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Doug Fister, Craig Kimbrel and the absurdities of current arbitration system

The arbitration system assigns values to players using out-dated methodologies and the results are often absurd, but no one seems to mind.

Rob Carr

Arbitration salary filings are rolling in, and for most teams and players, there is only a small gap between the numbers each side has submitted. Of course, there are exceptions. Two of the bigger gaps between what a player wants and what their team believes they should have to pay come from the top contenders in the National League East. The Braves find themselves pretty far apart from closer Craig Kimbrel's number:

The Nationals, Atlanta's chief rivals for the division in 2014, are also experiencing a sizable discrepancy from one of their pitcher’s filing number:

Most arbitration-eligible players have already signed and it is fairly rare for players and teams actually wind up in front of the arbitrator. It does happen, however, and when it does, it is usually in cases like these, where the two sides are separated by a wide margin. Even then, teams don't relish the idea of spending time talking about the flaws of a player they are going to depend on. It is strange system and while it serves a noble purpose for both sides, it's flaws are difficult to ignore, especially now that advanced metrics have come so far in accessing player value.

Outside of front offices and agencies, the go-to expert on arbitration salaries is Matt Swartz at MLB Trade rumors. Mr. Swartz projects all the upcoming salaries each year and his projections are usually quite close to the real numbers. He has Kimbrel signing earning $7.25 million for 2014, just $500,000 off the mid-point between the two numbers and Fister at $6.9 million, just a little below the half way point. Typically, teams and players end up with a deal close to the mid-point instead of heading to trial, so his projections for these two seem right on. The fact that Swartz does so well predicting these salaries is a credit to him and his work, but it also the product of a very flawed system with an outdated model for player valuation; the kind of system that values a starting pitcher in his second arbitration-eligible season who is projected to post 3.1 WAR (by Steamer) nearly half of a million dollars less than an elite reliever in his first arbitration-eligible season who projects for just 1.4 WAR.

To be fair, Kimbrel is hands-down the best reliever in baseball and that carries extra value. He has also topped three wins by Fangraph's version of WAR twice already in his career, even though that system is hard on relievers and their low innings totals. The true absurdity isn't that he is valued more than Fister. That is significant but minor in comparison to some of the system's greater injustices. Kimbrel is projected to earn $3.35 million more than his teammate Freddie Freeman, and that is simply absurd. Freeman played more than 19 times as many innings as Kimbrel and he was more than twice as valuable by fWAR. Still, hitters and pitchers are treated differently and that isn't unreasonable, even if the degree of difference is. Even so, Freeman is far more valuable than Kimbrel and this system can't see that. That is a problem.

The gap that separates Fister and Kimbrel is not so extreme, but when you consider that Fister is a year ahead of Kimbrel in the process, it begins to look much bigger. Fister earned $4 million in his first arbitration year and Kimbrel is guaranteed to do better than that. If both players were to repeat their 2013 production, which had Fister finishing with an fWAR more than double Kimbrel's, Kimbrel would easily pass him in next year and his third year total would be even further beyond Fister's third-year earnings. Even acknowledging that fWAR might be overly unkind to relievers, this is simply not a fair evaluation the respective worth of these two players. Yet, this is the only evaluation that matters for hundreds of players each season.

Swartz explains the problem perfectly in his breakdown of his own projection system:

One thing that advanced statistical analysis of pitchers has taught us is that luck, teammates, and opportunity play large roles in a pitcher's success. A good defense can end rallies and convert a sure extra-base hit into an out, while a good offense can put you in the position to get a win or a save. The free agent market has clearly adjusted to this knowledge...[snip]... However, arbitration panels have not made these same adjustments. The statistics that matter to panels remain IP, W, and ERA for starting pitchers, and IP, ERA, saves and holds for relief pitchers.

I'm sure Murray Chass is thrilled that these are the numbers the panels use, but players like Fister are getting a raw deal because of it. On the free agent market, Fister would probably command a similar average-annual to Kimbrel even with the free agent market's tendency to overpay closers and undervalue soft-tossers like him. Elite closers are rare, and Kimbrel is truly unique even among that limited group, so gauging a hypothetical market for him isn't easy. Whatever number you want to give him for that, it is hard to imagine that his price would be double that of a plus-starter like Fister. Yet, if Kimbrel were to reach the arbitration panel and win his case, his 2014 salary would end up more than Fister's 2014 salary and more than double what Fister made in his first arbitration season. The only reason for this is the system's obstinate dependence on numbers that hardly any front office values in the same way as the arbitration panel.

It isn't surprising that the league's people are behind the curve in adopting new methods of evaluation. MLB is not always the most dynamic organization when it comes to adapting to new circumstances. What is surprising- baffling, really- it that both teams and agents appear to be content with the system. Fister's agent didn't file for the $9 million figure that Kimbrel's agent asked for because if his client were to lose the hearing he would have to settle for the team's number and the people at the PSI agency (who rep Fister) have almost certainly reverse-engineered the results just like Matt Swartz has. Teams also know these numbers and they are fine with staying close to them as well. It seems no front office wants to argue against numbers that they would never give the same weight to when signing a free agent once they get into the arbitration room.

Since this is the case, the real question is why this system exists at all. If a smart, number-savvy person with access to baseball-reference data like Matt Swartz can predict these salaries within a reasonable margin of error based on numbers that are almost entirely without nuance, why doesn't the league just assign arbitration salaries through a similar formula? We don't how each side presents its case once they are front of the arbitration pane, but Swartz's numbers suggest that the debate is limited to an argument over the value of wins, earned runs, saves and innings and that doesn't make for much ambiguity. Since no one really wants to have the debate anyway, why not just eliminate the file-and-trail system completely? My guess is that both agencies and teams still feel that the rare mistake by the other side can work in their favor. Even so, with so many players valued incorrectly, it seems odd that no one is speaking out against this system.

The arbitration system is flawed to the point of being almost arbitrary, but it isn't causing any major uproar, so it is likely to stay that way.