Sunday, July 3, 2011


Craig Robinson, the British graphic genius whose cheeky charts at Flip-Flop Fly Ball have won him deserved acclaim, hit the "big time" the other day as the New York Times welcomed him into their pages just a few days before the book version of his web site is published (officially available on Tuesday, July 5).

How disappointing, however, that one of his least useful diagrams in terms of actual analysis was chosen by the Times to represent his work.

Now don't start thinking that we are trying to downgrade the graphic talents of Mr. Robinson. His chart asks a specific question and answers it with a stylish, imaginative design.

The answer to his question "How often does the most expensive franchise win the World Series" can be gleaned with relative ease from the chart.

But there is so much more information available in the chart that it's a cryin' shame we have no way of accessing it for the rest of the insights that can be found in it.

Oddly, the very thing that makes this chart such a good design makes it virtually impossible to use it for purposes of examining the overall correlation of team payroll and appearance in the post-season.

Fortunately, Mr. Robinson provides us with the information so that we can do our own digging. Here are some of the questions that can be answered by "repurposing" the data he's seen fit to include in his diagram...

We already know from the chart that the most expensive franchise has reached the World Series six times in the last sixteen years (38%) and has won four times (25%).

But what about something like: 1) How often do teams who are in the top 50% of payroll reach the post-season? 2) How often have teams in the bottom 50% of payroll appeared in the World Series? 3) How many times have such teams won the World Series?

These questions probe below the "sound bite" that Mr. Robinson has focused upon. They might tell us a good bit more about the shape of "competitive balance."

The answers: 1) Of the teams that have reached the post-season from 1995-2010, 73% of were in the top 50% of payroll (94 out of 128). 2) Of teams in the bottom 50% of payroll, four have reached the World Series (three of them in past four years). 3) Only one "bottom 50%" team has won the World Series over this time frame: the 2003 Florida Marlins.

So, since 1995, 93% of all World Series have been won by teams in top half of team payroll.

What if we break this down into thirds--convenient enough in this scenario since we get ten teams in each third--and look at post-season/payroll again?

Of the overall post-season population, 59% of it comes from teams in the top third (top ten) of team payroll. 31% of it comes from teams in the second third (slots 11-20). 10% of it comes from the bottom third (slots 21-30).

Another thing we can't glean from a glance at Robinson's graph is how that data may have shifted over time. (No way to eyeball all that in this design--you'd need to take a much different visual approach to do so.)

Turns out we can use a fairly straightforward bar chart to see how this data is changing over time...when we break this data into three time frames (1995-99, 2000-05, and 2006-10), we see that teams in the lower two-thirds of payroll have been making strides over the past ten years. The 70% stranglehold on the playoffs held by top-third payroll teams in 1995-99 was down to just over 50% in the past five years.

So here is some tangible evidence that something is in the air (whether it is the murky mythos of Moneyball or something else entirely) that is giving lower-payroll teams a way into the playoff picture.

Another question that we can't answer from Robinson's chart but that flows from the data he's provided is the percentage of times that the top payroll teams have actually made it into the World Series...though this question shades a bit more toward the "alluring trivia" that dominates Robinson's work, since it doesn't address "competitive balance shift" questions in a truly substantive way. It's still an interesting comparison, however, if only for how it stacks up against Billy Beane's famous mantra ("the playoffs are a crapshoot.")

Teams in the top third of payroll have produced 67% of the World Series teams from 1995-2010. However, that figure was 90% from 1995-99, and was only 40% over the past five years.

That means that the playoffs are more of a crapshoot than ever, at least as related to payroll issues.

Has sabermetrics been part of this shift? Trying to measure that beyond a few sets of percentages is an extremely daunting proposition. The number of years being studied aren't sufficient to draw any conclusions. The fact that more low-payroll teams are making the post-season is probably a reflection of two factors: more objective application of statistical information (in whatever format) and greater uniformity in the population of high-payroll teams. The greater the concentration of payroll in specific divisions, the greater the chance for low-payroll breakthrough.

Final question--how often have the teams in the Top 10% of payroll (teams 1-2-3) made it to the post-season? The overall average from 1995-2010 is 56%, but again, that figure has dropped over time. In 1995-99 it was 75%; in 2000-05 it was 62%; in the last five years (despite the Yankees and the Red Sox) it was only 31%.