It has been 16 years since the Detroit Tigers attended an arbitration hearing for one of their players. Former president and general manager Dave Dombrowski maintained a perfect record of settling every arbitration case on the docket, and Al Avila has kept that streak going the past two seasons. This winter, the Tigers’ six arbitration-eligible players never even got to the formality of filing salary requests, as their cases were quickly settled.
On Saturday, Dellin Betances lost his arbitration case with the New York Yankees. He will receive a salary of $3 million, which was offered by the Yankees rather than the $5 million he requested. Betances is one of the best relief pitchers in the game. Over the past two seasons, no reliever in either league has compiled more fWAR.
Normally, that would be the end of it. But after the decision was given, Yankees President Randy Levine took his case to the media.
Betances’ agent made a ”half baked attempt to use a player to change a well-established market.” “ $3 million salary should be a great victory for Dellin Betances and his request for more money had no bearings in reality.”
“$5 million goes to elite closers,” Levine said. “Pitchers who pitch the ninth inning and have a lot of saves. Dellin didn’t have that record. He never did. It’s like me saying, I’m not the president of the Yankees, I’m an astronaut,” Levine added. “I’m not an astronaut and Dellin Betances is not a closer.”
Betances has mainly worked in a setup role behind high profile closers Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller. Betances has recorded 21 saves of his own in his career. With the Yankees re-signing Chapman as a free agent this winter, Betances figures to be back in his usual set up role in 2017.
Betances’ agent, Jim Murray, responded to Levine’s comments.
“We are not going to be bullied by the Yankees team president. His statements are reprehensible and outright false. His desire to conduct a press conference today amounts to nothing but grandstanding and trying to mislead the media,” Murray says.
“Bottom line, they had very little good to say about a player who grew up as a Yankees fan and contributed more than virtually any other relief pitcher in baseball. This guy was a 3-time All-Star. He is a unique pitcher that the arbitration system had never seen. He is about as unique as they come. We all knew it was going to be a landmark decision because of what this player has done.”
While Levine is correct in his assessment of the market, his remarks after the hearing could result in a damaging self-inflicted wound. Betances summed up his situation like this.
"Saying how much they love me, but then they take me into a room and they trash me for about an hour and a half. You know I thought that was unfair for me, especially I feel like I’ve done a lot for this organization. Especially in these last few years by taking the ball time after time.”
“You look at it a little differently now. I think free agency will be a little easier when the time comes.”
Murray understands the market for relief pitchers, and the system in taking his client to arbitration in a system that grossly overvalues closers and saves. More importantly, it is a system that values comparisons of other players’ salaries with similar experience, working in similar roles. The free agent market skews towards closers, so the arbitration criteria will pick that bias up as well. Betances’ case was a challenge to the system.
Betances will not be eligible for free agency until after the 2019 season, and earned the major league minimum salary of $507,500 last season. Not a dime more. By contrast, the Tigers voluntarily paid Alex Wilson, Justin Wilson, Blaine Hardy, and Nick Castellanos over $520,000. Betances will have two more seasons of arbitration eligibility after this season with the Yankees, barring a trade or serious injury.
We don’t see many cases of Tigers players being disgruntled or complaining about management in the media. Perhaps the last prominent such case was Ivan Rodriguez in 2008, before he was traded to the Yankees.
The last time that the Tigers went to arbitration was in 2001. The club prevailed as pitcher Chris Holt was awarded a salary of $1.85 million, rather than the $2.3 million that he sought. In recent years, the Tigers have settled arbitration cases with salaries that are slightly above projections more often than not.
Betances’ case reveals more than a flaw in the arbitration system, and the market place that disproportionately pays for “proven closers” and saves. It shows the damage that can be done to player relations at an arbitration hearing, and the value of settling arbitration cases before they ever get to a hearing. That is something that the Tigers have done better than any other team in the major leagues.