So, Thomas Neumann of Page 2 sent me this picture of a Sports Illustrated cover, listing all the millionaire players from 1985. I think Thomas was working on a career retrospective of John Denny or something, I'm not sure. (OK, he actually interviewed Mike Schmidt.) Anyway, it got me thinking: What if we compare the highest-paid players from 1985 to the highest-paid players of 2011 ... and find out if teams are smarter than they were in 1985. After all, front offices know much more than they used to, right? With all the advanced metrics out there, all the Ivy League dudes making the decisions and so on, you'd expect smarter moves being made by front offices.
Let's take the top 25 players from that 1985 cover, the top 25 highest-paid players of 2011 and check their Wins Above Replacement level (WAR) from Baseball-Reference.com. For 2011, we'll using their current WAR prorated to the entire season.
1985 Top 25 Highest-Paid Players
1. Mike Schmidt ($2.1M): 5.3 WAR
2. Jim Rice ($2.1M): 1.1 WAR
3. George Foster ($1.9M): 1.5 WAR
4. Dave Winfield ($1.7M): 2.8 WAR
5. Gary Carter ($1.7M): 6.7 WAR
6. Dale Murphy ($1.6M): 5.3 WAR
7. Bob Horner ($1.5M): 1.8 WAR
8. Rickey Henderson ($1.5M): 10.0 WAR
9. Eddie Murray ($1.4M): 6.0 WAR
10. Bruce Sutter ($1.3M): -0.1 WAR
11. Ozzie Smith ($1.3M): 5.7 WAR
12. Jack Clark ($1.3M): 3.3 WAR
13. Robin Yount ($1.3M): 1.7 WAR
14. Pedro Guerrero ($1.3M): 7.8 WAR
15. Rick Sucliffe ($1.3M): 2.8 WAR
16. Fernando Valenzuela ($1.2M): 5.6 WAR
17. Goose Gossage ($1.2M): 2.6 WAR
18. Tim Raines ($1.2M): 7.5 WAR
19. Steve Kemp ($1.2M): -0.2 WAR
20. Steve Carlton ($1.2M): 1.2 WAR
21. Andre Dawson ($1.1M): 2.0 WAR
22. Keith Hernandez ($1.1M): 4.9 WAR
23. Mario Soto ($1.1M): 3.6 WAR
24. Andre Thornton ($1.1M): 0.0 WAR
25. Fred Lynn ($1.1M): 2.0 WAR
Total salary: $34.8 million.
Total major payroll in 1985: About $264.7 million.
Percentage of total payroll: 13.1 percent.
Total WAR: 90.9.
2011 Top 25 Highest-Paid Players
1. Alex Rodriguez ($32.0M): 5.3 WAR
2. Vernon Wells ($26.2M): -1.4 WAR
3. CC Sabathia ($24.3M): 4.6 WAR
4. Mark Teixeira ($23.1M): 3.9 WAR
5. Joe Mauer ($23.0M): -0.5 WAR
6. Johan Santana ($21.6M): Injured
7. Todd Helton ($20.3M): 3.9 WAR
8. Miguel Cabrera ($20.0M): 6.7 WAR
9. Roy Halladay ($20.0M): 9.2 WAR
10. Ryan Howard ($20.0M): 2.5 WAR
11. Carlos Beltran ($19.3M): 5.1 WAR
12. Carlos Lee ($19.0M): 3.0 WAR
13. Alfonso Soriano ($19.0M): 1.2 WAR
14. Carlos Zambrano ($18.9M): 2.8 WAR
15. Torii Hunter ($18.5M): -0.7 WAR
16. Barry Zito ($18.5M): -0.5 WAR
17. Jason Bay ($18.1M): 0.0 WAR
18. Ichiro Suzuki ($18.0M): 0.5 WAR
19. Josh Beckett ($17.0M): 9.2 WAR
20. A.J. Burnett ($16.5M): 2.3 WAR
21. Matt Holliday ($16.3M): 5.1 WAR
22. Michael Young ($16.1M): 1.8 WAR
23. Roy Oswalt ($16.0M): 3.7 WAR
24. Jake Peavy ($16.0M): 0.7 WAR
25. John Lackey ($15.9M): -2.5 WAR
Total salary: $493.6 million.
Total major payroll in 2011: About $2.786 billion.
Percentage of total payroll: 17.7 percent.
Total prorated WAR: 65.9.
Major league owners in 2011 are paying a higher percentage of their total payroll to the top 25 players and receiving far less production. Even if you account for better seasons the rest of the way from the likes of Joe Mauer and Ichiro Suzuki and Torii Hunter and John Lackey, the 2011 group wouldn't come close to matching the 1985 group in total WAR.
What's amazing is to look at the 2011 list and realize how many of those guys were never superstar players: Vernon Wells? Carlos Lee? Torii Hunter? Michael Young? A.J. Burnett? Barry Zito? Please. Good players at one point, never superstars.
Another way to look at it: Of the top 25 position players in B-R's WAR in 2011, only ONE (Miguel Cabrera) is one of the top-25 highest-paid players. In 1985, nine of the top 25 position players were among the 25 highest-paid players.
Also, in 2011, 10 of the top-25 highest-paid players are pitchers -- who inherently are more risky. Of those 11, five have spent time on the DL this season.
So, nice job major league owners and general managers! You're collectively, umm ... well, let's just say that Vernon Wells isn't worth $26.2 million.