While the Major League Baseball playoffs have been amazing so far, the Atlanta Braves’ 2014 season is mercifully over. After a quick start to the season (17-7), they finished three games under .500 and 17 games back from the division leader.
Oh, boy, was Atlanta’s offense terrible. They scored the second fewest runs in the majors and struck out the fourth most. It was painful to watch BJ Upton swing and miss so much. (His brother, Justin, only struck out two fewer times than BJ, although Justin can connect when he actually hits the ball.)
The general manager Frank Wren, the hand-picked successor of John Schuerholz, took the fall. (Schuerholz is considered the brains, along with manager Bobby Cox, of the Braves’ 1990s success.) He was fired after seven years on the job by… John Schuerholz. Who chose Frank Wren’s replacement, John Hart, a friend of John Schuerholz? Mmm, John Schuerholz. But we’re not here to talk about John Schuerholz.
Wren just had too many bad signings and dead money during his tenure. His decisions have been chronicled in depth here by Braves blog Talking Chop, so I’ll just look at the bottom line: Money and Wins. How much value did Frank Wren wring out of Atlanta’s rising salary?
We’re going to look at it by seeing how much he paid per win by doing a simple calculation: team salary divided by wins. To put the Braves’ performance in more context, we’ll compare them with the 2014 National League playoff teams: Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, St. Louis, and Washington. We’ll start by looking from 1988 through 2014, as far back as USA Today’s salary database goes.
Every team is paying more per win these days. The revenue explosion in baseball (mostly from TV money), plus a strong players union, sees to that. The Dodgers, always big spenders, have outdone themselves since 2012. Their division rivals, the Giants, have been trying to keep up, and have won two World Series’ recently in 2010 and 2012.
Although this is interesting, the statistic doesn’t “normalize” the value of the win. How do we go about comparing salary per win when salaries are constantly rising?
The method I have taken is to compare the salaries and wins according to how well the teams do versus a .500 club with the same salary. Basically, how does their salary/win ratio per season compare against a team with the same salary that won 81 games? By then finding the percent change of the 81-win ratio from the actual ratio, we’ll be able to compare a team’s success (success in this instance being salary/win) from year-to-year.
The above plot show how this new relationship works. As a team becomes better than 81 wins (a .500 winning percentage), the salary/win value increases versus the 81-win team.
Focusing on just the Braves, Wren was extracting a lot of value out of the team from 2009-2012. It was a strong improvement over the last five years of the Schuerholz era. One could even interpret Wren’s firing after this season as a bit harsh. However, the bad free agent signings, a listless team, and some tension in the front office led to Atlanta’s upper management pulling the plug.
(Note: Not sure if what I did is really “new.” Baseball stats are sliced and diced so often, it’s hard to know what is original and what isn’t. Code and data on Github here.)