There’s work to do to fix arbitration

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A few weeks back, I wrote about how arbitration shouldn’t go anywhere, despite MLB’s attempts to get rid of the system they’ve hated since its inception in the days of Marvin Miller. Hell, the fact MLB wants to get rid of arbitration remains the best proof that the system is worth salvaging. Arbitration certainly isn’t a perfect tool these days, though, as teams figure out how to manipulate hearings in a way that earns them victories. While things on the position player and starting pitcher side are a little more evenly split in terms of which side, teams or player, wins out, as Malachi Hayes wrote for Baseball Prospectus, relievers are doomed.

Read the entire feature, but here’s a snippet of the findings:

Twenty-eight reliever hearings since 2011 is fairly proportional to their roster occupancy. The group’s success rate? Not so much. In that period, teams have lost more cases against position players (27) than they’ve won (26), and their win rate against starting pitchers (26-22) isn’t a ton better. They’ve beat up on relievers, however, to the tune of 19 wins for them to just nine for the players. The arbiters are particularly reluctant to grant any kind of substantial victory to relievers—the average offer gap in cases won by teams is twice as large as the gap in cases won by position players, a pattern not found in position players and only slightly in starting pitchers.

These aren’t small potatoes in the life of a reliever. The six-figure gaps typically seen in their negotiations make up a tiny proportion of the money that flows in and out of even the stingiest organization—the Rays put Thompson through the wringer for what amounts to roughly a quarter of a percent of their annual payroll. For relievers in their early arbitration years, this money can make up a substantial portion of their already suppressed earnings.

Relievers don’t make a ton of money in the first place, and it doesn’t help that they — especially middle relievers — more than any other group can have their statistics presented in a somewhat misleading manner in an arbitration case: the Rays using blown saves for Ryan Thompson, for instance, even though Thompson isn’t a closer and excelled in holds, while also dinging him for not facing lefties enough even though that’s the team’s call to begin with — is an example of this. Thompson had a pretty average 2022 season, which surely didn’t help things, but consider the lengthy Twitter thread he posted after his hearing to get some sense of how easy it is for teams to twist facts enough in their favor in these cases against relievers:

The most important statistics for a middle reliever/set up man are holds and leverage index both of which I excelled in both the platform year and in my career with consistency.

The Rays did an excellent job discrediting holds and leverage while targeting me on blown saves, lack of LHH usage, and a fangraphs metric called “meltdowns”.

Blown saves is not a stat indicative of a middle reliever’s poor performance. A blown save can happen with no earned runs in the 7th inning or in extra innings from the ghost runner scoring. “BS” are for those attempting to record a Save and fail.

The use of “buzz words” by the team without a doubt swayed the arbitrators. Blown saves, meltdowns, and “protected” from LHH created a bias. Brilliant.


The argument against was a more emotional ploy that relied less on logic or facts but was excellently put together. Our case potentially made unwise assumptions on the arbitrator’s understanding of statistics and the logic of being over the midpoint.

Thompson also points out that “Meltdowns” is not an official MLB stat, but it did contribute to the “buzz words” bit that he feels swayed this panel of arbitrators. In short, he feels like he had a strong case, but his side made some incorrect assumptions about how to present it, while the Rays knew exactly what seeds to plant and how to cultivate them. Teams are of course heavily coached by MLB in how to handle arbitration, and clubs like the Rays certainly don’t need any convincing that they should do their best to win arbitration cases and keep payroll down, so a reliever like Thompson, whose role is less historically established in terms of apparent excellent than a position player or starting pitcher, is at a disadvantage.

It’s something that needs to be worked on, to get relievers on a more equal footing that doesn’t let them face this kind of arbitration exploitation that’s unique to their case, but the how of it eludes me. As Thompson tweeted, criteria already exist for arbitration, but the right argument can dance around that criteria a bit and stick in an arbitrator’s head even if everyone can point out that hey, that data isn’t allowed here. Figuring out how to counter that is surely something the Players Association is trying to figure out, because as written about last month, they don’t want arbitration to go anywhere.

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