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?
This is our sixth piece in this eight-part series, and you can find the rest here. Today we’ll discuss the Rays’ breakout reliever from last season, Jake McGee, and the $3.55 million he received in arbitration.
Jake McGee was thought to have a chance at the Tampa Bay Rays’ closer job as far back as in 2011. It took a while as 2011 was a struggle, 2012 came in front of Fernando Rodney, and 2013 got off to a terrible start. However, after Grant Balfour fell apart in 2014, the role became McGee’s and he ran with it.
In 73 appearances, McGee went 5-2 with a 1.89 ERA, an 11.4 K/9, a 2.0 BB/9, a 0.3 HR/9, and 19 saves in 71.1 innings pitched. Simply put, he became one of the best relievers in baseball. How did McGee’s numbers compare to those of his peers? Let’s find out.
McGee had an annoying combination of saves and holds that made it difficult to find good comparables. There are plenty of guys with similar ERAs, but most of them either have too many saves, too few high-leverage innings, or much worse peripherals. In addition, when teams find good relievers, they often extend them, getting rid of even more potential arbitration cases that could have been cited.
Luckily, we don’t have to do any real statistical analysis here because McGee has two extremely similar pitchers on this table: David Robertson and George Sherrill. Robertson had an identical ERA+ while Sherrill had an extremely similar combination of saves and holds.
Comparing Robertson to McGee, it seems a little bit puzzling that Robertson got more money considering he had so many less saves. If we know nothing else about the arbitration process off the top of our heads, we know that saves pay quite well. On the other hand, though, when you are labeled as a closer, your competition is much stiffer.
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Robertson was able to get a $2.115 million raise because he was (at least from one perspective) the best setup reliever in baseball. His 33 holds in 2013 were tied with Tyler Clippard for second in baseball to Joel Peralta. More importantly, nobody within 5 holds of him had an ERA even close to his 2.04 mark–Clippard was the nearest at 2.41. Robertson was king of the small pond that is the setup men, and he was compensated well for that.
McGee, meanwhile, was an excellent reliever in 2014, but he can’t claim that he was the best closer, nor the best setup man. If we look at saves and holds (which are overly important in arbitration), he was well below-average in both! McGee is stuck, just like Sherrill was before him, and that cost him quite a bit of cash.
Look at Sherrill and Matt Guerrier–Guerrier’s ERA, ERA+, and FIP were all markedly inferior yet he received just $125,000 less in the same year. Clippard and Eric O’Flaherty have since had worse ERAs and peripherals yet passed him. Saves count for a lot if you can get enough of them, but neither Sherrill nor McGee was able to reach that point.
Luckily for Jake McGee, his peripherals were impressive enough that he was able to make up for it. His ERA+ was the same as Robertson’s, and his xFIP just barely edged him (2.58 to 2.60). That $15,000 short of Robertson may have cost McGee some pride, but he was effectively able to get the same money. Now he will hope to enter the the realm of the closers–and the additional compensation that comes with it–in 2015.
McGee’s year is off to a rough start after arthroscopic elbow surgery, but he is already ahead of his recovery timetable and could return to the big leagues as early as mid-April. When he does, his closer job will be waiting for him, and the Rays will look forward to seeing what he can do in his first full season in the role.