Pirates are among MLB's smartest spenders, but record continues to lag
By Bob Cohn
Published: Sunday, Sept. 9, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Perhaps for the first time in nearly 20 years, the Pirates are being called smart spenders.
This rather startling news comes from Bloomberg Businessweek, which ranked all the teams in the four major professional sports according to a formula that determined their “spending efficiency” during the past five years, plus the 2012 baseball season as projected at the halfway point.
In a piece headlined “Smartest Spenders in Sports, ” the Pirates ranked sixth in Major League Baseball and 23rd among 122 pro teams.
Reporter Ira Boudway, who coordinated the project, acknowledges the disconnect here. However, he said, “This isn't a matter of fan satisfaction. Not only does it not measure fan satisfaction, it doesn't measure ownership dedication. ... You can look efficient by not spending.”
You can also look, um, frugal.
The Pirates are on a winning pace this year, but they went 326-489 (.402) over the past five seasons, finishing last in the National League Central four times and fourth last season.
No MLB club fared worse during that span. But no MLB club spent less on salaries (an average of $45 million a year), either, according to the data, and this season's projected (at midseason) winning record helped. Although it wasn't much, the Pirates got exactly what they paid for. Several higher-spending teams did not.
The Pirates are “efficient in a strictly statistical sense, compared to a team that spends more and doesn't win much more,” Boudway said. “It's not the perfect measure of a quality franchise that will produce a satisfactory result for the fans.”
Boudway said key elements of the ranking formula emphasize important victories — wins over .500, playoff wins and championships. The Pirates have none of those, yet their efficiency index still beats those of the past two World Series winners, the Cardinals and Giants, along with the Reds, Braves, Tigers and Yankees, among others.
The Pirates ranked just behind the Phillies, whose average payroll was more than three times greater but who made the playoffs five straight years, winning two pennants and a World Series.
Boudway said the relative values of the “important win” categories are not final or definitive. Accordingly, online readers can interact with the story (www.businessweek.com) and alter the formula, giving more or less value to the categories to change the rankings. For example, when the three important win categories get the maximum value, the Pirates drop to 87th.
Maybe that's more like it.
Another surprise was the Miami Marlins' No. 3 MLB ranking. Not a surprise is the Tampa Bay Rays' No. 1 rank overall. With an average payroll of $50.2 million, the Rays averaged 87 wins a season and made three playoff appearances, winning the American League pennant in 2008, although the formula did not take that into account because it wasn't a “championship.”
Rounding out the top 10 are the Detroit Red Wings, Penguins, Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Bruins, Boston Celtics, New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers and Chicago Blackhawks. The Steelers check in at No. 14.
Boudway noted that the NFL rankings generally reflect the quality of the teams regardless of spending because of the hard salary cap. The same is mostly true in the NHL, so it figures that the Steelers and Penguins, who both win a lot while spending fairly close to what everyone else spends, rank among the most efficient.
Payrolls vary more in the NBA, where teams can exceed the salary cap if they are willing to pay extra. MLB, with no salary cap, has the greatest variance, and clubs can spend as much or as little as they want.
Sometimes, like the Pirates, they get back what they put in.
Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7810.
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