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February 4, 2013
Mock Hearing: Chase Headley
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 One of this 10-part series, we'll tackle San Diego Padres third baseman Chase Headley, who (unbeknownst to our arbitrators) settled with San Diego for $8.575 million last week.
The complete procedure for salary arbitration is available in the Basic Agreement.
Since Petco Park opened in San Diego in 2004, not one Padre before 2012 had led the National League in a major offensive category in a season: not runs or RBIs, not home runs or doubles, not batting average or hits, not on-base or slugging percentage. The cavernous park and damp seaside air simply punish the batters who call Petco home. Since 2010, the National League has scored nearly 20 percent more runs away from Petco Park than at Petco Park.
Trying to lead the league in an offensive category at Petco is like giving everybody else a one-month head start.
Last season, though, Chase Headley did what no Padre had. He led the National League in runs batted in, while also leading all NL third basemen in home runs, runs scored, and games played. That he did it in the offense-strangling environment of Petco puts his performance among the best by a third baseman in the past decade.
Such a comparison, already flattering to Headley, doesn’t account for the obstacles of hitting in Petco Park. No team would try to deny the effects of such a park; they are a basic and accepted part of any player evaluation. Remove the distorting bias of the ballpark and focus on each player’s performance on the road, where Bautista and Headley can be compared on an even field:
Headley was substantially better in visiting parks in his breakout 2012 season than Bautista was in his breakout 2010 season.
Headley strengthens his case with the timeliness of his hitting. In 2010, Bautista drove in 19.1 percent of the runners that were on base for him, an elite rate and the seventh-best in baseball that season. In 2012, Headley was even better: he drove in 19.9 percent of runners.
It's not easy to find players comparable to Headley; few players are as productive at such a premium position. Over the past five seasons, just six players have driven in 110 runs and slugged 30 home runs while playing third base regularly. It's an elite group: Alex Rodriguez, David Wright, Evan Longoria, Miguel Cabrera, and Bautista and Headley. Headley deserves to be paid like the others in that group, and he deserves a raise comparable to Bautista's after 2010. —Sam Miller
It would test the patience of this panel for the Club to claim that Chase Headley did not have a good 2012 season. Headley's requested salary, however, should similarly test the panel's patience: over $10 million is an extraordinary amount for a player in his position. No third baseman with Headley's service time in the last six seasons has been paid a salary as high as Headley's request. Indeed, none of them has even been paid more than the $8.6 million midpoint.
Highest salaries for 3B with Four Years of Service Time, 2007-12
Further, Headley's year, as good as it was, was also likely a one-time event rather than a sign of things to come. From 2009 to 2011, a three-year span in which he played 430 games, Headley hit 27 home runs. Suddenly, in 2012, he hit 31. The website HitTrackerOnline records data about all home runs hit. The home runs are rated on a scale from "no doubt" to "just enough," based on how far past the fence they flew. Eleven of Headley's homers, more than a third of his total, were rated as "just enough," tied for third in the National League. Three of those 11 were given the tag "lucky," meaning that without weather effects, they would not have been home runs. Headley is thus at least inconsistent in his home-run hitting (the major factor in his leap forward in 2012) and at worst a mirage.
Headley also shows signs of decline on defense. Both Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating ("UZR”), systems that measure a fielder against his peers while adjusting for the difficulty of opportunities he faces, show that Headley is not the defender he was in 2010. Indeed, DRS rates him below-average overall, and most of his positive UZR is attributable to avoiding errors, a skill that again may well be a fluke given that he has never shown it before.
Headley enjoyed an excellent 2012, but as he will be 29 in 2013 (an age at which many players begin to decline) and cannot be expected to repeat his 2012 season in important ways. As he cannot show himself to be an extraordinary player, but merely a good one, the panel should not grant him an extraordinary salary. —Jason Wojciechowski
It is interesting that the Club says in its presentation that “the arbitrators should award Headley this extraordinary salary only if he is an extraordinary player.” Headley’s extraordinariness shows in his 2012 statistics, but it also shows in his manager’s own words:
The Club’s position that “no third baseman with Headley's service time in the last six seasons has been paid a salary as high as Headley's request” is disingenuous at best. Headley has four years of service time, but he was a Super Two player, which makes this his third arbitration-eligible offseason. That requires that he be compared to players who will, in most cases, have five years of service time. Headley's salary demands are far from unusual for a player with five years of service time.
The two most similar to him statistically—which is to say, the two other elite third basemen in the National League—are Ryan Zimmerman and David Wright:
The Club suggests Headley was lucky because 11 of his home runs cleared the fences by “just enough,” but that point strengthens the Player’s argument that his home ballpark is an obstacle. The home run-tracking website cited by the club also lists, for each home run, whether it would have been a home run in the league’s other ballparks. Here is how each of the 11 “just enough” home runs would have done elsewhere:
Most of the home runs that the Club claims were “lucky” would have been out of nearly every ballpark in baseball. With the Padres planning to bring Petco’s fences in this year, those “just enough” home runs might disappear, all right. They’ll just now be “no doubt” home runs.
The three supposedly comparable players that the Player raises have one notable factor in common: recognition by the baseball community of their extraordinary ability. Through 2010, Prince Fielder made two All-Star games and finished in the top four in the MVP voting twice. In 2010, Jose Bautista made the All-Star Game and finished fourth in the MVP voting. And through 2011, Josh Hamilton made four All-Star Games and won an MVP. Chase Headley has not made a single All-Star Game.
One significant reason why Headley was not chosen for the Midsummer Classic in 2012 is that the vast majority of his production occurred after July. From August 1 through the end of the season, Headley batted .318 with a .632 slugging percentage. Before August 1, he hit only .268 with a .422 slugging percentage. A whopping 63 of his RBI (54 percent) came in the final one-third of the season. For a team in the pennant race, this would be a good thing, but heading into August, the Padres were 44–61 and 13 games out of first place. Baseball Prospectus's sophisticated simulations gave the Padres a zero percent chance of making the playoffs at the time. Headley did the vast majority of his damage long after the games ceased to have any importance in the standings.
Relatedly, all but one of the players listed in the Player's brief have led their teams to the playoffs or even World Series championships, while Headley has never played in the postseason. Headley's individual production is fine, assuming it holds up in 2013, but baseball teams have to win, and Headley has not yet shown that he can make that happen.
The Club's offer represents a significant raise, but the Player has not demonstrated that he is so extraordinary as to deserve a near-tripling of his salary. —Jason Wojciechowski
Before scrolling down to read the three-person panel’s decision, record your own decision here:
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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.
3-0 in favor of the Club
As John Coppolella wrote in his Arbitration Showdown introduction, real-life “hearings are held in front of three arbitrators, lawyers who usually have little baseball experience or background.” The same is mostly true of today’s mock hearing (sorry, Mom). In a real hearing, each side has two hours, all told, to present its case, rebut its opponent’s, and deliver a summation. With time at a premium and clarity of the utmost importance in persuading the panel, it’s risky to spend much time explaining complex sabermetric concepts in order to communicate your case. For that reason, the statistics cited in salary arbitration tend to be more simplistic and traditional than those found in the typical player evaluation piece at Baseball Prospectus, which is why you saw all those mentions of Batting Average and RBI above.
Since this is BP, we’ve set aside some space for a short section at the end of each hearing to present the sabermetric perspective that might have been missing from the mock hearing itself. In this instance, there’s not much to add: while a more sabermetric-minded argument might have mentioned that Headley had the fourth-highest TAv in the NL (.324) despite his somewhat underwhelming slash stats, the Player’s case did convey the impact of Petco Park on Headley’s offensive statistics (though it didn't play up the mechanical tweaks that could have enabled him to add power). The Club side could have used Headley’s -16.3 FRAA over the past two seasons (-26.9 career) or his -2.4 BRR in 2012 (the third-worst total on the Padres) to argue that he’d lost a step, but as it turned out, the Club didn’t need any extra help.
However, there is one unusual feature of the case presented above: the Club’s contention that Headley is “not extraordinary.” The Player’s rebuttal addressed the substance of this claim, but the language itself is more inflammatory than one would expect to encounter in an actual hearing. Regardless of whether the claim that Headley isn’t extraordinary would help or hurt the Club’s case, it could have significant consequences outside of the hearing room.
Players usually attend their own arb hearings, which is one reason why teams try to settle before those hearings are scheduled: it’s usually not in their best interests to make their players mad. Although the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement on a long-term extension this offseason, the Padres are reportedly interested in pursuing one, so it might not make sense for them to alienate their franchise player by downplaying his performance in a career year, even if it could potentially lead to short-term savings. San Diego would also have to consider the possibility that Headley would tell his teammates about the team’s hostile arbitration tactics, which wouldn’t improve the mood in the clubhouse or make players more inclined to re-sign with San Diego.
An alternative to “not extraordinary” that’s more likely to be mentioned in an actual hearing is “not decorated.” As the Club’s case above points out, Headley has yet to make an All-Star team or win an MVP Award; “not decorated,” a phrase often heard in arbitration, is a more tactful way of drawing attention to his lack of career accolades. While one’s extraordinariness can be debated, the contents of one’s trophy cases can’t. —Ben Lindbergh
Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @SamMillerBP