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Is Johan Santana the most overpaid pitcher in MLB history? Image credit: wikimedia

The Most Overpaid Pitcher In MLB History Is…

I was recently reading an article on the Richest MLB Pitchers of All Time. As I was going through the list, there were more than a few names that surprised me on how much money they had earned over their careers. In a time of Sabermetrics, it still surprises me the mistakes many organizations make on over spending for a starting pitcher or even a closer. I’ll save everyone the time of reading through the article and give you the list of the top 20 richest pitchers based on lifetime earnings, as well as the wins, saves, and innings pitched for each player.

Richest MLB Pitchers
Richest MLB Pitchers

After reviewing the list there are some things that certainly stand out. How could Barry Zito have earned $20 million more than Curt Schilling? The answer is obviously that The Giants significantly overpaid for Barry Zito’s services. It’s relatively easy to see where the bad value lies, but how can we go through this list and find where the best value lies?

In order to make sense of this data, we need to find a common measure. A standard way of measuring success, if you will. When we have players like John Smoltz and Mariano Rivera, we can’t simply look at Wins because the Saves would be excluded. Likewise we also can’t simply look at innings pitched, because a closer is inherently going to through less innings than a starter throughout the course of a year.

Wins Plus Weighted Saves

The most important metric for a baseball team is Wins. To quote Jonah Hill‘s character in Moneyball, “Your goal shouldn’t be to buy players. Your goal should be to buy wins.” Over the course of the last five years in baseball, a team has averaged 60 Save opportunities per season. In a 162 game season, that is roughly 37% of the games. So let’s use that as a starting point. A Save is worth 37% of a Win.

To validate, let’s compare how much these players are paid per Win to how much a closer is paid per Save. The average cost per Win (excluding Smoltz and Rivera) is $684K per Win. In contrast, Rivera was paid $260K per Save. If we do the math ($260K/$684K) we see that a Rivera was paid about 38% of what the average cost per Win was for these top earning players. The two numbers closely match, so the assumption seems to hold up. With our assumption in mind, I’ve created a Wins + Weighted Saves metric – which adds the Wins total to a weighted total of Saves.


With this new W+WSV metric, let’s compare how these richest pitchers rank in terms of value. When you look at the data based on the Cost per W+WSV, you can see players like Tom Glavine, Roger Clemens, and Greg Maddux provided reasonable value compared to the bottom of the list. We also see that pitchers like Smoltz and Rivera who have a large amount of Saves in their careers still provide some good value based on their lifetime earnings.

Richest MLB Pitchers Ranked By Value
Richest MLB Pitchers Ranked By Value
Who Is The Most Overpaid Pitcher?

There are certainly some players who don’t appear to provide value for their salaries, like AJ Burnett or Barry Zito, but one player sticks out like a sore thumb – Johan Santana. It’s unfortunate how Santana’s career had fallen so quickly for the New York Mets. Personally I was a huge fan of Santana when he played for the Twins, and I was there in 2004 when he broke the single season strikeout record. Still, the numbers don’t lie and it would cost nearly 3x as much to get a win from Santana than it would Tom Glavine. That is the definition of overpaid.

Salaries provided by worthly.com; stats provided by baseball-reference.com

About Nathan Matuska

Nathan Matuska is Director of Product Development at the Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group and founder of Analytics Nerd. He has nearly 15 years of experience in Ecommerce Strategies, Data Analysis, and Digital Marketing. He has extensive experience in web analytics, previously working as the Manager of Client services for a web analytics start-up and has worked with other tools such as SiteCatalyst, Google Analytics and Webtrends.

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