We looked recently at some starting pitcher arbitration records (focusing specifically on one-year agreements), and today we’re turning to their bullpen counterparts. MLBTR contributor and arbitration projection system creator Matt Swartz has mined his data to help identify the top total earnings — and top year-over-year raises — to make this look possible.
Remember that you can keep tabs on all of this year’s arb action with MLBTR’s 2017 Arbitration Tracker. As things stand, here are the current high-water marks for one-year relief pitcher salaries via arbitration:
Records For Single-Season Salary
- First-time eligible: Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox, $6.25MM (2009) — Papelbon was consistently and rather completely dominant during his first several years in the league, and was racking up 30+ saves from his first full season in the majors. That gave him unrivaled earning power among early-career relievers. Nobody has really come close to his first-year mark, though Trevor Rosenthal did earn $5.6MM last year. Breaking Papelbon’s record will take a big, multi-year push from a reliever who steps right into a closing role upon reaching the majors — say, Roberto Osuna or Edwin Diaz.
- Second-time eligible: Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox, $9.35MM (2010) — There he is again. Papelbon racked up 68 innings of 1.85 ERA pitching with 76 strikeouts and 38 saves in 2009, allowing him to build off of an already massive starting point.
- Third-time eligible: Zach Britton, Orioles, $11.4MM (2017) — The first blip for Papelbon came in his 2010 season, so we’ve seen several pitchers post higher figures in their third trip through the arb process. Britton’s history 2016 season allowed him to edge past Aroldis Chapman, who held the prior mark with his $11.32MM salary from 2016 — which itself just topped Kenley Jansen ($10.65MM). Those latter two pitchers, of course, have also now easily topped Papelbon’s long-standing record for a free-agent relief contract.
- Fourth-time eligible: Jim Johnson, Athletics, $10MM (2014) — This class is limited to Super Two players, so it excludes some notable earners. Britton is certain to break the record of Johnson, who preceded him as an Orioles closer, unless he has a disastrous season that results in a non-tender.
Looking just at the final numbers is interesting, but year-over-year raises are perhaps more informative. Regardless of a player’s starting point, they can catch up fast with a big season or two at the right point in their career.
Records For Year-Over-Year Raises
- First raise (second year of arb eligibility): Greg Holland, Royals, $3.575MM raise to $8.25MM total (2015) — A second-straight season of sub-1.50 ERA pitching with over 90 Ks and 45 saves landed Holland this major raise. Jeurys Familia came close to the mark ($3.325MM) and might have passed it had it not been for a serious offseason domestic violence matter that likely compromised his bargaining leverage.
- Second raise (third year of arb eligibility): Zach Britton, Orioles, $4.65MM raise to $11.4MM total (2017) — The mark had just been set by Mark Melancon, who took home a $4.25MM raise from the Pirates last winter, when Britton’s amazing 2016 campaign allowed him to easily set a new record. This one will be hard to top for future challengers.
- Third raise (fourth year of arb eligibility): Jim Johnson, Athletics, $3.5MM raise to $10MM total (2014) — Britton will easily beat this mark with a repeat of his 2016 season, but that’s hardly a given. He’ll certainly need to have a highly productive year to earn a bigger final bump than did Johnson, who in some ways punched his own ticket out of Baltimore with a 70 1/3 inning, 2.94 ERA, 50-save effort in 2013 that drove his earnings up to the point that the club dumped basically dumped his salary in an offseason trade to the Athletics.