The deadline for teams to exchange figures with their arbitration-eligible players can be a contentious time. Luckily for the Tampa Bay Rays, all their hard work proved to be enough this offseason as they avoided hearings with all eight of their eligibles. What were the factors that led them to the salaries to which they agreed with their players?
We have already talked about Alex Cobb, Kevin Jepsen, John Jaso, and Drew Smyly, and you can find those here. Right now, we will discuss Rene Rivera, who received $1.2 million in his first time through arbitration as he enters his first season as the Rays’ starting catcher.
Rene Rivera’s arbitration case features an amusing irony. The Rays acquired Rivera because they believe his 2014 with the San Diego Padres represented a real breakthrough. However, even though they believe that is the case, they are quite happy to be paying him a rate far more indicative of his earlier performance as a journeyman backup.
In 2014, Rivera hit to a .252/.319/.432 line (117 OPS+) with 18 doubles, 11 homers, and 44 RBI in 329 plate appearances for the Padres. He did so while maintaining the great defense that had gotten him to the big leagues to begin with as DRS rated him 10 runs above-average and he was also considered a great pitch-framer.
Before that, though, Rivera had hit to just a .206/.241/.290 line (45 OPS+) in 344 plate appearances from 2004 to 2013. Nearly half of those PA’s happened when Rivera was between the ages of 20 and 22–he is 31 now–but they still had to be factored into Rivera’s arbitration case. The Rays are certainly OK with that because they don’t believe those stats have any bearing on the player Rivera is now yet those numbers saved them some money.
Here is how Rivera’s stats compare to those of previous catchers entering their first arbitration year.
When we glance at the table, a few patterns stand out. Better hitters usually move up the later, with only John Baker receiving a payout less than the median payout ($1.2 million) with an OPS+ over 90. Defense isn’t as important as we might think–it certainly helps Yadier Molina, but it didn’t stop guys like John Buck and Dioner Navarro.
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Finally, a player’s production in their last year before arbitration means a lot, with five of the top six earners posting at least at least a 2.0-WAR season. It is possible to overcome–Buck was able to get a nice payout despite his poor final season thanks to his gaudy homer and RBI totals–but there is a clear trend of players who recorded higher WARs receiving higher salaries. In fact, WAR is the best predictor of payout among the listed statistics.
There are other things to talk about (like DRS apparently mattering more in recent years), but let’s head straight to determining why Rivera’s payout ended up at $1.2 million. He did relatively poorly in five of the eight categories: plate appearances, OPS, OPS+, homers, and RBI. With that in mind, why was he able to receive the median salary nonetheless?
As it turns out, just four of the statistics on our table are significant predictors of payout: plate appearances, home runs, RBI, and WAR from the previous season. Rivera was .986 standard deviations below the mean for plate appearances, .528 below for homers, 1.005 below for RBI, and 1.244 SD’s above for WAR.
Average those numbers together and we get .32 standard deviations below the mean. As it turns out, Rene Rivera’s $1.2 million salary is .33 standard deviations below the mean. Doing that calculation requires one major assumption–that PA’s, homers, RBI, and WAR should be weighted equally.
That makes sense, though, when we see that every player but Rivera who recorded at least 2 WAR received a payout at least 1 standard deviation ($600,000) higher than Rivera. His WAR clearly helped him, but he was hurt by especially poor performance prior to last season and the fact that he had less plate appearances in his breakout than players like Jason Castro and Dioner Navarro.
Similar to what we currently think of Rene Rivera on the field, the arbitration process rewards Rivera for his breakthrough 2014 yet tempers his worth because one strong year cannot wash away everything that happened before. Luckily for Rivera, this is the end of such an evaluation process for him in arbitration–from the second time through the system onwards, players are only judged based on their most recent season.
Is Rene Rivera the player who was excellent for the San Diego Padres in 2014 or the player with the .637 career OPS who received just $1.2 million in arbitration? That will be one of the critical questions for the Tampa Bay Rays next season. They saved some money this year because of Rivera’s track record, but they would be more than happy to pony up a lot more if he can carry his success into 2015.