Stat chat: the big money Mets

Juliette Pope/the Miscellany News

The last time the New York Mets made the World Series was in 2015, led by a youthful starting rotation that promised to erase years of mediocrity—in the 14 years between this and their previous appearance in the Fall Classic, they had made the playoffs just once—with a new dynasty. But, the Amazin’s failed to capitalize on that potential. Turns out it’s just too risky to build a team around starting pitching. Mere months after the Mets captured the pennant, their ace Matt Harvey started battling thoracic outlet syndrome, a compression of nerves and/or blood cells in the neck area that disproportionately affects pitchers, wiping out the rest of his season and rendering him forever changed as a hurler. Just before Harvey’s diagnosis, Steven Matz, the last addition to the 2015 staff, went down with a bone spur in his pitching elbow. Harvey was shipped off to Cincinnati two years later; Matz limped to a 9.68 ERA this year. The youngest member of the 2015 staff, Noah Syndergaard, suffered from a bone spur in 2016 as well. Despite being effective when healthy, he went on to make just seven starts in 2017 and missed the entire 2020 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. The lone stalwart these past four years has been Jacob deGrom, but even the best pitcher in the MLB over that timeframe hasn’t been enough to keep the Mets from Metsing; they finished under .500 in three of their last four campaigns.

The Mets’ reliance on homegrown talent (Harvey, Matz and deGrom were all draftees, while Syndergaard was acquired via trade before he ever reached the majors) is representative of a larger trend across the major leagues. While the Mets’ results have been mixed, this shift makes sense because younger players are considerably cheaper; for each of their first three years in the majors, they make the league minimum. For their next three years, they receive gradual raises, but are only guaranteed one year at a time—their team can cut them with no ramifications after any season in this time period. After waiting out a total of six years, players may file for free agency, when many become available to be signed by other teams for the first time.

But monetary concern isn’t the only reason baseball is trending younger. As long as training techniques continue to improve, each generation of new players will be better than the last. What’s more, the likely decrease in the use of Performance Enhancing Drugs coinciding with the first steroid suspensions in 2005 and the Mitchell Report investigation in 2006 has made it harder for older players to remain in their primes past the age of 30. Wins Above Replacement, or WAR, which tries to answer the question “How many wins would it cost us if we had to replace this player with a typical backup?”, provides solid evidence in favor of these theories. In the ’90s and early 2000s, players 31 and older accrued consistently more WAR per plate appearance than those 24 and younger. But, since the mid-2000s, those 24 and younger have turned the tables, consistently besting their baseballing elders. 

Juliette Pope/The Miscellany News

However, it also turns out that older pitchers have seen their productivity increase in recent years, possibly due to medical advances. Also, those pitchers who aren’t durable are likely weeded out of the game entirely in the early stages of their careers. Perhaps the Mets would be better off trading their draftees for veteran hurlers.

Nevertheless, the gravitation of the MLB towards younger players, coupled with their general increase in productivity and continued cheapness, has leveled the playing field among high and low-budget teams overall. When players 31 and older were at their most productive, that meant that those who had served their six years on cheap salaries would be in high-demand and grow very expensive upon reaching free agency. Now that those players are relatively not as productive, small market teams need only look within their organization to replace a fading star. Even if there are no viable alternatives within, as other teams focus on filling holes by reaching into the depths of their own rosters and farm systems, they can likely find an underappreciated older player on the free agent market.

Yet, the relationship between spending and winning remains strong; the Dodgers, with 2020’s second-highest payroll, just captured the World Series title. It is definitely not the be-all-end-all, but variation in player payroll tends to predict about 50 percent of the variation in winning percentage across teams. Less traditional measures of the relationship bear even stronger results: Variation in franchise valuation, which took into account the facilities and entire organizational apparatus of a team, predicted 56 percent of the variation in winning percentage across teams from 2016-2019.

Back to the Amazin’s. The Wilpon family, former principal owners of the Mets, lost hundreds of millions, perhaps even billions, from making investments with Bernie Madoff. In order to continue their operations in the aftermath of Madoff’s arrest, the Mets were forced to take out huge loans. Financing their debts costs the Mets around $100 million a year, or nearly as much as their player payroll in 2019

It turns out, however, that the Mets are still valued at $2.4 billion (likely because they have seen average or better attendance since 2015, even in their losing seasons). Hedge fund billionaire Steven Cohen doled out just that amount to close the sale of the club on Nov. 6, the largest ever sale (in terms of dollars) of shares in a baseball team.

With a net worth approaching $15 billion, Cohen is wealthier than the next three richest MLB owners combined. And he has made it clear that he is willing to spend in order to make the Mets a more valuable franchise. We have established that spending still helps you win, including spending on things other than players. But to answer the question of just how much Cohen might be willing to spend, we can look to some of his contemporaries. What is the relationship between a team’s payroll and the net worth of their owner? The value of a franchise and the net worth of its owner?

I uncovered data on the ten richest MLB owners and their teams from this past season. These clubs actually performed worse than average last year, winning 47.3 percent of their games, but this result was not significant (p = 0.33, df = 9). Less surprisingly, these clubs spent more on players ($66.4 million on average) than the average team (which spent $61.1 million), but this result was also not significant (p = 0.35, df = 9). Lastly, these clubs were valued higher ($2.12 billion) than average ($1.85 billion), but yet again, this result was not significant (p = 0.31, df = 9), although it is unclear whether this would mean richer owners increase the value of their franchise or highly valued franchises can only be bought by rich owners.

Either way, I came up with a few takeaways from this. First, the data on the net worth of owners is sparse. This is either because statisticians have deemed it not important to record, or the owners like to keep their finances veiled. Accordingly, I had to settle for a dataset that only included the ten richest owners, and only their net worth from this past season. While data on the very rich owners is representative of Steven Cohen’s closest comps, the conclusions I could draw from this dataset were limited by its size—not only the fact that there were just ten owners, but also that the 2020 season was shortened by the pandemic. Nevertheless, it may be telling that these numbers were insignificant; perhaps Mets fans should temper their expectations because an owner can only spend so much to improve a team. True improvement must come from within the organization (and a little luck). In the words of Macklemore, “make the money, don’t let the money make you.”

Even if it were true that wealthier owners give their teams larger payrolls in general, there are exceptions to this common-sense conclusion. Take John Fisher, for example, the eighth-richest owner. His Oakland A’s have consistently been at the bottom of the barrel in terms of payroll: Last year their $36.7 million club came in as only the 25th most expensive in the league. The reason for this is likely that the A’s aren’t particularly profitable, with only the 24th highest attendance even in a 2019 season that saw them win a whopping 97 games. Teams are at their core investments for some owners. The Mets have seen consistently higher attendance than the A’s, making them ripe for a larger investment under the right leadership. Plus, Cohen is a lifelong Mets fan who ostensibly doesn’t need any more monetary investments, and he could see his new club as more of an emotional investment.

Payroll matters. But organizational staff is just as, if not more, important. If you throw away all of your cash on big-money old guys and don’t develop your farm system, your team will likely fall short of expectations. What gives me the most hope for Cohen’s Mets is that he understands this. One of his first moves as owner was to clean house, firing GM Brodie Van Wagenen, who infamously traded up-and-coming hitter Jarred Kelenic and pitching prospect Justin Dunn for reliever Edwin Díaz and an aging and expensive Robinson Canó. While Díaz and Canó both played well this season, Kelenic is expected to be a generational talent and comes with six years of team control—exactly the kind of young hitter that the Mets should be replacing Canó with. While money is important, Cohen’s personnel changes and offerings to employees affected by the pandemic indicate that he is astutely looking beyond payroll to strategy, infrastructure, and humanity. That is what could make the Mets truly Amazin’ again.

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