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Should Mookie Betts win his arbitration case?

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Oct 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Boston Red Sox right fielder Mookie Betts (50) hits a double during the fourth inning against the Houston Astros in game one of the 2017 ALDS playoff baseball series at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

In one sense — the less interesting sense — this is a fairly straightforward value proposition question. Mookie Betts is entering his first year of arbitration and has clearly set the bar high for himself: Kris Bryant, the 2016 NL MVP, just set a record for contract value signed by a player in his first year of arbitration at $10.85 million, and Betts’ representatives have filed with the league for slightly less than that at $10.5 million.

The Red Sox, on the other hand, have set their number at a slightly conservative $7.5 million — still a large raise, in their minds, and more in line with Betts’ down year at the plate last season.

Arbitration, after all, isn’t done by Wins Above Replacement numbers or any other executive analytical toolkit — the panel of arbitrators are not baseball statisticians, but labor lawyers, and are far more amenable to “fantasy numbers” such as Pitcher Wins, Innings Pitched, Saves, Runs Scored, Runs Batted In, Home Runs, and Extra Base Hits, rather than relying on WAR, FIP and wRC+. The way the process works is that both sides get a half-hour or so to present their case to the panel, and then the panel chooses one side’s number or the other side’s number. It does not split the difference.

This would put the ball squarely in the Red Sox’ court. They’re likely going to argue that Betts’s 2017 was not particularly more impressive than, say, Texas Rangers rightfielder Nomar Mazara — the two players are about the same age, Betts had a slightly higher batting average, a couple more home runs, and almost identical RBI numbers in 2017. They’ll be counting on the arbitration panel not factoring walks or total extra-base  hits into the equation, because if you do that you start to see why Betts was a 6.4 rWAR player in 2017 and Mazara was barely replacement level. Is it an honest comparison of value? Not really, but an arbitration hearing isn’t about honest comparisons of value. It’s about winning.

Luckily for Betts, since this is his first year in the arbitration system his career numbers will be taken into a fuller account, so his representation will fire back that last year was a down year and that “2014-2016 Betts” should be given greater weight. That doesn’t help the RBIs or the HR very much on a per-year basis, but it does establish two things: first, that Betts has a pedigree and a history in the league far better than Nomar Mazara, and second, that for the first three years of his career, Betts was a .304 hitter, not a .264 hitter.

Comparing 2017 Betts’ .264 batting average to 2017 Mazara’s .253 was tenuous, but comparing career Betts’s career .292 BA to Mazara’s .259 should shut down that comparison for good. If Betts’s representation is lucky, Mazara (or a similarly flawed comp) will form the bulk of Boston’s case, and it can use the remainder of its time to make a case for defensive metrics, which love Betts in right field. The good news is that unflawed comparisons to Betts are rare, because he’s a very special player. The bad news is you’re not likely to get traditionalist baseball fans to embrace defensive metrics during an arbitration hearing — especially since those metrics aren’t all that great to begin with.

If I had to guess, I’d say the Red Sox win the hearing; Betts’ reach likely exceeds his grasp coming off a down year. Bryant, after all, won his MVP award in 2016; Betts finished second. Bryant also put up a nearly identical year in 2017 to his MVP season; Betts regressed.

I’m not sure the Red Sox should be patting themselves on the back for this, however. Unless a deal can be reached before the hearings, they’re still going into a legal proceeding with their best young star and, to his face, comparing him to guys like Nomar Mazara. It’s going to be difficult for Betts to interpret that as anything but disrespect, because it is disrespect. There is a reason that the San Francisco Giants under Brian Sabean don’t go to arbitration with their players as a matter of rule, and it’s not because they’re clueless with their money. It’s because they realize the largess they have and are willing to pay a premium to ensure comity between players and the front office.

For all the jokes about the Giants not conforming to MLB’s prevailing conventional wisdom, I’m looking at the scoreboard and I see three World Series trophies in the past decade. When your detractors are reduced to parsing out exactly what a “dynasty” is to try and tell you why you don’t qualify, you’re doing pretty well for yourself.

So Betts will probably lose his arbitration case, and the Red Sox will probably gain a million or two in budget space at the expense of their relationship with their best young player. That’s just doing smart business in MLB now, I guess. Here’s to business.

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Jonathan Bernhardt lives and works in the Baltimore area. He has previously covered Major League Baseball for Baseball Prospectus, Sports on Earth, VICE Sports, and The Guardian.

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