It’s been more than five years now since we broke down record-setting arbitration salaries on a position-by-position basis here at MLBTR. When we last ran through this exercise, it was April 2011, and Dontrelle Willis’ $4.35MM salary from 2006 was the highest a first-time arbitration starter had ever received (although that record shockingly held up until last year). Jered Weaver’s $7.37MM sum from 2011 was the largest sum ever earned by a second-time arb pitcher, and the third-time record was held by Big Z, Carlos Zambrano, who pocketed a $12.4MM paycheck back in 2007.
We could see one of these starting-pitcher records fall in 2017 — you can follow along with the arb class using MLBTR’s 2017 Arbitration Tracker — and there could be others to drop among relievers and position players (we’ll get to those later on). For at least the short-term, here’s a look at the current high-water marks for starting pitcher salaries via arbitration:
- First-time eligible: Dallas Keuchel, Astros, $7.25MM (2016) — Keuchel rose from fringe fifth starter to a ground-ball juggernaut with pristine command and plenty of missed bats, earning a surprise Cy Young Award prior to his first trip through arbitration. The 2015 campaign saw Keuchel toss a league-leading 232 innings with a league-high 20 wins, 216 strikeouts and two shutouts. It was his second straight 200-inning season, and his rise to elite status landed him a record payday. Obviously, his 2016 campaign fell short of those heights by a wide margin, but MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz still projects him at $9.5MM this coming year.
- Second-time eligible: Jake Arrieta, Cubs, $10.7MM (2016) — Like Keuchel, Arrieta was coming off a meteoric rise to the ranks of the elite. Many detractors cited a bizarre narrative that Arrieta had “one good half” prior to his Cy Young honors, but he posted a 2.26 ERA through his first 437 1/3 innings with the Cubs upon being traded over from Baltimore. That included a ridiculous 1.77 ERA, 22 wins and 236 strikeouts in 229 innings in 2015. Arrieta turned in a comical 0.86 ERA over his final 20 starts in ’15, allowing just 14 runs with a 147-to-27 K/BB ratio in 147 innings.
- Third-time eligible: Max Scherzer, Tigers, $15.525MM (2014) — There’s a pattern developing here, as Scherzer’s record-setting $15.525MM payday came on the heels of his first Cy Young Award back in 2013. That season saw Scherzer jump from durable mid-rotation arm to a shutdown ace, as he tossed 214 1/3 innings with a 2.90 ERA, 21 wins and a hefty 240 strikeouts. That proved to be the first of two dominant seasons with the Tigers, which served as a launching pad for Scherzer’s then-record-setting $210MM contract with the Nationals in free agency. Of course, that free-agent record has since been broken by Scherzer’s former teammate and the man who holds the record for fourth-time eligible (Super Two) pitchers…
- Fourth-time eligible: David Price, Tigers, $19.75MM (2015) — Price’s 2012 Cy Young season sent his arbitration prices soaring, and by the time he’d reached his fourth and final trip through arbitration as a Super Two player, he was working off a $14MM base salary. The 2014 season wasn’t Price’s best in terms of run prevention, but he turned in a 3.26 ERA over an MLB-leading 248 1/3 innings with 15 wins and a league-best 271 strikeouts as well, all of which combined to help seal his record payday.
Most of these records appear to be pretty safe this season, as none of the first-time arbitration-eligible pitchers is coming off a season quite like Keuchel’s 2015 campaign. The previous $4.35MM record would’ve been threatened by any of Tanner Roark, Carlos Martinez, Jake Odorizzi, Gerrit Cole, Collin McHugh or Mike Fiers. However, Roark’s $6.1MM projection is tops among first-time-eligible players, and that number falls quite a ways shy of Keuchel’s record. Similarly, there are no second- or fourth-time pitchers within striking distance of those impressive records.
However, Arrieta has the chance to enter next offseason holding two of these records, as his $16.8MM projection from Swartz is considerably higher than Scherzer’s existing record. The entire scenario would be rendered moot in the perhaps unlikely event that the Cubs and agent Scott Boras broker a new long-term deal with Arrieta rather than testing the open market a year from now, of course. But, Arrieta would need to fall considerably shy of his projection in order to miss the opportunity to establish a new benchmark for third-time-eligible starting pitchers.
As an aside: Some may wonder why Arrieta, at 2.145 days of service time following the 2013 season, was not a Super Two player and only went to arbitration three times. While Arrieta fell within the requisite top 22 percent of his service class in terms of overall service time, a player must also spend 86 days on the Major League roster in the preceding season in order to qualify as a Super Two. Arrieta accumulated just 79 days of Major League service time that season, thus causing him to fall shy of Super Two designation.