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Thursday, May 3, 2012
Money Ball: Hockey spending matters

By Jordan Brenner

This is the second in a three-part series from ESPN the Magazine's Money Issue.

Lesson four: Spending in the NHL actually matters MORE since the Lockout
NHL fans lost an entire season due to hard-line owners seeking a tight salary cap. So it’s shocking that since the empty 2004-05 season, payroll is linked even more with winning. Before the lockout, a 10% increase in spending was worth about 5.8 team points (roughly three wins) over a season. Since the lockout, that number has ballooned to 9.2 points. The Wharton researchers theorize that this counterintuitive trend is a result of the CBA’s producing a tighter range of spending between teams. “Each dollar became that much more valuable,” they concluded.

Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford agrees: “Despite not having as big a gap, $16 million between the cap and the floor, teams that consistently spend at the top will still have an advantage in getting top players.” He also says low-payroll teams can succeed only for a short period. Nashville earned the Western Conference’s fourth seed this year with a slightly below-average payroll. But the team is winning on borrowed time. “The Predators are at that point where they’re either going
to spend toward the cap or risk losing top young players,” Rutherford says. “So from a consistency basis, you can see the advantage
for the teams that are able to routinely spend at the upper end.”

Lesson five: NBA Small ball = OVERrated
It’s better to pay up front in the NBA. Teams that finish in the top 25 percent in wins spent much more on premium frontcourt players (centers and forwards in the top 10% of salaries at their positions) and less on premium guards. Despite plenty of bad contracts offered in pursuit of impact seven-footers, spending on bigs creates the best Player Efficiency Rating relative to the league median for each position. Moreover, gambling on the frontcourt is indicative of a smart front office that understands supply and demand. Post players aren’t more productive -- guards are just easier to replace. “Big men are the most scarce resource,” says one team exec. “Even an average center is worth four times an above-average guard.”

Lesson six: Real baseball mimics fantasy
Just like astute roto owners, MLB GMs nab top hitters at traditional defensive positions. Good teams gain the biggest edge with top third basemen and catchers. The best teams also benefit from investing in middle infielders but gain little advantage over bottom teams when it comes to first basemen and DHs. Pitchers are valued lower than hitters in fantasy, but in real life they show more return on investment. A 10 percent increase in offensive salary adds five runs a season, but boosting a pitching staff by the same amount saves six runs.