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Breaking down the Dodgers 2021 payroll by playing time & production

Philadelphia Phillies v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

We appear to still be in a sort of limbo regarding talks between major league owners and players. After last week’s request for federal mediation by owners that was rejected, up next in negotiations should be some sort of offer from owners.

But for now, the owners meetings are this week in Orlando. Commissioner Rob Manfred is expected to address the media on Thursday, per Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post. As of now there are no scheduled talks between players and owners scheduled, per Evan Drellich at The Athletic.

So for now, like almost the entirety of the last 10 weeks, we wait.

But once labor talks do actually resume, one of the major areas of contention figures to be compensation for younger players, likely through an increase in the MLB minimum salary and possibly either earlier eligibility for salary arbitration or some sort of bonus pool for players with limited service time.

As of last week, the reported offer from the players association included a minimum salary that starts at $775,000. MLB owners are at $615,000, a 7.8-percent increase over the $570,500 minimum salary in 2021, the final year of the last collective bargaining agreement.

Whatever the two sides eventually agree to is one thing, but I am struck by how much the sport relies on players on the low end of the salary scale.

This is from Ronald Blum at the Associated Press in December at the beginning of the lockout:

That money is concentrated heavily at the top of the salary structure. Among approximately 1,955 players who signed major league contracts at any point going into the regular season’s final month, 112 had earned $10 million or more this year as of Aug. 31, of which 40 made at least $20 million, including prorated shares of signing bonuses.

There were 1,397 earning under $1 million, of which 1,271 were at $600,000 or less and 332 under $100,000, a group of younger players who shuttle back and forth to the minors.

Over 71 percent of major league players in September earned under $1 million during 2021. I’m not sure exactly how much of that was the continuation of a growing trend of roster churning, and how much could be attributed to the consequences of going from a 60-game campaign in 2020 to a full slate of games last year.

I tried to put this into some context with the Dodgers, who won 106 games and had the highest payroll in the sport. For competitive balance tax purposes, which uses average annual value of contracts, the Dodgers’ payroll in 2021 was $285.6 million, which brought a levy of $32.65 million in luxury tax.

I looked at every player to appear in a game for Los Angeles in 2021, 61 players in total, and used the salaries the Dodgers paid, breaking them into groups.

Dodgers 2021 roster, by salary group

Salary Percentage of PA & BF Percentage of bWAR
Salary Percentage of PA & BF Percentage of bWAR
$10 million & up 34.9% 42.6%
$4-9.99 million 23.8% 24.6%
$1-3.99 million 10.1% 22.6%
under $1 million 31.2% 10.2%

Ten players were paid at least $10 million by the Dodgers last year, and unsurprisingly accounted for just under 43 percent of the team’s Wins Above Replacement (the Baseball Reference version).

But it was telling that players earning under $1 million with the Dodgers — 39 in all — accounted for 31 percent of the total playing time, using plate appearances for batters and batters faced for pitchers.

In all, the Dodgers got 41 percent of their playing time and about a third of the bWAR from players making under $4 million. I’m not sure how that compares with other teams, but it shows that even on a successful, high-payroll team, a lot of the work is being done by relatively inexpensive labor.

How that group gets compensated going forward will be decided in the coming weeks.