The Most Cost-Effective Line-Ups in Baseball

Yesterday, I went through team rotations to analyze the most cost-effective pitching staffs in Major League Baseball. Today’s post looks at the hitter side. In a rotation with just five members, one superb pitcher can help create value for the entire staff. On the other hand, one bulging salary without production can drag down the entire rotation. On the hitter side, one player has less of an impact. A 220-inning pitcher counts for around 15% of a team’s innings, while a hitter with 700 plate appearances accounts for around 11% of a team’s plate appearances. The burden to score runs is spread among the entire lineup and bench players.

Like with the pitchers, we begin with the projected WAR generated by the hitting side of each team. Taken from the FanGraphs Depth charts, here are the team totals for projected WAR in 2015. The numbers include both starters as well as bench players.


Bringing in Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval looks to have a positive effect in 2015 for the Boston Red Sox as they beat out the Los Angeles Dodgers and Toronto Blue Jays for the top projected position player WAR. On the other end of the chart, moving Jason Heyward and Justin Upton without finding quality replacements is a 6-7 win downgrade for the 2015 projections. Half of the teams are bunched together with around 20-25 WAR. The payroll is more spread out.


Including designated hitter, seven of the New York Yankees’ nine hitters in their projected starting lineup make more than $10 million with Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, and Jacoby Ellsbury above the $20 million mark. The usual large-market suspects fall in line behind the Yankees, and then all the way down at the end are the Tampa Bay Rays, Oakland Athletics, Houston Astros, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Miami Marlins.

As we did yesterday with the rotation, the first step in reviewing cost-effectiveness is determining cost per win. The payroll numbers were collected from Cots at Baseball Prospectus. The teams that spend least tend to look the best in those calculations.

2015_position_players_cost_per_war (1)

No team is quite as efficient with their position players as Cleveland was with their pitchers, but the Pirates emerge as the clear leader. With Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte locked into team-friendly contracts and Gregory Polanco only getting his feet wet in the majors, the Pirates outfield should be one of the best in baseball in 2015. The infield has positive contributors who are all either in arbitration or making the MLB minimum. The Yankees, having paid most of their lineup in free agency, look to have few bargains hitting for them this season.

Comparing the position player salaries to the cost of obtaining the teams’ expected production on the free agent market shows the surplus each team receives from employing players who have yet to achieve free agency. Unlike with starting rotations, every single team runs a surplus on the hitting side. With more players to spread risk around and more than half of the players yet to hit free agency, teams should be running a surplus on the hitting side. The free agent market is where teams go when they do not have a cost-effective answer internally. With so many good players in MLB having under six years of service time, those players have tremendous value to teams.

In the graph below, the green bar represents the payroll for the hitters, and the orange bar on top represents the payroll surplus. The two bars together represent the total value of the team’s projected production if a team was forced to pay for that production on the free agent market. Teams are organized from largest surplus to smallest surplus.

2015_team_position_player_payroll_surplus (1)

The Pirates, discussed above, run the largest surplus with the A’s, St. Louis Cardinals, and Toronto Blue Jays near the top. The Blue Jays have a very good set of position players at reasonable salaries. Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion signed extensions that have worked out favorably for the franchise. The trade for Josh Donaldson was a major upgrade at a low salary, and Russell Martin’s contract is fairly light in 2015 before escalating in 2016. The Blue Jays have not had great luck on the pitching side this spring, but if it comes together they could make a lot of noise in the American League East. The high-priced Dodgers and Red Sox are in the middle of the pack in terms of surplus, but considering how much they paid and how much production they are receiving, the trade-off is likely worth it for those high-earners.

After examining the rotations yesterday and hitters today, adding in the bullpen as well as the dead money owed to players no longer on the team paying them provides a more global view of a team’s efficiency. Comparing total payroll to total projected production, here is a surplus graph similar to the one above. Although it is close, every single team is running a surplus over the production cost on the free agent market.

mlb_team_payroll_surplus (1)

With their fantastic young rotation and a solid lineup of young hitters in Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, and Yan Gomes, Cleveland is running the highest surplus in baseball. The Cardinals have long been a model of efficiency and the Washington Nationals perform the best of the big spending clubs. Oakland, Tampa, and Pittsburgh are all running big surpluses, but with the salaries they are paying, they have to if they want to contend. Teams like the Tigers, Yankees, and Dodgers can run a smaller surplus and still have no problem contending due to high salaries.

Ultimately, wins and losses separate teams and that is what matters to fans at the end of the season. A good, yet expensive, free agent signing can push a team over the top. Matt Holliday has been an offensive force for years for the Cardinals, and the Nationals have the best odds to win the World Series after signing Max Scherzer. However, the ability to show a surplus in value is a positive reflection on the planning (and luck) of an organization. A surplus indicates generally that a team has a young, exciting roster that fans can get behind. Bragging about having a big value surplus is not worthwhile, but if it means cheering for a young, exciting, winning team, having that surplus matters.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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9 years ago

“[T]he ability to show a surplus in value is a positive reflection on the planning (and luck) of an organization. A surplus indicates generally that a team has a young, exciting roster that fans can get behind.”

(pulls out magnifying glass)
(sees the tiny lil smidge of yellow for the Phillies surplus)

Ah…another job well done!

–Ruben Amaro Jr, March 2015

9 years ago
Reply to  Phillies113

This might be my favorite comment ever.