Playing the Armchair Arbitrator

by Nate Silver


February is a rough time of year to be a sports fan. As I sat down in front of the television on an appropriately dreary Sunday afternoon, my viewing options included an exhibition hockey game played in Florida, a football game played in a hockey rink, and a seniors golf tournament. How many more days until pitchers and catchers report, again?

No, the most contentious sports battles of February are fought not in football rinks or hockey stadiums, but in hotel conference rooms in Tampa and Phoenix, where owners and agents will square off against one another all month long in a series of arbitration hearings that will be fully nasty enough to recall the high period of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling circuit, except without quite as much hair-pulling.

Unlike Debbie Debutante and Spanish Red, salary arbitration appears poised to make something of a comeback. Only five arbitration cases went to a hearing last winter, a figure that tied for the lowest total ever. Twenty-one pairs of players and owners are prepared to take their cases to the mat this time around, and although a number of those cases are likely to be settled beforehand, both sides seem less willing this winter to compromise on dollar figures for the sake of creating goodwill going forward.

Gary Huckabay covered all of the arbitration basics and then some in a recent 6-4-3, so I won't rehash those here, except to reiterate that the single most important criterion in resolving each case is a player's previous track record of playing time and performance. The true value of that track record can be meaningfully different from the most reasonable expectation for his performance in the upcoming season, not to mention the factors an arbitrator actually weighs.

What I'll do in the balance of this article is present data from our PECOTA forecasting system for some of the most prominent upcoming arbitration cases, in order to discuss which players have the best chance of turning in performances that are out of line with their previous histories. Just for kicks, I'll play Armchair Arbitrator too. Keep in mind that I'll be taking into account information that the real arbitrators will not be allowed to consider, and that an arbitrator will sooner make a decision based on batting average or won-lost record than more meaningful measures.

  • Carlos Beltran, Royals
    Player salary request: $6.95 million
    Team salary request: $6.0 million

    PECOTA forecast: .284/.357/.503 in 656 PA
    Breakout rate 10%, Collapse rate 8%

    Beltran is a very good player with room to get better. His walk rate has inched upward every year, he's been very durable, and his speed metrics are tremendous. Although there's no guarantee that his power will increase, he's the youngest player on this list (26), and improvement in that department is a distinct possibility.

    Beltran is also a relatively unique player; his blend of speed and power is unusual for a switch-hitter. His most interesting comparable player is Roger Maris, who looked reasonably similar to Beltran heading into his back-to-back MVP seasons of 1960 and 1961. More typical are players like Devon White and Ray Lankford, who weren't true superstars, but mixed long careers with occasional All-Star appearances. If there's a reason to be cautious, it's Kaufmann Stadium, which has played as an extremely strong hitter's park for the past three seasons. Still, Beltran is just as deserving as Mike Sweeney for a long-term contract, and there's more to be lost from a bitter arbitration battle in his case than in any other.

    Armchair Arbitrator: Beltran

  • Shannon Stewart, Blue Jays
    Player salary request: $7.5 million
    Team salary request: $5.5 million

    PECOTA forecast: .307/.362/.454 in 606 PA
    Breakout rate 5%, Collapse rate 17%

    The gap of $2 million between salary offers is the largest of any player not named Maddux, which is appropriate since Stewart is a relatively difficult player to get a handle on. Shannon was talked up as a Rickey-lite breed of leadoff hitter when he first came up, but his walk rate went backward; he flashed good power in 2000, then it disappeared. He's still a good player, by virtue of his ability to put the ball into play, but since he's a groundball hitter who relies heavily on his legs, he could be vulnerable to erosion in his batting average as his wheels begin to decline. Most of the players on his comp list (Harvey Kuenn, Cleon Jones) did not retain much of their value as they entered their 30s, although his most similar player, Carl Furillo, was a notable exception.

    Armchair Arbitrator: Blue Jays

  • Jacque Jones, Twins
    Player salary request: $3.2 million
    Team salary request: $2.75 million

    PECOTA forecast: .273/.323/.455 in 521 PA
    Breakout rate 4%, Collapse rate 26%

    There's been some talk that Jones, and not Torii Hunter, is the player that the Twins should have locked up for the long term. Although Jones' contribution was an underrated part of the Twins' run to the pennant last season, he's not as likely as Hunter to sustain his success going forward.

    The power spike that drove Jones' value upward was not accompanied by an improvement in his plate discipline, and looks likely to be an age-27 blip. He is heralded as a good athlete, but the statistical indicators of his speed stack up as slightly below average. PECOTA gives him only about a 10% chance to match his .852 OPS from a year ago, and most names on his similar players list (Warren Cromartie, Dave May) are not flattering comparisons. I think the forecast is a little bit low, but with their stable of young outfield talent, the Twins are in the perfect position to take a wait-and-see approach.

    Armchair Arbitrator: Based on his past performance, both figures are low, and it should be an easy win for Jones should his agent be able to convey the value of his stellar defense in left field. Based on his forecast for this season, Twins.

  • Javier Vazquez, Expos
    Player salary request: $7.15 million
    Team salary request: $6.0 million

    PECOTA forecast: 3.60 ERA in 209.3 IP
    Breakout rate 20%, Collapse rate 12%

    Vazquez is durable, has plenty of big league experience, and understands the importance of not giving away a free base. It's dubious to call any pitcher a breakout candidate, but Vazquez is close to being an exception. His comp list contains an unusual number of accomplished names, from Robin Roberts to Don Sutton to Mike Mussina. PECOTA thinks there's about a 25% chance that Vazquez will post an ERA under 3.00.

    Armchair Arbitrator: Vazquez's agent may try to use Kevin Millwood's name as a comparable. Millwood settled for $9.9 million in January, and it's very difficult to make the case that he has been worth nearly $4 million more than Vazquez. Based both on his previous performance and his projection, Vazquez should win, but if won-lost records rule the day, the advantage swings to the Expos.

  • Freddy Garcia, Mariners
    Player salary request: $6.875 million
    Team salary request: $5.9 million

    PECOTA forecast: 3.81 ERA in 189.7 IP
    Breakout rate 16%, Collapse rate 17%

    The salary figures that Garcia and the Mariners exchanged are virtually identical to those in the Vazquez case. Garcia can use Vazquez's 2002 salary of $4.7 million as a comp. So what makes Garcia's agent think his client can make ~$2 million more than Vazquez did last year? Garcia's career stats: 60-29, 3.83 ERA. Vazquez's stats at the same point last year: 41-43, 4.51 ERA.

    There are two points worth considering when weighing those numbers though, even if they're likely the only ones the arbitrator will notice.

    The first is team context. Garcia, like the rest of the Mariners pitchers, has benefited tremendously from the soggy environment at Safeco Field, as well as the Mariners' fine defense. Projected into a neutral park and with a neutral defense, Garcia's 2003 ERA projection rises to 4.13. His case could very well turn on the ability of the Mariners' counsel to apply recent sabermetric findings on the importance of defense in driving run prevention. That or simply argue Garcia hasn't accrued the service time to warrant his demands, 60-29 or not.

    The second consideration is injury risk. Garcia tired badly in the second half last year, and isn't quite as efficient with his pitches as Vazquez. PECOTA forecasts a decline of about 40 IP this season, which would equate well with a month-long stint on the DL.

    Armchair Arbitrator: Garcia has a year less service time than former Super Two case Vazquez, and won't be able to use Millwood's 2003 salary as a precedent. Judgment to Garcia on points, but it's close.

  • Orlando Hernandez, Expos
    Player salary request: $4.5 million
    Team salary request: $4.0 million

    PECOTA forecast: 3.99 ERA in 135.7 IP
    Breakout rate 15%, Collapse rate 19%

    Since he fled from Cuba at the age most commonly believed to be 31, Hernandez is one of the oldest five-year arbitration eligibles in history. Consistency has never been El Duque's strength, and with only sketchy details of his usage history in Cuba available, it's tough to know how well his arm will hold up to the winds of time.

    Hernandez's comparables list is reasonably favorable, and includes a number of pitchers who were legendary for their longevity - Charlie Hough, Danny Darwin, and both Niekros. The comparison to the knuckleballers is not entirely an accident, and results partly from the fact that Hernandez shares in common with them a very low rate of hits allowed on balls in play (around 25% for his career, versus a league average close to 29%). Hernandez doesn't throw a floater, except for the occasional eephus pitch, but instead relies on a variety of arm angles and breaking junk to keep a hitter's timing off balance. I don't mean to preach against the gospel of DIPS, but it seems possible to me that Hernandez, much like a knuckleballer, relies in part on the batter making weak or partial contact, and that the rate of hits allowed isn't entirely the result of luck. If that's the case, then PECOTA has inflated his hit total too much, and his forecast is conservative.

    Armchair Arbitrator: Expos, but only because of the durability concerns. The White Sox will pay Duque's salary, whatever the verdict.

  • Kelvim Escobar, Blue Jays
    Player salary request: $4.6 million
    Team salary request: $3.5 million

    PECOTA forecast: 3.86 ERA in 85 IP
    Breakout rate 23%, Collapse rate 15%

    If Escobar wins his arbitration case, he'll owe Jerome Holtzman one hell of a night on the town. A pitcher who is good for 80 innings of not-much-better-than-average ball is no Superman, regardless of how many times he gets an 'S' next to his name in the box score.

    Certainly, Escobar could get better, especially with improved command. His breakout score is high, and his comparables list includes a number of pitchers, like Mike Jackson and Steve Bedrosian, who made good careers for themselves. This isn't a rant against the value of a great reliever as such - high-leverage innings certainly count for something - but Escobar isn't a great reliever, and he has some work left to do to become a very good one.

    (The two sides recently settled at $3.9 million rather than go to arbitration. Escobar gained a favorable comp after the Cubs agreed to pay $4 million to nominal closer and veteran mediocrity Antonio Alfonseca. But the mid-point for Escobar came in at $4.05 million, above Alfonseca's figure and possibly enough to sway the proceedings Toronto's way.)

  • Greg Maddux, Braves
    Player salary request: $16.0 million
    Team salary request: $13.5 million

    PECOTA forecast: 3.63 ERA in 162 IP
    Breakout rate 30%, Collapse rate 22%

    Since Maddux is the subject of our latest Big Exciting Contest, I won't do anyone's homework in assessing his historical contribution. But Maddux is far and away the arbitration case most likely to suffer from a serious decline in performance. Warning signs abound:

    • His strikeout rate fell more than 20% last year;
    • He registered his lowest innings pitched total since 1987, and that includes the strike seasons;
    • His peripheral ERA exceeded his ERA by nearly a full run;
    • He'll be 37 in April.

    Greg Maddux is one of the greatest athletes of our generation, he's been solely responsible for two championships for my favorite Scoresheet Baseball team, and I love him to death. But Scott Boras would be wise to eschew the arbitration process entirely, and get his client signed to a guaranteed multi-year deal. Maddux could win his case on his all-world reputation and track record, but a drop in performance in 2003 could severely hurt his future earnings.

    Armchair Arbitrator: Braves.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.


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