MLB Salary Arbitration is Baseball’s Reality Television

MLB salary arbitration is one of the few places in the sport of baseball that has the potential for drama, and the past few days hasn’t disappointed on that front, if that’s what fans are interested in.

MLB Salary Arbitration is Baseball’s Reality Television

The best “fireworks” have come from the on-going war of words over the now-settled arbitration case of New York Yankees reliever Dellin Betances. The most interesting thing about the drama is that neither side started using the media like a divorced couple who spitefully communicates with each other through their children until after the arbitration panel made its ruling.

Jim Murray, Betances’ lead agent, says that during the arbitration hearing, the team’s representatives blamed Betances for everything wrong with the franchise which Forbes has named the most valuable in baseball every season since Forbes started their ranking.

If Murray’s claims are true, then some raw numbers with zero context or any other mitigating factors taken into consideration seem to support a low-brow argument. The Yankees ranked first in the American League and third in all of MLB in average attendance in 2014, the season when Betances exceeded his rookie limit. The team has since dropped to second in the AL and sixth overall during Betances’ time in the Bronx. Obviously it’s all Betances’ fault. Fans are so put off by a reliever who has made the All-Star game three years running, and has one of the highest strikeout totals in all of baseball since his debut, that they simply aren’t coming to Yankees Stadium anymore.

Context is what’s important to remember when considering all the press conferences and letters to Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal pointing the finger at the other party for hurt feelings after the hearing had ended. Betances and the Yankees were at odds over a matter of $2 million for the upcoming season.

The Yankees made a claim with some legitimacy that even their offer for Betances of $3 million, which the arbitration panel awarded to him, is still the most lucrative ever for a set-up man in his first year of arbitration eligibility. Another part of this context is that teams have a hard-and-fast policy of wanting to avoid paying players more than they have to in order to delay the inevitable rise of player salaries as much as possible.

It’s also a bad look when a team is willing to publicly throw a reliever who has thrown 247 innings in 217 games with a 1.001 walks plus hits per innings pitched over the past three seasons under the bus. What makes it look even worse is that the team had already won the hearing, and that revenue is expected to grow in 2017. For a team that is reportedly so concerned about ticket sales, being a tad more aware of its brand management would be wise.

Betances and the Yankees haven’t been the only weird thing about salary arbitration this season. The Baltimore Orioles had won nine hearings in a row, a span of 22 undefeated seasons, until an arbitration panel awarded reliever Brad Brach his filing of $3.05 million on Friday. The question begs to be asked: why is this still a thing?

Why are MLB and the MLBPA, who mutually benefit from labor peace, using a system designed to pit players against their individual franchises with something as serious as money on the line? It’s true that most players who are eligible for arbitration reach deals outside of hearings. That could be used to make an argument that both sides would rather avoid the hearing. Unpleasant situations like the Betances drama are always possible.

Ken Rosenthal

Rosenthal has come up with a great idea for replacing arbitration hearings with a plug-and-play statistical model. Negotiating such a deal would be interesting, as at least one potential objection by the union would be a fear that such a model could eventually replace the open market of free agency.

Until such a time, if ever, that MLB replaces salary arbitration with a system that isn’t reminiscent of an episode of Perry Mason, fans who enjoy baseball having an element of The Real World to it will always have arbitration hearings to look toward.

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