As the arbitration deadline approaches on Friday, Andrew Friedman and the Rays have some work to do. They were able to finalize the one deal that was really hanging over their heads, agreeing to a 1-year, 10.1125 million dollar contract with David Price, and they also agreed to a 1-year, 1 million dollar deal with Sean Rodriguez, but they have to reach agreements with four more players or else go to an arbitration hearing: outfielder Matt Joyce, infielder Ryan Roberts, right-hander Jeff Niemann, or outfielder Sam Fuld. Having that many players still not officially signed is not a predicament we’ve really seen the Rays fall into before, but the good news is that the toughest deal is already behind them and the rest are all still doable. Over the next couple of days, we’ll look at each of the four remaining cases individually and attempt to understand what the dilemma is for each case and how it can be solved. We’ll start today by looking at Joyce, who is arbitration-eligible for the first time.
Joyce, who turned 28 in August, is coming off a solid season for the Rays in 2012, managing a .241/.341/.429 line (116 OPS+) with 18 doubles, 17 homers, 59 RBI, and a 102-55 strikeout to walk ratio in 124 games and 462 plate appearances. Joyce got off to an unbelievable start, managing a .279/.387/.512 line (136 OPS+) with 11 home runs in 239 plate appearances between the start of the season and June 19th, but then an oblique strain landed him on the DL and he wasn’t the same after returning on July 17th, putting up only a .202/.291/.343 line (96 OPS+) with 6 home runs in his final 223 plate appearances of the year. Joyce’s uneven season came one year after his All-Star campaign of 2011, when he managed a .277/.347/.478 line (131 OPS+) with 32 doubles, 19 homers, 75 RBI, and 13 of 14 stolen bases. He also exhibited inconsistency that year, but even though he dropped off considerably after an unbelievable May where he hit .414 and wound up leading the AL in hitting for a time, he finished strong in August and September, managing a .274/.367/.425 line (126 OPS+). Overall in two full seasons in the major leagues (2011 and 2012), two partial seasons (2008 and 2010), and a spattering of games in 2009, Joyce has a .254/.344/.466 line (123 OPS+) with 82 doubles, 61 home runs, 214 RBI, and 20 of 28 stolen bases in 445 games and 1559 plate appearances. He has averaged 26 doubles, 20 home runs, 69 RBI, and 6 stolen bases per 500 PA’s. Joyce has been a streaky player, but his overall body of work has been very good compared to his peers, especially considering the ballpark he plays his home games in, the very pitcher-friendly Tropicana Field. But what do Joyce’s numbers mean for his arbitration case?
In an attempt to find comparable players for Joyce, I looked for players between the ages of 25 and 29 who managed 15 or more home runs and an OPS+ of 110 or higher while making 500 or fewer plate appearances in any of their first three major league seasons. Using that criteria, I was able to find three good comparables for Joyce: Casey McGehee, Seth Smith, and Garrett Jones, all of whom were arbitration-eligible for the first time last offseason. Here’s a quick table comparing the batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, OPS+, doubles, home runs, and RBI for each player up until their first arbitration-eligible season.
Based on the numbers above, who do you think got the most money among McGehee, Smith, and Jones? Assigning point values from 1 to 4 for each category, with higher being better, McGehee comes in at 15, Smith is at 22, and Jones is at 16 (Joyce leads the pack at 24). Based on that, you would have to assume Smith, right? But the obviously mitigating factor here is ballpark, as evidenced in OPS+. Smith and Jones are effectively tied at a 109 OPS+ despite Smith’s OPS being 61 points higher. How about we neutralize all the stats using Baseball-Reference’s Neutralized Batting tool and do this again? Here’s the new chart, with each player’s stats adjusted to what they would be if they played in a neutral American League park their entire careers.
After the re-score, Joyce blows away the competition at 29 out of possible 32 while McGehee comes in at 16, Smith dips to 17, and Jones comes away with the highest total at 18. So after all that analysis, who would you guess received the most money in arbitration? The conclusion seems to be that Jones got the most, then Smith, then McGehee. What was the real result? The exact opposite. McGehee received $2,537,500, Smith got $2,415,000, and Jones got $2,250,000. Why was that? The answer is that McGehee has the only 100 RBI season of anyone on this list, his 23-homer, 104-RBI campaign from back in 2010, his second pre-arbitration season. That tells you just about everything you need to know about forming an arbitration case: you take the hard numbers and then throw in whatever fluff helps your cause.
Without adjusting for park effects, Matt Joyce has a good arbitration case because he’s been a really good hitter the past couple of years and has the All-Star appearance as a feather in his cap. When you bring in the park effects, suddenly he looks like a star. Joyce’s argument has to be that he’s been one of the best outfielders in baseball and his numbers look even better when you factor in the extreme pitcher’s ballpark he plays in. Considering that he’s head and shoulders above the players to which we were trying to compare him, Joyce would likely ask for 3 million dollars from the Rays. If the case went to a hearing, the Rays would have to go against their usual analytical strategy and argue that Joyce doesn’t get paid for what his numbers should be but instead what they actually are and also explain how Joyce’s inconsistency hurts his overall value. They would try to get Joyce at the same value Smith received, 2.415 million dollars. Split the difference, and you get 2.71 million dollars (not too far off from the 2.6 million dollar salary Matt Schwartz’s projects for Joyce over at MLB Trade Rumors).
Getting that 2.7+ million dollars would be a nice paycheck for Joyce in his first time through arbitration, but his realistic floor deal is probably somewhere around what Smith received- 2.415 million dollars would still be a good salary- and his upside is that 3 million dollar figure, so it may be worth the risk for him to go for double or nothing with the $292,500 difference between each side and the mean and go for the hearing. I seriously doubt the Rays will let Joyce get that far. I expect that Joyce and the Rays to agree to a 2.8 million dollar contract for 2013 over the next couple of days, with the Rays giving Joyce some additional money above the halfway point between the two sides in exchange for avoiding a hearing and preventing things from getting too messy. This whole arbitration process is truly insane, but at the end of the day Joyce will be getting more properly compensated for the high level of play he has shown the last couple of years and the Rays will have their starting right or left fielder under contract in 2013 as he enters the prime of his career, so the process will be beneficial for everyone involved.