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. Not long ago, 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 the arb 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. For hitters, the key factors — as MLBTR arb guru Matt Swartz ascertained many moons ago — are playing time and power. The accumulation of plate appearances, home runs, and runs batted in are the biggest factors in driving earning power through arbitration, even if those are far from the only things that go into making for a productive baseball player.
While prior years’ performances certainly factor in, we’re focused here on which players have done the most in 2018 to boost their next salaries. It took a few assumptions regarding Super Two qualification to make the list, but they seem rather likely to be correct when that’s finalized.
On to the list:
- Francisco Lindor, SS, Indians: Remember when Lindor was supposed to be an outstanding defender and baserunner with a high-contact profile at the plate? Yeah, he has done all of that and topped thirty home runs for the second-straight season, elevating his game along with his arb earning power in an exceptional campaign. Lindor also has 120 runs and 23 steals.
- Trevor Story, SS, Rockies: Dingers and defense are the calling card for Story, who’s also getting on base at a .340+ clip after a dip last year. Also helping his cause? Story has driven in over a hundred runs and swiped 26 bags, so there are plenty of counting stats for his agents to make into exhibits if it makes it to a hearing.
- Trea Turner, SS, Nationals: It’s a shortstop rout at the top. Though Turner has modest power, he’s approaching twenty dingers and forty steals. He also continues to play on a more-or-less everyday basis while hitting at the top of the lineup. Topping 700 plate appearances will be another notable milestone to cite.
- Javier Baez, INF, Cubs: Who could forget Javy? This author, evidently. Somehow, I neglected to include the emergent Cubs star on the initial version of this list despite his season to remember, which includes a .294/.328/.566 slash, 32 home runs, and a NL-leading 105 runs batted in through 590 plate appearances. That output will drive a rewarding first trip through the arbitration process over the offseason to come.
- Eddie Rosario, OF, Twins: While he doesn’t deliver eye-popping counting stats and isn’t playing a premium defensive position, Rosario has done plenty in 2018 to boost his arbitration case. Through 589 plate appearances entering play today, he had racked up a .288/.323/.475 slash with a healthy combination of 23 homers, 86 runs, and 76 runs batted in.
- Kyle Schwarber, OF, Cubs: Similarly, Schwarber doesn’t have a gaudy dinger tally for a corner outfielder and has even less to point to in the other counting areas. But he has put the ball over the fence 25 times in just 478 plate appearances.
- Michael Conforto, OF, Mets: It’s hard to fault Conforto too much for what has been a relatively disappointing season in light of his outstanding 2017 effort. Given his serious shoulder procedure, it’s probably a success in the aggregate. And from an arb perspective, he has done fine for himself. With 25 long balls and 69 RBI through a hefty 578 plate appearances, all before a big game tonight, Conforto will earn well.
- Max Kepler, OF, Twins (likely Super Two): Though he hasn’t broken out, Kepler keeps putting up solid numbers that’ll play fairly well in arbitration. Despite a poor .228 batting average, he could end the year with twenty bombs and six hundred total plate appearances.
- Chris Taylor, INF/OF, Dodgers: No, this hasn’t been quite the follow-up that might have been hoped for after an out-of-nowhere 2017 season. But Taylor is still hitting at an above-average rate and might reach 600 PAs. He also has 16 homers and nine steals on the year and could get a boost for playing up the middle defensively.
- Nomar Mazara, OF, Rangers: He has now reached twenty dingers and will likely top at least 75 RBI, so he has some of the counting stats you like to see. He’ll also accumulate over 500 plate appearances. Though Mazara hasn’t yet taken the next step, his volume of work will pay out rather well in the arbitration process.
- Honorable mention: Tommy Pham of the Rays has been solidly above-average, but his stats don’t jump off the page for a corner outfielder. His excellent 2017 season will boost his earnings, but that’s not quite what this post is about. In 2018, thus far, he’s carrying a .425 slug with 17 homers, a dozen steals, and 53 RBI. Meanwhile, Matt Davidson of the White Sox is a likely Super Two player who isn’t going to get to 500 plate appearances, so he falls short of making the list. But he still warrants mention since he’s a sneaky pick here as a player who many likely did not know was already at arb eligibility. With twenty homers this year, he’s one away from 50 total on his resume, so he should command a relatively healthy salary despite his low plate-appearance tally and less-than-stellar overall performance to this point in his career.