No MLB team would evaluate a player based only upon his accumulation of traditional, outcome-oriented statistics. But one of the game’s primary mechanisms for determining compensation — the arbitration process — remains rooted in the kinds of numbers that once dominated the backs of baseball cards.
On occasion, that disconnect can boost a player’s arb earning power beyond the valuation of his actual value. Last winter, for instance, Chris Carter was non-tendered after leading the National League in home runs. More frequently, the good or bad fortune that can skew results simply means more or less money in the pocket of a given player who is good enough that his team will pay up regardless.
MLBTR continues to model arbitration salaries every fall. While there’s always some tweaking, the basic principles remain as they were when the arb projections began back in 2011. As contributor Matt Swartz wrote at the time, the touchstones for pitchers are innings, ERA, and accumulation of results — wins for starters and saves (or, to a lesser extent, holds) for relievers. Swartz also cites strikeouts as a factor for hurlers working from the pen.
In the cases of first-time arb-eligible players, past history plays a significant role; thereafter, raises from the first-year salary are assessed by looking back at the season prior. We’ll get a look at the overall expectations before long, once Matt has a full season of statistics to plug into the model. For now, though, I thought it would be interesting to look at those pitchers that have done the most to this point in the 2017 season to boost their earning potential — focusing on the accumulation of those key stats noted above.
With due respect to pitchers such as Kyle Hendricks and Eduardo Rodriguez, who have been good this year and ought to earn well in arbitration, they haven’t done as much as some other hurlers in the current season to boost their earning power this fall. While none of these five pitchers have stated a case like that of current first-year record holder Dallas Keuchel, all stand to bring home nice paydays if they can finish what they’ve started over the next six weeks:
Mike Foltynewicz, Braves — A certain Super Two, Folty leads the pack among this handful of hurlers with ten wins. He has already compiled 123 2/3 innings, too, and should top 170 or even 180 if he can stay healthy the rest of the way. While he owns the highest ERA (4.29) among the starters, that won’t tamp down his salary too much — and he still has time to improve down the stretch.
Lance McCullers, Astros — You could argue for or against including McCullers (a likely Super Two qualifier) in this group. He has only just passed one hundred frames and has only seven wins thus far, though he has every chance of reaching double digits by the end of the year. His 3.92 ERA doesn’t quite reflect his sparkling peripherals, though if he keeps up the good work — 10.1 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 63.4% groundball rate — that number ought to go down over the rest of the season.
Jimmy Nelson, Brewers — Like McCullers, Nelson’s 3.72 ERA lands significantly higher than ERA estimators value his performance (3.13 FIP, 3.15 xFIP, 3.39 SIERA). But he has already tallied nine wins and, most importantly, is on pace to approach 200 frames with 145 1/3 already in the bank through 24 starts.
Robbie Ray, Diamondbacks — Ray stands out amongst this handful of hurlers with a shiny 3.11 ERA, a figure that likely overstates his true contributions but nevertheless will boost his earning power. With nine W’s on the ledger through 118 2/3 innings, Ray should command a solid first-year rate of pay.
Dan Straily, Marlins — Many viewed his breakout 2016 campaign as something of a mirage, but Straily has again outperformed his peripherals and carries a 3.74 ERA through 134 2/3 innings at present. He has only managed seven wins in 15 decisions, making him the only one of the pitchers on this list with a sub-.500 record, but it’s nevertheless a solid platform.
As above, there’s little reason to expect any new records here. Jonathan Papelbon still holds the mark for first-time-arb-eligible relievers, with a $6.25MM salary back in 2009. With 113 saves on his stat sheet entering arbitration, Papelbon set a lofty standard. Still, these five relievers have set the stage for big jumps in their salaries, and one of them could find himself among the highest-paid first-time pen arms:
Alex Colome, Rays — It has in some ways been a disappointing season for Colome, who has only managed 7.3 K/9 against 3.7 BB/9 over his 51 2/3 innings thus far. But he paces this group with 34 saves and has managed to carry a 3.31 ERA despite the drop in his strikeout rate.
Ken Giles, Astros — With Houston posting quite a few blowout wins, Giles has only accumulated 23 saves thus far and has been limited to 44 innings, lowest among these hurlers. But he owns a solid 2.86 ERA and has managed 11.5 K/9 on the season; with 31 games already saved entering the year, he’ll get a big salary.
Tommy Kahnle, Yankees — To call this a breakout year would be something of an understatement. Kahnle owns a 2.35 ERA over 46 innings and leads all of these relievers with 74 strikeouts. He’ll be limited by a less-than-robust prior track record along with the fact that he has only ten holds thus far.
Roberto Osuna, Blue Jays — Osuna is the pitcher hinted at above. He ought to have the greatest earning power among these five, as he has racked up thirty saves on top of the 56 he already had at the start of the season. Osuna’s 3.24 ERA doesn’t reflect his outstanding peripherals, though he has padded his resume with 68 strikeouts. That won’t be enough to challenge Papelbon, though Osuna could look to Trevor Rosenthal as a comp. The Cardinals reliever took home $5.6MM with an overall record of 96 saves, 303 strikeouts, and a 2.66 ERA in 237 innings. With some more time to add saves and drop his earned run average, Osuna currently stands with 86 total saves, 225 strikeouts, and a 2.79 ERA through his 193 2/3 career frames.
Felipe Rivero, Pirates — The southpaw has turned into an absolute monster this year. He has 59 1/3 frames to date, pacing this set of five relievers, with a 1.21 ERA that easily paces the group. Rivero has compiled a dozen saves since taking over closing duties and also picked up 14 holds beforehand, to go with 70 strikeouts. The upside is limited, though, since Rivero will be a Super Two and just hasn’t run up the saves tallies of other pitchers. Last year, Dellin Betances took a far more compelling arbitration case to a hearing and lost, settling for a $3MM starting salary rather than the $5MM he sought.