In the first chapter of his (excellent!) Big Data Baseball, Travis Sawchick describes how now-Pittsburgh Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington used an interesting bit of historical analysis to help inform a controversial roster move. Writes Sawchick:
Using the software [DiamondView], the Indians made key decisions, such as when they elected not to sign aging star Jim Thome to an extension after the 2002 season, in part because of the database, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported. […] Huntington noted that the Indians found in a payroll analysis that no major league club, dating back to 1985, had won a World Series when committing 15 percent or more of its payroll to one player.
Let’s call that 15% rule The Thome Corollary.
Has The Thome Corollary held up in the years since 2002, when price tags for choice free agents and franchise cornerstones has escalated at a rate far greater than your journeyman’s/rookie’s salary? The answer is: “No, The Thome Corollary has not held up,” or, “Yes, it sure has, with some small tweaks.”
It turns out that seven of the thirteen World Series champions since 2002 have had a player who takes up more than 15% of their team’s Opening Day payroll:
|Year||Champion||Highest-Paid||Highest Salary (in $M)||% of Payroll|
|2013||Red Sox||John Lackey||15.9||10.2|
|2007||Red Sox||Manny Ramirez||17.0||11.8|
|2005||White Sox||Paul Konerko||8.8||11.6|
So while plenty of teams have “violated” The Thome Corollary, only four did so by more than a percentage point: the 2010 Giants, 2009 Yankees, 2004 Red Sox, and 2003 Marlins.
I feel comfortable moving the 2009 Yankees and 2004 Red Sox into their own category: the mega-spenders. The Yankees were first in the league in salary in 2009, and the Red Sox were second in 2004. Yes, they both violated The Thome Corollary — but not by very much. Furthermore, they did so with excellent players (Rodriguez had 4.0 WAR that year; Ramirez had 3.3 in his) still had significant amounts of money to spread out over the rest of the roster. The lesson still stands, I think, for Huntington and most of the rest of baseball, who are in small or medium markets by comparison.
So what about the 2010 Giants and 2003 Marlins? They weren’t big spenders, and they actually are the two biggest violators of the rule. Basically, if a team violates The Thome Corollary to such a degree, they must do two things in order to also win:
1. Be active at the Trade Deadline. The Marlins paid the eventually hefty price of Adrian Gonzalez to receive Ugueth Urbina at the deadline, and they also acquired Jeff Conine. The 2010 Giants only traded for one excellent player at that deadline — Javier Lopez, who is still with the team — but were generally active, also adding Chris Ray, Mike Fontenot, Jose Guillen. But this is probably not as important as:
2. Have a historically awesome rookie class. The Marlins had a 23-and-under nucleus of Josh Beckett, Dontrelle Willis, and Miguel Cabrera. Giants 23-and-unders included Madison Bumgarner, Pablo Sandoval, and Buster Posey. Uh, pretty good.
Of the seven teams who had one player violating The Thome Corollary, only one of them had two players who were receiving over 15% of the team payroll. And, as you can see below, this is also a team with a historically awesome rookie class:
|Year||Champion||2nd-Highest-Paid||2nd-Highest Salary||% of Payroll|
|2004||Red Sox||Pedro Martinez||17.5||13.7|
Those 2002 Angels saw debuts from John Lackey, Scot Shields, Brendan Donnelly, and Francisco Rodriguez, and two of their team leaders in WAR (David Eckstein, Troy Glaus) were both on rookie contracts.
So! It looks like a more accurate, updated version of The Thome Corollary goes like this:
A. No team has won the World Series while dedicating at least 18% of the total payroll to one individual player — unless that team has significantly talented young players and is active on the trade market.
B. No team has won the World Series while dedicating at least 16% of the total payroll to two separate players.
With these new requirements in mind, let’s look at all of the players who are earning at least 15% of their team’s Opening Day payroll this season (or, in violation of the original Thome Corollary):
|Team||Player||Salary||% of Payroll|
|Blue Jays||Jose Reyes||22.0||17.4|
|Blue Jays||Mark Buehrle||20.0||15.8|
There are three teams that we can eliminate for paying 16% or more to two players on their roster, none of whom were close to the World Series anyway: the Rockies, Mariners, and Phillies, who have three players over the threshold. This confirms the reputations that these teams all already have — transcendent stars who toil in anonymity, surrounded by near-anonymous teammates.
We’ll have to use our judgment with four other teams, and I’m sure you’ll agree with mine:
–New York Mets: Wright’s injury issues are certainly not making that outsized contract look any better. In addition, the Mets are just a few percentage points away from violating the two-over-16% rule with Granderson’s contract. As impressive as the Mets apparently bottomless young pitching staff is, I think it’s too much to ask any team to overcome both tennants of the New Thome Corollary. Eliminated.
–Toronto Blue Jays: Just like the Mets, the Blue Jays have one contract over 17% (Reyes) and one that is a hair away from 16% (Buehrle). Coupled with an inexperienced young pitching staff, I also declare them eliminated.
–Cleveland Indians: With two salaries at 17.0% and 15.3%, the Indians are definitely not in violation of the New Thome Corollary. As lovely as Francisco Lindor and Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar are, though, the lack of contributions from both high-salary players make this, I think, too steep a hill to summit. Sorry to do this right after the NBA Finals, but: eliminated.
–Minnesota Twins: Whoda thought that consistent ol’ Joe Mauer would ever own one of the league’s most bloated contracts. While the idea of the Twins as playoff contenders could be laughable by as quickly as August, Byron Buxton is here and Miguel Sano could be shortly on his way. Accordingly, I give them the tiniest sliver of a chance.