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On the Arbitration docket: Mariners vs. The Rest of the League

Mariners spend some money and save some money.

MLB: Spring Training-Media Day Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re like me, you really hate awkward situations. If you like awkward situations, then you should do some self-reflection. Sorry if that’s awkward to suggest. Anyways, apparently most MLB players and teams don’t like awkward situations either, evidenced by the fact that only 13 of 189 arbitration eligible players needed a hearing to determine their salary for next year.

Jerry Dipoto is not an awkward person — just look at his smile — but nevertheless all 10 of Seattle’s arbitration eligible players agreed to their next year’s earnings outside of court. If you compare the settled salaries, as tracked by MLBTR, to MLBTR’s arbitration projections, the Mariners did fairly well. They spent about $2.7 million less than estimated, saving nearly $300K per player.

But how well did the Mariners negotiations go relative to other teams across the league? I assembled a big ol’ spreadsheet to facilitate our comparison. Take a look, if you must.

Note: In the table linked, I assigned each player's position based on where they spent the most time last year. So I don’t want to hear “Luke, you idiot. Jean Segura is a shortstop, not a second baseman! Not only are you a terrible writer, but you’re an awful person as well.” Instead, try something along the lines of “Wow, Luke, thanks for taking the time to determine which position each of these players played most last year! Your intelligence shines almost as bright as your smile.”

It’s worth noting that the sum of the settled salaries across the league is $26.858 million shy of MLBTR’s arbitration projections — the Mariners spending less than estimated is not unique. However, Seattle’s $270,300 saved per player compares quite favorably to the league average of $140K saved per player when settled out of court. Additionally, only the Astros, Mets, and Rockies saved more money against projections than the Mariners. If you consider average saved per player, the Mariners ranked eighth in the MLB.

Breaking down the numbers by position, you start to get a feel of where the Mariners were most successful in their negotiations. Teams across the league saved an average of $266K against projections with arbitration-eligible second basemen. Jean Segura’s salary of $6.2 million, however, fell $1.1 million short of his projected deal.

The Mariners also saved nearly $1.5 million dollars relative to projections when Leonys Martin agreed to take $4.85 million. This is even more impressive when compared to other arbitration-eligible center fielders. Only three of eight others at that position settled at a lower salary than projected.

Looking at both the careers of Segura and Martin, one common thread stands out: subpar performances in 2015. Both players had their career-low wRC+ that year and each had a WAR no higher than 0.5. That may have given the Mariners enough negotiation leverage to spend less money than expected on two great players at two important positions.

Among the positions the Mariners spent more than expected was the hot corner. This was consistent across the MLB, where seven of 11 third basemen signed for more than their projected arbitration salaries. Danny Valencia, who agreed to a $5.55 million salary for next season cost Seattle a quarter of a million dollars against projections. Drew Smyly and Segura are the only Mariners who settled for a higher number.

Tuffy Gosewisch and Jesus Sucre both signed for more than estimated, agreeing to $635K and $630K deals respectively. Interestingly enough, all four players projected to get paid less than $700K settled for higher salaries. Fortunately for the Mariners, $65K won’t hurt them too bad — they just need to sell an extra sixer of Bud Heavies at Safeco to make up the difference.

Seattle’s biggest loss against the projection was their deal with Jarrod Dyson, whose $2.8 million came in $300K higher than predicted. His 3.1 WAR last year was accompanied by career highs in PAs, AVG, OBP, OPS, and wRC+.

Only six teams spent more than estimated on arbitration-eligible players. The Nationals, Blue Jays, and Tigers were least successful in this field. Toronto and Detroit overpaid by $1.075 million each, while the Nationals were $2.115 million(!) over the mark. For the Jays and the Nationals, one player on each team drove their spending way up. Darwin Barney, the second baseman in Toronto, was paid $1.2875 million more than his projected $1.6 million. In Washington, Bryce Harper’s enormous $13.625 million deal blew his projected $9.3 million out of the water.

Detroit, on the other hand, didn’t have one occasion where they paid significantly more than anticipated; rather, they had a series of deals where they spent just a little more than expected. Only two of the six arbitration-eligible Tigers agreed to less money than projected. Other unsuccessful teams in that regard include the Cubs, the Dodgers, the Giants, the Orioles, and the Red Sox.

The Braves, on the other hand, were very economical, paying less than expected for each of their five eligible candidates. Colorado was the only other franchise to save on each of their players.

Arbitration-eligible pitchers were the biggest losers this offseason; between starters, relievers, and closers, clubs saved over $21 million against projections. On second glance, however, a couple of cases significantly impacted that difference. Addison Reed and Tanner Roark settled for a combined $4.635 million less than estimated. In fact, Reed and Roark earned the least against their projections of all arbitration-eligible players. Jeurys Familia agreed to $1.275 million less than expected as well. Subtract Reed, Roark, and Familia, and clubs saved an average of $143.17K on the 107 other arbitration-eligible pitchers.

It’s interesting to think how different spending would look if every case went to an actual arbitration hearing. Seven of the 13 players that went to court this year won; however, only four of the 13 earned more than MLBTR’s projections. Fascinatingly, clubs saved an average of $267.31K on players that had hearings.

It’s surprising that teams tend to actually spend more than projected while settling out of court. One might think, wouldn’t they just wait it out and go to a hearing? Well for one, knowing that you can consistently settle for less out of court has value. More than half of players won their cases, while players settling without a hearing agreed to a salary lower than their projection in 108 of 167 cases. Additionally, deals outside of court leave almost no bad blood. Actual hearings, on the other hand, get presidents to admit they aren’t astronauts.

MLBTR’s projections, though they admit that arbitration salaries are driven by basic stats, seem to have missed the mark a few times by getting hung up on sabermetrics. For example, Mike Fiers had a lower xFIP, a higher K%, and a lower BB% than Miguel Gonzalez. Gonzalez, however, had a significantly lower ERA. Fiers was projected to earn $4.3 million, but only received $3.45 million. Gonzalez, on the other hand, earned $5.9 million - a full $3.3 million more than estimated.

Jeremy Jeffress and Carlos Torres paint a similar picture. Although Jeffress was projected to make $2.9 million while Torres was only slotted to make $2.0 million, they signed for $2.1 million and $2.175 million respectively. Torres had a lower ERA and more strikeouts, but Jeffress had a lower FIP and a higher WAR. The surface level statistics, like strikeouts, made Torres more valuable when settling out of court.

All things considered, the Mariners did great Biz with their arbitration-eligible players. They saved significantly more than the league average and avoided awkward confrontation. Way to go, ‘Ners! And if you thought things couldn’t get better, we get to watch these guys play baseball tomorrow. What a time to be alive.


Roll Biz.

And C’Mon Finance.