At its root, baseball’s arbitration process is simple. Qualifying players typically receive three annual opportunities to debate salary with their teams. There is a basic formula that can be used as a rule for calculating salary figures for each of these years, but as this articles explains, that “40/60/80” formula has been shot so full of holes that it’s more like guidelines, actually. Or ‘distant point of reference.’
After formally exchanging figures last week, the Braves believe that they can justify – in a hearing – a salary of $6.55 million for the first-time-arbitration-eligible Craig Kimbrel. Kimbrel’s agent (reported to be David Meter) countered with $9.0 million.
That’s a wide gap – and the arbitrator must ultimately choose one of those two numbers: $6.55m or $9 million.
If you take that 40/60/80 rule literally (pay 40%/60%/80% of estimate free agent salary in each successive arbitration year) and extrapolate the figures, the Braves are anticipating a free agent salary level of $16.375 million for Kimbrel. Meter’s math works out to an astounding $22.5 million. Annually.
The important thing to realize with this particular arbitration case is that it establishes a baseline that can be used for future negotiations and future arbitration hearings. This is also the case for the arbitration salaries of other players: any completed arbitration case is fair game to be used in new arb hearings – much more often than this antiquated 40/60/80 rule.
Basically one side will say the Player A should be paid X dollars because here’s a list of comparable performers that were paid numbers close to the one we submitted . The other side will have the chance to rebut with their own list of comparables.
Trouble is, Craig Kimbrel doesn’t really have anybody to compare with.
After his first 3 full major league seasons, Craig has 139 saves. This is the Most Important Statistic he has to share, and it’s the one that also matters most, because it is tied directly to wins and losses. Strikeouts are flashy – and yeah, he has a ton of those, too – but saves are his entire case as a closer.
You like WAR values? Okay – both baseball-reference.com and fangraphs.com agree on 3.3 Wins Above Replacement for Kimbrel in 2013. MLBTR believes that each 1.0 WAR is worth $4-5 million, so even at the midpoint, that’s up to $16.5 million… in free agent terms. Oddly enough, the Braves might actually want to use that number as a marker for their case in court.
But back to saves. Bobby Jenks is the closest recent ‘comp’ to Kimbrel here. In his first 3 full seasons (2006-2008), Jenks produced 117 saves. This appears to be the prior record. Oddly enough, Jonathan Papelbon accumulated 113 saves during that same period. These are the standard bearers. Impressive, but even that 117 is still 22 short of Kimbrel’s total – 19% short, in fact.
Turns out that most relievers do not simply jump into the role of Closer during their rookie season. That – and the fact that Kimbrel has been exceptional during those first 3 seasons – is exactly why his numbers are off the charts.
But what about Mariano Rivera? Glad you asked. Mariano did not start closing until his third season, really (1997). In fact, he started 10 games in 1995. Even once he got rolling, he amassed 43, 35, and 45 saves in 1997-1999, after getting 5 in 1996. That’s 129 total after 5 years. Kimbrel has 139 in just 3+ years.
So in terms of precedents and comps, Kimbrel’s agent is going to tell the arbitrator these facts:
- My client has more Saves at this point in his career – his first arbitration year – than anyone ever has had. He’s already 87th all-time.
- The obvious comparable players are Bobby Jenks and Jonathan Papelbon.
- Papelbon received a salary of $6.25 million in 2009 after his 1st arbitration cycle. That’s the current Closer’s record award for a first-time arbitration case.
- Craig is clearly better than those guys.
He’s right – especially when adding in the vast advantage in strikeouts and ERA that Kimbrel has put up… which will undoubtedly be highlighted in their presentation. He hasn’t been closing games so much as ending them. He is the shut down closer.
How Do You Counter That?
It’s clearly going to be an uphill battle for Frank Wren’s team, but there are several directions they could go:
- The aformentioned dollars-per-WAR figure, that leans in their direction.
- Their submitted figure, which is at least higher than the Papelbon number (by $30,000). If they hadn’t at least gone there, they’d be doomed.
- Jenks’ salary in 2009 was determined to be $5.6 million. MLBTR points out that when records and new precedents are set in this process, that a good rule-of-thumb might be to add no more than an extra $1 million on to the prior record number. That record number today is Papelbon’s $6.25 million. The Braves have offered $6.55 million – nearly $1m above Jenks’ number, and exceeding the record.
- They could also suggest that Kimbrel’s save total (139) is 23% higher than Papelbon’s. 23% above his $6.25m arb salary is $7.69 million. As an “outlier” number, they could argue that this should represent the ceiling since it uses the highest salary and extrapolates Kimbrel’s save to that number. While they did not offer $7.69 million, they’re at least a lot closer to it than David Meter is.
- They can say that exceeding the prior record award of $6.25m by 44% is way out-of-bounds – and prior precedent seems to agree with that, as mentioned above.
- While he’s clearly the best closer in baseball, no closer is currently making more than $13 million (it’s Papelbon). To put Kimbrel at $9 million after his first arbitration hearing would be equating his position with that of elite starting pitchers – which has never been done. Even the $6.55m figure puts him in line to eventually have the highest closer’s salary ever – above that of Mariano Rivera’s record $15 million.
- Finally, while the strikeouts are nice and all, that’s merely a means to an end: the bottom line is getting the job done. He has, and that’s why they are recognizing the effort with a record-sized offer.
Honestly, I believe that Atlanta would have had a solid, almost slam-dunk case if they had offered the $7.25 million suggested by Matt Schwartz of MLB Trade Rumors. But since Meter and Kimbrel opted to go so high with their number, I would estimate that the Braves still have a 75% chance of pulling of the win here.
The Implications of Losing
If Kimbrel wins this case, though, the fallout could be enormous:
- $9 million would become the baseline. Another 45-50 save season would then embolden Meter to request as much as 50% more (remember that 40/60/80 rule) in 2015.
- Clearly, that size (perhaps $13-14m) of a contract for 2015 would be too much for the Braves to stomach. It would almost certainly mean the end of Craig Kimbrel in an Atlanta uniform at some opportune point between now and Spring 2015.
- The bar for future closers throughout major league baseball would be forever raised to a level that is crazy-high. The ripple effect would be felt in bullpens throughout baseball.
- Oh, and there’s the pesky issue of having to spend an extra $2.5 million this year to pay Kimbrel… which is that much less money available for other things… like trade-deadline acquisitions, et al.
This is a must-win game being played against a guy who almost never loses.
Hearings are scheduled between February 1st and the 21st. This one’s gonna be interesting.