R.A. Dickey, the 38-year-old knuckleballer, earned $4.25-million (U.S.) playing for the New York Mets last year. It’s a middling salary for a pro ballplayer, even more so given that Dickey went on to win the Cy Young Award as the National League’s best pitcher for the 2012 season. This spring, following a high-profile trade that will ultimately triple his salary, Dickey is wearing a Blue Jays uniform. His signing–along with headline-grabbing deals for Florida Marlins pitchers Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle–signals a sea change in how the Jays’ management plans to win.
To understand that change, you have to go back to the hiring of the Jays’ general manager J.P. Ricciardi in 2001. Formerly of the Oakland Athletics, where he worked in player development, Ricciardi subscribed to the notion that teams don’t have to spend their way to greatness. He took a quantitative approach to finding on-field talent–placing more emphasis on, say, players who were good at getting on base than the ones with high batting averages. It’s the same approach, known as sabermetrics, that Ricciardi’s onetime boss, Billy Beane, used to remake the Oakland A’s into a competitive team. (Beane found fame in the Michael Lewis book—and Brad Pitt film—Moneyball.) The gist: Teams with lower payrolls and the right players could beat teams that spent huge sums of money blindly chasing the league’s top players.
Under Ricciardi, the Jays’ payrolls were average–but so was the team. Year after year, they failed to make it to the post-season, and he was dismissed in 2009. Having firmly shaken off their sabermetric hangover–losing 89 games, as they did in 2012, will have that effect–the Jays are now opening up the cash spigot in an effort to field a winning team. Payroll is expected to rise to $125-million this season, up nearly 50 per cent from the past year–a major leap, for sure. The gains put Toronto’s roster into the upper echelon of major league baseball.
The sabermetrics faithful will scoff. They contend that resource-rich teams tend to try to solve their problems by throwing money at them. Certainly, the Jays’ new approach to winning is going to be watched closely. Already, the team is a betting favourite for winning the World Series this year, and those favourable odds are the result of the new additions. The excitement will draw fans, and that’s good for business. But it also comes with high expectations—mediocrity is unacceptable.