The Salary Difference between Position Players and Pitchers

After Jayson Werth's $126 mn contract with the Nats, I got to wondering how it would affect the free agent market. It was clearly going to matter in how much Carl Crawford would end up making. What I wasn't sure about was if it would matter in how much Cliff Lee was going to get.

My initial thought was that front offices had (recently) realized that everyday players were worth more than pitchers (in the regular season, at least) and were willing to pay accordingly. But then I went back a little over 10 years and things started getting really interesting.

More after the jump.

Cot's Baseball Contracts would only give me the top contracts within the last few years. Looking for year by year data, I ended up at USA Today's Salary Database, and used BRef's salary database for comparison. I pulled out the top 25 salaries by year, but there was a trend. After the top few players in each category, the numbers stabilized for the next tier of players. So I took the top 5 position players' salaries and the top 5 pitcher' salaries for each year since 1988 and started playing around with the numbers. My questions?
  • Would a player getting an insane contract in one category affect the top paid player in the other category? Could there be a lag effect, as in, say, the top pitchers in 2006 were being paid what the top position players were making in 2003?
  • Did salaries immediately start trending up after these major contracts (in that category only) or was there a lag?
  • Was there always a premium paid to position players when compared to pitchers?
  • What the heck was Chan Ho Park doing on ANY of those lists?

Here are some graphs to make you go "Oooooooooooh!"

Top Paid Position Player vs Top Paid Pitcher




Top 5 Pitchers' Salaries vs Top 5 Position Players' Salaries


Premium on Top Position Players (versus pitchers)


Chan Ho Park's Salary Graph (Look and weep)


What does all this mean anyway? Here's my two cents.

Clearly, the most obvious thing from all of these graphs is that the Rangers really blew up the market when they gave that contract to A-Rod. All kidding aside, there are a few generalizations we can draw from the data.

Top position players have usually earned a premium over top pitchers (an average of 14%). The A-Rod deal may make us forget it, but Kevin Brown was the highest paid player in the major leagues before that. This was the brief period in 1999-2000, where the top pitchers (Brown, Randy Johnson, David Cone, Pedro and Maddux) made more, on average, than the top position players (Albert Belle, Bernie Williams, Larry Walker, Mike Piazza and Mo Vaughan). A-Rod's contract changed that in a hurry, as Manny Ramirez and Barry Bonds quickly started making equal (or more) amounts of money. So what happened to pitchers' salaries when A-Rod got that contract? Did they show a significant jump, or continued as they had been going before? Here's a lagged graph, which shows, e.g., the Top 5 position players' average salary in 2000 vs the Top 5 Pitchers' average salary in 2003.



What seems to be happening is that top pitchers are factoring in what the top position players are making, and are creeping up towards that value, only for position players to pull away again, at which time this cycle seems to be repeating. This can be seen from the graph on position players' premiums. Trend up (1993-95) and then fall (1995-2000) only to see another spike in the premium (2000-2002) and a gradual fall (2002-04). Spike (2004-08). Fall (2008-10).

Where did the "falls" come from? The last one was clearly Barry Zito (and, to an extent, Johan Santana). CC is only reaping the benefits of the benchmarks those guys set. The fall in 2002-04? New contracts coming in for Moose and Pedro.

I'm sure there's a lot of different conclusions that can be drawn from this. Obviously, Santana and CC's salaries are going to dictate what Clifton Phipher wants in AAV. But in a period of falling premiums, he might just be the one to push them to a low (say, a salary between CC and A-Rod) until Mr. Pujols decides to raise the market's premium on position players again.



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