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, but will also break out some interesting comparables and determine where the model might be wrong.
Way back in 2006, Dontrelle Willis set a record for first-time eligible starting pitchers by earning a $4.35MM salary. Arbitration records rarely last eight years, but Willis’ record has. This year, however, three pitchers emerged as possible contenders to top this record. There have been a number of pitchers who looked destined to break this record before. Notably, Tim Lincecum and Clayton Kershaw had cases that were far stronger than Willis. But each signed a multi-year deal, which does not count towards arbitration records. As a result, there have been a number of pitchers who have crept closely up to Willis’ record but failed to top it. Had Lincecum or Kershaw signed a one-year deal to avoid arbitration, it is likely that other pitchers would have ended up earning more than the $4.35MM that Willis earned in 2006.
This type of situation is one that can break a model of arbitration salaries. My model sees Lance Lynn earning $5.5MM, Chris Tillman earning $5.4MM, and Alex Cobb earning $4.5MM. Of course, “The Kimbrel Rule” would cap Lynn and Tillman at $5.35MM, letting them only eclipse the previous record by $1MM. But these are all sort of path-dependent. Only Lynn looks likely to break the arbitration record on his own, but if he does that it is likely to affect what Tillman and Cobb earn. The effect that records have for a given service class and role can make the model look bad in that respect. There have been nine different pitchers in the last five years who have gotten within $50K of Willis’ record, but in each case something led the players to earn just less than him.
The lower run-scoring environment in the league in recent years has certainly helped Lynn, Tillman, and Cobb put together better cases than some of the other nine guys. Last year, Lynn had a 2.74 ERA while Cobb allowed 2.87 earned per nine. The only two starting pitchers in recent years to reach their first year of arbitration eligibility with ERAs under 3.00 have actually been Lincecum and Kershaw. Stephen Strasburg had an ERA of 3.00 exactly and earned $3.97MM last year, but he struggled with run support and only had an 8-9 record. Travis Wood and Mike Minor earned $3.90MM and $3.85MM last year with low ERAs of 3.11 and 3.21, but their records were 9-12 and 13-9. Lance Lynn had a 15-10 record, which should help him put together a better case than any of them. Cobb only mustered a 10-9 record despite his 2.87 ERA. Tillman went 13-6 with a 3.34 ERA, so his ERA is more in line with these other pitchers, but he had a better record than many of them. Tillman also has a lot of innings under his belt for a first-time eligible pitcher. He not only threw 207.1 innings in 2014, but logged 473 innings in his pre-platform years, which is basically as many as any of the nine pitchers who earned within that $3.85-4.35MM range that I mentioned earlier.
David Price actually matched Willis’ record with a 12-13 record in 2011 and a 3.49 ERA in 224.1 innings, so he might be that person that would be considered if any of these pitchers try to set a new high mark. Lance Lynn seems the most likely to do so, and his case actually compares pretty favorably to Price’s. Lynn had a better record and ERA (15-10, 2.74) than Price (12-13, 3.49) in his platform year. Although Price threw 224.1 innings, Lynn did throw 203.2. Lynn also had a 34-18 record with a 3.82 ERA in 412.1 innings in his pre-platform seasons, while Price had a 29-13 record with a 3.31 ERA in 351 innings. Lynn’s case also is pretty good compared to the next highest case in recent years. In 2010, Jered Weaver went 16-8 with a 3.75 ERA in 211 innings, after having a 35-19 record with a 3.71 ERA in 460.2 innings in his pre-platform years. Lynn’s pre-platform numbers are very similar to Weaver’s but his platform year ERA is a run better. Putting Lynn’s case up against Price and Weaver makes it look likely that he could set the record.
That being said, I doubt that Lynn will crush the record and end up with the $5.5MM the model projects without applying the Kimbrel Rule, or even the $5.35MM that he would earn once the Kimbrel Rule was applied. But it does seem likely that he will find himself earning north of $4.35MM.
If Lynn established the record, then he may be used as a comparable for Tillman and/or Cobb. But I suspect that they will still not be able to top $4.35MM despite what the model says. Cobb’s 10-9 record will hurt him, although his 2.87 ERA is obviously outstanding. Price’s numbers look better when you consider the fact that he threw 58 more innings than Cobb in his platform year and won two more games. He also had 80 more pre-platform innings and four more pre-platform wins with a similar pre-platform ERA. I suspect Price will be seen as a ceiling for Cobb unless his ERA matters more than I suspect. I could see Doug Fister’s 2013 case, which earned him $4.00MM, serving as a floor for Cobb though. Fister also struggled with run support and only went 10-10, so he had the same number of wins as Cobb. Fister only had 161.2 innings, too, which is almost equal to Cobb’s 161.1. But Fister had a 3.45 ERA, which is more than half a run higher than Cobb. Fister also had only a 20-31 record pre-platform with a 3.49 ERA in 448.1 innings, while Cobb had a 25-14 record and a 3.39 ERA in 332.1 pre-platform innings. Obviously Fister has the edge in pre-platform innings, but I suspect the superior ERA will make Cobb’s case look better. I think somewhere between $4-4.35MM is likely for Cobb, falling somewhat short of his $4.5MM projection but still in the same ballpark.
Chris Tillman’s projection looks less likely to be close. Tillman went 13-6 with a 3.34 ERA in 207.1 innings last year and 32-25 with a 4.28 ERA in 473 pre-platform innings. His case actually looks a lot like Price—he has one more win with an ERA 0.15 lower in his platform season, but with 17 fewer innings. He also won 29 games pre-platform, shy of Price’s 32, but had a 4.28 ERA. Price’s ERA was nearly a run better at 3.31. At the same time, Tillman had 473 pre-platform innings to Price’s 351. So depending on whether pre-platform ERA or pre-platform innings are more important, Tillman could beat Price or fall short of him. Mike Minor from last year might serve as a solid comparable for Tillman too. He won 13 games like Tillman did, with a 3.21 ERA and 204.2 innings. However, he had only 19 pre-platform wins in 302.2 pre-platform innings and an ERA even higher than Tillman at 4.37. So Minor would actually be more of a floor at $3.85MM. I suspect Tillman will probably match Price, but if not I doubt that he will fall below Minor’s numbers.
Overall, I think the model is going to be high on all three of these pitchers. They will probably move together, so if one of them ends up hitting the model, then the others are more likely to do so as well, but if they fall short, they will probably do so together. I think that Tillman and Cobb are probably not going to top the $4.35MM record, although I suspect Lynn will. If any of them do—and without signing multi-year deals—then they may make it easier for future starters to do so as well.