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February 11, 2013
Mock Hearing: Martin Prado
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 Six of this 10-part series, we'll tackle Arizona Diamondbacks infielder/outfielder Martin Prado, who sought $7.05 million and was offered $6.65 million by his new employer. Unbeknownst to our arbitrators, Prado and the Diamondbacks reached an agreement on a four-year, $40 million contract extension, avoiding arbitration.
The complete procedure for salary arbitration is available in the Basic Agreement.
Martin Prado is a uniquely valuable player deserving of a salary over the midpoint. His mix of contact ability, baserunning, defense, versatility, and durability is nearly impossible to find. The Diamondbacks implicitly supported the notion that Prado is extremely talented by acquiring him from the Braves in a recent trade for Justin Upton, a very promising young outfielder. Prado was among the 2012 National League leaders in a variety of offensive categories:
As the last row shows, Prado very rarely strikes out. This is one reason why he led all of baseball last season in the percentage of runners on third driven in when he was at bat:
Prado blew the league away. He was more likely than not to come through when presented with the clutch situation of a runner on third who needed to be driven in. But offense is only half the story. Prado also provides significant value on defense, through both his skill with the glove and his versatility. In 2012, Prado was a left fielder and a very good one, as shown by three freely available metrics that use data on batted balls to measure how often Prado made plays that merely average fielders do not: the Total Zone system ranked him first among left fielders in runs saved on defense, Defensive Runs Saved had him second, and Ultimate Zone Rating fourth. The agreement among these metrics strongly suggests that Prado is in fact a very good defender. The Club's announced intention to play Prado at third base this season supports the view that he is an asset on defense: were Prado a bad or even just average left fielder, it is unlikely that the Club would be moving him to a more difficult defensive position. That intention to move him to third also puts on display Prado's significant defensive versatility:
While Prado was mainly a left fielder in 2012, he played at least four games at each of the four infield positions. This versatility has an incredible array of uses: if a teammate is injured, Prado can fill in; in a late-game situation, Prado can shift around the field to give the manager flexibility in pinch-hitting; if the team has an opportunity to make a trade for a second star third baseman, Prado could move to a position of greater need. Prado's versatility and mix of skills makes comparison to other players difficult, but a few are instructive:
While these are not traditional comparisons in that their salaries are below the midpoint in this case, Prado's performance shows that he has earned a salary as far from these players as this panel is permitted to grant. Note in particular that ruling for the Club would give Prado a salary lower than Delmon Young earned after a very unimpressive 2011 season. While Prado's batting statistics bear some resemblance to those of Casey Blake, in the intervening five years, the average major-league salary has increased by almost 17 percent. Adding 17 percent to Blake's salary results in a sum of over $7.1 million, well over the midpoint here. Prado's unique mix of valuable contributions on offense and defense makes him nearly incomparable and clearly justifies a salary above the midpoint. —Jason Wojciechowski
Martin Prado was an important part of his team over the past three years, serving at various times as the club’s second baseman, third baseman, and, most recently, left fielder. His versatility as a utility man makes his manager’s job easier. However, the salary he requests is appropriate for a middle-of-the-order star, not a utility player. Prado has demonstrated many skills, but he has never shown that he can hit like a middle-of-the-order star.
Prado spent the 2012 season primarily as a left fielder. Because left field is often the smallest part of the park and requires less arm strength than the other outfield positions, it is the least demanding position on the diamond besides first base. The fact is, a club can find almost anybody to stand in left field, so the premium for left fielders is on offensive contribution—a left fielder must be a truly excellent hitter to stand out among his peers. Prado did not stand out. Of the 27 men who played at least 100 games in 2012 and spent a majority of those games in left field, Prado’s ranks are near the middle of the pack:
He does hit plenty of singles, but his lack of walks or home runs keeps his total offensive contribution—as measured by on-base-plus-slugging percentage—around league average. In fact, of the 27 left fielders, Prado's OPS was 13th.
It’s rare to see such a colorless overall line from a left fielder, as most left fielders do something well on offense—either hit for power or steal loads of bases or post a better-than-mediocre walk rate. Since 2000, there have been 226 players who have accumulated at least 500 plate appearances in a season while playing mostly left field. Of the 226, Prado is one of just 11 who didn’t hit more than 10 home runs, steal more than 20 bases, or post an .800 OPS.
A vigorous defense of Prado will surely stress that he was a left fielder by the club’s choice, not because he is incompetent at other positions. Indeed, Prado’s numbers do make it easier to find comparable hitters at 2B, SS and 3B, but those comparable players are likewise compensated at lower rates than Prado seeks (or, even, than the club offers).
Asdrubal Cabrera is a particularly compelling comparable for Prado. Like Prado, he has been an All-Star (twice; Prado was an All-Star once, in 2010). Each has a little bit of speed—each player, in fact, stole exactly 17 bases in his career-best season—and the offensive statistics are close match. Cabrera, though, made less at a similar stage in his career than Prado is asking for and than the club has offered.
Is there reason to think Prado is better than his stats? He hit better at home (.308, six home runs) than on the road (.295, four home runs), so he can’t blame his ballpark for suppressing his stats. He hit better with the bases empty (.319, six home runs) than with runners in scoring position (.275, one home run), so he can’t call himself a run producer. He hit better in situations classified by Baseball-Reference as “low leverage” (.326, six home runs) than those classified as medium or high leverage (.277, four home runs), so he doesn’t qualify as clutch.
Utility players are not often the cornerstone of a lineup, and Prado is no exception. His inability to hit for power or utilize great speed limit his value. He is a fine player, and one whose flexibilty the club is grateful to have. It is for this reason that the club extended to him a fair contract offer, one that is higher than his most comparable peers have received. —Sam Miller
The Club's case against Prado is a classic instance of isolating individual negatives because there is no way to argue against the overall value of the player. It is true, for instance, that Prado does not hit many home runs, but home runs are merely one aspect of offense. Prado does hit scads of doubles—42 in 2012—and carries a high batting average—.301 in 2012, .295 for his career—so his overall total bases more than make up the home run difference:
Prado contributed substantially more bases to his team than every single player the Club raises as a comparable except for Melky Cabrera. The simple reason why Cabrera was paid so little after 2011 is because his career consistency to that point was nonexistent:
Cabrera's platform year, then, was a stark departure from his previous run of mediocrity, while Prado's 2012 season is right in line with his career numbers (especially when factoring in the league-wide decline in offense). Cabrera, in fact, was released by the Braves after 2010 (his 4-plus years of service time season). It is also worth noting that Howard Kendrick, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Alberto Callaspo each signed multi-year contracts after the seasons listed in the Club's case—using the first year of that contract as a basis for Prado's one-year deal is flawed because of the basic economics of players trading a higher single-year salary for more long-term security. (This is putting aside the fact that the Club's own table shows that Prado has outperformed all four of the infielders the Club lists over the course of his career, and only Kendrick's platform year came close to Prado's.) The Club's comparables show that Prado is just as good a hitter as many left fielders (and substantially better than, for instance, Cody Ross and Delmon Young), but with the defensive ability to play all over the field and do it well. Prado's mix of valuable skills more than justifies a salary above the midpoint. —Jason Wojciechowski
The player's presentation goes to great lengths in search of favorable comparisons, reaching all the way back to 2007 and 2008. His resulting list is an extremely eclectic bunch: There are players with power and players with no power, players with speed and players with no speed, durable players and oft-injured players, outfielders and infielders, active players and players long since retired. In fact, they share only one thing in common: They all made less money than the midpoint figure in this case.
If the player is unable to find a comparable on his side, it suggests the market has declared a fair value for players like him. If he wishes to break that precedent, he must prove he possesses extraordinary abilities. He has not. The player has no hardware—no ROY, MVP, Gold Glove, or Silver Slugger. More than 70 players make the All-Star team each year, but Prado has been an All-Star just once in seven seasons. He has led his league in any offensive category just once, and it was sacrifice flies.
The player's contention that he is an exceptional defender is weak. The player cites defensive metrics that rate Prado as above average in left field. These are easily rebutted:
Even the Player’s "clutch" claim collapses under closer inspection. The player's percentage of runners driven in from second base in 2012 was 105th out of 135 qualifying batters, and he has never finished higher than 84th in baseball in RBIs.
The player couldn't find comparable players in the recent past who played like Prado and were paid at the level he requests. This is not a knock on him, or his usefulness to our club. It simply rules out his salary demands. —Sam Miller
Before scrolling down to read the three-person panel’s decision, record your own decision here:
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 Player
It’s not as sexy a sabermetric frontier as quantifying catcher framing or clubhouse chemistry, but the value of multi-position players is another area in which cutting-edge stats are still struggling to capture the complete picture. We do have positional adjustments, which give us a big part of the picture. Arguing on the Diamondbacks’ behalf in today’s case, Sam attempted to paint Martin Prado in a less positive light by lumping him in with other left fielders, a comparison that makes Prado’s offensive contributions look less special. It’s also a comparison that ignores the fact that part of Prado’s offensive contribution was a .365/.407/.482 line in 92 plate appearances as a third baseman, which clears the offensive bar at that position by a much wider margin than it would have had he done it in left.
Positional adjustments give Prado proper credit for the work he did while moonlighting all over the field. WARP pits Prado’s play as a shortstop against other shortstops and weighs his work in left field as a separate stint. The WARP framework treats Prado’s appearances at other positions as those of several separate players, adding runs here and subtracting them there to combine them in one column. In reality, of course, it’s the same Prado producing all those stats, roving from station to station to plug the most harmful hole. Positional adjustments can push players like Prado or Ben Zobrist close to the top of the WARP leaderboard. But positional adjustments don’t distinguish between Prado and other left fielders when he’s playing left field. And that’s a big blind spot, since Prado’s other potentialities have value even when his teams aren’t actively exploiting them.
In a mailbag answer on his website last August, Bill James sang the praises of the versatile player:
And there’s more to it than that. Not only do multi-position players enable teams to maximize the returns on their roster by helping them avoid replacement-level production when guys get hurt or face an unfavorable matchup, they also give general managers greater flexibility in putting their rosters together, warding off weak positions in the first place.
Prado is a perfect example. After his 2010 All-Star season at second base, the Braves needed an outfielder. They couldn’t afford the best free-agent outfielders available—that was the winter of Jayson Werth—but they could deal for Dan Uggla. Because Prado could play left, Frank Wren had the freedom to fill a need in a number of ways, allowing him to do so in the way that was best for the Braves. (Prado probably can’t be blamed for the five-year Uggla extension that followed.) And before the Justin Upton trade took him out of Atlanta, Prado was slated to slide over to third to replace the retired Chipper Jones, allowing the Braves to avoid overpaying in a weak market for free-agent third basemen (or settling for their eventual solution of Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson).
So how do you assess the value to a team of a manager’s peace of mind or a GM’s flexibility in filling holes? Right now it’s not something we can put a number on, but neither is it something we should ignore—especially in the era of eight-man bullpens, when multi-position players help dwindling benches pack more punch. “Utility player” has in some circles come to be a derogatory term. But Prado proves that there’s more truth to the term than the stats might sometimes suggest. —Ben Lindbergh
Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @SamMillerBP