In (probably far) less than 12 hours, the American League-champion Rangers will embark upon a three-hour flight to the land of the Giants, and in less than 72 hours the two pennant-wielding adversaries will engage in combat for the right to hoist the first World Series trophy in the history of their respective cities (yes, I'm still in a mild state of disbelief), and there is definitely something to be written about that impending battle ... but for this morning, at least, I hope you'll indulge me as I rail on something residual from the national ALCS coverage: the "David vs. Goliath" comparison.
You know exactly what I'm talking about, too: the contrived narrative that focused on the big, bad, affluent (and history-rich) Yankees matching up against the long-downtrodden and low-spending Rangers. Granted, this was an easy angle to cling to (particularly given the historically enormous $152 million payroll disparity between the two clubs), and one that I saw more than a few good journalists interweave into their coverage, but is it accurate? Sort of, but not especially. Is it misleading? Yes, at least more than it is accurate.
I've mentioned this in passing already, but the single biggest thing that bothered me about the "David vs. Goliath" characterization was that it was implied -- to me, at least -- a significant series advantage being imparted to New York on the basis of all the money they spent on talent. This, of course, was an outright fallacy from the outset of the ALCS, as the most reputable prognosticators generally had the series going 6-7 games, and it further decomposed as the Rangers made it clear they were even better than the Yankees' equals. Final payroll tallies don't really have a place in the discussion.
Some took it a step further and used win totals -- or maybe third-order win totals, in which the Rangers and Yankees were separated by a full seven games -- to support the narrative, but the end-of-season Rangers were considerably more dangerous on the whole than, say, the June 1st Rangers (sans Cliff Lee), and I suspect that the ability to strip the fifth starter and the back end of the bullpen and the persistent need to dole out rest days to the lineup regulars -- and playing time for backups in the vein of Andres Blanco and friends -- out of the equation, and then go to war almost solely with the 18-19 best players on the playoff roster, drew the Yankees and Rangers far closer together talent-wise than their regular-season or third-order records would indicate.
None of this is to say that the amount of money a team dispenses to its on-hand talent is not important, but where the real importance lies is in getting to the playoffs in the first place, rather than succeeding there. (I have yet to find a study detailing the correlation between the post-season win-loss records of teams that make it to the playoffs and their corresponding team payrolls, but I have a difficult time fathoming that there is a meaningful correlation over a 10-year period.) Statistician Tom Tango addressed this back in mid-April by analyzing the correlation between "playoff-level" teams (89 wins or better) and their payrolls relative to league average over a period spanning 1998-2009, and ultimately he found a "very strong link" between payroll and winning; furthermore, he boiled down a team's chances of making the playoffs to the following equation:
Percent chance of making the playoffs = (Payroll Index / 2) - 23, where Payroll Index is equal to (team payroll / league-average payroll) x 100
Over that 12-year span, the Rangers' final tally of 89-win seasons (two) predictably failed to match the high expectations set by overall above-average payrolls, which brings me back to one of my older arguments: A-Rod didn't sink the early-00s Rangers. Poor talent evaluation and decision-making, which bred worse pitching -- which was a direct function of poor evaluation, be it in the draft or free agency or the trade market -- and overall inefficient spending played a far bigger role in killing those teams than the A-Rod contract. Spending big money is obviously not an inherently flawed "strategy," but you need the right personnel to oversee it, and the right talent evaluators in advisory roles.
And after years of grossly inefficient spending, the 2009-10 Rangers were finally back on the right track, with this year's ballclub spending the second-lowest number of marginal dollars per marginal win ($1,064,023) in baseball. But this is a descriptive stat more than it is predictive, and that second-lowest mark won't continue, as the Rangers have hit the final step in their contending plan and are now in a position where we would reasonably expect a precipitous climb in payroll -- and, yeah, they're going to need it if they have any designs on keeping Cliff Lee, or Josh Hamilton, or C.J. Wilson, let alone acquiring additional talent at other positions of relative weakness like catcher.
The Yankees will probably be back next year, and probably the Rangers, as well, and the odds will be decent that they again clash in October and are again close talent-wise. If this happens, there will likely still be a payroll disparity of no less than $100 million existing between the two clubs, and somebody will yet again raise this in the context of the playoffs, and maybe even invoke that same Biblical comparison. You can safely ignore dollar totals at that point, because if things have reached that point, the dollars will have already accomplished their primary goal ... and then, with any luck, crack a smile at the thought that the Yankees have to go through the defending world champions.