Are teams smarter than they used to be?

So, Thomas Neumann of Page 2 sent me this picture of a Sports Illustrated cover, listing all the millionaire players from 1985. I think Thomas was working on a career retrospective of John Denny or something, I'm not sure. (OK, he actually interviewed Mike Schmidt.) Anyway, it got me thinking: What if we compare the highest-paid players from 1985 to the highest-paid players of 2011 ... and find out if teams are smarter than they were in 1985. After all, front offices know much more than they used to, right? With all the advanced metrics out there, all the Ivy League dudes making the decisions and so on, you'd expect smarter moves being made by front offices.

Let's take the top 25 players from that 1985 cover, the top 25 highest-paid players of 2011 and check their Wins Above Replacement level (WAR) from Baseball-Reference.com. For 2011, we'll using their current WAR prorated to the entire season.

1985 Top 25 Highest-Paid Players

1. Mike Schmidt ($2.1M): 5.3 WAR

2. Jim Rice ($2.1M): 1.1 WAR

3. George Foster ($1.9M): 1.5 WAR

4. Dave Winfield ($1.7M): 2.8 WAR

5. Gary Carter ($1.7M): 6.7 WAR

6. Dale Murphy ($1.6M): 5.3 WAR

7. Bob Horner ($1.5M): 1.8 WAR

8. Rickey Henderson ($1.5M): 10.0 WAR

9. Eddie Murray ($1.4M): 6.0 WAR

10. Bruce Sutter ($1.3M): -0.1 WAR

11. Ozzie Smith ($1.3M): 5.7 WAR

12. Jack Clark ($1.3M): 3.3 WAR

13. Robin Yount ($1.3M): 1.7 WAR

14. Pedro Guerrero ($1.3M): 7.8 WAR

15. Rick Sucliffe ($1.3M): 2.8 WAR

16. Fernando Valenzuela ($1.2M): 5.6 WAR

17. Goose Gossage ($1.2M): 2.6 WAR

18. Tim Raines ($1.2M): 7.5 WAR

19. Steve Kemp ($1.2M): -0.2 WAR

20. Steve Carlton ($1.2M): 1.2 WAR

21. Andre Dawson ($1.1M): 2.0 WAR

22. Keith Hernandez ($1.1M): 4.9 WAR

23. Mario Soto ($1.1M): 3.6 WAR

24. Andre Thornton ($1.1M): 0.0 WAR

25. Fred Lynn ($1.1M): 2.0 WAR

Total salary: $34.8 million.

Total major payroll in 1985: About $264.7 million.

Percentage of total payroll: 13.1 percent.

Total WAR: 90.9.

2011 Top 25 Highest-Paid Players

1. Alex Rodriguez ($32.0M): 5.3 WAR

2. Vernon Wells ($26.2M): -1.4 WAR

3. CC Sabathia ($24.3M): 4.6 WAR

4. Mark Teixeira ($23.1M): 3.9 WAR

5. Joe Mauer ($23.0M): -0.5 WAR

6. Johan Santana ($21.6M): Injured

7. Todd Helton ($20.3M): 3.9 WAR

8. Miguel Cabrera ($20.0M): 6.7 WAR

9. Roy Halladay ($20.0M): 9.2 WAR

10. Ryan Howard ($20.0M): 2.5 WAR

11. Carlos Beltran ($19.3M): 5.1 WAR

12. Carlos Lee ($19.0M): 3.0 WAR

13. Alfonso Soriano ($19.0M): 1.2 WAR

14. Carlos Zambrano ($18.9M): 2.8 WAR

15. Torii Hunter ($18.5M): -0.7 WAR

16. Barry Zito ($18.5M): -0.5 WAR

17. Jason Bay ($18.1M): 0.0 WAR

18. Ichiro Suzuki ($18.0M): 0.5 WAR

19. Josh Beckett ($17.0M): 9.2 WAR

20. A.J. Burnett ($16.5M): 2.3 WAR

21. Matt Holliday ($16.3M): 5.1 WAR

22. Michael Young ($16.1M): 1.8 WAR

23. Roy Oswalt ($16.0M): 3.7 WAR

24. Jake Peavy ($16.0M): 0.7 WAR

25. John Lackey ($15.9M): -2.5 WAR

Total salary: $493.6 million.

Total major payroll in 2011: About $2.786 billion.

Percentage of total payroll: 17.7 percent.

Total prorated WAR: 65.9.


Major league owners in 2011 are paying a higher percentage of their total payroll to the top 25 players and receiving far less production. Even if you account for better seasons the rest of the way from the likes of Joe Mauer and Ichiro Suzuki and Torii Hunter and John Lackey, the 2011 group wouldn't come close to matching the 1985 group in total WAR.

What's amazing is to look at the 2011 list and realize how many of those guys were never superstar players: Vernon Wells? Carlos Lee? Torii Hunter? Michael Young? A.J. Burnett? Barry Zito? Please. Good players at one point, never superstars.

Another way to look at it: Of the top 25 position players in B-R's WAR in 2011, only ONE (Miguel Cabrera) is one of the top-25 highest-paid players. In 1985, nine of the top 25 position players were among the 25 highest-paid players.

Also, in 2011, 10 of the top-25 highest-paid players are pitchers -- who inherently are more risky. Of those 11, five have spent time on the DL this season.

So, nice job major league owners and general managers! You're collectively, umm ... well, let's just say that Vernon Wells isn't worth $26.2 million.

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