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MLB Past and Future Payrolls

I’m a big fan of Bill Simmons’ BS Report podcast. Some of my favorite parts are when Bill talks about trade possibilities between teams. It’s always fun to try and step into a general manager’s shoes and imagine what they can and can’t do to improve their teams. During one of these shows, Jonah Keri was on, and he and Bill were doing a pretty good job of breaking down the options that some MLB teams had in the coming years. It seemed like Jonah had a great command of the restrictions on some of these teams and even what the free agent market is going to look like at various points in the future. I found myself trying to picture and organize all this information in my head. I was inspired to map all this out in a big visualization.

Also, I just wanted to find out how screwed my beloved Phillies are in the coming years.

The image below is a link to the visualization:

MLB Payrolls Thumbnail

The first thing you can do is to click the arrows or use the left and right arrow keys to scroll through past and future years. I collected data back to 1998, when the Baltimore Orioles led the league in payroll with players like Mike Mussina and Rafael Palmeiro. Scrolling back to the present day shows a lot of story lines: how the Yankees expanded their payroll way faster than the rest of the league in the early 2000s, fire sales of the Marlins in 2006 and to a lesser extent in 2013, and the recent rapid rise of the Dodgers’ payroll.

When you scroll to future years, the 2013 payroll hangs around as a ghost image to provide a rough benchmark of what you might expect the team to eventually pay. The solid bars drop down to show the contracts that the teams are currently obligated to pay in that particular year. Here, you can clearly see the Dodgers and Angels leading the league in earmarked money over the next few seasons. Going all the way to 2023 shows that the Reds have actually signed the longest contract so far.

Clicking on a team in that upper chart will show a time series of that team’s payrolls over the years broken out by player. For example, clicking on the Reds shows large green boxes way out into the future. Clicking on any of those boxes will show you that first baseman Joey Votto can expect to be paid $25M to play baseball in the year 2023. Each color in these bottom charts corresponds to a position.

There are some caveats here. I grabbed the data from Baseball Reference who gets their data from Cot’s Baseball Contracts. As far as I can tell, the data is not updated very regularly because I know of a couple contract extensions that have not made it onto their pages yet. Those contracts won’t be displayed here.

Also, when a player misses a whole season to injury, that player’s salary doesn’t show up on the Baseball Reference page. I took care to add the biggest instances of these missed seasons back into the data by hand, but I’m sure I didn’t get them all. There’s also the question of whether those salaries really should be here. I believe most teams take out insurance policies on players and thus they aren’t responsible for paying injured players. Since I have no details about that sort of thing, I just tried to include all the missed seasons I could find.

Lastly, teams sometimes agree to pay part of a player’s salary when they trade them away to another team. A good recent example of that is the Cubs paying most of Alfonso Soriano’s salary while he plays for the Yankees. The Baseball Reference site has good information about these arrangements in the current and future years. But the site does not have information about past arrangements. Again, I took care of a couple of the biggest discrepancies by hand (hello Mike Hampton!), but I’m sure there are lots still in there.

Despite those couple issues, I believe this chart does a great job of showing a snapshot of the MLB economy. I learned a lot just clicking around the whole thing while building it. I think it’s a great indication that you’re building something interesting if you constantly get distracted playing with the thing instead of working on it.

UPDATE: After getting picked up by Fangraphs and Deadspin, I got a lot of feedback. Most of it involved the words ‘Bobby Bonilla’. His payments now show up in the charts. Also, the full salaries of some players that were traded this year were being counted against both teams. This happened when there wasn’t good information about what the teams agreed on in the trade, so I ended up just splitting the salaries evenly between the two. That whole process made the Dodgers drop from the top spot! I guess they’ll have to content themselves with making the jump next year.