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February 6, 2003 2:15 pm

Prospectus Feature: Playing the Armchair Arbitrator

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Nate Silver

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.

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.

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