Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

Arbitration Wrap up for 2017 season


Arbitration cases are already touchy enough; why did the Yankees president go out of his way to attack one of his best relievers? Photo via

Arbitration cases are already touchy enough; why did the Yankees president go out of his way to attack one of his best relievers? Photo via

We’ve finished off the Arbitration case season for 2017, and it finished with some fireworks.

After a relatively quiet pre-2016 season (just 4 cases), there were 15 cases that went to “trial” this spring.  Clubs “won” 8 of the cases and Players won 7 cases, so it was a pretty even season.

The “fireworks” of course were the result of the final case to be argued, that of Dellin Betances with the Yankees.  He asked for $5M, the team offered $3M, and after the team won Yankees president Randy Levine took it upon himself to trash Betances and his representation for the audacity of even asking for the amount of money he asked for.  I suspect that Betances’ representation pushed the envelope on his case to explore the rapidly changing valuation of relievers; despite not being the Yankees primary closer over the last few years Betances has delivered significant value to the Yankees (3.7 bWAR in 2014 and 2015 before dropping back to just 1.1 bWAR in 2016).  And I get it: who was a more valuable reliever to the Cleveland Indians during their WS run: Andrew Miller or their closer Cody Allen?  The inexplicable part wasn’t Betances’ salary ask; it was the team’s reaction afterwards.

Was Betances’ $5M ask excessive?  Maybe, maybe not: If Betances is work $5M in his first Arbitration year, then that projects to roughly a $12.5M open-market salary (using the 40%/60%/80% rule of thumb where your first arbitration salary should be roughly 40% of your open market price).   If he’s only work $3M, that projects out to a $7.5M annual salary.  The best “comparable” is Miller as a non-closer multi-inning reliever and he’s signed to a 4yr/$36M deal worth $9M a year.  So if that’s the benchmark for elite non-closer multi-inning relievers then Betances is right there.  $5M was too high but a $3.5-$4M first year arb salary was right in line with what he probably “should” have been paid.

Here’s a list of the 15 players who argued.  Here’s a direct link to my master Arbitration case XLS in Google docs.

YearTeamPlayerPlayer FigureClub FigureDeltaWinner
2017MilwaukeeChase Anderson28500002450000400000club
2017BostonFernando Abad27000002000000700000club
2017New York YankeesDellin Betances500000030000002000000club
2017BaltimoreBrad Brach30500002525000525000player
2017OaklandKris Davis50000004650000350000player
2017New York MetsWilmer Flores22000001800000400000player
2017BaltimoreCaleb Joseph1000000700000300000club
2017HoustonCollin McHugh38500003350000500000player
2017ArizonaShelby Miller51000004700000400000club
2017Tampa BayJake Odorizzi41000003825000275000player
2017MiamiDavid Phelps46000004325000275000player
2017TorontoMarcus Stroman34000003100000300000player
2017St. LouisMichael Wacha32000002775000425000club
2017ArizonaTaijuan Walker26000002250000350000club
2017PittsburghTony Watson60000005600000400000club

And now here’s some fun stats on the 81 total cases that have been argued since 2005:

  • Records since 2005: Clubs are 47/81 (58%), players are 34/81 (42%)
  • Washington and Miami are the leading “arguing” club with 9 cases each.  Though we seem to have learned our lesson lately; we had one in 2015, one in 2012 and the rest were prior to that.
  • 45% of all cases since 2005 by just 5 clubs (Miami, Washington, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and Houston).
  • 4 of 30 clubs in the game havn’t had an arb argument since 2005 (Detroit, Chicago White Sox, Texas, San Francisco)
  • 2 of the 8 clubs with just one case since 2005 just had it this off-season: Boston, St. Louis
  • Smallest amount argued over: $125k by Miami in 2007 and San Diego in 2014.  Washington close with $150K by Wash in 2010 w/ Burnett and $200k with Blevins in 2015
  • Largest amount argued over: $3M by Philadelphia w/ Ryan Howard (player won)
  • Biggest player demand: Francisco Rodriguez $12,500,000 (player lost)
  • Biggest club offer ($10M twice; both club wins)
  • 30 of the 66 players who argued w/ their clubs (prior to 2017) were traded or released THAT same season
  • Just 5 of 66 players who have argued arb cases remain with their teams as of the end of 2016 and/or signed longer term deals post-arguments

Its these last two points that stick with me, and should stick with any player/GM who decides to go through this process.  By all accounts, its horrible.  The Player is forced to sit there while the team that has just offered them millions of dollars but doesn’t want to pay a few hundred thousand more explains how awful the player is, focusing entirely on faults and deficiencies.  Meanwhile. by all accounts the whole system is based on precedents and “old school” statistics that we know are deeply flawed (batting average, RBIs, wins and saves).  So there’s little surprise that the player-management trust is broken, and nearly half the players who argue with their teams are summarily gone from that team before the season is even done.

But this is the system they’ve come up with.  I guess its better than restricted free agency, or franchise tags, or whatever other salary structure is out there for professional sports.

Post-publishing update: Dave Cameron at Fangraphs had a follow-up to the Betances situation worth reading.

25 Responses to 'Arbitration Wrap up for 2017 season'

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  1. Dear Randy Levine,

    Dellin Betances is a bum! An ungrateful stinkin’ bum! You should trade him at the first opportunity. And by the way, since you’ve so openly declared that he isn’t worth closer prices, don’t expect closer value in return. How about Jose Lobaton?


    Mike Rizzo


    22 Feb 17 at 1:01 pm

  2. A little actual love for the Nats from outside the Beltway:

    The URL is pretty funny but hardly relates to anything he actually says in the piece.


    22 Feb 17 at 1:02 pm

  3. Betances for … Clint Robinson. who says no? 🙂

    Todd Boss

    22 Feb 17 at 1:25 pm

  4. Brisbee tends to have rather “sane” takes on things. I dunno about 105 wins, but I will say that the over/under Vegas line for the Nats seems low; 90.5. Here’s the whole division:
    Nationals 90.5
    Mets 89.5
    Marlins 77.5
    Phillies 72.5
    Braves 71.5

    Even though the nats win total over/under is higher than the Mets, the Mets are lower odds for NL title and WS winnner.

    Brisbee’s salient piont is this: The Nationals are replacing Danny Espinosa and Ben Revere with a full season of Trea Turner and Adam Eaton. Yup. And he doesn’t even mention how many Michael Taylor ABs they’re (hopefully) not going to use either.

    Todd Boss

    22 Feb 17 at 1:31 pm

  5. C’mon, let’s be generous with such a second-rate franchise; let’s give them CRob AND Sheriff Lobo.

    Speaking of such things, as far as I’ve seen, we’re still waiting for the other 40-man shoe to drop to clear a spot for Wieters. Unless there’s a trade, my DFA bet would be Martin.


    22 Feb 17 at 2:49 pm

  6. My running “Next to DFA” list right now is as follows: Robinson, Grace, Martin, Kieboom … then several guys who clearly are not going to DFA anytime soon b/c we havn’t seen them in action yet (Skole, Romero, Cordero, Marmolejos).

    BUT … but, Robinson #1 was assuming we’d be waiting until end of spring to do a DFA. Since we have the DFA now … i’m going with either Grace or Martin. Maybe Martin first as KW says b/c hes righty, but Grace is now 4th of 4 lefty relievers and was so ill-regarded last year that the team felt the need to trade future Hall of Famer Max Schrock for Marc Rzepczynski instead of calling him up to give him innings.

    Todd Boss

    22 Feb 17 at 3:26 pm

  7. I think any trade with the Yankees has to include a starting pitcher or two – they have no starting pitching. I think the Yanks ask for Gio and Voth. Given the quality of our first 4 starters and how good Betances does, I may make that trade or try to push to give Cole instead of Voth.

    Andrew R

    23 Feb 17 at 12:29 am

  8. Here is what Chelsea Janes wrote yesterday in the Joe Nathan article:

    “Proven closers like Alex Colome of the Tampa Bay Rays or David Robertson of the Chicago White Sox have been reportedly available, but the Nationals have internal doubts about Colome, and Robertson is owed $25 million over the next two seasons. Even with a glut of catchers from which to deal, the Nationals seem unlikely to trade for someone owed so much.”

    That’s the clearest statement I’ve seen by someone with actual sources about where the Nats stand right now, which seems to be pretty much back to square one. I have no idea whether Betances is available, but it’s certainly worth inquiring. We know from local experience that teams often want to unload guys after bad arb juju. And I think the Nats would certainly be willing to discuss Cole or Voth, particularly after hearing unreasonable White Sox demands over and over and over again.

    Incidentally, I looked it up, and Matt Swartz’s arb estimate for Betances at MLBTR was $3.4M. His numbers are always very close to the market value. If that’s the case, the team was more in the ballpark than the player was. That doesn’t excuse Levine’s embarrassing response to the situation, but it does make it seem like Betances got bad advice from his agent and should have been in the $3.8-4M ballpark with his ask, at most. If he had been $3.6-3.8, he’d likely have won the hearing.


    23 Feb 17 at 5:33 am

  9. The estimate was closer to the team number because the arbitration system values saves, and doesn’t understand the concept of leverage or the value of a premium relief pitcher the way that the game has evolved. The agent & player were trying to bring reality to the table – always a risky business. I think that they would have understood (if not been happy) with the result. It’s Levine strutting around and trash talking afterward that was stupid.

    John C.

    23 Feb 17 at 9:49 am

  10. JohnC: completely agree. Betances is a unicorn among relievers these days, kinda like Miller. At some point the arb system has to adjust as reliever usage adjusts. $3.4M is right in line with an eventualy $9M valuation on the open market, which is precisely what Miller got. $5M was frankly too large of an ask and is probably why he lost. If he had asked for slightly less than $4M he may have won. I guess that’s why Levine was so pissed; it was one of the largest deltas in the last 10 years or so per my tracking (4th largest delta between player and team since i started hyper tracking in 2005).

    Todd Boss

    23 Feb 17 at 10:09 am

  11. Yep, risky business indeed, one that probably cost Betances $600-800K this season that was probably winnable, plus future arb increments that would be built off the higher sum. I think your reasoning about what they were trying to do is right, though. However, to make the “closer value” case, I think it’s going to take a Miller-like guy who regularly pitches multiple innings. Betances had 73 IP in 73 appearances. On paper, that makes him a one-inning setup guy. He may be one of the best in the game at it, and he was an All Star at it, but in this day and age, only the finishers are getting big bucks. The Nats had a similar situation when they felt like they had to trade Clippard rather than pay him the near-closer money that he was going to get in his final arb-eligible year.

    I don’t mean to sound like I’m taking the club side on this. I think Levine is an idiot, and the club may have low-balled the arb figure by $200K or so. But I also think Betances’s agent overreached while trying to make his point, and he ended up costing his player in the process.


    23 Feb 17 at 10:14 am

  12. Here’s another thought about arbitration. No one fights for larger contracts for his players than Scott Boras, both on the open market and in extensions. But unless I’m wrong — and Todd can check me on this, since he’s tracking the arb cases — Boras rarely takes his players to arbitration. He gets the deals done on time, on target, sometimes for a couple of years at a time, as he did with Stras and Harper. The reason Boras doesn’t make the big reaches in arbitration is because of what just happened to Betances. No matter how good your player is, if you overreach in making your point, you not only lose, you build hard feelings with the team.


    23 Feb 17 at 10:27 am

  13. Interesting question; lemme go quickly add Agent to the last couple of years worth of arb cases to see if there’s a trend….

    Todd Boss

    23 Feb 17 at 10:47 am

  14. I just populated all the agencies for the last 43 cases, dating through the 2012 season. Just one Boras client: Pedro Alvarez. He beat the club.

    Its tougher to keep going back b/c many of the guys in 2011 and previous are either out of the game by now or may have switched agencies…

    Todd Boss

    23 Feb 17 at 10:58 am

  15. I only see 4 Boras clients in the 81 guys to go to arb since 2005: Lohse (twice in 2005 and 2006), Oliver Perez in 2008, Jered Weaver in 2011 and Alvarez in 2015. So considering the number of players he advises, that’s pretty low.

    Todd Boss

    23 Feb 17 at 11:05 am

  16. Interesting. Thanks for checking. The only one of those Boras cases with a top-tier player at the time was with Weaver. The rest got settled. So even when he’s had superstars coming off great years, he has managed to avoid the arb hearings, despite his reputation for holding out for every last dime. I didn’t remember any of his multitude of Nat players ever going to the table.


    23 Feb 17 at 11:52 am

  17. Matt Wieters held hostage, Day 2. Or maybe the Nats gave him the infamous “Oriole physical” and sent him packing . . .

    Since it’s taking so long, I assume Rizzo is burning up his unlimited cell-phone minutes. It wouldn’t take this long just to DFA someone.


    23 Feb 17 at 1:07 pm

  18. Well, the longer it takes to officially announce, the more time he hsa to make a deal right?

    Todd Boss

    23 Feb 17 at 2:16 pm

  19. Predictably, Keith Law panned the Wieters signing 🙂

    Todd Boss

    23 Feb 17 at 4:55 pm

  20. Dave Schoenfeld also said it was a ‘nothing’ signing in that it doesn’t really make the Nats any better. Maybe a tick and everything depends on what they get for the cather they trade.

    I don’t see this making the Nats more than 1 or 2 games better in 2017. At best.

    Severino is the 1st C they’ve had since Brian Schneider who is a difference maker behind the plate.

    Mark L

    23 Feb 17 at 10:36 pm

  21. Wieters held hostage, Day 3 . . .

    I don’t know how much “better” the Wieters signing makes the Nats, but it makes them “less worse” at the catching position than they were. When you won 95 games, you’re not going to get much “better.” You just don’t want to get noticeably worse.

    I’m not thrilled about how much they spent on Wieters, but he is an upgrade on what they had.

    The scuttlebutt now is heavily that they’re trying to trade Norris. I was never sold on what Norris would give them, but a Norris/Wieters platoon seemed reasonable. I don’t know that keeping Lobaton as a backup gives them much of anything. I’d rather jettison Loby as well and give Severino the opportunity.


    24 Feb 17 at 6:50 am

  22. Well, the money said it was always going to be Norris on the block. And $4m is a heck of a lot for a back up catcher. Maybe they get a useful reliever.

    On Weiters, most seem to pan his defense and I wonder how we’ll ever know. With framing being the main thing they dislike, it usually shows up in your pitchers. So if our guys do worse as a group, and BAL does better, maybe that’s some indication that people are right. But who knows. It’s not easily provable. I suspect Roark, who relies less on stuff and more on called strikes, might be most at risk here for negative impact due to catcher.


    24 Feb 17 at 6:59 am

  23. I saw some commentary suggesting that between the Oriole starters being so wild and Britton burying everything in the dirt that the framing stats on Wieters might be skewed. Whatever. If the only positive thing you can say about a catcher is that “he’s a great framer,” then you suspect that he’s pretty rotten with everything else, particularly stuff involving a bat. I guess that’s why framing is about the only thing people like to mention about Loby . . .

    Wieters has consistently had low-20s HR power when he has played full time, and his K rate is (slightly) under 20%. He’ll basically replace Espinosa’s production at the bottom of the order, but with fewer strikeouts. As with Danny, he’s much better LH, so a demi-platoon with Severino would make more sense than one with Lobaton, who is terrible RH (except against Rich Hill).


    24 Feb 17 at 8:01 am

  24. Despite criticizing the deal as “yet another Boras move” for the Nats, fangraphs did improve their projections for the team by a couple of wins … so there’s that. It did not address the most glaring need for the team (closer), but I also think we’re all on the same page right now about closers; they’re too expensive to buy on the open market and we very well may have a completely serviceable option in-house. I’m ok starting the season with Kelley closing and having Glover and Treinen waiting in the wings.

    If they don’t pan out … then you go shopping at the trade deadline like we did for Melancon.

    Todd Boss

    24 Feb 17 at 9:09 am

  25. Great article on this topic and on Betances:

    Todd Boss

    24 Feb 17 at 2:20 pm

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