During his first run through the arbitration process, Josh Hader tried to set a new record. And why not? Relievers tend to have a short shelf life, and he’s a former 19th-round draft pick who signed with the Orioles for a modest $40,000 bonus before spending parts of six years making peanuts in the minor leagues until debuting with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2017. Hader has made close to the league minimum since then while establishing himself as perhaps the premiere relief pitcher in baseball, winning the National League’s Reliever of the Year award in each of the last two seasons.
Since Josh’s first MLB appearance on June 10th, 2017, only three pitchers in baseball have logged more innings in relief. His 2.42 ERA across 204.2 innings ranks as the fourth-lowest among qualified relievers in that time, and his 2.74 FIP is seventh-lowest. He has averaged 15.35 K/9 (tops in baseball) while increasing his strikeout rate each season, and 3.17 BB/9 while decreasing his walk rate each season. His 0.85 WHIP and 86.9% strand rate both rate as the league’s best since his debut. Both his FIP-based fWAR (5.9) and runs-based RA9-WAR (7.2) agree that Hader has been MLB’s most valuable bullpen arm since he arrived in the big leagues.
The cited metrics (and many others) are all ways that fans and front offices have come to evaluate players in recent seasons, but the arbitration process has not yet caught up to the sabermetric revolution and still relies on traditional stats when it comes to determining salaries for eligible players. And comparatively, Josh Hader was lacking in one key statistic when it came to arguing his case before the panel — saves.
Hader and his camp filed for $6.4 mil, which would have broken the first-year arbitration record for relief pitchers that is currently held by Jonathan Papelbon ($6.25 mil). Serving mostly as Boston’s closer, Papelbon piled up 113 saved games before reaching arbitration eligibility prior to the 2009 season. Hader, on the other hand, logged only one season as Milwaukee’s full-time closer, saving 37 games last season and 49 total to this point in his career. Hader’s goal in filing for a record figure was to try and enact change in the arbitration system based on the way relief usage has shifted in recent years and pave the way for future high-leverage relief pitchers to get more money when they become eligible, regardless of saves total.
Unfortunately, Josh’s attempt was unsuccessful. Yesterday, the independent panel ruled in favor of the Brewers, who filed at a figure of $4.1 mil. That happens to tie the arbitration record for a first-time eligible reliever who was not a full-time closer; Jeurys Familia, who also had one season as a closer and 49 career saves, earned $4.1 mil through an arbitration settlement with the Mets in 2016. Dellin Betances of the Yankees was previously unsuccessful in trying to argue a similar case in 2017; he filed for $5 mil against New York’s $3 mil figure, and when the panel ruled in favor of the Yankees, team president Randy Levine was quoted as saying “It’s like me saying, ‘I’m not the president of the Yankees; I’m an astronaut. No, I’m not an astronaut, and Dellin Betances is not a closer.”
Here’s what Hader had to say after he learned about his defeat in court:
“We’re in a unique position, the way we are used as relievers nowadays. I think the system is just outdated on how we’re used. We’re mostly being used for lineups, not innings. There’s not guys that are set for 7-8-9, it’s 2-3-4, whatever it is in the lineup...when it comes down to playing the game, I’m out there to compete to win ballgames.
It’s outdated. We were at that point one time in baseball, but we’re going to a new part of baseball where guys are pitching in situations that could come in the fourth inning. You’re facing the middle of the lineup to get maybe out of a jam, or whatever that case may be. It’s not 7-8-9. It’s a little untraditional, but that’s just the way arb is right now.”
The win for the Brewers is notable because Hader’s future arbitration salaries will be based on what he earned this season. Had the pitcher been successful in convincing the panel that he should earn $6.4 mil in 2020, he not only would have set a new precedent for the pitchers who will come after him, he would have likely been looking a payout north of $10 mil in 2021 — something that almost surely would have motivated the team to shop him in trade scenarios even harder next winter than they did during the most recent offseason. It will now be quite difficult for Hader to surpass that threshold in arbitration the next time around, which may keep him in the Cream City longer.
Hader is not eligible to become a free agent until after the 2023 season regardless, and he stated that he is glad to have this process behind him for the time being. David Stearns doesn’t believe that the case will cause any kind of distraction: “I think what Josh is most focused on is helping the team win, and that’s what he’s always been most focused on. He’s performed at an exceptionally high level and we believe that was recognized in the salary that was awarded to him, and I think he’s fairly focused on continuing to perform at that high level.”
Perhaps the coming CBA negotiations will provide an opportunity for the Players’ Union to try and enact some change in the “outdated” arbitration process.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs