13.8 $6.30
20 Diamondbacks 3.3 $6.30
21 Giants 12.4 $6.40
22 Mariners 10.2 $6.40
23 Royals 5 $6.50
24 Angels 14.3 $6.90
25 Reds 6.9 $7.50
26 Rockies 5.8 $7.90
27 Mets 13.2 $8.10
28 Orioles 6.4 $9.10
29 Athletics 3.5 $13.20
30 Pirates 0.5

Note: The Pirates lost 2.6 WAR from the value of their draft picks, so their net $/WAR was negative.

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Matt writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and models arbitration salaries for MLB Trade Rumors. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Swa.
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If a team trades a NM asset in exchange for a player with 6+ years of service time, where does that fit under this accounting?  Does that count as adding a free agent?  It seems that the easiest way to lower your $/FA WAR is to trade away pre-arb talent for 6+ year players that are signed to below-market contracts.

Matt Swartz
Matt Swartz

The $/FA WAR is based on the team originally signing the contract. However, the Auction Market WAR (“AM WAR”) will be higher for these teams.

Good point, though—it took me a while to notice and incorporate that as I was putting this together, and I had to make adjustments when I did.

I’m trying to figure out the numbers were figured for Table 3A: Dollars per FA WAR.  I’m a Royals fan, so for personal convenience, I’m taking their 5 WAR and $6.5 per WAR ($32.5 total) as an example. If we’re looking at the 2007-2011 period, I know Gil Meche alone was paid more than $32.5M during that window.  Jose Guillen was the other big contract that ate up more than that salary.  There were also a bunch of smaller contracts that should push the total FA spending from 2007-2011 well north of $100M.  Where is the $32.5M total coming from?… Read more »

Are the values averages per year?  Did you say that somewhere and I just missed it?

Matt Swartz
Matt Swartz

Sorry. Yes: they are averages per year. So the Royals got 25 WAR from FA over 2007-11 and spent about $32.5 million (though this includes estimated draft picks foregone cost which is typically 10% of compensation, so it’s probably closer to $29-30 million).


Thanks for the article. As a Padres fan, we are clamoring for FA since the farm system was terrible for a long time. It’s good to know that the cost of wins would have been prohibitive even had the team signed many FAs. So, the improved farm system is the way to go for the team.

Great read & analysis. Thanks again.

Greg Simons
Greg Simons

Terrific article, Matt.  When I first read about Marginal Wins/Marginal Dollars, I thought about the impact of “non-market” players.  I didn’t know exactly how to tackle the issue, so it’s great to see that you’ve done so.

Did you make a distinction in your value calculations between pre-arb players and those who are arb-eligible?  Obviously, paying someone the major league minimum is vastly different from paying Tim Lincecum $20 million a year despite his not being FA-eligible.

Matt Swartz
Matt Swartz

Thanks, Greg.

I did differentiate between them and I have those numbers but I didn’t want to overload this article. I might be using it in another one I’m working on, though.


Thank you for quantifying what we Dodger fans have known for a long time that Coletti is not a good GM at least with his free agent signings.