Highest Pay

Sunday, December 24 2017 @ 03:15 PM EST

Contributed by: John Northey

Just for fun I thought I'd check highest salaries ever in MLB and then check what MLB's overall revenue has been. For players it isn't pretty since 2000 but pre-2000 it would be beautiful for them.

Before top players got the big bucks, setting records regularly. Year is the season before they signed (most are signed in offseason) so 79 is the 79/80 offseason. I note if it is signed inseason.

1979: Nolan Ryan gets first $1 mil per year contract
1980: Dave Winfield signs for $2.5 per (10 years too)
1985: Eddie Murray gets $2.6 per
1989: Orel Hershiser just barely tops record; Bret Saberhagen gets $2.97 per; Kirby Puckett cracks the $3 mil mark; Mark Langston gets $3.2; Mark Davis (a reliever) gets $3.25; Dave Stewart gets $3.5; Will Clark $3.75;
1990 regular season: Don Mattingly $3.86 per; Jose Canseco $4.7 per
1990: Roger Clemens $5.38 per;
1991: Bobby Bonilla $5.8 per; Ryne Sandberg $7.1 (Cubs skipped over the $6 mark)
1992: Barry Bonds $7.29 (a bargain it turned out);
1995: Ken Griffey, Jr. $8.5 per
1996: Albert Belle $11 mil per (another big jump); Barry Bonds $11.45 (just before the wow #'s);
1997 in season: Greg Maddux $11.5;
1997: Pedro Martínez $12.5
1998: Mike Piazza $13; Mo Vaughn $13.33; Kevin Brown $15;
2000 in season: Roger Clemens $15.45
2000: Carlos Delgado $17 per; A-Rod $25.2 (crazy big jump)
2007: A-Rod $27.5
2013: Clayton Kershaw: $30.7
2015: Zack Greinke: $34.4

Note: does not include pro-rated Clemens pays late in career when he'd skip April/May and get paid for the 2nd half only. Otherwise Clemens' 2007 would go in there too $28 mil.

Note #2: Since I know some will ask, Stanton peaks at $32 mil in a few seasons but never reaches Greinke's overall average.

So rapid rise at first to $2.5 mil in 1980 then things cool off until 1990 when it goes from $2.6 pre-offseason to $3.75 by the end (a 44% increase). By the end of 1992 it peaks at $7.29 for a jump from the 1990 regular season to start of 1993 season of 180%. Wow. Might explain why the owners fought so hard for a salary cap in the 1994 strike. 1996-1998 saw the top jump from $8.5 to $15 mil - a 76% jump. Then the 2000 jump for A-Rod's first deal of 63% vs Clemens' deal made during the 2000 season. Now we are seeing a batch crack $30 mil so by start of 2016 we saw the top climb from $27.5 in the 2013 season to $34.4 3 years later - a 25% increase.

So even the big jumps now are much smaller than they used to be and the gaps are bigger. From A-Rods first deal to today (17 years later) the top pay has 'only' climbed from $25.2 to $34.4 or 36.5%. Since 1980 you cannot find any period close to that length with so small an increase. If we ignore A-Rod Man-Ram got a $20 mil per year deal that same winter so a 72% increase over 17 years. MLB overall revenue in that same period has grown from around $3.5 billion to $10 billion or by 186%. Safe to say the players have not kept up with the owners, or even come close.

Early on in the 80's no one knew how much players were worth to teams. Advanced stats were rarely used, Bill James first few abstracts just came out and the idea of using something other than wins and RBI's to evaluate players was revolutionary. By 1989 when the first big nutty offseason happens a far better estimate of player value was occurring as Pete Palmer and others had early versions of something similar to WAR in concept came out, allowing us to know top players could be worth as much as 10 wins a year but not 30-40 wins. Caught stealing was more important and W-L was reducing in importance at long last as were RBI's (some were stubbornly holding onto those though). By 2000 when we saw the final big jump online analysis was big and it was widely known that 10 wins was an amazing season for a player, but top guys could be worth 5 wins and age was critical thus A-Rod got the crazy contract that was a bargain if fully evaluated, sadly Texas was run horribly and blew it on mid-level players who flopped so the Yankees got A-Rod. Sigh. Now we are getting a batch of guys at the $30 mil level but teams are being super-careful not to do another '89 and skyrocket the highest pay. Most methods say $9 mil per win so a 5 win player (like Donaldson is better than) is worth $45 mil but no one has come within $10 mil of that pay yet. Meanwhile middle relievers are getting over $10 mil for 1 WAR seasons and high variability. What does it all mean? Teams are evaluating with 'big data' now so I'm wondering if ability to handle pressure is getting evaluated and priced into the market with high WAR totals in a single position not being seen as valuable vs spreading it out.