The Book of Mike

"This is no junior college. This is the notorious University of Miami.” -- Marlins starter Dontrelle Willis, after getting knocked around for six runs in 2 1/3 innings by the Canes.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Contract Renewals

Everyone knows how much money major league baseball players make. To most people, what the average major leaguer makes in a season is more than someone with a normal job might earn in a lifetime. Most regular people would need to work several (if not a lot more than that) years to earn the equivalent of the major league minimum ($300,000). Given that context, it’s difficult to say that some players are underpaid, but relative to their “peers” many are. Some of the Marlins young stars are prime examples – particularly those with less than three years of major league service time, as they’re subject to having their contracts automatically renewed by the club.

It’s been widely reported that the Marlins will be renewing the contracts for World Series MVP Josh Beckett and mid-year callup/Super-rookies Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera.

Beckett will be receiving a healthy salary somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 million – in line with what he was paid in 2002 and 2003 (in 03 Beckett took a reduction in pay after missing most of the 2002 season due to injuries). Beckett’s contract looks like a monster though compared to Willis and Cabrera’s.

Reportedly, Cabrera will earn $320,000 this season – a $20,000 raise from the prorated portion of the major league $300,000 minimum he earned last year. Not the most generous thing to do for a player that was a significant contributor last season and is expected to play an even bigger role for the team this year, but well within the Marlins rights.

For the last few week’s it has been widely reported that Dontrelle Willis’s contract will be renewed by the Marlins for $353,000 this year. A nice chunk of change for your average 21-year old, but definitely not fair considering what the Marlins have gotten from this guy. Not only was he a major factor in the Marlins run to the World Series last year and the 2003 National League Rookie of the Year, but he’s also expected to be a part of their rotation this year and in years to come. That part of the story is pretty standard though. Young guy, good year, thanks a lot – here’s your contract. We’ll talk again about this time next year.

But with Willis it’s different. Starting as far back as last summer Dontrelle was a key part of the Marlins marketing efforts. Ticket packages were designed around him. Fans could buy vouchers guaranteeing them seats on the day that Dontrelle pitched (the D-Train flex pack). These were offered to help fans avoid the lengthy lines that often formed at the walk up window when Dontrelle pitched (which were so long in fact that many times fans didn’t make it into the game until the second or third inning). In addition, the Marlins also sold mini-plans during the season that came with Dontrelle Willis autographed baseballs.

Many people feel that Dontrelle Willis’s presence on the team last year keyed the spark in interest in Miami in baseball again. Whether it was Willis’s hot streak when he was called up, his enthusiasm and friendliness, or the turnaround in the team’s fortunes after he was called up from AA, it’s difficult to say. However, it’s plain to see that he had an impact on attendance. The Marlins average attendance last year was 16,026 people (during the regular season). In games that Willis started an average of 21,532 people showed up, compared to 14,840 when he didn’t. That means on average (including things like weekday/weekend games, when there was a threat of rain, good matchups and poor matchups), having Dontrelle on the hill to start the game was worth an incremental 6,692 patrons to the Marlins each game.

What are those extra 6,692 people worth to the Marlins? Well it’s difficult to say since we don’t really know what kind of revenue the Marlins generate or keep from each fan in attendance. However, we do know (courtesy of Team Marketing Report) that the cost for a family of four to attend a game was $111.58 (second lowest in the league – more expensive than only Montreal). This includes two average adult and child tickets, four small sodas, two small beers, four hot dogs, two programs, parking, and two adult size caps. Not perfect, but reasonable (well reasonable assuming you could buy a program at a Marlins game last year – which at times was a stretch). Dividing that $111.58 by the four fans gives you an average of $27.89.

Now the Marlins have a horrible lease, keep hardly any of the parking revenue, etc, etc, so it’s not fair to say that all of that $27.89 went into Mr. Loria and Mr. Samson’s pockets (even if it did, they’d just tell you that the team still lost money so it doesn’t matter anyway). For arguments sake, let’s pretend half of that money goes into the Marlins coffers – in other words $13.94.

Just to simplify the math a little, let’s call it 6,700 fans per game (rounded from 6,692) and $14 in Marlins revenue per fan (rounded up from $13.94). Dontrelle made 14 starts at home, so he was worth an incremental $1.3 million in revenue to the club (14 starts x 6,700 incremental fans per start x $14 per fan).

In my opinion, $1,300,000 in incremental revenue is a conservative estimate. This doesn’t account for the t-shirts, jerseys and other memorabilia the team was able to sell (which I know they don’t keep all of either) or the fact that attendance likely increased after Dontrelle’s call-up at least in part due to the attention he was able to bring to the team.

Yes, I know that many of you, especially the SABR-metricians out there, will say that Dontrelle did not have that much of an impact on the Marlins last year. But for those of you who were in town and attended games last year, I think you’ll agree that it’s safe to say that Mr. Willis was worth at least $1.3 million to the team, over and above what the team would have generated had he not been there. Given that, a $53,000 raise – simply to increase his salary over the league minimum - does not seem to be commensurate with his value to the club.


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