The Epidemic Plaguing Baseball’s ‘Best’ Teams

There are many ways to judge a baseball team, but one method often flies under the radar. By measuring the total cost of a win in terms of payroll dollars, it's possible to determine which MLB clubs are the most – and least – financially efficient. The Motley Fool's Baseball Efficiency Standings, or "B.E.S.T." for short, do just that.

After the first three weeks of May, the Miami Marlins, Houston Astros, and Oakland Athletics are the only teams to have a cost per win below $1 million. The A's, in particular, are on pace to win more than 100 games with the third best payroll efficiency in the MLB.

Baseball Efficiency Standings | Create Infographics

Oakland's success, along with the Milwaukee Brewers and Colorado Rockies, proves that, at least in 2014, it's possible to be fiscally responsible and dominant on the baseball diamond.

The epidemic that's plaguing baseball's 'best'
Still, for some teams atop the Baseball Efficiency Standings, it's not all sunshine and rainbows. A rash of Tommy John surgeries – called an "epidemic" by famed surgeon James Andrews – has swept through the sport.

First completed in the 1970s on then-Major League pitcher Tommy John, the purpose of the operation is to reconstruct the elbow's ulnar collateral ligament. Since then, the number of surgeries performed on active MLB players has risen dramatically. Bill Petti reports there were 19 Tommy John operations between the 1974 and 1994 seasons. Over the past two decades, there have been more than 600, with an all-time high of 69 in 2012. If this year's pace holds, the 2014 season will mark a new record, likely over the triple-digit mark.

Interestingly, some of baseball's most efficient teams have been disproportionately affected. According to Petti's research, the Padres, Braves, and A's have each watched six of their players undergo Tommy John surgery over the last two seasons.

While Oakland has been stellar this season with a cost per win of about $809,000 and a 162-game pace of 103-59, the team has lost two of its most cost-effective starting pitchers to the operation – A.J. Griffin and Jarrod Parker. Both finished in the American League's top 25 in earned run average last season, and each are on the books for a mere $500,000 or so in salary this year.

The Braves are in a nearly identical spot after losing rotation mates Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen in March. Beachy has a career ERA of 3.23 in a little over three seasons of Major League action, while Medlen was a top 40 starting pitcher by WAR (a popular sabermetric) in 2012 and 2013.

Why Miami may have it the worst
The Marlins are baseball's most efficient team, and are on pace to flirt with a playoff berth after finishing a National League-worst 62-100 in 2013. This year, the team is paying less than $600,000 per win. That's just 20% of what the L.A. Dodgers, who sport an identical winning percentage, are paying.

Image via Steve (MrLaugh), Flickr.

When it comes to the most visible Tommy John surgery of 2014, though, that undesirable honor goes to none other than Miami, and its ace, Jose Fernandez.

After winning the 2013 NL Rookie of the Year, Fernandez was one of the MLB's best pitchers through April. He finished the month tied for the league lead in strikeouts, tied for fourth in ERA, and fifth in WHIP. According to Sports Illustrated, Fernandez was among the top three candidates for the NL Cy Young.

This momentum came crashing to a halt, though, when Fernandez faced velocity issues during a May 9 start against the Padres. He was soon after diagnosed with a UCL tear, and had Tommy John surgery last week. Fernandez isn't expected to return until the summer of 2015 at the earliest, and without him, the Marlins lose one of the most cost-effective players in baseball. The 21-year old is set to make just $635,000 this year, lowest among the MLB's top-tier starters outside of St. Louis' Michael Wacha.

What about the players themselves?
For teams like the Marlins, Braves, and A's, it's obvious why losing cheap, effective pitching hurts. By getting elite production from pitchers like Fernandez and Medlen, it's possible to keep pace with the Dodgers and Yankees of the world, while maintaining a payroll that's significantly lower. But what about the players themselves? Does Tommy John surgery alter their earnings potential after the operation?

Wendy Thurm at FanGraphs recently discussed this issue:

"For these pitchers, the surgery and rehabilitation will consume critical service time in their careers when they would otherwise be building up value for their arbitration-eligible seasons or free agency.... While teams have every incentive to provide the best medical care and rehab...[they] will use the TJ procedure — and the missed innings — as a reason to hold down future salaries."

As Thurm points out, Fernandez will be eligible for salary arbitration in 2016. The process, which is used a handful of times each year, allows teams and players to settle salary disputes with panels appointed by the MLB and the MLBPA. In almost all cases, final arbitration salaries are based on performance and longevity. A long-term injury, such as one that requires Tommy John surgery, can negatively affect final salary awards.

In Fernandez's case, he'll have less than a full season to prove he's back to his pre-injury skill level. Players who have less time before arbitration, like the A's Jarrod Parker, are more "at risk" of lower earnings in the future, Thurm says.

The bottom line
Injuries are a part of baseball, sure. But, arguably, it hurts the most when a cheap and effective arm goes down. There's no way to know just how the MLB can solve the Tommy John epidemic – limits on pitch velocity, lowering the mound, and better innings caps have all been suggested – but one thing is clear: it's an absolute killer for financial efficiency. Whether it's the Marlins this year, or a low-payroll team that relies on young pitching in the future, baseball's "B.E.S.T." will need to find a fix sooner rather than later.

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