Every Roster Spot Matters in the Post-Pujols Era

Your goal shouldn't be to buy players. Your goal should be to buy wins.

-- Peter Brand, "Moneyball"

In the movie adaptation of Michael Lewis's book Moneyball this quote is the beautifully concise explanation of the sabermetric approach to baseball. Nowadays folks running ball clubs are still trying to buy wins with runs being the coin of the realm. Since the 2002 season that was the subject of the book and film, Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) has largely been displaced by Wins Above Replacement (WAR) as the all-encompassing stat of choice.

One of the more understandable negative reactions to WAR is the use of "win" in its name. Wins are typically tallied in the standings and belong to a team so there is a natural inclination to equate a player's individual WAR to the team's win total on the field. For several reasons, including that WAR is a context-neutral stat, fans can't do this. That being said, while a player's Win Above Replacement does not equal a team win, there is a strong correlation between a team's collective WAR total and its won/lost record. As Dave Cameron writes for Fangraphs:

WAR isn’t perfect. But given the known limitations and the variations in how contextual situations impact final record, it does an awfully impressive job of projecting wins and losses.

This makes sense. After all, the better the player the higher his WAR total and the better the players on a team the higher its win total.

One of the best uses for WAR, in my opinion, is in evaluating the salaries given to ball players. Players with higher production and therefore higher WAR totals are able to receive higher salaries on the free agent market. A linear relationship has been shown to exist between player performance as represented by the WAR stat and player salary. This relationship is shown on the Fangraphs player pages where a player's salary can be found along with his value based on his WAR production. Heading into the post-2011 Hot Stove, 1.0 WAR worth of production from a player on the free agent market was worth approximately $4.5 million. This is the prism through which I have viewed free agent signings such as Rafael Furcal. But it is also a prism that can be used when looking at a club's overall roster construction.

Naturally a ball club wants to receive value in excess of what it is paying a given player. This is most easily done with young, cost-controlled players that have not yet hit arbitration or free agency because they make below $500,000 in salary. It is more difficult to realize surplus value with free agent players because clubs are paying a premium for established talent. Over his last eight years with the Cardinals, few players have approached the surplus value that Albert Pujols gave the St. Louis Cardinals.

As the Pujols contract extension talks and free agency played out over the last year one common refrain was that the St. Louis Cardinals received a bargain on the contract extension the club signed Pujols to after the 2003 season. Looking back at the $100 million contract that covered the 2004 through 2011 seasons there is no question that the production Pujols provided in excess of his salary was staggering. In the following graph, Pujols's salary is represented by green bars and the value of his production is represented by red bars.

*For this chart, I used the Fangraphs salary and value totals for Pujols in each year until 2009. The Fangraphs "Value" chart does not provide a salary for 2009, 2010, or 2011, so I filled in these blanks with the Baseball Reference salary information for Pujols.

This chart is yet another example of just how valuable Pujols was during his time with the Cardinals. If sportswriters defined the "valuable" in Most Valuable Player in economic terms, Pujols should have been the National League's MVP from at least 2004 through 2009--such was how far his production outpaced his salary. In multiple seasons, Pujols produced WAR in surplus of his salary that was the equivalent of the WAR production of a Matt Holliday or Lance Berkman type of player. It was truly incredible.

YEAR

SALARY

PAID-FOR WAR

VALUE

ACTUAL WAR

SURPLUS WAR

2004

$7.0MM

2.27

$25.9MM

8.4

6.13

2005

$11.0MM

3.24

$27.9MM

8.2

4.96

2006

$14.0MM

3.79

$31.4MM

8.5

4.71

2007

$12.9MM

4.08

$34.3MM

8.4

4.32

2008

$13.9MM

4.00

$40.9MM

9.1

5.10

2009

$14.4MM

3.21

$40.4MM

9.0

5.79

2010

$14.6MM

3.65

$30.0MM

7.5

3.85

2011

$14.5MM

3.24

$22.8MM

5.1

1.77

When you have a player giving your club this kind of surplus production, it helps to paper over the bad decisions made elsewhere on the roster such as Aaron Miles, Skip Schumaker, Ryan Theriot, Joe Thurston, Juan Encarnacion, Jason Marquis, and Adam Kennedy as well as injuries such as those suffered by Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds, Chris Carpenter, David Eckstein and Jason Isringhausen. Whether Pujols signed with St. Louis or moved on, from 2012 onward the Cardinals would not have enjoyed the enormous surplus production previously provided by Pujols that served as a buffer to poor roster decisions and injuries.

The Cardinals won the World Series in 2011 despite Pujols having his worst season as a big leaguer. In fact, Pujols only gave the team 1.77 WAR in surplus value for the season. Whereas replacing Pujols would have been unthinkable a few years ago, 2011 understandably has folks discussing how the Cardinals might replace his WAR total of 5.1 in the aggregate this coming season. With Adam Wainwright returning from injury, replacing Pujols's 2011 WAR total will certainly be a feasible endeavor. Pujols leaving also has folks concerned about the decision-making process John Mozeliak used in making roster decisions--most recently Azru addressed the topic yesterday.

So far the Cardinals' post-Pujols roster decisions have been a mixed bag. The Cardinals agreed to pay Furcal at a level on par with 3.11 WAR in production over two years; if healthy, he seems a good bet to give the club value in surplus of his salary. However, the Cardinals then brought back Skip Schumaker on a two-year deal that offers far higher odds of production beneath his low salary than in excess of it. Likewise, the decisions to bring back Kyle McClellan, who was kept off the NLDS and World Series rosters due to a case of the dead arm, and to sign lefty reliever J.C. Romero, infamous for his high walk rate, offer little if any potential surplus value. Unlike Furcal, these three decisions seem more about buying players--"clubhouse guy," "proven reliever," and "lefty reliever"--than buying wins.

Without Pujolsian production at a bargain price to help cover up poor roster decisions, the Cardinals must spend their money and use their roster spots much more wisely than in the past. The Cardinals need to fully embrace the youth movement that has emerged in recent years by filling their bench and bullpen with low-cost players who have upside potential while also spending wisely for production on the free agent market. There are still multiple free agents that are good bets to help replace Pujols's production in the aggregate that also stand as good bets to provide the club with production that outpaces their likely salary cost. In the weeks ahead, it will be interesting to see how Mozeliak fills out the Cardinals' first post-Pujols roster. Hopefully he buys a lot more wins than players.

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