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MLB’s Arbitration System Is Screwing The Game

Dellin Betances's loss in arbitration will have a ripple effect that leaves no one happy

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MLB arbitration victim Dellin Betances — Getty Images
Feb 27, 2017 at 11:11 AM ET

Baseball arbitration cases are typically a binary decision: a three-person panel decides whether the player will be paid either his requested amount or what the team thinks he should be paid. In the case of New York Yankees reliever Dellin Betances, there were only losers. Remarkably, that designation extends well beyond the player and the team but to the arbiters, union, league, managers, and even fans.

Betances, a three-time All-Star, filed an asking price of $5 million. The Yankees countered with $3 million, which the arbitrator accepted as the prevailing figure for the 2017 season. Then everything went to hell when Yankees president Randy Levine said that Betances had “over-the-top demands based on very little sense of reality” and described the pitcher and his request as “overreaching,” “ridiculous,” “half-baked,” “fantasy,”before going on to describe Betances as a “victim” of his agents for seeking to establish a new precedent.

Betances responded by saying that Yankees are often “saying how much they loved me, but then they take me in a room and they trash me for about an hour and a half. I thought that was unfair.” He suggested that he might be less willing to accept every role he’s been thrust into, noting, “You go in that room and you [hear] some of the stuff, you ask, do you put yourself at risk at all times?” This weekend, MLB Players Association boss Tony Clark declined to push the point further, saying “that page has been turned.”

Why is there so much drama over a relief pitcher’s 2017 contract? Arbitration is a rigid, precedent-based system that has proven inflexible and archaic as far as relief pitchers are concerned. The only relievers netting big bucks are those with large save totals, which is a poor evaluative tool. Last year, for instance, Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal earned more money ($5.6 million) with the same amount of service time as a pair of superstar third baseman, Manny Machado with the Orioles and Nolan Arenado of the Rockies (both $5 million), which is ridiculous.

As I’ve reported in the last several years, many of the game’s biggest outs happen before the ninth inning, especially in the eighth, and the 2016 playoffs showed a dramatic breakthrough for managers willing to break tradition and use their top relievers in the game’s biggest spots rather than just the ninth inning.

Betances, meanwhile, is a three-time All-Star—which in itself is a rare commendation for a non-closer—with 22 saves and 79 holds (a cousin to the save, but awarded for work in earlier innings) over that time, showing versatility in multiple roles. His 247 innings leads all relievers since 2014, during which time he’s made a majors-leading 74 appearances of at least four outs, a level of endurance that’s rare among today’s specialized bullpen arms. He’s been as effective as anyone when he’s mound, ranking third in strikeout rate and fifth in ERA among relievers; the combination of his workload and performance netted him a 8.5 WAR (Wins Above Replacement, a crude metric approximating overall value in comparison to a baseline major leaguer in the same role), which was best among all relievers.

“He’s a great, elite setup man, maybe one day he’ll be a great closer, we hope so, but that’s like me saying, ‘I’m not the president of the Yankees, I’m an astronaut,’” Levine also said. “Well, I’m not an astronaut and Dellin Betances is not a closer. At least based on statistics, not whether he could be or couldn’t, but he isn’t.”

The consequences of this decision are potentially dramatic. Betances is now disincentivized to continue stretching the definition of his dynamic role, and the arbitration system that typically rewards raises as a percentage of prior earnings means he may have lost some $9.5 million over three years of arbitration, not just $2 million in one year, by this one decision (according to number-crunching at FanGraphs).

Levine, meanwhile, has just needlessly bashed one of his best players, perhaps curtailing Betances’ willingness to help the Yankees win and dissuade him from re-signing in the future. He has already told reporters that free agency “will be a little easier when the time comes.”

Managers, who are tasked with both winning and keeping their players happy, may remain inclined to keep using their relievers in rigid roles. Many already let the save statistic dictate their strategy.

Relief pitching is a particularly volatile industry, with high rates of attrition, so many other pitchers may shy away from assuming a similarly taxing innings load as Betances, knowing that such yeoman’s work probably won’t pay off.

The arbiters have shown a willingness to embrace an antiquated evaluation system, and the union has apparently dropped its case to push for more reform. Fans, therefore, are less likely to see more mold-breaking usage, which hurts the league’s overall quality of play.

So while the Yankees won this case, no one should feel good about the decision.