Arbitration Breakdown: Jim Johnson

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.

After shuffling between different relief roles for a few years, Jim Johnson emerged in 2012 as the Orioles' full-time closer. He saved a league-best 51 games in just 54 chances as he helped the Orioles make the playoffs for the first time in the 21st century. The Orioles relied on him heavily, winning the AL Wild Card in large part due to their 29-9 record in one-run games, a feat in which Johnson played a large part. Johnson hurled 68 2/3 innings for the Orioles, keeping his ERA low at 2.49 to go along with his hefty save total.

The Orioles are about to be reminded that that type of performance doesn’t come for free, as the Moye Sports Associates client is likely to get a substantial raise on his $2.625MM salary from 2012. My arbitration model projects Johnson to get a $4.275MM raise in his third year of arbitration eligibility, all the way up to $6.9MM. This would be uncharted territory — other than first-year eligible players, no reliever has ever gotten a raise larger than $3.5MM. While I suspect that Johnson may fall a little bit short of the model’s estimated $6.9MM salary, I think he will probably break the $3.5MM record.

Projecting closers’ arbitration salaries is not as hard as for many other types of players. Pitchers with at least 20 saves in their second, third, or fourth year of arbitration got raises ranging from $1.375-3.5MM over the last six years (2007-12) and a good rule of thumb is that the more saves a closer has, the bigger his raise will be. Other statistics matter far less; arbitration cases are very much about whether you got your individual job done, and the closer’s role is seen as saving games. More opportunities means more money — avoiding blown saves (which Johnson happened to do) is not as important as racking up save totals when called upon.

Pitchers who had at least 20 but fewer than 35 saves received raises between $1.375-1.925MM, pitchers who had at least 35 but fewer than 40 saves receives raises between $2.0-3.1MM, and pitchers who had at least 40 saves received raises between $2.7-3.5MM. The relationship between saves totals and raises is clear — other statistics mattered far less. Considering that the maximum number of saves of any of these closers was 47, it makes perfect sense that Johnson should expect to break Heath Bell’s record raise of $3.5MM in 2011 in Johnson’s third year of eligibility and with four more saves than Bell.

There have been three pitchers in the last six years to have at least 40 saves and get one-year contracts in their third year of arbitration eligibility, and all three of them received similar raises and will be the presumed comparables for Johnson’s case. After saving 40 games in 2007, Francisco Rodriguez got a $2.95MM raise; after saving 44 games in 2008, Jose Valverde got a $3.3MM raise; and after saving 47 games in 2010, Heath Bell got a $3.5MM raise. All three of them had a similar number of innings as Johnson had in 2012, with Johnson pitching through 68 2/3, Rodriguez throwing 67 1/3, Valverde with 72, and Bell with 70. Johnson’s 2.49 ERA topped Rodriguez’s 2.81 and Valverde’s 3.38, but fell short of Bell’s 1.93.

Since both Valverde’s and Rodriguez’s raises are less recent, Bell seems like a much better comparable, and given that his case took place two years ago and his saves total was smaller than Johnson’s, it is hard to imagine that that Johnson will fail to top Bell’s $3.5MM raise. Adding in two extra years of salary inflation and four extra saves, I think that Johnson should expect a raise of about $4MM. While my model thinks this will go all the way up to $4.275MM raise (and hence a $6.9MM salary), I think it might be hard to push for $775K more than Bell got. Johnson should still safely end up with over $6.5MM in 2013.

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