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February 15, 2013

Arbitration Showdown

Mock Hearing: Dexter Fowler

by Maury Brown, Matthew Kory and Ben Lindbergh

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It's salary arbitration season in Major League Baseball, and here at Baseball Prospectus we're holding mock hearings, arguing for or against the actual team/player filing figures before a three-person panel of certified arbitrators. We've selected 10 of this winter's most intriguing, highest-dollar cases to cover in depth over the first two weeks of February (regardless of whether the players' real-life cases remain unsettled). After each side's opening argument and rebuttal/summation below, we'll give you a chance to vote on what you think the result should be before seeing the panel's decision. For more on the arbitration process, read the series intro by Atlanta Braves Assistant GM John Coppolella, listen to his appearance on Episode 35 of Up and In, or check out the BP Basics introduction to arbitration.

In Part Nine of this 10-part series, we'll tackle Colorado Rockies outfielder Dexter Fowler, who sought $5.15 million and was offered $4.25 million. Unbeknownst to our arbitrators, Fowler and the Rockies reached an agreement on a two-year, $11.6 million contract, avoiding arbitration.

Mock Hearing Schedule

  • Chase Headley [2/4]
  • Jason Hammel [2/5]
  • Shin-Soo Choo [2/6]
  • Max Scherzer [2/7]
  • Jim Johnson [2/8]
  • Martin Prado [2/11]
  • Homer Bailey [2/12]
  • Jordan Zimmermann [2/13]
  • Dexter Fowler [2/15]
  • Sergio Romo [2/15]

Table of Contents

The Criteria

The criteria will be the quality of the Player’s contribution to his Club during the past season (including but not limited to his overall performance, special qualities of leadership and public appeal), the length and consistency of his career contribution, the record of the Player’s past compensation, comparative baseball salaries, the existence of any physical or mental defects on the part of the Player, and the recent performance record of the Club including but not limited to its League standing and attendance as an indication of public acceptance.

The complete procedure for salary arbitration is available in the Basic Agreement.

The Case

vs
Dexter Fowler
Player Request:
$5.15 million
Represented By: Maury Brown 
Midpoint:
$4.7 million
Colorado Rockies
Club Offer:
$4.25 million
Represented By: ‚ÄčMatthew Kory

Position: OF
DOB: 03/22/1986
Bats/Throws: S/R
Service Time: 3 years, 168 days
   

Player's Presentation

Rockies center fielder Dexter Fowler had a great 2012 season by the standards of any service class. For a player with just over three years of major-league service time, however, his season was exceptional, and worthy of the $5.15 million he is seeking over the $4.25 million the Rockies are offering.  His 2012 platform season produced career-high marks in a number of categories.  He played in 143 games and batted .300 with a .389 on-base percentage and a .474 slugging percentage. His hitting against both left and right-handed pitchers was the best of his career, as he batted .315 (45-for-143) vs. LHP and .293 (91-for-311) vs. RHP in 2012.

Fowler’s Career Stats

Year

PA

HR

RBI

AVG

OBP

SLG

2009

518

4

34

.266

.363

.406

2010

505

6

36

.260

.347

.410

2011

563

5

45

.266

.363

.432

2012

530

13

53

.300

.389

.474


Relative to the league, Fowler’s numbers were impressive.
  • Fowler led the major leagues with his .379 (50-for-132) batting average in the seventh inning or later. He also accumulated 23 of his 53 RBI in that situation, showing that at the end of the game when hits matter most, Fowler was one of the tops in the league.
     
  • His .389 on-base percentage was the sixth-best mark in the National League and the second-best among all center fielders.
     
  • He was one of 14 NL players to hit .300 or better.
     
  • His .863 On-base Plus Slugging (OPS), which captured the ability of a player to both get on base and hit for power, was 12th in the NL.
     
  • Among qualified center fielders, his .300 batting average tied for third and his .863 OPS ranked fourth. Only Andrew McCutchen (.953) finished the season with a higher mark among NL center fielders.

Name

CF AVG

Andrew McCutchen

.327

Mike Trout

.326

Austin Jackson

.300

Dexter Fowler

.300


Name

CF OPS

Andrew McCutchen

.963

Mike Trout

.953

Austin Jackson

.930

Dexter Fowler

.863

  • He set a Rockies career triples record in 2012, passing Neifi Perez’s 49. Fowler’s 50 triples since his first full season in 2009 are the most in the majors (Shane Victorino is second with 46).
     
  • His 50th triple came in his 503rd game. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the only player who debuted in MLB after World War II to reach 50 career triples as fast as Fowler is Garry Templeton (who did it in his 487th game in 1979).

Against peers from his service class and position, Fowler ranks high. Indeed, he matches up well with one of the game’s best hitters.

 

Service

Platform

BA

PA

RBI

HR

SB

Salary

Fowler

3.168

2012

.300

530

53

13

12

$4.7M*

Hamilton

3.000

2009

.268

365

54

10

8

$3.25M

* Midpoint

Josh Hamilton settled with the Texas Rangers in advance of filing for arbitration, so it is unknown what the exact midpoint between the player asking and club offering figures would have been. For comparison, the midpoint between what Fowler is seeking and what the Rockies are offering is used here, as Hamilton’s salary for 2010 would have been negotiated around the midpoint. While a difference of $1.45 million might seem large, when accounting for inflation, Hamilton’s salary would be closer to $3.4 million, or a difference of only $1.3 million. Fowler’s platform-year batting average was 32 points higher. He also has more RBIs, home runs, and stolen bases than Hamilton did.

Compared to his peers in this year’s salary arbitration class for center fielders with between three and four years of service time, Fowler does exceptionally well:

 

Service

Platform

BA

PA

RBI

HR

H

R

3B

Fowler

3.168

2012

.300

530

53

13

136

72

11

Roger Bernadina

3.146

2012

.291

261

25

5

66

25

0

Alejandro De Aza

3.139

2012

.281

585

50

9

147

81

6

Gerardo Parra

3.145

2012

.273

430

36

7

105

58

2

Drew Stubbs

3.047

2012

.213

544

40

14

105

75

2

Fowler has the highest batting average and the most RBI, ranks second in hits, and smashes the field in triples.

Fowler continues to mature as a major-league player and has become one of the game’s best center fielders. Therefore, based on the numbers, Fowler warrants the salary he is seeking. —Maury Brown

Club's Presentation

Dexter Fowler is a fine player who has helped the Colorado Rockies win games by leading off in the lineup and playing center field. He is not, however, a star-level player who has single-handedly altered the fortunes of the Rockies through his play, yet his salary request values him that way. The Rockies feel he is a good player who deserves a raise, and they have offered him an additional $1.9 million for the 2013 season, an 80 percent raise on his salary last season. His request for $5.15 million, a 219 percent raise, is excessive.

There are three reasons the Club feels as it does.

1. The effect of Coors Field has made the Player appear better than he really is.

Closer inspection of Fowler’s 2012 season shows that much of his production can be attributed to advantages provided to him by his home ballpark. The Rockies play their games at Coors Field, a stadium located a mile above sea level. The thin air at that altitude allows the ball to travel much farther and faster than in any other ballpark. This provides a sizeable boost to hitters and made Coors Field the most extreme hitter-friendly park last season by a wide margin.

Runs Scored by Ballpark, 2012

Runs

Percent of Average

Most

1009 (Coors Field; Rockies)

158 percent

Median

671 (Citizens Bank Park; Phillies)

103 percent

Least

517 (Safeco Field; Mariners)

69 percent

Fowler took advantage of that home field assistance by hitting many more home runs and recording many more RBIs at Coors Field than he did in a similar amount of at-bats away from Coors.

Location

Batting Average

Home Runs

RBIs

Hits

Runs

Doubles

Triples

On-Base Percentage

Fowler at Coors

.332

10

39

81

51

10

7

.431

Fowler Away from Coors

.262

3

14

55

21

8

4

.339

Even with the all the help from Coors, Fowler’s stats still don’t compare favorably with those of his fellow center fielders. To his credit, Fowler came in tied for third in batting average and second in triples among qualified center fielders, but he was 17th in hits, 16th in RBIs, 20th in doubles, and 18th in stolen bases. Those numbers show he was not an exceptional player, and certainly not one deserving of a 219 percent raise.

2. Fowler’s defense in center field leaves much to be desired.

According to UZR, a statistic that measures fielders against their peers while adjusting for the difficulty of their opportunities, Fowler cost the Rockies 13.9 runs through subpar defense last season. (Baseball Prospectus’ fielding statistic, Fielding Runs Above Average, put the total at 10.7 runs.) That was the second-worst UZR of all center fielders in baseball. This is consistent with his career, in which he has cost the Rockies almost 40 runs (39.1) over the last four seasons. Further, Fowler ranked 15th in assists (throwing runners out) but had the second-most errors of any center fielder in baseball. The award voters agreed unanimously that Fowler’s fielding left something to be desired, as he did not receive any votes for the Gold Glove award.

3. Injuries make Fowler’s future unpredictable.

Fowler missed time due to injury on nine separate occasions last season. This is not a one-year issue, either. In his career, Fowler has never reached 500 at-bats in a season. This makes the Club less able to count on him for the future and reduces his value.

The player is requesting $5.15 million, yet no center fielder in the last six years with Dexter Fowler’s service time has made more than $4 million, and only one has made exactly $4 million.

Player

Platform Year

Salary

RBI

Hits

Home Runs

Stolen Bases

Runs

Fowler

2012

$5.1 (requested)

53

136

13

12

72

Matt Kemp

2009

$4 million

101

180

26

34

97

Colby Rasmus

2011

$4.67 million

53

106

14

5

75

The one who made $4 million was Matt Kemp, who hit twice as many home runs, stole almost three times as many bases, and got almost twice as many RBIs. Last year, Colby Rasmus, a center fielder coming off a much better season than Fowler’s 2012, received a salary below the midpoint of Fowler’s asking price and the Club’s offer.

In light of the above, we feel that the Club’s offer of $4.25 million is fair and consistent with the precedent set forth by this process. —Matthew Kory

Player's Rebuttal/Summation

While Fowler has boasted better numbers at Coors Field, the ballpark has been less of a boon to offense since the start of the 2002 season than it was prior to that point. Why? The addition of a climate-controlled chamber—a humidor—for baseballs used at Coors in 2002 has altered how the ball travels in the Mile High City.

Period

G

Runs/G

HR/G

AVG

1995-2001

558

13.4

3.1

.318

2002-2012

892

10.7

2.3

.290

This unique change to address the dryness of the ball has acted to “level” the playing field at Coors Field and renders the Club’s argument about Fowler’s performance at home less persuasive.

Beyond the statistical prowess demonstrated in our opening presentation, we offer these additional points:

  • Fowler ranked fifth in the National League in Slugging Percentage among all center fielders.
     
  • The Club attempts to discount the number of hits Fowler had, but with the exception of Bryce Harper, no NL center fielder in his service class or lower had more.
     
  • None of his National League peers (by service time and position) had a better batting average.
     
  • Fowler was the model of consistency, hitting .300 before the All-Star break and .299 after.

The Club’s attempt to undervalue Fowler’s stats due to Coors Field altitude does not take into account changes that were made more than a decade ago with the advent of the humidor.  As the statistics clearly show, Fowler is the class of NL center fielders and ahead of his peers by service time. Dexter Fowler is deserving of the salary he is seeking. —Maury Brown

Club's Rebuttal/Summation

To make the case that his accomplishments last season were not significantly aided by his home ballpark, the Player cited the decrease in scoring at Coors Field since the installation of the humidor. However, the correct comparison is not between recent scoring and prior scoring at Coors, but scoring at Coors and scoring in the National League as a whole. The following table shows how scoring at Coors compared to National League scoring (including Coors) from 2001-2012 and in 2012 alone.

Period

Runs/G

HR/G

AVG

NL 2001-12

9.0

2.0

.260

Coors 2001-12

10.7

2.3

.290

NL 2012

8.4

1.9

.254

Coors 2012

11.5

2.4

.305

Despite some decrease in scoring at Coors in the post-humidor era, offense remains elevated there relative to the rest of the league. The Player’s argument that Coors is not providing a massive boost to run scoring, and thus all of Fowler’s offensive statistics, is simply incorrect.

The Player also cites Josh Hamilton as a comparable without mentioning that Hamilton’s platform year was an anomalous, injury-plagued season for the former MVP outfielder. Hamilton’s stats through that season dwarf Fowler’s through 2012.

Player

PA

HR

RBI

AVG

OBP

SLG

Hamilton

1406

61

231

.292

.356

.508

Fowler

2143

28

168

.271

.364

.427

In addition, while the Player mentions the career highs Fowler set last season, it overlooks the fact that his increased home run total came at the cost of his lowest full-season doubles total:

Year

2B

2009

29

2010

20

2011

35

2012

18

As well as the fact that Fowler’s increased power also evaporated after the All-Star break last season:

Period

AB

HR

SLG

1st Half

250

11

.548

2nd Half

204

2

.382

In conclusion, Dexter Fowler is a fine player, but one whose statistics benefit significantly from his home ballpark. Further, his salary request amounts to over a 200 percent raise, an unprecedented request for a player in his position. The Club feels that its offer of a significant raise is both generous and well within the bounds of precedent for a player of Fowler’s accomplishments. —Matthew Kory

The Reader Poll

Before scrolling down to read the three-person panel’s decision, record your own decision here:

The Panel

Burt Fendelman is an attorney with more than 45 years of experience, initially in corporate finance and securities laws working as inside counsel for several major securities brokerage firms. He has performed as an arbitrator for FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority), the American Arbitration Association, and currently as an arbitrator and mediator for the New York County Lawyers Association in fee dispute-related matters. He is presently a self-described “work in progress”, working with clients in areas related to art and antiques. He attended Washington University in St. Louis and NYU Graduate School of Tax Law, and he now lives in Manhattan.

Doris Lindbergh is a retired lawyer who is an arbitrator with FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority) and its predecessor forums, the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD) and the New York Stock Exchange. She also arbitrates for the National Futures Association (NFA). She attended Washington University School of Law and has a Master of Arts from Fordham University. Her employment history includes stints at Wall Street investment banks and, most recently, the MTA New York City Transit Authority, but her most challenging assignment was raising a future Editor-in-Chief of Baseball Prospectus.

David Marcus is a retired lawyer and serves as an arbitrator with the Financial Advisory Regulatory Authority (FINRA). He lives in Metuchen, New Jersey. He attended Columbia College and Yale Law School, after which he served as an enforcement attorney with the SEC. His subsequent career includes working for the New York Stock Exchange heading its regulatory division, and working for several broker-dealers as a regulatory attorney or General Counsel.

The Panel’s Decision

3-0 in favor of the Club

Fowler's record shows him to be a good, but not yet superlative, player. Therefore, for the year going forward, we believe the team's offer is fair.

The Sabermetric Perspective/Additional CommentaryTest

This case came down to quantifying the Coors effect. Were Fowler’s stats inflated by his ballpark? If so, what was the rate of inflation? And how much does his salary deserve to be docked?

There are (at least) three important things to remember when considering the impact of a park on a player’s performance:

1. Park effects don’t apply equally to all players.
Park-adjusted stats like TAv and its equivalents at other sites—which tell us how a hitter did as opposed to how he’s going to do—don’t try to discern how a particular park affects each individual player. Instead, they apply the same generic, run-based park factors to every player based on the places they played. Intuitively, we know that parks don’t have an identical impact on every player: some favor hitters of a certain handedness, or hitters who have power to the opposite field, or hitters who keep the ball on the ground or in the air more often than average. But one-size-fits-all factors don’t consider whether a park might have affected certain players disproportionately. As a result, they don’t give us a perfectly accurate picture of how much of each player’s performance was a product of his park (though they work well enough for the majority of major leaguers).

Take a look at this list of home and away splits for every player who made at least 1,000 plate appearances for the Rockies during the Humidor Era of 2002-2012. (As Maury and Matt pointed out, scoring has been a little less crazy (but still kinda crazy) at Coors since the humidor was installed.) “Raw” TAv is TAv without the park adjustments—in other words, it’s what a player’s TAv would have been had he done what he did in a neutral park. 

Name PA Home PA Home RawTAV Away PA Away RawTav RawTav Ratio
Carlos Gonzalez 2074 1086 .358 988 .271 1.32
Matt Holliday 2968 1517 .352 1451 .272 1.29
Seth Smith 1449 693 .324 756 .260 1.25
Ryan Spilborghs 1768 864 .299 904 .240 1.25
Dexter Fowler 2143 1103 .314 1040 .253 1.24
Clint Barmes 2509 1245 .273 1264 .221 1.24
Preston Wilson 1179 630 .300 549 .249 1.20
Garrett Atkins 3121 1513 .302 1608 .254 1.19
Chris Iannetta 1733 863 .305 870 .257 1.19
Larry Walker 1255 660 .357 595 .303 1.18
Todd Helton 6263 3179 .342 3084 .295 1.16
Troy Tulowitzki 3177 1600 .313 1577 .281 1.11
Yorvit Torrealba 1187 616 .253 571 .235 1.08
Ian Stewart 1418 691 .272 727 .254 1.07
Cory Sullivan 1044 492 .260 552 .245 1.06
Brad Hawpe 3106 1561 .301 1545 .287 1.05
Total/Average 36394 18313 .315 18081 .266 1.18

All of these players made at least 500 plate appearances at home and at least 500 on the road while wearing a Rockies uniform, but their Home Raw TAv:Road Raw TAv ratios ranged from barely break even (Brad Hawpe) to over 130 percent higher at home (Carlos Gonzalez). The average ratio among these hitters, weighted by plate appearances, is 1.18. Fowler’s ratio is 1.24, which means he’s hit a bit better at home, relative to his road performance, than the typical long-tenured Rockie.

2. The ability to take advantage of a particular park is a meaningful skill.
More than any other recent Rockie, Carlos Gonzalez’ stats appear to be a product of his park. At home, Gonzalez posts triple-slash stats like Albert Pujols’ in his prime. On the road, his triple-slash stats look, at best, like a league-average left fielder’s. So which is he, a superstar or a league-average illusion?

The answer probably differs depending on the day. Whether he’s uniquely able to handle the high altitude or has an approach at the plate that’s especially well-tailored to Coors, Gonzalez has hit not only much better at home relative to the road, but much better than the typical Rockie hits at home relative to the road.

Plenty of interested parties, from BP authors to Chipper Jones, have cited Gonzalez’ splits as evidence that he’s not as good as his overall stats would suggest. And there’s certainly some truth to that. But the ability to exploit a ballpark better than most batters is worth wins and dollars to the team that plays there. Not every league-average hitter at sea level can mash like CarGo has at Coors.

Granted, Gonzalez’ true-talent splits probably aren’t as huge as his observed ones—we’re talking about roughly the equivalent of two seasons at home and two on the road, so we still have to regress to get an estimate of how high his ratio really is—but they’re probably bigger than the average batter’s, and that’s worth something to the Rockies. Being a beast in one park isn’t necessarily the most useful talent to have—ideally, you’d want a skill set that plays well anywhere, if only to make yourself attractive to every team and increase the demand for your services.

(It’s worth pointing out that Gonzalez wouldn’t necessarily hit just like he has on the road if he were traded to a new team. It could be that playing at altitude half the time affects his approach in such a way that he struggles away from Denver more than he would otherwise. Matt Holliday has the second-highest ratio on that list, with a raw road TAv nearly identical to CarGo’s (.272) in almost a thousand more plate appearances as a Rockie. But Holliday hasn’t struggled since leaving Colorado: his .317 TAv in over 2,500 PA since his trade to the A’s easily tops that .272 figure.)

There’s some reason to think that Fowler is similarly configured to make the most of Coors. As a switch-hitter, Fowler usually hits from the left side, and Coors is especially well suited for magnifying southpaw power; 20 of Fowler’s 28 homers have been hit at home. Some research by Rany Jazayerli and Nate Silver (warning: old articles) suggests that playing in Colorado disproportionately benefits high-strikeout hitters, who record fewer Ks at Coors; Fowler has struck out in 25.3 percent of his road plate appearances and only 19.9 percent at home (roughly the same split enjoyed by Andres Galarraga, who also got a big boost in Denver).

3. When we’re trying to determine what a player’s past value was to a team, we don’t need to know whether the park he played in affected his stats more than the average player’s.
When we’re projecting a player’s performance, we want to know whether the park he’ll play in will have an outsized impact on his stats. For that purpose, PECOTA uses component park factors that produce a more personalized projection.

When we’re looking backwards, though, we don’t need to get that granular. Here I’ll quote from Colin Wyers:

The important thing to remember is that we are not park adjusting a player's actual production, in TAv or FairRA+ or any of our other park adjusted metrics. We don't really care if a home run was wind-aided or wouldn't have been out without some friendly fence distances. Nor do we care if a warning track fly ball maybe would have been a home run somewhere else. Those are useful things to know if we want to project a player's skill, but TAv is not supposed to measure a player's skill, it's supposed to measure a player's value to his team. So our interest in park adjustment is not in seeing what a player would have done in a different park (I abjure those sorts of hypotheticals in value stats), but accounting for the different value of a run in different park contexts. We all know that Juan Pierre wasn't the sort of player who could really take advantage of Coors back when he was on the Rockies, for instance. But the average player coming in to face the Rockies could, and that changed the run environment Pierre played in. Even if he couldn't hit additional home runs in Coors, the park still affected the run environment he played in, and in a value stat that's important to account for.

One last note: Pierre is often cited as an example of a player who wasn’t helped by Coors, but Pierre’s Home Raw TAv:Road Raw TAv ratio as a Rockie was 1.13 (.273 to .240). He might not have been helped by the ballpark as much as most Rockies hitters, but he did see a boost in his stats. The Rockie who was truly beyond the help of a ballpark was the man Fowler succeeded in center field: Willie Taveras. Taveras is the only Rockie to hit worse at Coors than he did on the road in any sizeable sample. He just missed qualifying for the 1000-PA club in my table, but in 946 combined PA as a Rockie, he had a .239 Raw TAv at home and a .246 Raw TAv on the road. The moral of this story: Willie Taveras could make outs anywhere. —Ben Lindbergh
 

Thanks to Ryan Lind, Colin Wyers, Hudson Belinsky, Jonah Birenbaum, and Andrew Koo for research assistance.

Maury Brown is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Maury's other articles. You can contact Maury by clicking here
Matthew Kory is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matthew's other articles. You can contact Matthew by clicking here
Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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