Arbitration Breakdown: Max Scherzer

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.

Whatever Max Scherzer gets in arbitration in his second year of eligibility this season, he is likely to be a bargain. My arbitration model has him slated for a $3.75MM raise to $7.5MM in 2013. Scherzer is a highly talented pitcher who has shown that he has the skills that portend improvement — namely, his strikeout rate. Thanks to 11.1 K/9, the Scott Boras client led the entire Major Leagues in SIERA in 2012. Though his sabermetric statistics suggest he was underrated in 2012 (his ERA was only 3.74, worse than his 2.99 SIERA), Scherzer’s best weapon in his arbitration case is his 16 wins, the least important major pitching statistic to sabermetricians.

Very few pitchers have entered their second year of arbitration with at least 15 wins. In fact, the only two pitchers in the last six years to have more wins than Scherzer were Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez, both of whom signed multiyear extensions in lieu of one-year arbitration deals. Verlander went 19-9 with a 3.45 ERA and 269 strikeouts in 240 innings in 2010. Before reaching arbitration, Verlander asked for a $5.825MM raise and the Tigers countered with a $3.215MM proposed raise. His actual raise is difficult to ascertain due to his multiyear deal but it was about $3.5MM. Hernandez’s raise was approximately $4.4MM in his multiyear deal after going 19-5 with a 2.49 ERA and 217 strikeouts in 238 2/3 innings in 2010. Scherzer falls short of both of their numbers — he went 16-7 with a 3.74 ERA, and had 231 strikeouts in 187 2/3 innings. However, multiyear deals are not usually used in arbitration, and Scherzer is more likely to be compared with pitchers who signed one-year deals, even though they generally had fewer wins.

The other statistic that is particularly important for starting pitchers other than wins is innings pitched, and some of the other top pitchers who reached arbitration for the second time have bested Scherzer in this category. However, Scherzer has struck out hitters at a quicker rate than many of them in addition to having more wins.

One plausible comparable for Scherzer is Jered Weaver in 2011. Weaver got the largest raise (on a one-year deal) of any second-time eligible starting pitcher in recent years. Weaver had far more innings — 224 1/3 of them, but only went 13-12. He did have a comparable number of strikeouts to Scherzer (233 vs. 231) and a better ERA (3.01 vs. 3.74). His $3.105MM raise could be a number that the Tigers use to try to suggest Scherzer’s salary should be lower. Since Weaver’s 2010 was better than Scherzer’s 2012 in areas other than win total, they may suggest that Scherzer should not top $3.105MM.

It’s possible Boras could point to Scherzer’s postseason performance in an attempt to distinguish his platform season from Weaver’s. While Weaver didn’t pitch in the playoffs in 2010, Scherzer started three games in the 2012 postseason, posting a 2.07 ERA in 17 1/3 innings. Scherzer made a strong ALDS start, won the clinching game of the ALCS and turned in a solid World Series start. This experience won’t dramatically alter his case, but it could help him in a hearing.

There were three other pitchers who did win 15 games going into their second year of arbitration eligibility, and who did sign one-year deals: Matt Garza and John Danks in 2011, and Erik Bedard in 2007. Garza went 15-10 with a 3.91 ERA in 204 2/3 innings, and got a $2.6MM raise in arbitration. The mediocre ERA, combined with the favorable win total could make Garza another good comparable for Scherzer. However, his 150 strikeouts pale in comparison with Scherzer’s 231, and his 520 2/3 career innings before the season started are short of Scherzer’s 617. Previous innings do play a role in hearings, though other stats before the platform year generally do not. Danks got a $2.55MM raise in 2011, and had a similar season to Garza — he went 15-11 with a 3.72 ERA in 213 innings, with 162 strikeouts. Bedard got a $2.025MM raise in 2007 with another similar season — 15-11 with a 3.76 ERA and 171 strikeouts in 196 1/3 innings, but his numbers are pretty stale (deals that are six years old are infrequently used) and his 279 2/3 innings prior to his platform season do not make him a good comparison. Scherzer’s similar win totals and ERA combined with his better pre-platform year innings totals and far superior strikeout totals combine to suggest he should safely be able to argue for a superior raise than the largest of this trio, Garza’s $2.6MM.

If we try to look for pitchers with big strikeout totals, both Francisco Liriano and Jonathan Sanchez in 2011 got $2.7MM raises and could be seen as comparables. Liriano went 14-10 with a 3.62 ERA, while racking up 201 strikeouts in 191 2/3 innings, and Sanchez went 13-9 with a 3.07 ERA and 205 strikeouts in 193 1/3 innings. However, these two pitchers only had 358 1/3 and 413 1/3 previous innings, respectively, both less than Scherzer’s 617. This pair makes it clear that Scherzer should be able to top a $2.7MM raise.

It’s hard to see how much higher than this Scherzer could go. Weaver’s $3.105MM raise could be treated as a ceiling, which would mean Scherzer would get no more than $6.85MM rather than the $7.5MM I have projected him for. On the other hand, having three more wins than Weaver, Scherzer has a good chance of arguing for better than $7MM. If Hernandez’s and Verlander’s salaries amidst multiyear deals are used as ceilings, however, it might be harder for Scherzer to argue for much more than that. I would probably take the under on the model’s projection and guess somewhere around right around $7MM.

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