“Bullpenning” creates a serious labor issue

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Last year, we devoted some space here to talking about “bullpenning.” I believe the term was coined by MLB Network’s Brian Kenny, who has been a very outspoken proponent of the strategy. Aside from the occasional “bullpen day,” we haven’t really seen teams give “bullpenning” a shot, so we don’t have much data to work with to say whether or not it’s a viable strategy.

The Rays made some headlines early this season, suggesting the club might use a four-man rotation all year. The Rays also made headlines over the weekend, choosing to start reliever Sergio Romo on back-to-back days against the Angels. That rankled Angels third baseman Zack Cozart, who said the Rays’ strategy is “bad for baseball.” The Rays’ thinking on Saturday was that the righty-heavy top of the Angels’ lineup was threatening for lefty starter Ryan Yarbrough, so having Romo start the first inning before handing the ball off to Yarbrough would prevent him from facing those right-handed hitters three times in a normal-length start.

Despite Cozart’s displeasure with the strategy, Romo is a fan of it:

In discussing the issue last night, I tried to imagine how Cozart’s claim holds up and came up empty. The strategy makes sense in a vacuum and, as SB Nation’s DRaysBay points out on Twitter, the strategy hasn’t led to overuse.

However, one problem that has often been overlooked when discussing “bullpenning” is the inevitable labor issue. Right now, starting pitchers make significantly more money than relief pitchers. In December 2016, Aroldis Chapman eviscerated the previous record contract for a reliever when he signed a five-year, $86 million deal with the Yankees. That doesn’t even crack the top-85 on the list of the most lucrative contracts in baseball history, per Cot’s Contracts. The largest contract by a starting pitcher was the seven-year, $217 million contract David Price signed with the Red Sox in December 2015. If you’re a pitcher and you want to make money, you should try to become a starter.

Teams will use whatever information they can to avoid having to pay a player more money. We see this when major league-ready players are held down in the minors longer than necessary, we see it when players go to arbitration, and we see it when free agents try to land contracts. On every stat-tracking site, there’s a column for pitchers labeled “GS” for games started. Right now, Yarbrough’s column has a three in it. He has appeared in 11 total games. He was effectively a starter on Saturday despite Romo getting credit for the start since he went 6 1/3 innings against the Angels, but he didn’t get the additional bump in the GS column, which has the potential to depress his salary throughout his career. Yarbrough has effectively “started,” lasting at least four innings in eight of those 11 games. But Andrew Kittredge got credit for the start several times, going two innings ahead of Yarbrough in a few of those games.

Yarbrough, a rookie, will have his contract automatically renewed by the Rays until he becomes eligible for salary arbitration. Until he reaches arbitration eligibility, the Rays will get to set his salary at whatever figure they want as long as it meets the major league minimum ($555,000 next year). Sometimes players perform well enough that the teams willingly choose to pay them more as a good will gesture, but usually teams hover at or just slightly above the minimum. Then Yarbrough will move into potential salary arbitration with the Rays in a few years. Should the two sides not reach an agreement in any of those three years, they will go before an independent arbitrator, who will hear arguments from Yarbrough’s agent and representatives for the Rays. The Rays will use statistics to argue that Yarbrough isn’t worth what he’s asking for. They will likely use the smaller number in the “GS” column, among other numbers, to do so. This would be the case for any player, particularly a younger player, who gets used in the “bullpenning” strategy.

Each previous salary becomes a jumping-off point for the next salary. Let’s say that Yarbrough filed for $6 million, the Rays countered at $3 million, and the arbitrator sided with the Rays. (Historically, arbitrators have tended to side with teams.) The next year that Yarbrough goes to arbitration, he’s arguing for a raise off of $3 million instead of $6 million. If Yarbrough had earned $6 million the previous year, it would be reasonable that he might request $10 million the next year. But if he requests $10 million after earning just $3 million, it seems less reasonable. These numbers are intentionally disparate, by the way. Usually the difference in figures filed is only in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Take Marcus Stroman as an example. He won his arbitration case with the Blue Jays going into the 2017 season, filing for $3.4 million against the Jays’ $3.1 million. He had a career year in 2017, finishing with a 3.09 ERA  in 33 starts. Stroman still lost his salary arbitration case heading into this season, filing for $6.9 million against the Jays’ $6.5 million.

If there’s any doubt that the Rays would fight tooth-and-nail to save a few hundred thousand bucks, consider that the Rays receive money both from revenue sharing and from BAMTech, a 33 percent share of which was sold to Disney in 2016 for $1 billion. Disney then bought a controlling share in BAMTech last August for $1.58 billion. As Craig mentioned at the time, that netted every owner about $68 million. And baseball’s 30 owners will continue to make more money off of BAMTech from their minority share. Yet the Rays’ Opening Day payroll has never topped $77 million. The club is often characterized as small-market and it’s relatively true, but it could have been out trying to sign big name free agents in recent years. Principal owner Stuart Sternberg has just chosen not to in an effort to maximize profits.

The solution to this labor issue shouldn’t be to prevent teams from utilizing strategies like “bullpenning.” We should seek to change the way we value players both systemically and statistically. If teams are artificially depressing important statistics for players — “games started” isn’t the only one; teams have also prevented their players from meeting performance bonuses (often based on appearances and/or innings pitched) in their contracts — then we need to amend the rules so that players don’t get the short end of the stick. This can’t be addressed until negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement. The current CBA expires on December 1, 2021. Hypothetically, the change made could be wholesale, but realistically, the change would need to be incremental, perhaps saying that a player’s playing time, amount of starts made, and other similar statistics can’t be held against him in arbitration since that’s almost entirely up to the team based on its personnel and other incentives. As for affecting change in how we value players statistically, that’s both a structural issue involving front offices and a social issue involving members of the media and fans. Batting average versus on-base percentage is a great example of this type of change, both structurally and socially.

We shouldn’t want to prevent teams from optimizing strategy since, in a vacuum, that’s healthy for the game. Having a stale “metagame” means the game is boring and figured out. Teams utilizing new strategies keeps the game fresh and interesting. Unfortunately, “bullpenning” represents an intersection of labor and strategy. It’s a serious issue the Major League Baseball Players Association should be keeping an eye on and working to solve.

Texas Rangers ink free-agent ace Jacob deGrom to 5-year deal

Jacob deGrom
USA Today
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ARLINGTON, Texas — Jacob deGrom is headed to the free-spending Texas Rangers, who believe the health risk is worth the potential reward in trying to end a six-year run of losing.

The two-time Cy Young Award winner agreed to a $185 million, five-year contract Friday, leaving the New York Mets after nine seasons – the past two shortened substantially by injuries.

“We acknowledge the risk, but we also acknowledge that in order to get great players, there is a risk and a cost associated with that,” Rangers general manager Chris Young said. “And one we feel like is worth taking with a player of Jacob’s caliber.”

Texas announced the signing after the 34-year-old deGrom passed his physical. A person with direct knowledge of the deal disclosed the financial terms to The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the club did not announce those details.

The Rangers were also big spenders in free agency last offseason, signing shortstop Corey Seager ($325 million, 10 years) and second baseman Marcus Semien ($175 million, seven years).

The team said deGrom will be introduced in a news conference at Globe Life Field next week following the winter meetings in San Diego.

“It fits in so many ways in terms of what we need,” Young said. “He’s a tremendous person. I have a number of close friends and teammates who played with Jacob and love him. I think he’s going to be just a perfect fit for our clubhouse and our fans.”

Texas had modest expectations after adding Seager, Semien and starter Jon Gray ($56 million, four years) last offseason but still fell short of them.

The Rangers went 68-94, firing manager Chris Woodward during the season, and then hired Bruce Bochy, a three-time World Series champion with San Francisco. Texas’ six straight losing seasons are its worst skid since the franchise moved from Washington in 1972.

Rangers owner Ray Davis said the club wouldn’t hesitate to keep adding payroll. Including the $19.65 million qualifying offer accepted by Martin Perez, the team’s best pitcher last season, the Rangers have spent nearly $761 million in free agency over the past year.

“I hate losing, but I think there’s one person in our organization who hates losing worse than me, and I think it’s Ray Davis,” Young said. “He’s tired of losing. I’m tired of losing. Our organization is tired of losing.”

After making his first start in early August last season, deGrom went 5-4 with a 3.08 ERA in 11 outings. He helped the Mets reach the playoffs, then passed up a $30.5 million salary for 2023 and opted out of his contract to become a free agent for the first time.

That ended his deal with the Mets at $107 million over four years, and deGrom rejected their $19.65 million qualifying offer in November. New York will receive draft-pick compensation for losing him.

The fan favorite becomes the latest in a long line of ace pitchers to leave the Mets for one reason or another, including Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and David Cone.

The Rangers visit Citi Field from Aug. 28-30.

When healthy, deGrom is perhaps baseball’s most dominant pitcher. His 2.52 career ERA ranks third in the expansion era (since 1961) behind Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw (2.48) and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax (2.19) among those with at least 200 starts.

The right-hander is 4-1 with a 2.90 ERA in five career postseason starts, including a win over San Diego in the wild-card round this year that extended the Mets’ season. New York was eliminated the next night.

A four-time All-Star and the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year, deGrom was a ninth-round draft pick by the Mets in 2010 out of Stetson, where he played shortstop before moving to the mound. He was slowed by Tommy John surgery early in his career and didn’t reach the majors until age 26.

Once he arrived, though, he blossomed. He helped the Mets reach the 2015 World Series and earn a 2016 playoff berth before winning consecutive NL Cy Young Awards in 2018 and 2019.

But injuries to his elbow, forearm and shoulder blade have limited him to 26 starts over the past two seasons. He compiled a career-low 1.08 ERA over 92 innings in 2021, but did not pitch after July 7 that year because of arm trouble.

DeGrom is 82-57 with 1,607 strikeouts in 1,326 innings over nine big league seasons. He gets $30 million next year, $40 million in 2024 and 2025, $38 million in 2026 and $37 million in 2027. The deal includes a conditional option for 2028 with no guaranteed money.

The addition of deGrom gives the Rangers three proven starters along with Gray and Perez, who went 12-8 with a career-best 2.89 ERA in his return to the team that signed him as a teenager out of Venezuela. Young didn’t rule out the addition of another starter.

With several holes on their starting staff, the Mets have shown interest in free agents Justin Verlander and Carlos Rodon to pair with 38-year-old Max Scherzer atop the rotation.

Now, with deGrom gone, signing one of those two could become a much bigger priority.