Slow Your (Pay)Roll

Against the odds, the 97-win A’s and the 108-win Red Sox were two of the best teams in baseball this year. Despite being polar opposites in almost every way, they were both (briefly) postseason contenders: one team, from a big market with the biggest payroll in baseball, the other, an underdog with the second-lowest payroll. So when the Red Sox won the World Series, every hater with internet access took to social media to blast Boston for buying their fourth championship in fifteen years. And when A’s manager Bob Melvin won American League Manager of the Year this week, it became an opportunity for trolls to gloat that money couldn’t buy Alex Cora the accolade.

The Red Sox had the largest payroll in baseball this year. It’s simply a fact. I won’t deny it because trying to do so would be ludicrous. This year, Boston stood atop MLB’s payroll rankings with an astronomical $240 million paid to their players. Scroll allllll the way down, and you’ll see the Oakland A’s at #29 on a list of 30 MLB teams, with a mere $82 million.

It’s only the wealthy who say that money isn’t everything. And I actually think that Bob Melvin deserved to win Manager of the Year. So did Kevin Cash and Alex Cora. Three managers of three totally different teams, who each had different, but impressive seasons. That’s how these things work; you’re nominated because you deserve to win. And the payroll of the 2018 Boston Red Sox does not tell the full story of the 2018 Boston Red Sox. So before I congratulate Bob Melvin, I just want to point out a few things.

For starters, a manager’s job is to utilize every player on their roster to the best of their ability. They don’t get much of a say in how much money has already been spent on the team they inherit; a new manager does not also get to build a brand-new team right away, rather it’s his job to work with what he’s given, at least, at first. Sure, Cora recommended DFA-ing Hanley Ramirez and will now get input into future signings and roster moves, but he took a job with the Red Sox knowing he would be managing the richest team in baseball, and the inverse can be said for Bob Melvin.

Onto payroll specifics: a sizeable chunk of the Red Sox ‘roll went to players no longer with the team. Hanley was gone by June, but the Sox still had to pay him over $22 million. And who could forget the Panda no longer in the room? The Red Sox had to eat $49.5 million remaining on Pablo Sandoval’s contract when they banished him last year. They’ll be paying that one off for a few more years. He made almost $18 million this year and will get paid over $20 million in 2019 while he sits on the San Francisco bench. Allen Craig got $1 million from the Sox in 2018, too. Altogether, that’s around 20% of the payroll. I won’t even get into the players who spent the season on the DL, like Dustin Pedroia and his $16+ million paycheck. Of course, no team is immune to dead contracts that eat up parts of their payroll, but these were larger salaries than most. Luckily, the Red Sox can afford to pay them, and find players to replace them, too. Of course, that costs more money.

But the ‘biggest payroll’ argument really much falls apart when you look at the individual Red Sox salaries this year. Many players are far more valuable than their price tag, while some never earn their keep. Until this year, I never thought that David Price deserved his contracted $247 million. On the other hand, Brock Holt became the first player in MLB history to hit for the cycle in a postseason game and had a handful of pinch-hit home runs; he made $2.25 million this year. Some of Boston’s most valuable, most-utilized, most important players were home-grown and had a combined salary smaller than Pablo Sandoval’s. Likely AL MVP Mookie Betts, postseason defensive hero Andrew Benintendi, and ALCS MVP Jackie Bradley Jr. didn’t make $18 million between them, and they are one of the best outfields in franchise history. I hear they’re accepting donations to supplement their income.

So how much does money matter? It matters, but I’d argue not as much as the team. A team can be the richest or poorest in baseball every year and never succeed at the level of this year’s Red Sox and A’s. Teams like San Francisco and New York (the Yankees, to be specific) are living proof that that spending money doesn’t guarantee a championship or even entree into the postseason. Oakland and Milwaukee, on the other hand, prove that you don’t need to have money to play October baseball. With $96 million on the books in 2018, Milwaukee was only three spots richer than Oakland at the bottom of the payroll rankings. But when the Brewers faced the Dodgers in the NLCS, Milwaukee’s Game 7 starting lineup totaled $52 million; Los Angeles rang up just $30 million, yet they had the third-highest payroll in baseball this year.

Oakland fought hard all season long, even besting the Red Sox more than most ball clubs. But when it came time for the Wild Card game, they didn’t look like they were fighting anymore. The Yankees toppled them, then flamed out the following week; money couldn’t save them from the Red Sox any more than it could the Dodgers. In the end, the Red Sox beat the poor and rich teams alike because they were simply better.

The Oakland A’s had an incredible season. No one is saying that they didn’t. And money makes a difference. No one is denoting that, either. When you consider their lack of largess, their success is all the more remarkable. I’m in awe of what Bob Melvin was able to do with his team, and you should be, too. Like I said last week, each team’s manager deserved the award for different reasons, because each team is different and each of their seasons was different. The only way to truly know if one manager is better than another would be to have them simultaneously manage completely identical teams, but this isn’t a science experiment: this is baseball.

So applaud Alex Cora for the first 108-win season in Red Sox history and their first World Series win without David Ortiz in a full century. And then applaud Bob Melvin for making something great out of almost nothing, and get excited to see him hopefully get them even further next year.

Everybody wins. 

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