MLB: NLDS-Los Angeles Dodgers at Atlanta Braves

There is nothing fun about baseball’s arbitration process. It is a necessary evil, an inefficient means to a satisfactory end. Nobody likes going the arbitration route, where dirty laundry is dredged up and the seeds of animosity can sometimes take hold.

It is a tool and a risk for teams, especially those that opt for the “file and trial” no-nonsense stance. If player and team cannot reach an agreement before the deadline, teams like Toronto and Atlanta shelve discussions until they’re making their cases to the arbitrator.

Eno Sarris of Fangraphs wrote an interesting piece on the subject, using the very slight difference between Jason Heyward‘s asking price and the number the Braves countered with as his framing device. He describes a “maturing of the process” as both sides do their best to avoid alienation by stating their case in good faith.

But money is money. Sometimes the two sides are arguing over a significant amount of money. Take Craig Kimbrel, for example. Kimbrel filed for $9MM, almost $2.5 million more than the team’s number of $6.55MM.

Just for fun, let’s play this out (like BP did last year but less smart). I’ll argue for Craig Kimbrel and, umm, for the Braves as well. Which side makes the most compelling case? With whom will the arbitrator (me again) side? Let’s bridge the divide!

Before we begin, consider the exact verbiage from the Collective Bargaining Agreement as it relates to arbitration:

The criteria will be the quality of the Player’s contribution to his Club during the past season (including but not limited to his overall performance, special qualities of leadership and public appeal), the length and consistency of his career contribution, the record of the Player’s past compensation, comparative baseball salaries, the existence of any physical or mental defects on the part of the Player, and the recent performance record of the Club including but not limited to its League standing and attendance as an indication of public acceptance.

There are other rules such as the financial standing of the player or club not entering in, as well as any previous contract offers or suggestions being inadmissible, if such legal jargon applies.

The biggest and most important factor is the salary of players with equal service, though one key line at the end of the arbitration subsection might just apply directly to Mr. Craig Kimbrel:

This shall not limit the ability of a Player or his representative, because of special accomplishment, to argue the equal relevance of salaries of Players without regard to service, and the arbitration panel shall give whatever weight to such accomplishment as is deemed appropriate.

A few rules to remember: each side presents their argument then is given an opportunity to rebut and summarize their case. Once both sides have been heard, the arbitrator cannot offer an opinion nor can they decide on their own fair reward. They can only choose one side or the other. This is Craig Kimbrel’s first trip through arbitration. He has 3.066 years of service time and earned $655 000 in 2013.

Here we go. Because I am not a lawyer, this “trial” will take on a more grandiose TV lawyer style rather than actual well-written or clearly stated points consistent with actual law-talking. Like Matlock, but less old.

The Case for Kimbrel

Craig Kimbrel is a special player. This matter should not be up for the courts (???) to debate. There are some who might argue that Craig Kimbrel, my client, is the finest relief pitcher in the long and storied history of the Atlanta Braves. Some, maybe more daring than I, could convincingly state that Craig Kimbrel is in fact the finest relief pitcher in the history of the game.

But these are not facts, unfortunately. Luckily for Mr. Kimbrel, his statistics have no need for florid language and obfuscation. The cold, hard, facts make Kimbrel’s case more solidly than this Southern lawyer in his seersucker suit could ever dream. I’m but a country boy at heart, with equal love for the great game of baseball and the law. Ever since I was the age of…sorry. You know how I do go on.

FACT! Craig Kimbrel has the lowest ERA in BASEBALL HISTORY among pitchers to appear in at least 200 games.

FACT! My client also claims the lowest ERA in baseball history among relievers through the first four seasons of their career.

FACT! Mr. Kimbrel saved 50 games in 2013, becoming only the eleventh man in baseball history to accomplished said feat. He lead the National League in saves each of the last three years.

FACT! Mr. Kimbrel also owns the highest strikeout rate of all time among pitchers with 200 games played.

FACT! Craig ranked in the top five for Cy Young award voting in consecutive seasons, receiving one first-place vote in 2012.

FACT! My client is the only player in baseball history to post three seasons with an ERA+ greater than 300 while appearing in more than 20 games.

Rk Yrs From To Age
1 Craig Kimbrel 3 2010 2013 22-25 Ind. Seasons
2 Mariano Rivera 2 2005 2008 35-38 Ind. Seasons
3 Koji Uehara 1 2013 2013 38-38 Ind. Seasons
4 Kevin Siegrist 1 2013 2013 23-23 Ind. Seasons
5 Greg Holland 1 2013 2013 27-27 Ind. Seasons
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 1/27/2014.

We could go on all day. These facts support our contention that Craig Kimbrel is, quite simply, an extraordinary baseball player. His feats are unequaled by anyone in his service class or beyond. To shackle him to these simplistic restraints diminishes his contributions to the Atlanta Braves, a club with two consecutive playoff appearances with my client holding strong in the bullpen.

Our filed figure of $9 million is a fair and accurate representation of Kimbrel’s worth as a first-time eligible player. The only player with the resume even remotely close to Mr. Kimbrel is Jonathan Papelbon, then of the Boston Red Sox. If we convert his salary from the comparable service time frame to 2013 dollars, the team’s figure of $6.55 million still comes up short.

In our mind, there is no comparison. No player can claim the production of Craig Kimbrel through the first three years of their career. No player can claim 50 saves during their third year of service. No player can make a claim as convincing as the stat line Mr. Craig Kimbrel was happy to put up as a member of the Atlanta Braves. He deserves a salary commensurate with his peers – the very best relief pitchers in the game. We feel $9 million for 2014 is a fair salary for an elite, historic player.

Atlanta’s Case

The Atlanta Braves would first like to thank Mr. Kimbrel for all his efforts this season. It is truly an honor to have such a player don our colors each and every day.

We must run our business fairly and soundly. As delighted and proud as we are of all Craig’s accomplishments, we feel it necessary to put them into context.

Mr. Kimbrel’s feats in the realm of relief pitchers are unrivaled, but we gently wish to remind the court that for all his fanfare, Craig is still a relief pitcher. His role, while key in the success of our team, is not as significant as others who find their names on the lineup card day in and day out.

50 other relief pitchers appeared in more games since 2010, when Craig debuted. Even if we include only his three “full” seasons with the club, we find 11 other pitchers to appear in more games. His strikeouts, while prodigious by rate, only rank him 75th in the game since the start of 2011.

His most recent season also saw his performance dip from 2012. Mr. Kimbrel allowed more walks, runs, and hits while striking out fewer hitters in 2013 compared to 2012. Great as he’s been, we are not in the business of paying players for their past accomplishments, especially in this setting.

As a progressive and forward-thinking club, we evaluate our players with all tools available. Are you familiar with the concept of “Wins Above Replacement?” It measures the number of wins a player adds to the club. Great as our prize reliever produced for us, his 2013 season only counted 3.3 WAR according to industry leading baseball statistics source Baseball Reference.

We feel this number and others like it represent Mr. Kimbrel’s real world impact on our team. We seek to measure his actual production and what it means for our club.

Using this as our reference, we find players such as Doug Fister, a starting pitcher who produced the same 3.3 Wins Above Replacement during the same service period, receiving a contract of $4 million for the following season. Or even a non-pitcher such as Giancarlo Stanton, one of the stars of our game who agreed to a $6.5 million contract with the Marlins after producing nearly 15 WAR for his club as a pro, much more than Craig’s 9.7 WAR.

Within the confines of the relief pitching – yes, Craig Kimbrel stands out in baseball history. But there is more to baseball than throwing one inning every few days. We seek to reward Mr. Kimbrel with a $6.5 million contract for 2014, a fair and accurate representation of his real value to our club, weighing both his role and the significant risk of injury and breakdown associated with pitchers of his ilk.

Kimbrel’s rebuttal and summation

Wins Above Replacement? With the deepest respect for the new vanguard of baseball statistics, perhaps a counting stat with wildly differing outputs and inputs (depending on the source) isn’t the most reliable. Useful as this measure might be, it does little to capture the full impact of Mr. Kimbrel. Such is his stature in the game that opponents must alter their strategy, fearful of the dreaded “eight inning game” as our client all but renders any chances for a comeback null and void.

Not only his performance transcendent, it is also shows no signs of letting up. His fastball velocity actually increased year-over-year and he still features one of the deadliest sliders in the game of baseball.

Injury risk? Our client is the picture of health and has been since his senior year of high school. At that time, it was a foot injury put him on the held him out of action. The same injury that helped build his prodigious arm strength, as he began throwing from his knees while his foot healed. Again we point to the case of Jonathan Papelbon, a durable reliever who just completed his ninth Major League season – all of which ended after Papelbon pitched in more than 59 games.

Just as Jonathan Papelbon set a new standard for this service time group, we expect Craig Kimbrel to break through and receive the salary a player of his stature, accomplishment, and professionalism demands. Well, not demands demands but has earned. You know?

Atlanta’s rebuttal and summation

The Atlanta Braves are extremely excited about their future with Craig Kimbrel. It is our belief the team around our star reliever continues to take shape and we will break through and challenge for a World Series in 2014. But paying for the sins of the father does not assist us in this pursuit. A traditional closer such as Kimbrel is a boon to the team but then cannot win games all on their own. Remember this, Craig?

With our season hanging in the balance, our field manager could not conceive of a situation to put you into the game. Your petulant display embarrassed a dedicated and proud baseball man in Fredi Gonzalez when the fact of the matter is clear – he didn’t trust you to get six lousy outs.

We don’t bring this up to denigrate your accomplishments, Craig. We simply want to make perfectly clear the size of your contributions to the greater good of Atlanta Braves baseball. Brilliantly as you perform, you remain at the mercy of the situation. You cannot create wins for our club, as your WAR plainly states.

We feel a $6.55 million dollar contract is more than fair based on your platform year when viewed objectively. We support the arbitrator’s decision and look forward to seeing you in Spring Training to begin another great year of Braves baseball.

The Decision

The panel (of one) sides with the player. We are of the opinion that Mr. Kimbrel’s accomplishments to be noteworthy beyond just his service platform have little reason to suspect his performance will let up in 2014, based on health and key metrics across the board. The player’s offer is fair for a player so accomplished in both a service time and global player perspective.


There’s no actual way anybody will side with the Braves, right? Kimbrel’s case, when considering how much more closers actually get in the arb process, is as airtight as it gets. If they can’t agree on a two-year deal before now and the trial date, one has to believe the Braves don’t have much hope of getting Craig Kimbrel under contract for less than $7 million for 2014. Is there?