The Mediocrity Theory

One of my anthems which feels to be true but may or may not be true is this.

There are two ways to win: Spend big, or lose a ton of games.

I assume it's true, like a lot of anecdotal things such as "RBIs mean you're valuable" and "hits are more valuable than walks" which sound great but aren't real. Well, I thought I'd look at the numbers (at least as far as I have patience for tonight) to see if there's any truth to my assumption.

Let's start with 2014 and work back a little. The World Series was the Giants and the Royals. They are two examples of the rule. The Giants spent big, and the Royals lost a lot of games. They aren't the most extreme examples, but they fit.

The Giants were 7th in payroll in 2014. Yes, there were teams that spent more, but there's a pretty big drop between them an the 8th team, the Texas Rangers. There's a $18M difference. $18M is a ton of money to a market like ours. To anyone, really. The Brewers and the Orioles were in the middle, at about $105M each, and the top 7 teams were at least 50% higher than that.

The Royals got their talent in a different way. They lost a ton of games. We all remember watching the top third of their starting lineup in the World Series, they were all former Brewers. Two of them were acquired in return for Zack Grienke. Between 1999 and 2006 they lost at least 97 games at least 6 times, and drafted Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, and Grienke. Eventually those guys paid dividends, with more pieces added through drafts following additional losing seasons and some key trades. They didn't have immediate success with this method, but it shows that even a fool like Dayton Moore can't flush away that many chances indefinitely.

The rest of the playoff teams for 2014:

Orioles: 15 straight losing seasons, capped by a stretch from 2006-2011 (sound familiar) where they didn't win more than 70 games. They drafted Matt Wieters and Manny Machado.

Cardinals: They haven't had a really bad season in a long time, and they don't spend much more than we do.

Angels: 6th highest payroll in baseball with a willingness to spend for the biggest names in the game.

Tigers: 5th highest payroll. Also, have Justin Verlander who was drafted as a result of losing 119 games in 2003.

Nationals: 9th highest payroll. Also lost over 100 games in 2008 & 2009 and turned those picks into Steven Strasburg and Bryce Harper.

Dodgers: Highest salary in baseball, far exceeding the luxury cap and spending $30M+ more than the money-dripping Yankees.

Athletics: They've been up and down but not dreadful since the 90s, and they have the 6th lowest payroll.

Pirates: They have the 4th lowest payroll, but they were perennial losers, going without a winning season for two decades. They got really bad from 2005-2010, and as a result acquired Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, and Gerrit Cole.

So the only two teams who didn't make the playoffs because they either spent a ton of dough or lost a ton of games were the Cardinals and Athletics. We know the stories there. The Cardinal player development pipeline has been exceptional. It's either suspiciously good or enviable, or both. The Athletics have been trying to stay a step ahead of the competition with advanced analysis and making shrewd moves based on hidden value.

So there might be something to it. But it isn't a sure thing of course. The Yankees, Phillies, and Red Sox are all turning over their expensive rosters after championship years and did not make the playoffs. But if they keep spending, they will probably be back (or people will be fired). Some teams go through stretches of losing seasons and have nothing to show for it.

But still... even the Brewers' recent success was built on losing seasons. They lost at least 94 games from 2001-2004, and turned those picks into Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Mark Rogers (oops), and Ryan Braun. It all came together at one point and management made a few trades and spent a little money to capitalize on the window, and they made the playoffs twice in four years.

Now Fielder is in Texas, Weeks is in Seattle, Mark Rogers was released by the Rangers in March, and Braun is still with the team, looking to earn $100M+ in his post-age-30 years.

The Brewers are never going to be in the top group of spenders. Even if they can get 3 million fans to show up at Miller Park they can't compete with the big markets. And unless they know a Billy Beane-like secret nobody else knows, make a few Dayton Moore-like trades with desperate teams, or develop a Cardinals-like method for identifying and developing talent, their only option is to lose for a while.

And that is a decision that Mark Attanasio refuses to make. That's his choice, he is the owner. But unless he has some leverage that's unknown to the public, his levels of spending are not enough to win, and enough to put off the losing that is typically required to stockpile talent.

Is it true? Maybe yes, maybe no.