How big a factor is the Mets' payroll reduction of about $23 million to their 2010 fortunes?
A reader this week accused Ted Berg at TedQuarters of ignoring this payroll angle because of the Mets' affiliation with SNY. Ted is right when he argues that payroll is not by a long shot the No. 1 reason for the Mets' struggles this year. More important by far, as Ted wrote, is how that payroll is allocated.
SNY.tv published my piece that dealt with the Mets' declining payroll in January. That article questioned whether the Mets are still a big-market team. At the time, Omar Minaya was saying he had about $15 million left to spend. Minaya's best course of action then would have been to use it in-season after he had a better handle on what the team most needs. If the needs were so great that $15 million wouldn't matter, then it sure wouldn't have mattered in January, either.
Now, $15 million isn't $23 million. But what's $23 million worth in wins? That's a matter of great debate. Start with the authors of Wages of Wins, who sought to determine how payroll correlates to wins in baseball.
Stacey Brook wrote the following on the Wages of Wins website:
"One of the conclusions that we reach is that money cannot buy love in baseball (or football, or basketball, or hockey). This conclusion is based on the ability of relative payroll to explain the variation in winning percentage. In simple words, payroll doesn't seem to tell us much about wins."
The bottom line, Brook argues, is that payroll explains about 18 percent of the variation in wins. That's relatively large when compared to other sports. For example, football payroll explains only 5 percent of the variation, but of course football has a salary cap -- though one that has been easy to manipulate given that NFL contracts consist mostly of money that is not guaranteed. But it still leaves 82 percent of variation to be explained by other factors.
Some critics noted that 18 percent of variance can become 42 of variance with some statistical sleight of hand. But all that everyone agrees about is that $5 million more in payroll equals about one win (at least in 2006, though we now have to adjust for inflation of about 12 percent since then).
Even if payroll is the largest single variable in predicting baseball wins, it's still too small to obsess about to the degree that people do.
So, $23 million in payroll should be expected to result in 4.3 more wins, though not if a team ends up spending most of it on the likes of Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo. Before you get excited about that, note that the authors say that random luck is about 6.3 wins. But there's no doubt that it's better to get those expected 4.3 wins and then take your chance with luck.
Given that, though, what exactly were the Mets going to spend that money on? Remember, teams must buy players who get them wins. John Lackey looks hurt with 39 strikeouts and 32 walks in 67 innings and an ERA and WHIP that falls in line with the horrid strikeout-to-walk ratio. Remember, Lackey's health was a question mark before he signed. Imagine the fury that would be raining down on on Minaya if he dumped $65 million into Lackey to find that his velocity is down and that he's throwing sliders about 30-percent less frequently. And Lackey was the consensus No. 1 lost free agent according to the Mets' payroll critics last winter.
The key takeaway with baseball payroll is that the teams with young stars get winning stats at far below market rates. Free agents are rarely a bargain and are usually past their peaks. The Mets need to get average regulars up through their Minor League system at low salaries so that they can better leverage payroll dollars by supplementing their bargain guys with more high-priced good-to-very good players.
Reese Havens is a decent bet to be up in 2011 at the latest. The Mets hope he'll be at second base. But Fernando Martinez disappointed it the early going at Triple-A and then got hurt, again. Bobby Parnell is pitching really well of late and should be back in the bullpen soon. But the huge key near term is Jon Niese's health and ability to hold a lower rotation spot -- a likely occurrence -- and developing Jenrry Mejia into a possible mid-rotation pitcher or better at some point in 2011. The timetable for that is completely messed up now that Mejia has been toiling so long -- and rather ineffectively -- in the Major League bullpen.