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How are Playoff Teams Built, and How do the Cardinals Compare?

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Where can the Cardinals improve?

St Louis Cardinals v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

We’ve reached the final week of the 2018 baseball season. The playoff teams on display this month have represented a wide variety of composition. At risk of being very reductionist, the Red Sox, Dodgers, Yankees, and Cubs gave us fiscal behemoths. Oakland and Milwaukee sent low payroll options to the table. The Braves made it to the playoffs with one of the youngest teams in the game, while Cleveland survived by keeping their talented core together much longer than anyone else. Every team who made it has excelled using analytics to some degree, but it would be hard to argue that anybody does it as effectively as Houston. We only saw Colorado for a single game, but they brought their colossal amount of homegrown talent to the playoffs. On the whole, these teams- and playoff teams in general- make an interesting measuring stick. Today, I’d like to compare this year’s Cardinal squad to playoff teams over the last five years. Let’s see if there’s anything meaningful to be learned in the comparison.

Acquisition Methods

There are a lot of amazing baseball sites out there. Baseball Prospectus, Fangraphs (and their sister site, The Hardball Times), Baseball Savant, Baseball Reference, and Brooks Baseball are all tremendous sites that excel in their own way. There’s another one out there that only rarely gets acknowledged, and I’m going to use it. The Baseball Gauge has compiled handy tables of data for each year, each possessing the amount of Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement (bWAR) each team received by player acquisition type. For instance, because of The Baseball Gauge, we can quickly discover that the Rockies received 27.9 bWAR from homegrown players, tops in baseball.

Here’s how the Cardinals fared in 2018 compared to the average playoff team and average non-playoff team over the last five seasons.

It would probably be helpful to define some of these categories. The draft is fairly straight forward, though it’s worth noting that it’s unclear if it includes the Rule 5 draft. Trades and free agency are straightforward. Amateur free agents would include mostly international signings or undrafted free agents. Homegrown mostly, but not exclusively, consists of the Draft category. The Other designation is a little murky and I’m not entirely sure what’s included. When digging into it a little, I found info that was inconsistent with what I would normally consider to be Other.

In most of these categories, the Cardinals fall below both playoff and non-playoff teams alike. Free agency is easy to explain. Had Dexter Fowler and Greg Holland simply been replacement level instead of -1.5 and -1.4 bWAR, respectively, the Cardinals would have surpassed the average non-playoff team by a smidge. They still would have fallen 3.5 wins below the average playoff team, but it would look much more respectable.

Trades also have some simple explanations. Teams in contention tend to make moves around the trade deadline. That doesn’t entirely make up for the six win gap that they have over non-playoff teams, but it accounts for at least some of it. In the Cardinals case, they were in a difficult position when the non-waiver trade deadline rolled around. They were hanging on to contention by the skin of their teeth, and the playoffs were unlikely. As such, it’s easy to understand why they didn’t want to double down. Perusing their list of players acquired via trade, unlike free agency, there aren’t any obvious culprits. Most of their trade acquisitions performed reasonably well. It’s simply that they have a higher degree of trust in their own homegrown players, and as such have fewer trade acquisitions populating the roster.

Speaking of preferring their own homegrown players, those categories- Draft and Homegrown- are massive successes for the franchise. This year’s team had the 10th highest total drafted bWAR over the last five years out of 150 teams. It’s not a fluke or an anomaly, either. The 2015 team has the fifth highest, 2017 is the sixth highest, and 2014 is the 17th highest. Even the 2016 output falls in the upper third percentile. Whatever the franchise’s failings, they produce homegrown talent as well as anyone.

The Amateur Free Agent designation takes a few hits that explain the gap. Carlos Martinez, for instance, is listed on Baseball Reference as a free agent. He was an international signing, but his previous voided contract with the Red Sox- even though he never threw a single pitch with Boston- bumps him into free agent territory. That’s value the Cardinals could have had under Amateur Free Agents. Alex Reyes was poised to provide value before his season evaporated in a miserable day in Milwaukee. And it has to be said- Oscar Taveras would have fallen in this group.

Since Other is murky, I think we can mostly toss that one out. Regardless of how The Baseball Gauge defines it, I tend to think of it as the amount of value acquired by players via unconventional means. For the Cardinals, they purchased Jose Martinez from the Royals, signed Miles Mikolas out of Japan, and received productive innings from both waiver claim Tyson Ross and Rule 5 draft pick John Brebbia. Hall of Fame executive Pat Gillick was fond of saying that, to find talent, “One needs to fish in many waters.” What he meant was that a good executive and team would leave no stone unturned in trying to procure talent. I can’t say that the Cardinals are the best at doing this, but I do feel comfortable saying they’re at least adequate.

The failing here is in free agency, and a few years of failed free agents. Fowler and Holland had awful seasons. Luke Gregerson and Brett Cecil weren’t much better. Mikolas was obviously a tremendous signing, while the rest of their free agent acquisitions were depth. Whatever the cause- poor evaluation, dumb luck, a little of both- if Fowler, Holland, Gregerson, and Cecil had performed to their projections, the Cardinals would have been a playoff team.

Average Age

Perhaps there’s something to the idea of a youth movement hampering a potential playoff team. Here are the average ages for playoff teams, non-playoff teams, and the 2018 Cardinals. It’s broken out by overall average age, average hitter age, and average pitcher age.

I’m sure payroll discrepancy for playoff vs. non-playoff teams helps explain the slight age gap. Better players cost more money, and playoff-bound teams are more likely to pony up for better players. Younger players are less established, and cheaper. That said, we aren’t talking about much of a gap. The average player for a playoff team is half a year older than the average from a non-playoff team. The gap is created almost exclusively on the pitching side. The difference for hitters is a mere fifth of a year older for playoff teams.

As for the Cardinals, their hitters fell perfectly between playoff and non-playoff team ages. On the other hand, their average pitcher was a whopping 2.2 years younger than the average playoff team pitcher. They were even 1.4 years younger than the average non-playoff team pitcher. I’m very hesitant to assign any sort of meaning to that particular fact, interesting though it may be. They were undeniably young on the pitching side of things, but their under-27 pitchers provided plenty of value.

Payroll and Salary Distribution by Position

There’s one last aspect I’d like to discuss. I’m going to shift away from The Baseball Gauge, instead using Spotrac’s payroll tracker. As with the other data collected, I’ve gathered five years of data for playoff and non-playoff teams alike. Here’s how the average playoff and non-playoff team allotted their money, split between pitchers and position players. It also includes what I’m calling dead money. Dead money includes salary paid to players on the disabled list, retired players, draft signing bonuses, and retained salaries (players who have been released, traded, or bought out). It’s money spent on players who can’t directly help you in a season, or in the case of long-term injuries, whose impact is greatly reduced.

There’s a large gap in how much playoff teams spend on their position players, both compared to non-playoff teams and this year’s Cardinals. The nine percent gap between the Cardinals and the average playoff team seems significant. It probably helps explain the fact that the Cardinals have fewer high end performers than most lineups, particularly compared to the league’s best teams.

The big story in that graph, however, is the dead money. In terms of overall payroll, after adjusting the 2014-2017 team payrolls to 2018 numbers, the average playoff team spent $163.55 million. This year’s Cardinal squad came in at $163.78 million, almost perfectly aligned with the average. The average non-playoff team came in at $125.62 million. The difference is that 16% of the average playoff team’s payroll went to dead money, whereas this year’s Cardinals doled out a whopping 30.4% of their payroll to Fowler, Holland, Mike Leake, Michael Wacha, Luke Gregerson, and Tyler Lyons, amongst others. That’s a large chunk of team payroll lost to spoilage.

You don’t need me to tell you this, but it’s a bad idea to lose 30% of payroll or more to dead money. Since 2014, there have been 52 teams with 30% or more of their payroll going to dead money. Only five of them made the playoffs. Those teams were:

  • 2015 Dodgers: This team had the largest payroll, adjusted to 2018 dollars, of any team in our five year sample. Stripping out dead money still left them with $200+ million (in 2018 dollars) to put together a roster.
  • 2018 Braves: The Braves were an anomaly this year thanks to their unique “We’ll take the Dodgers’ dead money for our dead money” deal in the spring. Adrian Gonzalez and Scott Kazmir alone accounted for over $40M in dead money but the Braves didn’t plan on either contributing to the 2018 team in any way. Moreover, their best players are extremely young and cheap, pushing the balance of dead money to payroll money (“live” money?) further out of whack.
  • 2017 Twins: A large portion of their dead money came from injuries, with Phil Hughes and Hector Santiago jettisoning $21M straight to the disabled list. They could overcome it because their best players were pre-arbitration, and it was a weak playoff field.
  • 2016 Mets: The Mets punted $20M to the disabled list with David Wright alone, and were paying $4.5M in deferred salaries to Carlos Beltran, Bobby Bonilla, and Bret Saberhagen. They had just enough young, inexpensive talent to overcome it.
  • 2016 Cleveland: They had a low payroll, so it didn’t take much dead money to reach a high percentage. Paying nearly $26M to Juan Uribe, Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, and Chris Johnson did the trick, along with losing $7M to Michael Brantley’s injury-riddled season. They papered over it with a thrilling young core featuring Francisco Lindor, Jason Kipnis, Corey Kluber, and Jose Ramirez, all performing at star levels for a collective $11.8M.

You can get away with dead money, but it requires either an outrageously large payroll or a large chunk of star-quality performance from cost-controlled players. It’s possible the Cardinals might fit the latter, not so much the former. And for them to fit the latter, it’s going to take a step forward from some combination of Jack Flaherty, Harrison Bader, Paul DeJong, or Kolten Wong. It’s best to avoid dead money altogether. Compounding matters, the Dexter Fowler situation seems ripe to be resolved with more dead money. If that indeed comes to fruition, they’ll be starting off 2019 on the way to the same handcuff they had in 2018.

Conclusions

Comparing the Cardinals to other playoff teams taught us two basic lessons. They go hand in hand. First, the 2018 Cardinals were hamstrung by poor production from free agent acquisitions. Dexter Fowler, Luke Gregerson, Brett Cecil, and Greg Holland were an albatross, completely negating the positive contributions of Miles Mikolas. Only four teams with lower free agent contributions have made the playoffs over the last five years- the 2017 and 2018 Rockies, the 2014 Royals, and the 2016 Orioles. All but the 2017 Rockies massively outperformed their pythagorean and base run records, and they made the playoffs with a not-so-hotso 87 wins.

The other major lesson is that dead money can sink a team, and a large part of the Cardinals’ dead money came from that quartet. Fowler and Gregerson spent huge chunks of the season on the disabled list, and Holland was dreadful. Those three alone prevented the Cardinals from reaching the playoffs, and led to the largest percentage of dead money that the Cardinals have spent in a long time.