Gaining a Star-Level Player

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.

Everything:

Season Player Team Prev_W% W% W%Change Prev_$(m) $(m) $Change%
2013 Michael Bourn Indians 0.420 0.568 0.148 79 87 11%
2011 Cliff Lee Phillies 0.599 0.630 0.031 142 173 22%
2011 Adrian Beltre Rangers 0.556 0.593 0.037 57 94 66%
2011 Carl Crawford Red Sox 0.549 0.556 0.006 165 167 1%
2010 Chone Figgins Mariners 0.525 0.377 -0.148 100 87 -14%
2010 Cliff Lee Mariners 0.525 0.377 -0.148 100 87 -14%
2010 Roy Halladay Phillies 0.574 0.599 0.025 116 142 23%
2010 Javier Vazquez Yankees 0.636 0.586 -0.049 210 211 0%
2009 CC Sabathia Yankees 0.549 0.636 0.086 212 210 -1%
2009 Mark Teixeira Yankees 0.549 0.636 0.086 212 210 -1%
2005 J.D. Drew Dodgers 0.574 0.438 -0.136 93 83 -11%
2005 Adrian Beltre Mariners 0.389 0.426 0.037 82 88 8%
2005 Carlos Beltran Mets 0.438 0.512 0.074 102 101 -1%
2005 Randy Johnson Yankees 0.623 0.586 -0.037 184 208 13%
2004 Javy Lopez Orioles 0.438 0.481 0.043 74 52 -30%
2004 Gary Sheffield Yankees 0.623 0.623 0.000 153 184 21%
2004 Alex Rodriguez Yankees 0.623 0.623 0.000 153 184 21%
2003 Jeff Kent Astros 0.519 0.537 0.019 63 71 12%
2003 Jim Thome Phillies 0.497 0.531 0.034 58 71 22%
2002 Roberto Alomar Mets 0.506 0.466 -0.040 93 95 2%
2002 Jason Giambi Yankees 0.594 0.640 0.046 113 126 12%
2001 Alex Rodriguez Rangers 0.438 0.451 0.012 71 89 25%
2001 David Wells White Sox 0.586 0.512 -0.074 32 66 107%
2001 Mike Mussina Yankees 0.540 0.594 0.053 93 113 21%
1999 Mo Vaughn Angels 0.525 0.432 -0.093 42 56 33%
1999 Brian Jordan Braves 0.654 0.636 -0.019 61 73 20%
1999 Randy Johnson Diamondbacks 0.401 0.617 0.216 32 69 113%
1999 Kevin Brown Dodgers 0.512 0.475 -0.037 49 81 66%
1999 Albert Belle Orioles 0.488 0.481 -0.006 73 81 11%
1999 Rafael Palmeiro Rangers 0.543 0.586 0.043 57 77 35%
1999 Roger Clemens Yankees 0.704 0.605 -0.099 67 87 30%
1998 Kevin Brown Padres 0.469 0.605 0.136 37 47 25%
1998 Pedro Martinez Red Sox 0.481 0.568 0.086 44 57 31%
1998 Chuck Knoblauch Yankees 0.593 0.704 0.111 62 67 7%
1997 Roger Clemens Blue Jays 0.457 0.469 0.012 31 47 54%
1994 Rafael Palmeiro Orioles 0.525 0.563 0.038 29 39 33%
1993 Greg Maddux Braves 0.605 0.642 0.037 35 42 20%
1993 Barry Bonds Giants 0.444 0.636 0.191 33 35 6%
1992 Greg Swindell Reds 0.457 0.556 0.099 26 36 37%
1991 Darryl Strawberry Dodgers 0.531 0.574 0.043 22 33 49%

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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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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Dan Gladden
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Dan Gladden

what is a Greg Swindell?

Boris Chinchilla
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Boris Chinchilla

a guy who left Cleveland before they got good

CircleChange11
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A lefty that pitched a ton of innings at University of Texas, following the Clemens-Shiraldi years.

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