This past weekend, the Boston Red Sox, owners of the best record in the majors and rather a shoo-in to reach well over 100 wins in the season, hosted the Tampa Bay Rays. The difference in the teams is fairly stark and worth a little observation.
The Rays play in Tropicana Field, a domed stadium in St. Petersburg (it is, after all, the Tampa Bay and not the "Tampa" Rays). Although I've never been inside, it is widely regarded as a dump, unattractive to watch a game in, and certainly reflective of the dump that is the Rays organizational finances, in part because they can't attract fans to the place.
Although it is not necessarily the best metric, it is certainly worth pointing out that the series pitted the team with the highest 2018 payroll in the game (Boston) against the team with the lowest (Tampa Bay). That having been said, it should have been only a minimal surprise that the Rays swept the series, to the disappointment of the Red Sox, their fans (including me) and most of New England.
After all, in baseball, they play 162 games, and the better team certainly does not always win. Beyond that, despite their meager payroll, the Rays actually are several games over .500 and, while they're really not contending even for a wild card, the fact that they win as much as they do with a paltry payroll is remarkable.
Now, as I have said, comparing payrolls can be a fool's errand. Major League Baseball does not have a salary cap, but it does have a "luxury tax", under which teams whose payrolls exceed various thresholds kick back a percentage of the overage to the league, which distributes it to lower-revenue teams.
The luxury tax is progressive, to where at a certain point it is an effective limit on team salary obligations. The highest team payrolls are still under $250 million (Tampa Bay is at the bottom, about $75 million). But note that the revenues of the highest-income teams are substantially above that, so that while those teams rake in a lot of dollars, they still have to be careful where they spend it.
Boston, for example, is still paying two players no longer with the team $40 million or so in 2018 as a result of poor contract decisions in the past. The New York Mets are still paying $1.2 million a year to Bobby Bonilla, who has not played in the majors for seventeen years. But I digress.
Boston this year is paying two players no longer on the team well over half of the amount that Tampa Bay is paying their entire team. The economics are truly bizarre. Tampa Bay can obviously not afford to hand out even $15 million a year contracts to anyone -- only four players on the roster make even $1 million a year, and none makes as much as $6 million. They certainly can't afford to make mistakes.
So while I regretted the three game losses over the weekend, I also respect the process by which the Rays have built their roster, heavily tilted toward younger players (and therefore cost-controlled). I respect that they have taken a young manager, Dave Cash (a former Red Sox catcher, naturally) and allowed him to guide his team with the trust of the organization.
Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Oakland Athletics were in the same financial position as the Rays are in now, with a similarly abysmal ballpark and little possibility of generating the revenues needed to attract free agent players and keep their own talent.
But they, like the 2018 Rays, found ways to succeed. They even won several division titles with over 100 wins, despite being at or near the bottom of MLB in team payroll. They looked for ways that they could minimize the impact of revenues, identifying undervalued skills that traditional scouting paid little attention to, such as getting on base.
I don't know what the Rays are doing. The statistics don't seem to show anything particular, but the team wins a lot of games. If there is an undervalued attribute they're leveraging, we can't yet tell what. And no one really looks forward to playing them, even if the game is not in St. Petersburg.
But they have my respect. And they also have four more games with the Yankees, in which I wish them all the best. And no more with Boston, for which I'm grateful.
Copyright 2018 by Robert Sutton
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