Arbitration Breakdown: Hunter Pence

Over the next few weeks, I will be discussing some of the higher profile upcoming arbitration cases. I will rely partly on my arbitration model developed exclusively for MLB Trade Rumors (read more about it here), but will also break out some interesting comparables and determine where the model might be wrong.

Hunter Pence enters his fourth year of arbitration with a good chance of getting a fourth consecutive raise of between $3MM and $4MM. My model projects him to add a $3.4MM raise, giving him a $13.8MM salary for 2013. Pence had a pretty disappointing performance in 2012, but his career-high 104 RBI should be enough to get him a good boost. After hitting .314 in 2011, Pence only hit .253 in 2012. However, he did hit 24 home runs and play in all but two games on his way to 688 plate appearances.

Very few players have entered arbitration four different times without signing multiyear deals or being non-tendered, so players who do so are often compared with each other and with players who are eligibile for only the third time. As it happens, this makes Pence a pretty good comparison for himself last year since he had 24 home runs and 104 RBI after having 22 home runs and 97 RBI. Of course, his batting average this season was worse, and Pence will probably not be compared to himself last year anyway.

Among players who did enter arbitration for the fourth time, Mike Napoli in 2012 could be a good comparable, but his .320 batting average and 30 home runs make him a poor match, even though he only had 476 plate appearances and just 75 RBI. He did get a $3.6MM raise, however. No other fourth-time eligible players who have signed one-year deals in recent years have even hit 20 home runs, so we will need to look beyond that to find good comparables for Pence.

Since Pence’s most compelling case for a large raise comes from breaking the 100 RBI barrier, it is useful to look at the list of players who were eligible for at least their third year of arbitration and who had 100 RBI, and also restrict to players who signed one-year deals. There are only two such players: Mark Teixeira, who hit .306 and had 30 home runs and 105 RBI with 575 plate appearances in 2008 (he got a $2.7MM raise), and Jorge Cantu, who hit .289 with 16 home runs and 100 RBIs in 643 plate appearances, and only got a $2.5MM raise. Since Teixeira’s raise is five years old and Cantu had far fewer home runs, neither of them makes for great cases.

If we try to look for players with players with similar home run totals, say at least 20 but no more than 30, while also restricting ourselves to players with batting averages below .270 and with at least 80 RBI, only two players come up (among those who got one-year deals): B.J. Upton in 2012 and Austin Kearns in 2007. Upton hit .243 with 23 home runs and 81 RBI, though he stole 36 bases. Kearns hit .264 with 24 home runs and 86 RBI, and got just a $1.65MM raise, but since that case is so old, I doubt his name would come up in Pence’s case. Since both Upton and Kearns had less appealing statistics to arbitration panels (RBI matter far more), Pence is likely to easily top them.

There are some other players with 20-29 home runs who either did not get 80 RBI or who hit better than .270. Xavier Nady in 2009 is one such player. He got a $3.2MM raise after hitting .305 with 25 home runs and 97 RBI, though he had only 607 plate appearances. Adam Jones is another similar player. He hit .280 in 2011 with 25 home runs, but just 83 RBI. He got a $2.9MM raise, and Pence should be able to top that despite the lower batting average, since RBI matter so much to panels. One other such player with medium-high home runs is Luke Scott, who got a $2.35MM raise in 2011, after hitting .284 with 27 home runs, but just 72 RBI in 517 plate appearances. Pence should top all three of these guys.

If we expanded to include players who hit a little more than 30 home runs but still had averages below .270 and at least 80 RBI, we would be able to include Prince Fielder, who got a $4MM raise in 2011. Fielder hit .261 with 32 home runs, but just 83 RBI amidst 714 plate appearances. He could be a useful comparison for Pence due to his large raise.

If we really let the RBI restrictions go, we might include Kelly Johnson in 2011. This would also involve ignoring position, but at this point, without ideal comparables, he might be in play. He hit .284 with 26 home runs in 671 plate appearances, but only got 71 RBI. He still got a $3.5MM raise, though. Just falling short of nearly all of the above criteria was Casey Blake in 2008 — he hit .270 with 18 home runs and 78 RBI, and got a $2.35MM raise.

Clearly almost no one is a good match for Pence this year. The plausible names we have suggested above include Mike Napoli, Mark Teixeira, Jorge Cantu, B.J. Upton, Xavier Nady, Adam Jones, Luke Scott, Prince Fielder, Kelly Johnson, and Casey Blake. None of them are very good comparables. Almost all of them are a little useful. Pence had more plate appearances than nine of the ten and more RBI than nine of the ten as well. He only higher a higher average than one of these ten, though, and only had more home runs than four of the ten. Three of these ten players had more steals than Pence, five had fewer steals, and two had the same number.

These ten hitters got raises ranging between $2.175MM and $4MM. The median raise in the group was $3.05MM. Since these deals tend to be around two to three years old on average and Pence had more plate appearances and RBI (the more important arbitration stats, along with home runs) than most of these guys, my best guess is that Pence should be in the same range but a little higher. That makes the $3.4MM projected raise seem pretty reasonable to me.

Pence is the kind of player for whom the arbitration model I have developed is the most useful. It can struggle to identify salaries of players who are anomalously good or who have had odd career trajectories, but for a player who is far better than his peers in some statistics and far worse than his peers in other areas, the model can split the difference and come up with a reasonable projection. I think Pence is highly likely to be close to the $13.8MM salary the model projects for him.

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