Arbitration Breakdown: Mat Latos

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.

Mat Latos enters his first year of arbitration eligibility with a chance to break the record for first time eligible starting pitchers on one-year deals. My model expects that he will get about $4.6MM and I think this is probably an accurate prediction. It’s true that both Tim Lincecum and Clayton Kershaw earned more than this after reaching eligibility for the first time, but both did so by way of multiyear deals, and those are generally not used as comparisons in arbitration cases. Other than these two starters, the record first-year starting pitcher deal went to David Price, who matched Dontrelle Willis' $4.35MM mark last winter.

Latos, a Bledsoe Brothers client, had an excellent platform season last year with a 14-4 record and a 3.48 ERA in 209 1/3 innings. He also struck out 185 batters, good for a rate of 8.0 strikeouts per nine innings. While playing for San Diego before being traded to the Reds, Latos also put together an impressive track record with a 3.37 ERA in 429 2/3 innings and striking out 413 (8.7 K/9). While he went just 27-29, obviously under .500, wins matter more than losses in arbitration hearings and he is more likely to get credit for his 27 pre-platform wins and 14 platform season wins than debited for the losses earned with the Padres.

In an effort to find similar pitchers, I looked for pitchers who were close to Latos in as many categories as possible while loosening the restrictions enough that they fell short. I looked for hurlers with 11 wins, 180 innings, and an ERA of no worse than 3.90 in their platform season, and 20 wins, 320 innings, and ERAs under 4.00 before their platform season. Despite these lighter criteria, there were only six such starters and two of them were the aforementioned uncomparable Cy Young winners, Lincecum and Kershaw.

The remaining four are David Price in 2012 ($4.35MM), Jered Weaver in 2010 ($4.26MM), Chien-Ming Wang in 2008 ($4.00MM), and Scott Kazmir in 2008 ($3.79MM). Since Wang’s and Kazmir’s salaries are both five years old, it stands to reason that with inflation, they would fall in the same range as Weaver’s and Price’s salaries in the $4.3MM range. When compared with these four pitchers, Latos looks very similar and maybe a little better in most categories. I suspect that his case will center on these four players and that he will get a slight raise over the record right around the $4.6MM that I have projected him for.

The natural player to start with is the current first-time starting pitcher record holder, David Price. Price had a very similar ERA to Latos (3.49 vs. 3.48) but his 12-13 record was bested by Latos’ 14-4. However, Price had 224 1/3 innings, fifteen more than Latos, and he also struck out 33 more hitters. In their pre-platform seasons, the two pitchers also posted similar ERAs (3.31 for Price and 3.37 for Latos), but Price had a better record with fewer innings this time. Price had a 29-13 record with 351 innings, while Latos had a 27-29 record with 429 2/3 innings. Latos had more strikeouts cumulative (413 vs. 302) and on a per nine basis (8.7 vs. 7.7) than Price during their pre-platform years. The Bledsoe Brothers agency is likely going to try to argue for Latos to get a small raise over Price.

Jered Weaver’s case in 2010 is also very similar. His 3.75 ERA exceeded Latos’ 3.48 mark, but his 16-8 record will probably be viewed more favorably than Latos’ 14-4. They also pitched almost the exact same number of innings (211 for Weaver and 209 for Latos), while Latos had eleven more strikeouts. In his pre-platform years, however, Weaver’s 35-19 record exceeded Latos’ 27-29, but his 3.71 ERA was worse than Latos’ 3.37. They had similar pre-platform innings, 460 2/3 for Weaver and 429 2/3 for Latos. Weaver did strike out 41 more hitters, though. Like Price, Weaver will probably be used as a main comparable for Latos, and Latos will probably have a better case.

Chien-Ming Wang’s case is five years old but is similar in many ways. Although he had a 19-7 record in his platform season (better than Latos’ 14-4), his 3.70 ERA was worse than Latos’ 3.48. Wang also only had ten fewer innings than Latos but he is far from a strikeout pitcher, so Latos’ 185 are nearly double Wang’s 104. They had equal numbers of wins pre-platform (27) but Wang only lost 11 games. On the other hand, Wang had nearly 100 fewer innings and almost 300 fewer strikeouts. Wang is a unique pitcher and probably not a great comparable, but even if Weaver and Price are seen as better than Latos, Wang is probably a very reasonable floor at $4MM and Latos should get a raise with five years of salary inflation added on that.

Scott Kazmir is the other comparable player to Latos. He had only one less win in his platform season, only 2 2/3 fewer innings, and the same ERA. However, he did strike out 54 more hitters. Still, before his platform season Kazmir only won 22 games (while losing 20) and his 3.73 ERA in 364 innings falls behind Latos’ 3.37 in 429 2/3. Latos had a few more strikeouts but at a lower rate per nine innings. Kazmir’s $3.79MM is another obvious floor, though I think Wang’s case implies that $4MM was already the floor (unless Wang’s 19 wins matter a lot more than I expect).

Overall, Latos had more wins than two of these four players, a better ERA than two and a similar ERA to the other two, more strikeouts than two of these four in his platform year, and had more innings, a lower ERA, and more strikeouts than three of the four comparable pitchers before his platform year, while having more wins than just two of them. Together, this all implies he should just be a tiny bit ahead of them. Add in a little salary inflation, and Latos’ $4.6MM projection seems like a good estimate.

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