Arbitration deadline day came and went at the end of last week. Josh Donaldson set an all-time arbitration record with his $23 million salary, while Kris Bryant broke the first-year mark with his $10.85 million payday. Manny Machado avoided a hearing at the last second, while Mookie Betts and the Red Sox couldn’t see eye to see, sending his case before a panel.
George Springer is also likely going to have a hearing with the Houston Astros about his 2018 earnings. The 28-year-old outfielder is entering his second year of arbitration and just had the best season of his young career. After earning nearly $4 million in his first arb year last season, Springer asked for a more than $6.5 million raise to $10.5 million, whereas the Astros’ offer of $8.5 million was more in line with most projections.
Springer’s camp is banking on his 2017 breakout and the 34 home runs that came along with it to carry the day. The Astros are expecting that arbitration raises received by comparable players like Manny Machado and Charlie Blackmon, and possibly the contract J.D. Martinez signed with the Tigers in 2016, will keep the price down. The question becomes, who can make the more convincing case?
First things first: Springer absolutely should win his case. He has been worth roughly 13 wins above replacement over the past three seasons, making him a top-25 player in baseball. He walks a ton, keeps his strikeouts at or below the league average, and hits for plenty of power while maintaining solid contact rates. He projects to be a five-win player in 2018, which, on the open market, would be worth anywhere from $40-50 million. $10.5 million is a steal.
Furthermore, the Astros are flush with cash. They just won the World Series, and current payroll sits below $131 million. They are reveling in the boon of the past three seasons, with TV revenues finally stable, attendance skyrocketing, revenue sharing and MLB Advanced Media payments rolling in, and a one-time $50 million payment from BAMTech’s sale to Disney on the way. $10.5 million is a drop in the bucket for owner Jim Crane and his group.
The problems with arbitration hearings are manifold, and rarely do players with Springer’s profile win. Aribtration panels don’t care about team revenues, for one thing, so Crane’s ability to pay Springer will be a non-starter. Panels also care not a whit for advanced stats; the abitratrors themselves are neutral parties with very little experience inside of baseball. Hitters who play great defense or run high walk rates with doubles power in pitcher’s parks don’t get credit for those things. Instead, they will rely on batting average, home run totals, and RBI to judge a player’s true value to his club. Head, meet desk.
Springer doesn’t look too shabby by the basic numbers; since 2015, he has run a .272 batting average with 79 home runs and 208 RBIs. Last year, he tallied a .283 BA and 85 RBIs to go with the 34 dingers. None of those figures are elite, however. Little will arbitrators notice that Springer has been average-to-plus in center field after being excellent in right, not to mention that he’s never walked below 10 percent of the time, and that he dropped his strikeout rate to well below the league average without sacrificing power. Nor will they notice that Minute Maid Park is where right-handed offense goes to die, and Springer was a beast once we adjust for park effects. In other words, so much of what makes Springer great will be lost on the panel, at least to the tune of the extra $2 million Springer is seeking.
The other, more technical part of arbitration involves the amount of service time accrued and comparable players to use as examples. Players in their second year of arbitration always make more than their first, and players in their third year make more than those in their second, very often irrespective of performance. Springer has 3.166 years of service time accrued at this point. Those decimal places may seem a bit silly in the big picture, but arbitration negotiators move their offers by the hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of dollars based on them. It’s why service time manipulation with the likes of Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant became minor scandals when they were ready to be called up to their respective major league clubs. It’s why the Blue Jays were thrilled that Donaldson ended up being a Super Two player and got them an extra year of team control.
Springer has completed four full years of service time, so he shouldn’t be affected by that in arbitration–at least not to the tune of two million dollars. Rather, it’s the comparable players element that could spell trouble. Matt Swartz of MLB Trade Rumors has developed a formula for projecting arbitration salaries based on age, service time, past performance via traditional numbers, and comparable players. Swartz struggled to find a player of Springer’s profile who recently settled an arbitration case or signed a free agent deal. He suggested that Blackmon’s $3.8 million raise was likely to be Springer’s floor, and most likely the number that arbitrators would stray toward, considering that the only other two players with similar traditional batting lines like Springer’s in recent seasons were Machado and Martinez, both of whom are simply better players.
Swartz’s $8.9 million projection comes in at about $400K higher than what the Astros offered, but it’s a lot closer than what Springer’s people asked for. The more you dig into the particulars of Springer’s traditional performance measurements and comparable players, it’s difficult to see how he manages to win this case. The Astros will be aggressive during the hearing, and they’ll know that they have history on their side.
Springer should absolutely be paid what he’s asking for. The fact that he probably won’t is not his fault, but rather the broken state of the arbitration system. Players who get on base, play good defense, and watch their standard offensive production dampened by their hitting environments, will always be screwed over. It’s a shame that Springer will be the latest in a long line of young players who give away the best years of their talent for pennies on the dollar.