Cardinals and Their Peers: Payroll vs. Wins

Does a high payroll translate into winning? Some St. Louis Cardinals fans think so. Now, you can check the data for yourself and draw your own conclusions as Brian Walton does in this editorial.

The St. Louis Cardinals' player payroll and its potential resultant effect on the field to the team's won-loss record seem to be a topic constantly in the forefront of the minds of many Cardinals fans, if traffic on our message board is any indication.


Despite the 2008 club overachieving in many fans' eyes for five months, the crashing reality of the September swoon has caused many to catch a serious case of the "What ifs?".


In that vein, I want to share a link to a site that is updated daily which graphically correlates player payroll with the current Major League Baseball won-loss records. It was developed by a talented individual named Ben Fry, who has written a book called Visualizing Data.

On the right you will see each of the 30 team's salaries for the 2008 season. On the left are their current records. Each is listed from highest to lowest (wins and $). For each team, the line from right to left, between salary and wins, is either red and sloped downward (team underperforming relative to salary) or blue and upward (overperforming).

In other words, the team's rank on one list is compared to their rank on the other list. If a club is higher-ranked in wins than in payroll, the line is blue (positive). The sharper the slope of the line, the greater the disparity is between salary and results.


It is a simple analysis, but in my opinion, the graphical representation brings it to life far more effectively than a simple table of numbers ever could.


Now for some observations.

Only three of the top 11 salaried clubs (Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Chicago Cubs) are currently blue. (I selected 11, since that is the Cardinals' salary rank on this list.) That leaves eight of the top 11 spenders this season under-delivering, including St. Louis.

At the other end of the spectrum, eight of the ten lowest-budget clubs are performing better than their salary rank. Yet, Tampa Bay is the only one of them able to make the huge leap of heading toward the post-season.


Three clubs, the Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians and Pittsburgh Pirates, are in alignment – their win rank and salary rank are equivalent (horizontal line). To me, that is most interesting, as Boston is near the top, Cleveland is in the middle and Pittsburgh is near the cellar.


Note that the date slide bar across the top of the graph allows you to see the daily change throughout the season. Fry also provides links to tables from past seasons.


While the 2007 table was unavailable as I prepared this article, both the 2005 100-win Cardinals as well as the 83-win 2006 club had positive blue slopes.

OK, time for my editorial.


I turn off paying attention to those who continually harp about the AMOUNT of money the Cardinals spend because not only are their repetitive rants extremely tiring, but I truly and firmly believe they are focused on the wrong problem.


It is not the amount that is spent as much as it is HOW the money is spent.


This is the question that should be asked. "Why do the Cardinals have the 11th-highest payroll but only the 15th-most wins?"


The reality is that prior to their late-season nosedive, back when they were sitting at 13 or 14 games over .500, St. Louis' line was a positively-sloped blue.

Looking ahead, I for one, am happy to engage in a discussion anytime about HOW the Cardinals might better spend their $99 million, or whatever their budget will be next season. To me, that makes all the sense in the world. How do they get the most bang for their buck?


What bores me to tears, however, is the mindless complaining and associated childish name-calling that began well before the 2006 World Championship and continues to this very day.


It seems to be rooted in a baseless belief that more money should have been spent by Cardinals ownership last year, this year and next year, because a higher payroll will ensure an increase in winning.

If you have any doubt about the fallacy of that argument, take another gander at Fry's charts.


Now that doesn't mean that the Cardinals should not remain competitive. They should and they have.


As a very astute poster recently pointed out on our message board, since current ownership took control of the Cardinals following the 1995 season, they have increased player payroll an average of 10% every year that they have owned the team.


In my book, that should be enough to get into the playoffs.


No, it hasn't happened the last two seasons, but it has in seven of the 13 years this regime has been in place, an unprecedented run of success for one of the game's greatest franchises.


Let's all focus on what the Cardinals need to do to get back to the post-season, but the concept of spending more money for spending's sake to achieve it is nothing but a simpleton's answer to a complex problem.



Brian Walton can be reached via email at


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