Arbitration Breakdown: Chase Headley

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.

Chase Headley will go to arbitration for the third time after having a career year. He had never hit more than 12 home runs or knocked in more than 64 runs, but this past season, he hit 31 home runs and led the National League with 115 RBIs. The Excel Sports Management client also tied a career high with 17 stolen bases, and hit .286. He also had 694 plate appearances (a very important factor in arbitration cases). As a result of a largely average history with the bat, Headley only made $3.475MM in 2012, but the model has him projected to earn $8.3MM next year, a $4.825MM raise. However, Headley is a unique case because he has so few comparables. It's not every year that a player bursts onto the scene and leads the league in RBIs as a third time arbitration eligible player. When we look through the comparables, you can see that there is reason to take the under on this projection, though it is certainly in the right neighborhood.

The ideal comparable for Headley would be a third baseman in his third year of arbitration eligibility who had 30 HR and 100 RBI. My database looks at the last six years and sees that no such player exists. In many situations, third basemen can be compared to first basemen and outfielders (and in rarer situations middle infielders). Even that expansion gives us players who had multiyear deals, which are rarely used for comparison in arbitration cases, and those hitters are not very good comparables either. However, if we loosen the home runs and RBI criteria, we do find a few guys who could come up in Headley’s case, though he has a better case than all of them.

If we restrict ourselves only to players who had 20 HR and 80 RBI going into their third year of eligibility, and who did not get multiyear deals, we see seven players in the last six years. All of these players are first basemen or outfielders, but they are better comparisons than any third basemen.

The largest raise of the group went to Prince Fielder, who got a $4MM raise in 2011. He had only 20 more plate appearances than Headley did last year (714 vs. 694) and one more home run (32 vs. 31). However, his .261 average falls short of Headley’s .286, his 83 RBIs are dwarfed by Headley’s 115, and he only stole one base to Headley’s 17. Since pre-platform year performance has little effect on arbitration cases after the first year of eligibility, Headley would seem to have a better case than Fielder.

However, Fielder’s season was actually bested by Mark Teixeira, who only got a $3.5MM raise in 2008. Since his case is five years old now, it is not a great comparison, but with a .306 average, 30 home runs, and 105 RBI, Teixeira nearly matched Headley in power numbers, while having a better average. However, Teixeira only got 575 plate appearances and stole no bases. The Padres could try to argue that Headley should be comparable to Teixeira, but the fact that the contract is “stale” and Teixeira's relatively low plate appearance total probably suggests Headley can do better.

Hunter Pence got a $3.5MM raise last year after hitting .314 with 22 home runs and 97 RBIs, while swiping eight bases. Pence also had 668 plate appearances, which makes him a good comparable for Headley. Although Headley’s power numbers were better, his batting average was worse, so the Padres could argue that Pence’s raise might be applicable.

Xavier Nady in 2009 was similar to Headley in that he suddenly had the best year of his career as a third-year arbitration eligible hitter. He was only making $3.35MM in 2008 (similar to Headley’s $3.475MM in 2012), and then hit .305 with 25 home runs and 97 RBIs. He only got 607 plate appearances and stole only two bases, so overall his numbers are a little worse than Headley’s, but his $3.2MM raise could be seen as a floor for Headley if Fielder’s case is not seen as comparable, since the Padres could try to argue that Headley’s career trajectory best matches Nady’s.

An alternative might be B.J. Upton, who had a .243 average with 23 home runs and 81 RBIs, but stole 36 bases while racking up 640 plate appearances going into last year’s cases. He only got a $2.175MM raise. However, his clearly inferior numbers other than stolen bases and the fact that he is a center fielder make him a weak comparable.

The other two players to meet the criteria specified above were Adam LaRoche in 2009, who was coming off a .270/25/85 season, and Austin Kearns in 2007, who was coming off a .264/24/86 season. Since both are clearly inferior cases to Headley’s and older, their $2.15MM and $1.65MM raises probably won’t be seen as useful in Headley’s case.

If we instead decide to consider multiyear deals as comparable, it is notable that Matt Kemp’s deal gave him a $5.05MM raise last year after hitting .324 with 39 home runs, 126 RBIs, and 40 stolen bases. The fact that he got a multiyear deal with a substantially higher average annual value than his 2012 salary makes this difficult to use, but it does give us some sense that a $5MM raise would be pushing it.

The best comparable among these for Headley is probably Fielder, though you could make a compelling case for Teixeira. If Fielder’s $4MM raise is seen as a floor, and Headley gets a few extra bucks for his average, RBIs, and steals, then Headley could be given something like a $4.25-4.5MM raise, which would put him at $7.725-$7.975. This is below the model’s $8.3MM projection, but it might be more reflective of a good estimate in this unique case.

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