MLB’s Most Cost-Effective Rotations

Building a rotation is a difficult task for any organization. Drafting and developing prospects takes time and patience and often yields little in the way of results. Free agency is incredibly expensive not merely for proven pitchers, but unproven and mediocre ones, as well. Trades mean giving up talent and making sacrifices for the future. There is not a best way to build a rotation, but some teams have more limitations than others financially and the most efficient way to build a rotation includes young, cost-controlled starters. Ideally, a team would want the best rotation at the least possible expense. It’s a difficult task, but the New York Mets (to name one team) appear to have accomplished it.

A few weeks ago, FanGraphs previewed the 2016 by using the Depth Chart Projections found here to rank the teams by position. While the exercise itself is most useful for creating context around the projections — and to highlight individual players and teams — the foundation for the whole endeavor is the projections themselves. While often a very small difference exists between certain teams in terms of wins, it’s also true that two equally productive starting rotations, for example, can have very different costs (in dollars). That has an effect on how the corresponding teams can distribute salary throughout the rest of their respective rosters.

The chart below shows the positional power rankings heading into the season.

2016-positional-power-rankings-starting-pitchers

One week into the season, a few positions have flip-flopped here and there, but for the most part these rankings are very similar now to when the post was published. The Mets, headed by Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and Noah Syndergaard — with prospect Steven Matz and the ageless Bartolo Colon present, as well — topped the list in a virtual dead heat with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Clayton Kershaw alone can make up for a lot of injuries, and while Brandon McCarthy, Brett Anderson, and Hyun-Jin Ryu are expected to miss all or part of the season, Alex Wood, Scott Kazmir, and Kenta Maeda provide a solid backup to Kershaw’s brilliance.

Compare how the Dodgers built their rotation to the way the Mets built theirs. Harvey, deGrom, and Matz were all drafted and developed by the Mets. Syndergaard was acquired in a trade for R.A. Dickey, while Colon was a free-agent signing. That’s a pretty good mix of players with deGrom, Matz, and Syndergaard all in their pre-arbitration years, Harvey in his first year of arbitration (and making just over $4 million), and Colon leading the rotation salary-wise with a bit over $7 million.

The Dodgers’ group is diverse, but almost all were acquired by way of free agency. Clayton Kershaw was drafted and developed by the Dodgers before receiving a $215 million contract, and surprise starter Ross Stripling was drafted by the team, but every other pitcher expected to log significant innings was originally developed by another club. The team acquired Alex Wood in a trade last season, while Ryu and Maeda were foreign free agents. Kazmir and McCarthy, meanwhile, were free agents at the time they were acquired. Even Mike Bolsinger was acquired in a trade from the Arizona Diamondbacks for cash considerations. Julio Urias and Jose de Leon could change that for the Dodgers, but right now, they are reliant on free agency.

Free agency is expensive, and it should come as no surprise that the Dodgers are paying more money for their rotation than any other team in baseball — which fact the chart below illustrates. For the purposes of that graph, I’ve included all dollars paid to a starting pitcher, even in such cases as where player isn’t actually a part of the rotation due to injury or release. For example, Brett Anderson is included among the Dodgers starters, as are Lance Lynn for the Cardinals and Edwin Jackson for the Cubs. The total cash figures represent how much a team has spent while attempting to assemble a rotation. Figures are from Cot’s Contracts.

2016 MLB ROTATION PAYROLL

Clayton Kershaw will make more this year than half the rotations in Major League Baseball. The top teams on the list are all expected to compete for playoff berths this season, and they have paid for rotations to make that possible. At the other end, we see rebuilding Atlanta. Julio Teheran is making $3.5 million as part of his long-term extension and Bud Norris is getting $2.5 million, but those are Atlanta’s big-ticket items. They are set to let younger pitchers develop at the major-league level as they sink to the bottom this season. Looking just a bit to the left of the Braves, we see that cheap does not necessarily lead directly to also-ran status. The Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays have, at minimum, a fighting chance of making the playoffs this year, while Cleveland, Houston, and the New York Mets all have good shots at the playoffs, too.

The average rotation cost is roughly $37 million, with the median about $4 million less than that. The money devoted to the rotation by team is very different, but the teams bunch up a little bit more when the rotation money is taken as a percentage of total payroll. The graph below shows the percentage of payroll every team is devoting to the rotation.

PERCENTAGE OF 2016 MLB PAYROLL IN THE ROTATION

On average, teams spend around 29% of total payroll on their rotations. The Diamondbacks made a big splash by signing Zack Greinke, but their payroll is still around the $100 million mark. This could look a lot different for the Padres in a few months if Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross and James Shields hit the trade market. The San Francisco Giants and the Chicago Cubs both have fairly sizable payrolls, but the rotation takes a good chunk of that money. For the Cubs, they have a number of young, cost-controlled position players, but have had to go outside the organization to get John Lackey, Jon Lester and even Jason Hammel. Add in the rising cost of Jake Arrieta, and it is reasonable for the Cubs to devote so much money to the rotation. Similarly, the Giants have a young, relatively expensive infield, but Matt Cain, Johnny Cueto, and Jake Peavy are not cheap, even with Madison Bumgarner making under $10 million this season.

Given the graphs above, the Mets are the easy winner in terms of the most cost-effective payrolls. They’re at the top in terms of projections and near the bottom in terms of dollars paid. The graph below shows the cost per win above replacement for each rotation based on this season’s projections.

MLB 2016 ROTATIONS- DOLLARS PER PROJECTED WAR

The A’s, Indians and Mets are all paying less than $1 million per WAR. When the going rate on the free-agent market is $8 million per win, and the average cost overall in the rotation is roughly $3 million per WAR, that is an incredible achievement. The Mets have gotten a good deal of attention in this piece, but the Indians deserve a great deal of credit, as well. Carlos Carrasco, Corey Kluber and Danny Salazar provide great production at minimal cost, which should allow the team to compete for the division even as they have much of their payroll invested in players no longer on the team.

Meanwhile, the Detroit Tigers are paying nearly free-agent prices for their entire rotation. Verlander has taken a step back from his peak while Mike Pelfrey, Anibal Sanchez and Jordan Zimmerman were all signed as free agents. The Angels aren’t in quite the same shape, but with a ton of payroll devoted to Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson without much results expected, they are paying a considerable price. Those contracts will come off the books at the end of the season, providing the team with more flexibility.

While nobody would turn down the rotation of the Dodgers, and many teams likely envy the Indians’ pitching, the Mets rotation provides the most for little cost. Injuries can and will happen that will change the calculations as the season wears on, but right now, there is no better rotation set up now that provides the flexibility and production of the group the Mets have going.





Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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TKDC
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TKDC

Cost effectiveness should be measured by projected WAR value multiplied by average $$ per WAR (say, about $7 million), minus salary. A crappy rotation that doesn’t cost a lot is not cost effective. Any dumb ass could construct a barely better than replacement rotation on the cheap.

Sculpin
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Sculpin

Dude, do you have any idea what you just wrote? A little advice: when you come up with a formula, try plugging in some reasonable numbers and see what happens. In this case, you end up with something like 16,000,000 WAR-millions. What does that result mean to you?

Roger21
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Roger21

Dimensional analysis fail: TKDC said to multiply projected WAR by Dollars/WAR. The WAR cancel out, leaving you with a dollar value from which to subtract another dollar dollar value. No problem at all.

Concerned Reader John
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Concerned Reader John

I think TKDC has a point. Chris Sale is projected to worth $27.9 and $34.2 in surplus value. You can use a similar process to evaluate trades.

Concerned Reader John
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Concerned Reader John

$27.9 and $34.2 (million) in surplus value – based on the low and high projections on his profile page