Feb 23, 2021 - Sports

How MLB salary arbitration works

Data: MLB, media reports; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios
Data: MLB, media reports; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

MLB's arbitration window has ended, closing the book on a strange part of the offseason that over-indexes on lawyers and sometimes leads to bad blood between player and club.

How it works: The process began in early December, hit another milestone in mid-January and finally ended this past Friday.

  • Non-tender deadline: By Dec. 2, teams had to decide whether to tender contract offers to their arbitration-eligible players (those with three to six years of service time, plus "Super Twos"). A record 59 players were non-tendered, immediately becoming free agents.
  • Arbitration deadline: By Jan. 15, players who were unhappy with the state of their negotiations could file for arbitration. Of the hundreds of players tendered contracts, just 13 failed to strike a deal.

Arbitration hearing: Both sides — usually represented by labor lawyers — present a salary number for the upcoming season, based on a combination of performance, intangibles, past compensation and current salaries for comparable players.

  • Process: First, the player's representative gets an hour to present its case. Then, a 15-minute break before the team gets an hour to do the same. Lastly, a 30-minute break to finalize counter-arguments before each side gets 30 minutes to present rebuttals.
  • Decision: After hearing the arguments, a panel of three independent arbitrators (also labor lawyers) has a day or two to deliberate and hand down its decision, which can be only the player's number or the team's, nothing in between.
  • Settling: Prior to the hearing — and in the day(s) between the hearing and ruling — the player and team can choose to settle. Historically, the team wins about 60% of the time.

Of note ... This was the first year since 2018 that a new arbitration record wasn't set. In 2019, Nolan Arenado won his case for $26 million; in 2020, Mookie Betts won his for $27 million.

  • Given how awkward these hearings can be — as the team's job is literally to point out the player's shortcomings — perhaps it's no coincidence that Arenado and Betts are no longer on those teams.
  • That's not to say arbitration is wholly evil. But it's worth considering how the process impacts the player-team relationship in the long run.

Go deeper: The wild, wonky world of salary arbitration (ESPN)

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