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Hader denied arb history as Brewers prevail

Southpaw will make $4.1 million in '20 after filing at $6.4 million
@AdamMcCalvy
February 14, 2020

PHOENIX -- Josh Hader’s arbitration case was going to be interesting no matter the outcome, because there haven’t been many relief pitchers like Hader in the history of baseball. A panel of judges on Friday ruled against Hader, who will earn $4.1 million from the Brewers in 2020 instead of

PHOENIX -- Josh Hader’s arbitration case was going to be interesting no matter the outcome, because there haven’t been many relief pitchers like Hader in the history of baseball.

A panel of judges on Friday ruled against Hader, who will earn $4.1 million from the Brewers in 2020 instead of the $6.4 million he had sought. Even in a “loss,” Hader gets a 496 percent raise from the $687,600 he earned last season. But the 25-year-old left-hander didn’t hide his frustration with an arbitration system that emphasized saves at the expense of other methods of evaluating relievers.

“We definitely knew that we were the underdogs going into it,” Hader said. “But it’s something that needs to be put out there: Baseball’s always changing, and we’re at a point now that we’re continuing to change, and I think the system needs to change with that. You can see it in baseball now -- a lot of relievers aren’t in certain roles that they once were.”

Salary arbitration, explained

Hader is one of those relievers, a multi-inning weapon who has been deployed in the Brewers’ biggest moments for more than two years, but one who didn’t slide into a traditional “closer” role until last season. Even then, the team’s tendency to use Hader in multi-inning stints, often with multiple days off in between, meant he finished 2019 with a relatively modest number of saves -- 37 -- in a season that was otherwise one of the best in history for a reliever.

That made Hader a tricky case when he qualified for the murky and often misunderstood world of arbitration, which compensates players based on comparisons to players past. Hader narrowly made the cut as a Super Two player -- a designation for players who accrue less than the three years of required service time to reach arbitration.

On one hand, Hader is putting up record numbers. Among pitchers who have logged at least 200 career innings, Hader has the best strikeout rate (44.6 percent) and WHIP (0.85) in Major League history. He has won the Trevor Hoffman Award each of the past two seasons, an honor presented to the National League’s best reliever. Hader has been a National League All-Star each of the past two years. And when Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns was asked about Hader in December at the Winter Meetings, Stearns said, “We consider him the best reliever in baseball right now.”

Hader’s representatives at CAA Sports thus sought what would have been a record-setting salary for a first-time arbitration-eligible reliever. Had he prevailed, Hader would have topped Jonathan Papelbon’s $6.25 million salary from the Red Sox for 2009, thereby setting a precedent for future relievers.

On the other hand, the Brewers’ unique use of Hader over the past three seasons means that he lags in one critical category: Saves. While teams and players have amended their thinking about the value of saves and the definition of “high-leverage,” save totals are key in arbitration. Papelbon had 113 career saves when he signed his record-setting deal. Hader has 49 saves so far.

So the Brewers were able to successfully argue for a lower salary. It matched the $4.1 million settlement between then-closer Jeurys Familia and the Mets before the 2016 season, which set a record for the highest salary for a reliever with one full season as a closer. That’s one clear comp to Hader, and here’s another: At the time, Familia had 49 career saves.

It’s likely that all of that evidence was presented to the arbitrators when each side made its case Thursday in Phoenix, though there is no way for the public to know for sure. Arbitration hearings are conducted in private, and when arbitrators make their decisions, they choose one figure or the other without explanation.

“I think we’re both focused on what’s happening on the field rather than what’s happening in an arbitration hearing,” said Stearns, who spoke with Hader on Thursday night while the sides awaited a ruling. “We’re very aligned with that. Josh said he wants to help us win a World Series, and I’m all on board with that.”

The process probably rankled both sides at various stages. It was bad luck for the Brewers that the threshold for Super Two status was significantly lower than usual this year, allowing Hader to qualify at the exact cutoff: Two years and 115 days. And for Hader, he may have paid a price via depressed save totals for buying into the Brewers’ creative usage.

“I think what Josh is most focused on is helping the team win, and that’s what he’s always been most focused on,” Stearns said. “He’s performed at an exceptionally high level and we believe that was recognized in the salary that was awarded to him, and I think he’s fairly focused on continuing to perform at that high level.”

One important factor to note: Hader’s Super Two status does not affect the control that the club retains on him, which is for four more years through the 2023 season. Friday’s ruling also gives the Brewers more financial clarity over how much they might have to pay Hader over that period.

“I think the system’s just outdated on how we’re used,” Hader said. “But when it comes down to playing in a game, I’m out there to compete and win ballgames.”

The Brewers have one more arbitration hearing remaining, with left-hander Brent Suter, next week.

Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram and like him on Facebook.