The most interesting arbitration cases of 2014

In these January doldrums, the big stories are about waiting for Masahiro Tanaka, Alex Rodriguez pondering if he should add Crane, Poole, and Schmidt to his legal team, and the woeful interaction between Derek Holland, a dog, and stairs. Nestled among these powerhouses of content generation are a few arbitration settlements. As winter inches towards spring, that trickle will become a torrent until there are just a few cases left to go to arbitration.

As of this writing, Dayan Viciedo holds the high score with a $2.8 million settlement. But soon there will be records set. What follows is a preview of some high-profile cases. A big hat tip to Matt Swartz of MLB Trade Rumors (and occasional THT contributor). All salary projections are his.

Atlanta Braves v. Craig Kimbrel

Kimbrel won’t be the highest paid arbitration athlete, but his case is far and away the most interesting. This is his first dance through arbitration and he’s primed for a big payday.

Swartz has developed a model that accurately predicts arbitration settlement values. Kimbrel broke that model. Simply put, there’s never been a reliever who has done what Kimbrel has done. I highly encourage you to read Swartz’s article on the subject. He even splices some genes to create a “mutant super-closer.” Kimbrel easily bested that closer chimera.

Kimbrel’s three-season string of dominance isn’t just historic among arbitration eligible pitchers; it’s plain historic. I created a list of all pitcher seasons since 1970 that included a strikeout rate above 35 percent, a walk rate below 12.5 percent, and an ERA below 2.25. That returned 22 results and 17 distinct names. Kimbrel appears three times (the numbers were a bit cherry-picked to ensure that). Despite being in the league only three-plus seasons, Kimbrel is the only pitcher to appear on that list three times. For comparison, Mariano Rivera never managed the strikeout rate to qualify.

I repeated the exercise for an FIP below 2.00 and an ERA below 2.25. That returned a slightly longer list of 39 seasons. Rivera appeared once. Kimbrel was the only pitcher to appear three times.

Arbitration doesn’t typically use fancy stats like FIP, so here are the numbers that will be considered. Again, these are quite unprecedented in baseball history.
{exp:list_maker}227.1 innings pitched
381 strikeouts
139 saves
1.39 ERA {/exp:list_maker}
From Swartz’s article, his original model projected a $10.2 million payout for Kimbrel, which would eclipse the $10 million payout Ryan Howard received in his first spin through arbitration. Swartz has revised his projection to $7.25 million using what he calls the Kimbrel Rule, which recognizes that arbitrators are unlikely to break major league records by obscene amounts. If baseball fans are lucky, we’ll at least get to see the figures each side submits, if not see this case decided by an arbitrator.

Los Angeles Dodgers v. Clayton Kershaw

Since his debut as a 20-year-old in 2008, Kershaw has been a stupendously excellent starting pitcher. He’s not quite the starter analog of Kimbrel, but it’s close. Kershaw is arguably the best active starting pitcher, and while he isn’t Greg Maddux, he’s not too far off that epic pace. He’s actually outperformed Maddux through his age 25 season, although many pitchers can claim that distinction. It’s surviving the next 17 seasons that usually proves to be a real challenge.

With starting pitchers, the most important numbers in arbitration are wins and innings pitched. ERA and strikeouts are considered, but those stats don’t carry the same weight. Kershaw’s 16 wins last season will help him earn a good chunk of money this offseason, but it’s his 235 innings pitched and 1.83 ERA that will seal the deal.

This is Kershaw’s final arbitration season. He’s projected to get a raise from $11 million to the neighborhood of $18-19 million.

Florida Marlins v. Giancarlo Stanton

Stanton is the most interesting position player to enter arbitration for the first time. He’s bashed 117 home runs in his short career and drove in 294 runs. That falls well short of the 129 home runs and 353 RBIs posted by Howard, so Stanton won’t be setting any records.

As with pitchers, playing time is important in arbitration, as measured by games played and at-bats. So while Stanton’s home runs and RBIs point toward a reward that is perhaps a million or two short of Howard’s $10 million payout, his time on the disabled list could hamper that outcome. He played just 116 games last season and never more than 150. Swartz predicts a payout of $4-6 million based on the shortfalls in playing time. Keep in mind, Howard also had a Rookie of the Year and MVP to his name when he reached arbitration.

Baltimore Orioles v. Chris Davis

If Stanton is the most interesting first-time eligible position player, Davis might be the most interesting overall. This is his second time through arbitration, and he earned $3.3 million last season. Davis’ superlative season guarantees a large raise on that figure.

Davis mashed 53 home runs and drove in 138 runs while playing 160 games. The largest raise to an arbitration-eligible position player was the $5.65 million earned by Jacoby Ellsbury in 2012. Ellsbury was coming off an even crazier season, so Davis might not see quite as large a raise. Then again, since arbitration is so focused on home runs, RBIs, and plate appearances, it’s possible he eclipses that record.

Atlanta Braves v. Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward

In addition to Kimbrel, the Braves have interesting arbitration cases including Freeman, Heyward, Kris Medlen, Chris Johnson, Mike Minor and Jordan Walden. Freeman and Heyward are the two mostly like to figure into the club’s long-term plans, so we’ll restrict ourselves to them.

This is Freeman’s first arbitration-eligible year and he is coming off a strong platform season that includes a .319 average, 23 home runs, and 109 RBIs. He also played 147 games each of the past two years, so he has playing time in his favor, too.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

He’s widely regarded to be an extension candidate, but arbitration can be very rewarding to players of his skill set. Swartz projects a $4.9 million payout that could quickly escalate with similar performances in the future. Freeman is entering his age 24 season and will be a free agent when he’s 27. Given the massive contracts free agents can expect—especially those in their mid-20s—Freeman may be altogether disinclined to sign an extension.

Heyward has the injury bug, and that’s holding down his arbitration projection quite a bit. Swartz projects just a $4.5 million payout in his second spin through the system. Like Freeman, Heyward is entering his age 24 season and will be 26 as a free agent. He may be too close to free agency for the club to extend, especially if the Braves think they can save money because he’s spent time on the disabled list.

Cincinnati Reds v. Aroldis Chapman

Were it not for Kimbrel, Chapman would be the reliever primed to wreak havoc. Chapman is projected to earn $4.6 million in his first turn in arbitration. He has 198.2 career innings with 77 saves, 324 strikeouts, and a 2.41 ERA. That doesn’t quite compare to Kimbrel, but it does stand up to the mecha-closer Swartz cites in his article about Kimbrel.

It’s unclear why Chapman is projected for just $4.6 million since his numbers appear preferable to those posted by Jonathan Papelbon in his first arbitration appearance. Papelbon earned $6.25 million and that was prior to the 2009 season.

Honorable mentions

Plenty of other arbitration cases stand out for some reason. Relievers have a prevalent role this offseason as more and more reach arbitration eligibility. That includes Steve Cishek, Neftali Feliz, Ernesto Frieri, Mark Melancon, Greg Holland, Kenley Jansen and several setup quality names.

A few big name starting pitchers are set to see arbitration, namely David Price, Jeff Samardzija, Max Scherzer, Justin Masterson and Homer Bailey. Incidentally, all five have been in trade rumors this winter and only Scherzer appears to be completely off the table. Travis Wood and Ivan Nova are also coming off strong platform years, although they don’t belong in the same conversation.

As for position players, the quality isn’t quite as high, with players like Ian Desmond, Pedro Alvarez, Mark Trumbo, Daniel Murphy and Eric Hosmer among those not on the list above.

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Brendan Burke
10 years ago

I stopped reading once you referred to the Miami Marlins as the Florida Marlins.

It’s been two years, adjust to the change already.

10 years ago

First, Brendan, you’re an idiot. You should now work on becoming a free blog-reading grammar Nazi (which I say as an English teacher).

Second, Brad, I think you’ve really stepped up your game since working at FG, but this is also nice. I would suggest, though (even though I don’t know crap about arb values) that Desi seems a possible high number, what with being a 20/20 SS who typically plays 150 games a year, and (now) handles the position well. (Over on Federal Baseball, there had been a contest after his second error-prone year to predict three year-end totals, one of which was “Desmonds,” or how many errors).

Brad Johnson
10 years ago

Thanks Will, I appreciate it. The FG commenters don’t give you much choice…

Desmond’s is pretty interesting, but I think his case will be straightforward and probably settled to boot.

And Brendan, thanks for getting hung up on the one errant word out of 1,200.

10 years ago

Brad, you forgot the comma to indicate a compound sentence at the end of the first paragraph in the Craig Kimbrel section.

Brad Johnson
10 years ago

In retrospect, I should have labelled that section Florida Marlins v. Mike Stanton.

Brendan Burke Jr.
10 years ago


Instead of writing “At the time of this writing,” you could have written “At this article’s writing.” Also, instead of ‘v’ to signify versus, I would have opted for the more traditional “vs.”

I stopped reading once I read the entire article.

10 years ago

I understand that you cherry picked stats to make Kimbrel look good—not that you have to with Kimbrel’s numbers—but, no, FIP, BB%, and K% are not the numbers arbitrators will be looking at.

Kimbrel’s stats right now in the numbers the arbitrators will most likely look at (they’ll look at seasonal averages, but I’ll give career totals):

IP: 227.1; ERA: 1.39; WHIP: 0.902; K: 381; SV: 139

And for comparison, Jonathon Papelbon through the same amount of service time:

IP: 230; ERA: 1.84; WHIP: 0.930; K: 270; SV: 113

So across the board Kimbrel’s better, but I think that’s probably the closest comparison.

**As an aside, if you remove the K% requirement from the first one and just leave it at 2.25 ERA and 12.5 BB%, Mariano Rivera goes from zero instances to fourteen instances.  And you could drop the BB% from 12.5% to 6.5% and he’d still have ten instances… FIP doesn’t treat him as kindly because it ignores the BABIP effect of his cutter, holding hitters to a .263 average over nearly 1300 innings.