Over the coming days, I am discussing some of the higher profile upcoming arbitration cases. I 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. 2020 projections are available right here.
Trevor Bauer’s arbitration cases have gone to a hearing two years in a row, and he has emerged victorious both times. However, his 2019 performance was weaker in several ways, and it remains to be seen how big a raise he can get over his $13MM salary from 2019 in his last year before reaching free agency.
My model does see him getting a sizable $5.6MM raise, mainly due to his career-high 213 innings and 253 strikeouts. After putting up a 2.21 ERA in 2018, Bauer regressed back to a 4.48 ERA in 2019 and actually had a losing record of 11-13 for the first time in four years. This was not merely bad luck either. His FIP worsened by nearly two runs as well, going from 2.44 to 4.34. Of course, with a very low HR/FB in 2018, his FIP benefited. But SIERA adjusts for this and still saw nearly a one-run deterioration from 3.21 to 4.14 for Bauer. Bauer walked a career high 82 hitters while allowing 34 home runs. Despite his higher strikeout total, his K/9 fell slightly from 11.3 to 10.7 in 2019.
Arbitration panels do not use sabermetric stats like FIP or SIERA very frequently, so Bauer’s case will largely come down to his robust 213 innings versus his 4.48 ERA. Finding similar comparables is tricky, but several potential pitchers do emerge.
If we focus on pitchers with at least 180 innings pitched but ERA’s over 4.0 who were entering arbitration for the third or fourth time, we get four pitchers in recent years that seem comparable. Each got raises between $3.0 and $3.55MM, obviously less than Bauer’s $5.6 million projection. Of course, none struck out hitters at anywhere near the clip that Bauer did. Patrick Corbin in 2018 had the highest total strikeouts of the bunch with 178 in 189.2 innings and a 4.03 ERA to go along with a 14-13 record. He got a $3.55MM raise. With fewer innings and way fewer strikeouts, Corbin’s case is clearly weaker. Tanner Roark’s 9-15, 4.34 performance in 180.1 innings earned him a similar raise last year ($3.53MM), while Andrew Cashner’s 184.2 innings and 6-16, 4.34 performance only got him $3.1MM back in 2016. Hector Santiago got a $3.0MM boost in 2017 after going 13-10 with a 4.70 ERA in 182 innings. Each of these four pitchers had a weaker case than Bauer, so his floor is probably in the mid-3’s.
If we flip things to look for pitchers with similar strikeout totals, only three guys with similar service time had 225 strikeouts going into their third of fourth year of arbitration during the last five years. David Price got a $5.75MM raise five years ago after a 15-12, 3.26 campaign, in which he threw 248.1 innings and struck out 271 batters. That case is probably somewhat stale though, even if Price clearly had a better case than Bauer does now. More recently, Gerrit Cole got a $6.75MM raise last year and Jacob deGrom had a $9.6MM raise. The 1.70 ERA that deGrom posted en route to a Cy Young Award clearly makes him a poor comparable for Bauer. Even Cole’s 2.88 ERA is a run and a half better than Bauer’s 4.48. Cole went 15-5 in 200.1 innings and struck out 276. Cole’s $6.75MM raise is obviously a ceiling.
It seems unlikely that Bauer will fall below Patrick Corbin’s $3.55MM raise or best Cole’s $6.75MM raise, and should land somewhere in between. To get the $5.6MM the model projects, he may need to argue that Price’s $5.75MM raise from 2015 is too stale to be relevant, which puts him somewhere in the vague range between Corbin and Cole. I suspect Bauer may not get quite up to that point, although if he does take his case to a panel again, he could quite easily get there if the Reds aim too low. Bauer will certainly be an interesting reference point for pitchers with significant innings and strikeout totals who put up mediocre traditional statistics in future years, since it is obvious that few such cases currently exist.