The Houston Astros doubled their payroll in 2017 and won the World Series. Was that the reason?
In 2013 the Houston Astros moved to the American League, dismantled the team, and won just in the process. Last year Houston won the World Series. The Astros’ ascent from the bottom to the top of the league was powered by investing in both pitchers and positional players. The blue line measures wins while the bars indicate salaries allocated to positional players and pitchers.
In 2011 the Astros spent $72 million on player salaries, of which $42 million went to positional players. Two years later as the team moved from the National to the American League, the Astros had the smallest payroll in baseball at just $11 million, fully $45 million behind the next-stingiest team, the Minnesota Twins.
After the move to the AL, owners began investing in the team once more, though still not profligately. The Astros spent about as much on salaries in 2015 and 2016 as they did in 2011; they just got a much better return on their investment with 86- and 84-win seasons. Then, last year, ownership doubled the payroll, investing $16 million in the team’s first DH, Carlos Beltran, and signing contracts with 1st baseman Yulieski Gurriel, right fielder Josh Reddick, and catcher Brian McGann, who together earn $44 million.
A couple years back I posted an article here on the relationship between player salaries and team wins. Using data from 2011 through the first part of the 2015 season I showed there was a small, but statistically meaningful relationship between a team’s payroll and the number of games it wins.
I have now added data through the 2017 season and updated the figures for previous years. In all cases I am relying on the Spotrac website for the data on salaries by position.
All told I have 210 team-seasons for the thirty teams across seven years. Plotting the simple relationship between players’ salaries (defined as the sum of the salaries for positional players and pitchers) and the number of games a team won shows the same positive relationship we first saw back in 2015.
The 2017 Cleveland Indians may be the most efficient team in recent history winning 102 games while spending just $115 million, compared to an average per-team figure of $127 million. They lost in the American League Championship Series to the eventual World Series winners, the Houston Astros.
That last burst of spending certainly contributed to raising Houston’s win total from 84 in 2016 to 101 a year later. Yet as the first graph shows spending alone was not enough. Applying the slope coefficient of 0.12 from the first graph to a payroll increase of sixty million dollars should garner a team about seven wins on average (=60 x 0.12). That leaves another ten victories that we might chalk up to good management, or maybe team chemistry, or both.