Arbitration loss a harbinger of change

Arbitration loss preludes change

The rash of signing announcements last week confirmed Major League clubs' desire to dodge arbitration hearings with eligible players. Otherwise, the lineup of scheduled hearings could have been of historic proportions.

By our count, of the 111 players who filed for the process, 38 remained unsigned as of mid-week -- and the record for hearings is 35, in 1986. Seven recent signings lowered the number of potential hearings to 31.

Realistically, even if there had been no agreements prior to the beginning of hearings on Monday, the number of cases determined by arbitration figured to be far fewer than that, inasmuch as the two sides can strike a deal any time prior to the arbitrator's decision.

Teams' annual rush to avoid arbitration (typically, fewer than one out of 10 filers reach hearings) is motivated by economics and not, contrary to a popular assumption, by performance issues.

Fiscally, arbitration hearings are lose-lose propositions for clubs. Actually, so is the entire arbitration process -- a master stroke during 1973 Basic Agreement negotiations by Marvin Miller, over Gene Autry's vehement warnings.

Effect of Arbitration Loss
Year
Player
Pre-Hearing
Post-Hearing
2008
Brian Fuentes
20 SV, 3.08 ERA
30 SV, 2.73 ERA
2008
Felipe Lopez
.245-9-50, 24 SB
.283-6-46, 8 SB
2008
Mark Loretta
.287-4-41
.280-4-38 in 200 fewer AB
2008
Francisco Rodriguez
40 SV, 2.81
62 SV, 2.24
2008
Jose Valverde
47 SV, 2.66
44 SV, 3.38
2008
Chien-Ming Wang
19-7, 3.70
8-2, 4.07 (injury)
2007
Josh Paul
.260-1-8
.234-1-9
2007
Joe Beimel
2.96, 70 IP
3.88, 67 IP
2007
John Patterson
1-2, 4.43
1-5, 7.47
2007
Kevin Gregg
4.14, 78 IP
32 SV, 3.54
2006
Sunny Kim
6-3, 4.90
0-1, 12.51
2006
Alfonso Soriano
.268-38-104
.277-46-95
2006
Rodrigo Lopez
15-12, 4.90
9-18, 5.90
2006
Josh Paul
.189-2-4
.260-1-8
2005
Jeremy Affeldt
3-4, 4.95
0-2, 5.26
2005
Juan Cruz
6-2, 2.75, 72 IP
0-2, 7.44, 33 IP
2004
Eric Gagne
55 SV, 1.20
45 SV, 2.19
2004
Nick Johnson
.284-14-47
.251-7-33
2004
Johan Santana
12-3, 3.07
20-6, 2.61
2004
Chris Reitsma
9-5, 4.29
6-4, 4.07
2003
Chris Reitsma
6-12, 3.64
9-5, 4.29
2003
Eric Gagne
52 SV, 1.97
55 SV, 1.20
2002
Rolando Arrojo
5-4, 3.08, 103 IP
4-3, 4.98, 81 IP
2002
Neifi Perez
.279-8-59
.236-3-37
2002
Esteban Yan
4-6, 3.90, 62 IP
7-8, 4.30, 69 IP
2002
Orlando Cabrera
.276-14-96
.263-7-56
2001
Kevin Millwood
10-13, 4.66
7-7, 4.31
2001
Jose Mercedes
14-7, 4.02
8-17, 5.82
2001
Danny Graves
10-5, 30 SV, 2.56
6-5, 32 SV, 4.15
2001
Javier Vazquez
11-9, 4.05
16-11, 3.42
2001
John Rocker
24 SV, 2.89
23 SV, 4.02
2001
Chris Hollt
8-16, 5.35
7-9, 5.77
2001
Travis Lee
.235-9-54
.258-20-90
2001
Osvaldo Fernandez
4-3, 3.62
5-6, 6.92

The Singing Cowboy had seen how arbitration had undermined Hollywood's studio-contract system, but the Angels' owner couldn't strike the right notes for his fellow owners, who overwhelmingly approved the process (with, ultimately, only the Cardinals' Gus Busch and Oakland's Charlie Finley voting nay).

Ever since, arbitration has been subtitled by the words uttered by Oakland pitcher Mike Norris on his way to his 1981 hearing: "I'll either wake up rich or richer."

Norris lost his hearing, so he had to settle for rich. He had that in common with the majority of players in the process' 35 years, with ownership bringing a 279-205 hearings record into the 2009 fray.

Something else Norris shared with most other arbitration losers: He did not let the negativity he heard in that room affect his performance, returning from his 22-win campaign of 1980 to go 12-9 in a 1981 season shortened two months by a players' strike.

Recent trends disprove the theory that being subjected to an arbitration hearing -- and to listening to a club barrister nitpick his game -- dents a player's confidence, leading to a psyched-out drop in performance.

However, the experience does tend to alienate them, with virtually every arbitration loser this century changing teams at the first opportunity as a free agent.

Of the 33 arbitration losers in 2001-08, only 10 suffered a significant drop in production from the season leading to the hearings to the ensuing season. The majority -- 17 -- sustained the same level, while six showed dramatic improvement.

Of the 18 arbitration losers who eventually became free agents while still with the clubs who had gotten the best of them in hearings, every one of them jumped to another team. Some of the most recent examples are All-Star closers Brian Fuentes and Francisco Rodriguez. Fuentes departed the Rockies for the Angels, while Rodriguez left the Angels for the Mets.

Of course, that could be a statistical aberration: Few free agents, regardless of circumstances, re-sign with their teams.

While no one except the participants knows what goes on behind the closed doors of the hearing room, an experienced voice says the procedure isn't nearly as contentious as perceived.

Tal Smith, the Astros' president of baseball operations who has long moonlighted as teams' "hired gun" in arbitration hearings, recently told the Philadelphia Inquirer that "stories of mudslinging are exaggerated."

"Contrary to what media and fans think, a hearing is rarely a demeaning or denigrating exercise. That's one of the great misunderstandings," Smith said.

Still, neither is it a warm social. Arguments, not pleasantries, are exchanged. The evidence suggests that players leave the room with an I'll-show-them attitude and hit the field doing just that.

Then, at the first chance, they walk out the door.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.