Betances arbitration decision par for the course

February 18th, 2017

TAMPA, Fla. -- Randy Levine's remarks were rough. But they weren't incorrect.

The Yankees president had a barn-burner of a conference call with reporters Saturday about ' arbitration hearing, and Betances would later indicate he was as at least as upset about Levine's public comments as he was about the hearing's result, in which a three-person arbitration panel ruled he will receive the $3 million the Yanks were offering him for 2017, as opposed to the $5 million he was requesting.

Forceful and frustrated, Levine accused Betances' Excel Sports agents, fronted by Jim Murray, of having "very little sense of reality" and of making a "half-baked attempt" to undo decades of arbitration precedent. He painted Betances as a "victim" of his agents' overreach.

"For him to say that, he doesn't know how I feel," Betances told reporters soon thereafter. "Why don't you come talk to me and see how I feel?"

Yankees defeat Betances in arbitration case

So now there's a rift here at Yankees camp, as the club's remarkably durable and effective late-inning reliever questions whether, perhaps, he ought to be a little less agreeable with regard to taking the ball anytime, anyplace. It is the unfortunate byproduct of a contentious but sometimes necessary process in the business of baseball, and it opens the door to plenty of scrutiny and speculation about what the immediate and long-term future might hold for this particular pairing.

But while we can certainly sympathize with Betances' disappointment and can certainly question whether it was wise of Levine to take this spat from the arbitration room to a public platform, when you get down to the gist of what Levine was saying, his argument was accurate. 

And that argument speaks to an issue this industry is grappling with as bullpens gain prominence and roles within those 'pens evolve.

Betances got caught square in the middle of that evolution.

Levine was right in asserting that Betances' agents had submitted a salary request commensurate with a closer.

"It's like me saying, 'I'm not the president of the Yankees, I'm an astronaut,'" Levine said. "I'm not an astronaut, and Dellin Betances is not a closer."

This is a comical exaggeration, because Betances has closed on more days than Levine has spent in a spacesuit. But the basic point does pass the smell test. Because the Yanks expended big resources to bring in before the 2015 season and each of the past two offseasons, Betances, despite his clear closing potential, is, in fact, not a closer.

No matter what the rest of us think about the value of sterling setup men in today's game, and no matter how much free agency is proving that the industry, at large, values them tremendously, the arbitration process has not yet caught up to that reality.

That's why Saturday's result was not terribly surprising.

Betances was eligible for arbitration for the very first time, and Levine went to great lengths to emphasize that the $3 million he'll make this year is the largest commitment ever bestowed upon a first-time arbitration-eligible setup man.

"There's a defined market for relief pitchers," Levine said. "Elite closers get 'X' amount. The top. Then there's a curve. It goes down. It's based principally on the ninth inning and saves. Dellin was great, but he doesn't have the statistics in the ninth inning or the saves. At the end of the day, it's obvious he was not getting $5 million, unless it was a fluke."

Again, rough.

But not incorrect.

On the one hand, you can't fault Murray and Co. for reaching, because Betances -- having averaged 72 appearances and 82 innings with a 1.93 ERA over the past three seasons -- is a very special case at a time when the game is clearly changing. There is something to be said for forcing the issue, for pushing the process so that others with Betances-like circumstances might benefit down the line.

The "losing" sum of $3 million will do just that, because now there is a new precedent in the books. The next guy in Betances' shoes will be able to use that mark as a baseline.

But that's the point. Precedent rules all in arbitration. It's a fundamentally different process than free agency. And while you and I and most people who watch baseball know Betances has proven himself as worthy of $5 million -- at a minimum -- were he available in the open market right now, he's simply not. He is a cog in a judicial system that builds off the beaten path.

Had the unlikely happened, had Betances won his case and been awarded $5 million, he would have had a salary similar to what ($5.6 million) earned in his first round of arbitration with the Cardinals last year.

Rosenthal had 96 saves at that point in his career. Betances has 22.

More modern-minded readers just cringed at saves being cited, but that, for better or worse, is still how it works in arbitration. Miller, who then had zero career saves to his name, made $1.9 million in his final year of arbitration-eligibility (2014). Then he hit the open market the following offseason, and the Yankees gave him an average annual value of $9 million (and even that has proven to be an underpayment).

Evolution will address this issue. We're getting smarter about how to calculate the value of a particular pitcher in ways that go well beyond wins and saves. Miller's postseason performance for the Indians in 2016 was a vivid illustration of the value of the high-leverage reliever.

But the legal process -- and that's what arbitration is -- progresses far less rapidly than the sport itself.

Betances learned that the hard way.

The problem the Yankees must face now is the fallout of this now-public fight. Betances kept saying he has to be "smarter" about how much work he takes on, and he indicated that if the Yanks only value him as an eighth-inning guy, well, maybe that's what he ought to be.

"Is it selfish for me to say now, 'Hey guys, I just want to come in for the eighth inning with no runners on all the time?'" Betances asked aloud. "That's not the player I am. I try to battle for my teammates all that time. But when you go in that room and see all this stuff, do you put yourself at that risk all the time?"

Yet another example of rough, but not incorrect.