Arbitration Breakdown: Matt Wieters

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 missing the “super two” cutoff of arbitration eligibility by just ten days in 2012, Matt Wieters has finally reached arbitration eligibility in 2013 with three years and 129 days of service time. My arbitration model projects the seasoned catcher to obtain a $4.6MM salary, a potential record for first-time eligible catchers. Due to his durability and his hefty experience for a first-time player, Wieters will probably get close to the model’s projection, though I suspect he will fall short of it.

There have been only 34 catchers who have reached arbitration eligibility for the first time in the last six years, and five them received multiyear deals which make them weak comparisons. Of the remaining 29, only five had at least 400 plate appearances in their platform seasons and only one had at least 470. Wieters had a whopping total of 593 plate appearances in 2012, topped only by Russell Martin’s 650 in 2009.

Wieters, a Boras Corporation client, hit only .249 this past season, but he did hit 23 home runs and he knocked in 83 RBI. Going into 2012, he had already accumulated a total of 1,438 plate appearances and had hit .264 to go along with 42 home runs and 166 RBI. Only a handful of catchers have entered arbitration with that kind of track record. Considering the importance of playing time to arbitration models, it will probably help his case considerably that Wieters is the only player other than Victor Martinez in the last six years to accumulate 2,000 plate appearances from behind the plate before his first year of arbitration eligibility — and Martinez was already playing on a multiyear deal by the time he would have been eligibile.

In fact, most of the catchers who had numbers like Wieters' before reaching arbitration received multiyear deals before they even became eligible. Martinez in 2007, Brian McCann in 2009, and Kurt Suzuki in 2011 would have been reasonable comparables for Wieters, except that all three received multiyear deals a full year or more before reaching eligibility. This makes it especially hard to find good comparables. Plus, catchers are generally isolated from other position players in arbitration.

Usually multiyear deals are not considered when looking for comparables, even players who signed multiyear deals while negotiating for one-year deals. However, if figures were exchanged, exceptions can be made. Due to the lack of comparables other than aforementioned Martin (who I will discuss more shortly), Joe Mauer could be a reasonable comparable for Wieters. He signed a multiyear deal which paid him $3.75MM in 2007, his first year of eligibility, but he had exchanged figures of $3.3MM and $4.5MM with the Twins before that deal was signed. Even though Wieters may not have the value that Mauer had at this time, his extra power would probably have made his arbitration case more compelling despite his batting average deficiencies. Wieters had 23 home runs and 83 RBI in his platform season, while Mauer only had 13 home runs and 84 RBI. Going into this season, Wieters had 42 home runs and 166 RBI, while Mauer had just 15 home runs and 72 RBI. Of course Wieters had just a .264 average going into his platform season in which he hit .249, and Mauer had a .297 average going in to his platform season and then hit .347. However, power matters more, and the fact that Wieters had 1,438 pre-platform plate appearances and Mauer only had 676 would make Wieters' case far stronger. While Mauer’s request of $4.5MM might not necessarily help Wieters, given that neither the Twins nor an arbitration panel gave him that sum, there is a case that Wieters should get well in excess of the $3.3MM that the Twins offered and probably more than the $3.75MM he ultimately received in his multiyear deal.

Other than Mauer, Russell Martin’s $3.9MM in 2009 stands alone as the best comparable. Martin did have 650 plate appearances, more than Wieters’ 593, and his .280 average exceeded Wieters’ .249. However, he only hit 13 home runs to Wieters’ 23. Martin also had fewer pre-platform plate appearances (1,088 vs. 1,438) since he was eligible as a super two, and he only had 29 home runs and 152 RBI before his platform years, which fall short of Wieters’ 42 home runs and 166 RBI. On the other hand, Martin had 49 career steals by the time he reached arbitration and Wieters has only four. Martin’s case is four years old and that he had less power than Wieters, so I expect Wieters should be able to argue for more than Martin’s $3.9MM and safely break $4MM.

Interestingly, there are almost no other cases that are even close to a match for Wieters. In fact, only Geovany Soto even topped $2.2MM and he only got $3MM after accumulating just 387 plate appearances in 2010. His weaker 17 home runs and 53 RBI (though with a superior .280 average) would make a weak comparable if the Orioles tried to argue to keep Wieters down in the in the $3MM range.

Overall, it’s hard to imagine Wieters getting much less than $4MM and he will probably get more. My projection of $4.6MM would set a new precedent by a considerable margin, so I think he will fall short. Even so, he will probably get relatively close to the projected amount.

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