NEW YORK — An arbitrator has denied a grievance filed by the Major League Baseball Players Association on behalf of Carter Stewart, who failed to sign with the Atlanta Braves last summer and will be eligible for this year’s amateur draft.
Stewart, a right-handed pitcher from Eau Gallie High School in Florida, was selected by the Braves with the eighth overall pick in last year’s draft, and negotiations were complicated by a wrist injury. Because he didn’t sign, the Braves get an extra selection in the first round this June, the ninth pick overall.
The eighth pick had a slot value of $4,980,700 for its signing bonus, and the union claimed the Braves failed to make Stewart an offer of at least 40 percent of the slot value. Major league rules specify that if a club fails to make such an offer to a drafted player who is not part of Major League Baseball’s pre-draft MRI program and who later fails a club-administered physical, the player would become a free agent and the team would not get the extra draft pick.
Arbitrator Mark Irvings held the Braves made a 40 percent offer to Stewart, which meant he did not have to rule on any of the other issues presented by the case. The union declined to comment.
Stewart is enrolled at Eastern Florida State College.
MLB — Milwaukee Brewers Yasmani Grandal at their price
Agents have nice things to say about working with David Stearns, the Milwaukee Brewers‘ general manager, with many mentioning his affability. “Good guy,” one agent said recently, relating some of the pleasant conversations he’s shared with Stearns.
“He’s never been condescending to me,” reported another. “I like talking with him. I look forward to that phone call.”
But as some agents do their lobbying — making the case for their clients — they believe there’s little to no chance that they will dent Stearns’ imagination. Some agents think he cements a price in his mind about what he’s willing to pay for any player, either in a contract or in trade, and Stearns won’t deviate from his own mental math.
MLB — 2019’s most interesting player already hit home run of the year
Check out the home run above. Courtesy of the amazing Willians Astudillo, we already have the best home run highlight of 2019. It came in Venezuela, and it defies description. I think the only way it could be topped is if Yasiel Puig hits a walk-off home run in Game 7 of the World Series, but that would mean the Reds getting to the World Series, which seems unlikely.
Astudillo made his big league debut last season with the Minnesota Twins and in 29 games hit .355 with two home runs. But if you remember anything about Astudillo, it’s probably this highlight of him running the bases:
Size doesn’t measure speed. pic.twitter.com/r13jphlD9j
— MLB (@MLB) September 13, 2018
With his nontraditional physique and hair flying behind him like he’s poking his head out of a 747, Astudillo became an immediate cult hero. There’s even a five-minute highlight video of his 2018 exploits on YouTube. For example:
Here he is picking Shane Robinson off first base in a spring training game with a no-look throw:
Here he is pulling off the hidden ball trick while playing for Rochester:
Here he’s petting a fake horse. Yes, a fake horse. Just watch the video and pay close attention:
There was also this face-plant that led to teammate Jose Berrios throwing sunflower seeds at him:
As mentioned, however, he’s not just a freak-show novelty. Here he is belting a walk-off home run to beat the Royals in September:
As you can see from the videos, Astudillo isn’t without some athleticism despite his girth, and he can play multiple positions. With the Twins, he started 14 games at catcher, five at third base, one at second and even played a few innings in the outfield — including an inning in center field, making him, according to Ben Lindbergh, the first player in major league history listed at 5-foot-9 or shorter and 215 pounds or heavier to play center field. In winter ball, he has spent most of his time in left field. At 27, he’s too old to rank high on prospect lists, but he can play and has a chance to stick with the Twins as a utility player.
All of this has helped make Astudillo one of the most fascinating players to watch in 2019. Here’s the thing, though: I haven’t mentioned the most interesting thing about him. The dude never strikes out. Like … almost never. With the Twins, he struck out just three times in 97 plate appearances, a strikeout rate of 3.1 percent. The second-lowest rate belonged to Mets infielder Luis Guillorme, who fanned just three times in 74 PAs, a 4.1 percent rate (although Guillorme was above 10 percent in Triple-A). That’s an outlier total as well: The third-lowest rate was Andrelton Simmons at 7.3 percent, and only six other players were below 10 percent.
Not striking out is Astudillo’s game. At Triple-A Rochester, he fanned just 14 times in 307 PAs. In winter ball, he has four strikeouts in 236 PAs. In his minor league career, he has just 81 strikeouts in 638 games. Joey Gallo struck out 80 times in May and June. Yes, the minor leagues aren’t the majors, and we have to note that Astudillo also never walks — he walked just twice with the Twins and just 84 times in his minor league career. He had those 14 K’s with Rochester, but just 10 walks, giving him a triple-slash line of .276/.314/.469. Basically, when he swings, he puts the ball in play.
He’s an iconoclast in the era of swing and miss.
The greatest contact hitter in the sport’s history is arguably Hall of Famer Joe Sewell. In 1925, he played 155 games, batted 699 times — and struck out four times. In his 14-year career, he batted 8,333 times and fanned just 114 times. Yoan Moncada calls that the All-Star break. Sewell’s career strikeout rate was a minuscule 1.4 percent. Baseball-Reference has game data for Sewell from 1925 to 1933. He had one two-strikeout game, on May 26, 1930, when a pitcher named Pat Carraway of the White Sox got him in the first and third innings. Sewell, who choked up on a 40-ounce bat, didn’t strike out again the rest of the season.
Of course, that was a different era. In 1925, the overall major league strikeout rate was a lowly 6.9 percent. In 2018, it was 22.3 percent. Astudillo rarely whiffs in an era of 100 mph fastballs, nasty cutters and sliders diving off cliffs. Sewell faced Lefty Grove … and a whole bunch of guys throwing 85 mph. (By the way, Sewell faced Grove — the preeminent strikeout pitcher in the American League in his time — 129 times and fanned just one time.)
Let’s compare Astudillo to other low-strikeout hitters by looking at the qualified batters who had the lowest strikeout rate each decade:
There are a couple of ways you can examine this. Astudillo, in his short time with the Twins, fanned 19.2 percent less often than the average hitter. Sewell, in 1925, fanned just 6.3 percent less often, although obviously had less room to “improve.” If we compare the player’s rate to the league rate, Sewell’s 1932 season stands as the best, while Astudillo’s rate compares to Boudreau, Fox and Dave Cash’s 1976 season with the Phillies. (I wonder if Cash made a concerted effort not to strike out that season. He had 47 extra-base hits in 1975 and 49 in 1977, but just 27 in 1976, batting more than 700 times each season.)
What kind of role will Astudillo have with the Twins in 2019? His Baseball-Reference projection has him at .279/.335/.438 (with 42 strikeouts in 249 PAs, which seems like way too many). He’s third on the catching depth chart behind Jason Castro and Mitch Garver, although Baseball Prospectus’ minor league framing metrics rated him as a solid pitch framer. The third baseman is Ehire Adrianza — or Miguel Sano, if the Twins try to put him back there — so maybe there’s an opportunity there. The outfield appears pretty set with Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton and Max Kepler, and Jake Cave as the backup. Nelson Cruz will soak up all the DH at-bats. Still, there’s playing time to be had, and I think Astudillo hits his way into 300 or so plate appearances.
Which means plenty of highlight videos to keep everyone happy all summer.
Jeff Passan — Inside wild, wonky world of MLB salary arbitration
With $3 million at stake, the Boston Red Sox wanted to create the most compelling argument possible against Mookie Betts without alienating or insulting him. So last January, as they tried to convince a three-person arbitration panel that Betts deserved the $7.5 million salary they were offering and not the $10.5 million he requested, the Red Sox fashioned a novel approach in the typically staid, lawyerly arbitration room: They played a video talking about how good Kris Bryant was.
The purpose, multiple sources in the room told ESPN, was not simply to lavish praise on the Chicago Cubs‘ third baseman but to make their case: As great as Mookie Betts may be, he isn’t Kris Bryant. And in the world of arbitration — an opaque, wonky process that determines salaries for about a quarter of the league every year and has taken on significantly more meaning as economic turmoil roils the baseball landscape — the single most important factor is comparable players.
So when Betts won the first case of 2018, a year that saw the most hearings since 1990, it wasn’t merely a victory for him or a sign that Bryant, and his $10.85 million salary, was indeed a fair parallel. It reminded players that with the free-agent market spiraling and pre-free agency contract extensions increasingly rare, arbitration is among the last avenues for players to seek salary gains amid the sport’s financial correction.
That’s what makes the next 48 hours so compelling. At 1 p.m. ET on Friday, the 175 or so players eligible for arbitration will have settled on a salary for 2019 or reached an impasse that leads to a hearing. With all 30 teams adopting the so-called file-and-trial approach — if the sides file a number, they’ll head to trial, cutting out the post-exchange-date negotiations that were prevalent even five years ago — Friday marks an underappreciated day on the baseball calendar.
One on which Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado will set a record for arbitration salary — or head to trial in February. And where the first-time-eligible class of Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Javier Baez, Trevor Story and Corey Seager represents the biggest influx of talent — let alone talent from a single position — into the arbitration system in years. The leaps taken by Cy Young Award-winning starter Jacob deGrom and lockdown closer Blake Treinen could portend significant raises as well.
Then there’s the case of Betts, who followed his leap in arbitration with one on the field. The arbitration system gives special favor to those with hardware, and Betts is coming off a season in which he won the American League Most Valuable Player and a World Series. Will he seek to beat Max Scherzer‘s record $8.8 million raise for players already in arbitration? Might he see Arenado’s $17.75 million salary as a third-time-eligible player and settle in that neighborhood to mitigate the risk of a trial? Could he go for broke and file for $20 million-plus, looking to set a new benchmark in a landscape where they’re few and far between?
“I hope every damn agent holds the line,” one agent with arbitration-eligible clients told ESPN. “This would be a wonderful year to see if they can do it. And if not? Go to trial.”
The biggest question is just that: With the arbitration system in some ways serving as a microcosm of the rest of the labor market for players — with less manpower than the well-organized league office, fractious goals for players adversely affecting others and the risk in front of sometimes-inconsistent panels palpable — just how aggressive can the players afford to be?
In a mission statement distributed among some players, Jeff Berry, who helps run the baseball division at CAA, outlined a number of steps he believes are necessary to rectify the imbalance of power in the relationship between MLB and the union. It was no surprise that his first target was arbitration. “[A]ttacking the arb system,” Berry wrote in the memo, which was obtained by ESPN’s Buster Olney, “is an ideal battleground for MLBPA/players/agents to take a unified stand and to feel empowered and proactive rather than victimized.”
The use of arbitration as a potential weapon in a burgeoning labor conflict runs in contrast with the system’s intention. Arbitration exists to bring sides with disparate goals together in hopes of compromise. The players want the highest salary possible. The clubs want to pay players as little as possible. Détente is somewhere in the middle, and following the labor wars of the 1980s, it was the standard.
Amid the freeze of the free-agent market last winter, 22 players went to trial, one of the highest numbers since the advent of the system in 1974. Still, it amounted to barely 10 percent of those eligible for arbitration, illustrating the point some hawkish agents make: Players could upend the system the way clubs have free agency and have tried to do to arbitration by adopting file-and-trial practices.
Whether that would be prudent is a different question altogether. A number of factors make the scenario, enticing though it may be, a near impossibility. First is the scourge of the union: bad settlements. While MLB works diligently and impressively to coordinate the arbitration targets of its 30 teams — this behavior is sanctioned under the collective bargaining agreement and not considered collusive — agents occasionally make far-under-target settlements. The effect, in a comparison-based system, is devastating: A bad settlement can linger and depress prices at a particular position for years.
Further, while some of the brightest minds at the MLBPA focus on arbitration, the sharp and efficient MLB labor relations department (plus the sheer quantitative power housed in clubs’ supercomputers and the minds of those who run them) leads to a theoretical inflection point of cases. The union did well balancing 22 cases last year, winning 12. The league historically has won well more than 50 percent of cases. At 30 or 35 cases, or even more, the volume could leave the players at a disadvantage.
Another complicating factor is the cost to agents. Going to trial can be pricey, particularly for smaller agencies that do not have in-house lawyers with enough expertise or experience to argue an arbitration case. Hiring outside counsel costs up to $55,000, an expense that falls on the agent. And when the spread, or the difference between the sides, is minimal and the 5 percent fee on the difference won’t come close to covering the attorney fees, the incentive is clearly to settle — a fact that teams know and leverage.
All of which leads to the awkward dance currently playing out. On Monday and Tuesday, staffers from clubs reached out to agents to introduce themselves, say they are a file-and-trial team and throw out a name they believe is a good comparison. In most cases, there is little substantive movement on Wednesday and Thursday. Only on Friday, the day of the deadline, do the sides seriously engage. It’s by design: Barreling toward a deadline, teams often feel as though they have the advantage, and their willingness to wield it for gain is clear.
Between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on Friday, team and agent offices, and those of the league and union, will serve as nerve centers for a manic dash. Good and bad settlements will be celebrated and lamented. The ever-narrowing window will be used as a vise in both directions. Some will panic. Some will hold steadfast. And all will know that absent a settlement, they’ll meet a few weeks later in a setting with rulings every bit as binary as ball or strike.
Arbitration cases start at 9 a.m. or 1 p.m. Typically, about 30 people are in the room — 10 on the player’s side, including the player, and 20 on the team’s. Each side brings 12 copies of its brief. The opposing side gets four of the copies, and a number of people then decamp to suites to begin constructing the rebuttal argument that will come later in the hearing.
To begin, the player’s side gets an hour to make its argument. After a 15-minute break, the team gets an hour. Following a 30-minute break, during which both sides finalize their closing arguments, the player’s side gets a 30-minute rebuttal and the team gets the same. Players often sit through a savaging of their accomplishments. Arbitration hearings are not for the weak of heart.
The arguments throughout a case run the gamut. Arbitrators have long rewarded home runs and saves, so they are featured prominently among the players with them, like Oakland’s Khris Davis, who could seek a raise from $10.5 million into the $18 million range. At the same time, the arbitration system is not the antediluvian, abacus-using Luddite-fest it has been portrayed as. The wins above replacement metric is used extensively. So are fielding independent pitching for starters and leverage index for relievers. Statcast data is not allowed in cases, mainly because the league has a far greater plethora of it than the union; and in 2016, when the CBA was signed, the accuracy of spin-rate and launch-angle metrics so vital to modern baseball was not tested out over a large enough sample to warrant their inclusion.
When the presentations are done, the panel of three independent arbitrators renders a winner-take-all decision. Sometimes the spread is hundreds of thousands. Other times it’s millions. And in a moment where the average salary dropped year over year, arbitration, which exists to give raises, is a salve for players amid all the losses elsewhere.
Exactly how much Mookie Betts makes next season is important because it ups the benchmark for the next generation of players to come through arbitration. Is it $18 million? Or $19 million? Maybe $20 million? And what of Arenado? Does he play it safe and seek a raise to beat Josh Donaldson‘s single-season arbitration-salary record of $23 million? Or does he compare his situation to free-agent deals, as those in their final season of arbitration are allowed to, and try to shoot the moon to, say, $27 million? Or $28 million? Or even higher?
The biggest gains, one longtime arbitration expert noted, are not necessarily made in cases like Betts’ last year or Ryan Howard’s seminal $10 million win in his first year of eligibility in 2008. It’s the strong negotiated settlements that resonate best because they’re admissions from both sides that this is the actual market value and not just a number chosen by three people who happened to like one argument better than another.
It’s why for all the intrigue of trials, and for all the fight the rank and file may want to muster against the league, the settlement, unsexy though it may be, is the backbone of arbitration. It’s moving the ball in three yards and a cloud of dust instead of running the fly pattern on every play.
Because incremental progress is still progress, and the lack thereof in other avenues frightens players. The contraction of the free-agent market is real. If the rationale of teams is they don’t want to spend revenues on players in their 30s, the logical countermove would be to spend it on players in their 20s. And yet the long-term offers being made to pre-arbitration players are similar to those of a decade ago. Revenues have increased by more than 50 percent, and that’s to say nothing of the windfall MLB came into from its internet arm and the coming riches of its gambling partnerships.
So the message from the union to players — particularly the best players — is clear: Be aggressive in arbitration. Push clubs. If they’re unwilling to pay what the union believes is market value before or after arbitration, at very least use the system to ensure they do so during arbitration.
The message from the league to clubs is similar: Be smart, be organized, communicate and function as one. It’s how the league has transitioned from a labor laughingstock to the one that knocks. With Betts and Arenado and the parade of incredible young shortstops, MLB has plenty to lose this arbitration season, particularly in a moment when it’s not accustomed to losing.
That’s the new world order of baseball, one that will be tested in a frenzied five hours on Friday, with big names and big money and big stakes. The league is confident. The players are hopeful. Let the madness begin.
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