Over the next few days, 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. Click here to view all of the 2017 projections.
Ever since Dontrelle Willis received $4.35 million in arbitration in 2006, it has been hard for first-time eligible starting pitchers to top his salary. The record stood for ten years, until last year Dallas Keuchel took home $7.25 million following a Cy Young Award-winning season. In the decade since Willis received his record first-year salary for starting pitchers, many pitchers have come extremely close to hitting his $4.35 million or have actually hit it. David Price matched Willis’ $4.35 million in 2012 and Shelby Miller did so last year. Seven other starting pitchers have earned between $4 and $4.35 million in the last decade as well.
Other pitchers who would likely have exceeded Willis’ record received multi-year deals, which usually removes them from consideration when looking for comparables. Tim Lincecum and Clayton Kershaw were both coming off Cy Young seasons when they received multi-year deals, and Lance Lynn and Cole Hamels also received multi-year deals and subsequently missed out on breaking the record as well. Many elite starting pitchers are worthwhile candidates for multi-year deals, so it is not surprising that few of them actually receive one-year deals and become comparables. Among pitchers in the last decade with 30 career wins, 450 career innings, career ERAs below 3.50 and at least 100 platform year innings, five of nine signed multi-year deals before reaching agreement on one-year deals for their first year of salary arbitration.
Modeling arbitration salaries is obviously something that requires much precision, but the psychological barrier of $4.35 million is something that emotionless mathematical modeling will miss. As a result, I have written several articles over the years in which I explained that certain pitchers who were projected just over $4.35 million probably would not actually do so. Jacob deGrom and Carlos Martinez may be two such pitchers today, although Martinez is more likely to best that amount.
Jacob deGrom is coming off a mediocre platform year (for arbitration purposes) where he only won seven games amidst throwing 148 innings. Although his ERA was 3.04, lack of counting stats is likely to hurt his arbitration case. His career numbers may offset this—he has 30 career wins and a 2.74 ERA across 479.1 innings and has struck out 492 batters. He also won Rookie of the Year in 2014. His projection is $4.5 million, although I think there is good reason to believe that he will fall short of this.
Carlos Martinez has a much stronger case, and is projected to earn $5.3 million. He went 16-9 with a 3.04 ERA in 195.1 innings with 174 strikeouts, and has a career 34-21 record with a 3.32 ERA in 492.2 innings with 466 strikeouts. Few pitchers can match his performance, and he may be able to top the old record of $4.35 million, although he will come nowhere near the new record. The peculiarity of Martinez’ case is that is that there are no comparable pitchers with salaries in the range between $4.35 and $7.25, so he will be filling in some empty space if he does exceed the old Willis number.
In the last five years, there have only been five pitchers who had 25 career wins, 400 career innings, 400 career strikeouts, and career ERAs under 3.50 who did not sign multi-year deals. All five received between $3.97 and $4.35 million in arbitration. These include Shelby Miller at $4.35 million, Matt Harvey at $4.32 million, Doug Fister and Alex Cobb both at $4 million, and Stephen Strasburg at $3.97 million.
It is difficult to see a good reason why Jacob deGrom would earn above or below this range as a result. Although he had slightly fewer innings than all of them, Doug Fister in 2013 was coming off just 161.2 innings and Alex Cobb was coming off 166.1 innings. Both won 10 games, more than deGrom’s seven, but neither had a Rookie of the Year Award under his belt and deGrom’s career ERA is lower than both of theirs. He also has more strikeouts than either had in their careers at this point as well. As a result, I think he will probably top their $4 million salaries.
I think deGrom will struggle to top Matt Harvey’s $4.32 million from last season, though. Harvey had a better career ERA and a better platform ERA, along with many more platform innings. Something around $4.2 million seems likely for deGrom—below his $4.5 million projection.
Martinez, on the other hand, does seem like a likely candidate to top the five aforementioned starters’ earnings. None of them had more than 13 platform year wins, and Martinez had 16. His 3.04 ERA is in the middle of the pack for the group, but his 195.1 innings total is only bested by Miller. His 34 career wins are bested by Alex Cobb, but exceed the other four starters. His innings and strikeouts are similar to them as well.
All things considered, he has a clear cut case to beat the $4.35 million mark. Comparing him to Shelby Miller alone, he went 16-9 as compared with Miller’s 6-17 in his platform year. His platform year ERA was nearly identical and he threw only 10 less innings but had three more strikeouts than Miller. In his career, he has two more wins than Miller but 14 fewer losses. He also has a relatively similar ERA. Although he has thrown about eighty fewer innings, he has only struck out seventeen fewer batters. Martinez is likely to succeed in asking for a number higher than Miller’s $4.35. But given that the main difference is ten platform year wins, I believe he will probably not get the $5.3 million projection my model estimates. I think something between $4.5 and $5 million is likely for Martinez.
Both of these pitchers are projected for slightly more than they will probably earn. The symbolic barrier at $4.35 million is still a factor despite Keuchel’s new record, which was set up by his 232 innings of 2.48 ERA pitching and the hardware to match. Because of that, the model is likely to miss on starting pitchers near that until that symbolic barrier has been passed enough times.