The Best World Series Money Can Buy

If the Milwaukee Brewers had managed to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in the seventh game of the NLCS, this post would examine one of biggest payroll disparities in World Series history. The Brewers couldn’t quite get the job done, however. As a result, it’s the Dodgers who advance to the final round of the 2018 postseason, and instead we have the most expensive World Series in history.

The Red Sox are projected to record a final a payroll around $237 million, which is the highest in baseball. The Dodgers — after considerable cost-cutting measures during the offseason — will finish the year with a payroll close to $194 million, per Cot’s Contracts. The Dodgers’ figure will likely be the fourth highest in MLB this season behind the Red Sox, Nationals, and Giants. The $423 million spent on payroll by the two World Series participants this season is the most ever.

The payroll totals somehow don’t do justice to how much these clubs have spent to get here. The Dodgers have spent $1.249 billion over the past five years, for an average payroll of $250 million. That’figure comes before accounting for the $28 million per season the Dodgers have paid in competitive-balance taxes. The Red Sox payroll this season — due to the Dodgers’ and Yankees’ efforts to get under the $197 million tax threshold — is more than $30 million clear of the second-place Nationals. When the club’s $10 million tax bill is considered, the team’s payroll is more than 20% higher than the Nationals. The difference between the Red Sox and Nationals is roughly the same as the difference between the Nationals and the 12th-place Mets. The Red Sox have spent $987.1 million on the team over the past five years, for an average payroll of $197 million — and just a bit over $200 million when factoring in taxes paid. Only the Dodgers and Yankees have spent more during that time.

As for the talent actually featured on the current rosters, the two clubs are very even: both had close to $155 million on the active roster in their respective LCSs. The graph below shows salaries (for competitive-balance tax purposes) for the players expected to play a role in the World Series. Players are shown by the amount of money the Red Sox or Dodgers are paying, not necessarily their full salary for the season. For example, Manny Machado is credited only with the portion of his salary for which the Dodgers are responsible following his acquisition from the Orioles.

Both teams have a high-priced ace followed by a significant salary for a position player, though the Red Sox have gotten a lot more out of J.D. Martinez than the Dodgers have with Matt Kemp this season. After that, the teams continue down the scale at a pretty even pace. As most successful teams do, both teams have key contributors at the very bottom of the MLB pay scale. For the Red Sox, Andrew Benintendi and Rafael Devers are minimum-salaried players, while the Dodgers have Walker Buehler and Max Muncy playing important roles.

As for the largest payrolls in World Series history, the Red Sox don’t take the top spot, which goes to the Dodgers team from a year ago. Below, see the individual payrolls for every World Series team since 2000.

The Red Sox and Dodgers have two of the top five payrolls in World Series history. It should come as no surprise, then, that the two teams have the highest average payroll of any World Series.

Of course, these numbers are a bit skewed because they don’t account for inflation. Over the last five seasons, MLB payroll have increased by around 50%. Over the last dozen seasons, payrolls have doubled, and over the last 20 years, they’ve tripled. Comparing payrolls using dollar figures from the year of the World Series doesn’t paint an accurate picture. Using MLB’s inflation, I’ve transferred the prior World Series payrolls into 2018 numbers. In 2018 MLB payroll dollars, here are the the largest payrolls since 2000.

After adjusting for inflation, the Red Sox’ payroll this season isn’t even the franchise’s largest, with the team’s in 2004, 2007, and 2013 all coming in much higher. None of the Red Sox teams can touch the Yankees clubs from 2003 and 2009, however. In 2003, the Yankees’ payroll was $180 million, more than two-and-a-half times the average payroll of $71 million. With an average payroll closer to $160 million, a team would need to spend $400 million to keep pace with that figure.

Nearly half of the World Series participants over the last two decades have carried a payroll higher than the Dodgers’ $194 million payroll in 2018 dollars. MLB owners have done a very good job at keeping the competitive-balance-tax level very low compared with historical standards. Taken together with teams’ use of the tax figure as a de facto salary cap, and it is clear that high-end payrolls have not come close to keeping pace with MLBs growing revenue and player pay.

In terms of average payrolls for the World Series, here are the highest average payrolls in the World Series using 2018 dollar figures.

While the 2003 Yankees might have the highest payroll in this year’s dollars, playing the Marlins meant that the average couldn’t quite compete. In 2009, the high-salaried Yankees played the Phillies, whose $138 million payroll was sixth in baseball and similar to the Red Sox’ $237 million this season. In 2004, the upstart Red Sox faced off against the small-market Cardinals, but in today’s numbers, the Red Sox’ payroll is close to $300 million, while the Cardinals would eclipse $200 million in today’s dollars. To provide one more perspective, I used the geometric mean of the above numbers so one high payroll averaged with a low payroll don’t end up as high as two relatively high payrolls.

The Yankees-Phillies series still takes the top spot, while the Yankees-Mets matchup moves into second — though that was back when the Mets’ spending was more consistent with their revenues and massive media market. This year’s World Series features two big-market teams with big payrolls according to this year’s standards. However, those payrolls still come in well behind World Series matchups from the past when the biggest payrolls used to take up a lot more of the total payroll space. We have a compelling World Series matchup regardless of payrolls, but the financial perch occupied by both the Dodgers and Red Sox adds one more wrinkle.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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5 years ago

I can’t help but wonder where this years’ Giants’ rank on the alltime ‘wins per payroll dollar’ list. Probably higher than last years’ Giants but maybe not too many other teams. Rarely in the history of baseball, I suspect, has so much money been paid to so many players for so little. It does show that you can’t just buy a good team.

5 years ago

Gonna be a lot of Mets on that list.

5 years ago

2015 Phillies, 99 losses with three $20mil players