I enjoy writing about baseball, but sometimes it’s a struggle to come up with a topic. That’s why I’m thankful for Twitter.

Sky Kalkman, you can call me “someone.”

To analyze this, I used Cot’s Contracts data for the years 2000-2017. (When I say I, I mean the amazing Rob McQuown downloaded the data for me.) I calculated average payroll per year, and gave each team a score equal to its percentage of the league average. For example, last season, when the average payroll was $130.3 million, the Brewers’ payroll of $63.9 million gets a score of 49 (63.9 / 130.3), while the Rangers’ $151.0 million payroll gets a score of 116 (151.0 / 130.3). Sky asked about trends, so I’ll show them, by division.

This article is going to have a lot of charts but not a lot of text, so don’t let the length scare you off.

National League West

The Dodgers are one of two teams—yes, you can guess the other—for which a scale going up to 200 percent of average payroll is insufficient. Note that they’ve been shedding payroll the past couple years, but their belt-tightening is akin to someone who weighs 400 pounds dropping 30 of them. The Giants are the other rich franchise in the division, and they’ve been holding the line on payroll, relatively speaking. Of the other teams, the Rockies seem to be paying up in hopes of a postseason run while the Diamondbacks and especially the Padres, well, aren’t.

National League Central

This is the most depressing set of charts in this report, provided you don’t live in Chicago. The Cubs are the only NL Central team with a meaningfully above-average payroll, and they’re the World Series champions. The other four clubs are arguably in various stages of cutting payroll, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but isn’t exactly synonymous with “going for it.”

National League East

Perception doesn’t equal reality in the NL East. The free-spending Nationals battle the Madoff-tainted Mets at the top of the division … with very similar payrolls, per Cot’s: $164.3 million for the Nationals, $154.4 million for the Mets. The rebuilding Phillies are spending nowhere near as much as they did when they were good at the beginning of the decade, but the rebuilding Braves’ payroll is projected by Cot’s to be 89.7 percent of the league average, exactly the same as it was in 2010.

As for the Marlins, I’ve already written about Jeffrey Loiria.

American League West

The three teams expected to compete for the postseason from the AL West have all been adding payroll for a while. The A’s, who are not expected to compete, have not. They are one of only four teams (the Brewers, Pirates, and Padres are the others) to have maintained a below-average payroll every year of this century, including this year. By contrast, the Angels are in their 15 straight year with an above-average payroll and, since 2009, no postseason wins to show for it.

American League Central

Quantitatively, Chicago is the only non-small-market team in this division, yet it’s the one that’s most aggressively shedding payroll. The Indians boosted payroll but remain below average, while the Tigers trimmed (a little) but remain (way) above average.

And Sky is right: The only team in the majors to have added payroll, on a relative basis, for six straight seasons is the Royals, who look likely to crack the league average for the first time this century.

American League East

So who’s the Evil Empire now? Yes, the Yankees and the Dodgers are the only clubs whose payrolls don’t fit within a range of 0 percent-200 percent of the league average, but the Yankees’ relative payroll has been in a steady decline since its 2005 peak, and Cot’s 2017 projection is—gasp!—below that of the Red Sox ($197.0 million for Boston, $196.4 million for New York). In contrast to the Bombers, both the Baltimore and Toronto payrolls are on the rise, and the Orioles’ streak of five straight increases trails only Kansas City for consistent growth of payroll in excess of league trends.

And for Sky’s initial question: Here are the teams whose salary trends, relative to the league, are the most pronounced, ranked by change in relative payroll

It’s odd to see the Dodgers on the list, but recall that the club ownership didn’t transfer from Frank McCourt to the Guggenheim group until May 2012. The team went on an immediate spending spree, signing Yasiel Puig and Zack Greinke and trading for Hanley Ramirez, Shane Victorino, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez during the year, explaining the reduction since 2013. Regarding the Nationals, they were run by Expos Baseball LP, a subsidiary of MLB, from 2002 to 2006, on a shoestring budget, explaining the increase from a decade ago. As for the Yankees, any New York tabloid will tell you how much better things were When The Boss Was Alive.

Those anomalous cases aside, the pattern for spending in recent years is that teams moving into contention pay up, and those rebuilding cut expenses. No big surprises there. Just as Sky implied.

Thank you for reading

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This is great, thanks! There's some research to be done on increasing payrolls that drive an increase in wins, vs an increase in wins that drive payroll up. The Royals seems like 2/3 the latter and 1/3 the former. Their spending has been for franchise players who have aged into arbitration/free agency, but I think they've also upped their spending on free agency.
Great idea, thanks. One could probably argue that the Orioles' spending boost has paid off as well.
This is a great article but I wish you'd kept the scale of the y axis constant across all teams.
I did for all of them except two--the Dodgers and the Yankees broke the mold. They're the only two that are different. I started with every team on a 0-300 scale, but trust me, for 28 of them, it looked silly. Virtually all the red bars were on the lower half of the chart and it was hard to discern the differences between them.
Los Angeles Angels' angles anger Athletics' accountants.
Absolutely accurate; affronts Alameda. And always!
I saw payrolls in the newspaper, and Cleveland was well above $100k, much to my surprise, and looked well above average. These numbers look way different than USA today earlier this week. Why?
These numbers presented in these charts are the percentage of league average, not dollars. Consistent with your observation, Cot's estimates the 2017 Cleveland opening day payroll at $124.1 million. However the average opening day payroll this year is $136.7 million across the league. So Cleveland's payroll is 90.8 percent of the MLB average. That's what's displayed in the table. That's a big increase from 73.9 percent in 2016, but it's still below average.