Math Continues to Befuddle Times

Last week, we noted a couple of examples of the New York Times’ inexplicable inability to understand the numbers it was reporting to its readers.

Yesterday, the Times did it again. A graphic in the paper’s sports section caught our eye — mainly because it didn’t make any sense.

Apropos of the Yankees/Royals game yesterday in the Bronx, the paper printed a table purporting to show “how much each [major league baseball] team is spending, on average, for each victory.” The table, organized by “cost per victory,” showed the Yankees and Royals paying more than any other team, about $4.8 million per win.

But how can this be? The Royals’ payroll, as the chart shows, is $36.9 million, while the Yankees are shelling out $205.9 million. Some quick math would imply that the Yankees had won just 41 games so far this year, and the lowly Royals only 8. In fact, a glance at the standings shows that the Yankees had won 72 games as of yesterday; the Royals, 42.

So what’s going on?

The article accompanying the table, by David Leonhart (who we took to task last week for an article on real estate rents) isn’t much help. After musing about the cost of high-profile free agents, the article parrots the chart, with the claim that “The Indians are the only team to have spent less than $1 million for each victory so far,” and “The disappointing Yankees and the Kansas City Royals, thrifty but terrible, are last, each having spent almost $5 million per victory.”

The explanation comes near the end of the piece: the Times cost-per-victory number is actually calculated not by dividing total payroll by total victories, but by a method more arcane.

Bear with us. The minimum payroll for a full roster of baseball players in the major leagues is about $9 million. Historically, the worst teams of all time have still won about 30 percent of their games. New York attorney Doug Pappas, looking for a way to figure out which teams were spending their payroll most effectively, came up with an equation to figure it out: subtract the minimum payroll possible from what a team was paying, subtract the minimum number of wins from the actual number, and divide the former by the latter. The result is the cost per victory above the minimum (or, in economic terms, what a team is paying per marginal victory).

Cost per marginal victory may or may not be a good way of measuring the economic efficiency of a baseball team, but Times readers could be forgiven for walking away from the story scratching their heads and wondering whether the reporters covering their beloved Yankees shouldn’t be sent back to the minors.

Bryan Keefer

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Bryan Keefer was CJR Daily’s deputy managing editor.