MLB: Cleveland Indians at Los Angeles Angels

The baseball system of arbitration isn’t perfect. It’s unique among the professional North American sports, ensuring pay raises for players who occasionally haven’t “earned” them. Not that it doesn’t have value, as it puts money in the hands of players in a pretty serious way.

The entire system is quite sophisticated, and the countermoves and expectations born of an intimate knowledge of this system makes for some peculiar moves. Teams and front offices game the system as best they can, operating under the assumption that sometimes it gets a given player’s compensation wrong.

It’s weird to see two players in quite different situations slated to receive similar arbitration rewards. The cloak-and-dagger reward math (seemingly cracked by Matt Swartz of MLBTR) informs future decisions, as clubs make value judgements based on what a player will earn in arbitration – rarely a true indicator of his value on the field.

Using Swartz’s figures, two somewhat similar players are slated to earn nearly the identical amount of money through arbitration. Mark Trumbo and Giancarlo Stanton have a lot of similarities in their stat lines, if we look at the right categories.

Over the last three seasons, both men hit 95 home runs and scored 216 runs. Their batting averages are in the same range (.265 for Stanton, .250 for Trumbo). Thanks to playing for the not-Marlins, Mark Trumbo counted scads more RBI but Stanton hit six more doubles. Trumbo has more games played but Stanton has more service time overall, thanks to an earlier call-up in 2010 and injuries in each of the last two seasons.

In terms of counting stats, they’re quite close. According to Swartz’s math, Trumbo will earn $4.7MM in his first trip through arbitration while Giancarlo Stanton will cost the Marlins $4.8MM. The system, as we understand it, views them similarly.

Which is weird because Giancarlo Stanton is a much more valuable and, frankly, better player than Mark Trumbo. It isn’t that Trumbo’s bad, he is quite valuable, the rare true slugger in the game today. But the inputs for arbitration seem to ignore the countless reasons Stanton’s been (and will be) more valuable to the Marlins than Trumbo is to the Angels.

Giancarlo Stanton is a far, far more patient hitter than the Angels slugger. Stanton amassed 75 more walks in 235 fewer plate appearances. He outslugs Trumbo by both slugging percentage and isolated power. Advanced metrics point out the wide gulf between these two players offensive production, as Stanton’s .385 wOBA and 144 wRC+ puts him among the game’s elite. Trumbo hits home runs like few others in the game but his overall production suffers, as a 111 wRC+ is above-average but nowhere near Stanton’s level.

Setting age aside, Stanton Stanton is at worst an average defender in the outfield, while Trumbo looks like a good first baseman but little more. He has played all over the diamond for Anaheim &Mdash; including sharing an outfield with Mike Trout and Peter Bourjos aka the easiest job in America — but he seems most at home playing first.

This is where a stat like Wins Above Replacement becomes so valuable – as a tool to differentiate between two players who, on the surface, appear quite similar. Over the last three years (full seasons for both men) Stanton produced four more wins for his team than Trumbo did for the Angels.

Giancarlo Stanton 12.0 95 21-23 1606 216 371 86 6 235 190 20 449 18 .267 .361 .542 .903 *9/HD8
Mark Trumbo 7.7 95 25-27 1837 216 428 80 6 282 115 15 457 9 .251 .300 .473 .773 *3/79D5H
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 11/13/2013.

Stanton is a better, more valuable player but won’t be paid as such for at least three more years. Trumbo is a good player whose ability to hit home runs and drives in runs (because he hits in the middle of one baseball’s most dangerous lineups) will keep his future pay closer to Stanton’s despite the different magnitudes of their overall production. At some point, perhaps even now, Mark Trumbo’s earning will outstrip his value to the team. It is this fear that drives the Angels pursuit of starting pitching depth with their 27-year old slugger serving as the main bargaining chip.

At the GM meetings right now, dozens of player are tossed into trade rumors because their potential arbitration rewards will scare away their current team. Either the player is worth more to another team at their given price (like Stanton or David Price) or they aren’t worth their paycheck as it is derived by a skewed data set.

The inevitable Giancarlo Stanton trade won’t be a matter of a player earning more than he delivers, his flight from Miami has everything to do with the realities of that odious franchise rather than a flaw in the system. It doesn’t have to be like this, though teams are likely more than happy to overpay a few middling players in order to save big time on those who really make a difference on the field.

As the trade rumors swirl, keep on eye on how often potential arbitration rewards figure into the the equation. It is important to pay players, it would be nice to see the earnings go to those who earn it most.

Additional reading – Russell Carlton on the true cost of cost-controlled players. [Baseball Prospectus]