Since becoming a full-time starting pitcher, Milwaukee Brewers ace Corbin Burnes has been, by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, the single best pitcher in Major League Baseball. The 2021 National League Cy Young winner didn’t quite reach his 2021 heights last season, but with a sub-3 ERA and seventh-place Cy Young finish in a 202-inning campaign in 2022, that’s more a reflection of how strong his 2021 was than any shortcomings of his 2022.

Publicly, to their fans, the Milwaukee Brewers organization celebrates Burnes as the best player on their team and the best pitcher the organization has developed since at least Ben Sheets, and as the single best reason to show up to American Family Field every fifth game, at least until its proposed half a billion dollars in renovations kick in. Privately, for the most part, the higher-ups surely feel similarly–Corbin Burnes is the single best player on a team that, despite the team’s cost-cutting measures this off-season, still sees itself as a viable National League Central contender. But on Wednesday, the Milwaukee Brewers organization and Corbin Burnes as an individual stood in direct contrast with one another.

Burnes, who is scheduled to reach free agency following the 2024 season, attended a hearing for his second season of salary arbitration asking for a salary of $10.75 million for the 2023 season. And while $10.75 million is certainly a desirable salary for most people, it is well below what Corbin Burnes, by virtue of his performance and by virtue of the so-called market in which he operates, deserves. By the measure of the FanGraphs statistical measurements which had Burnes as a mild disappointment in 2022 and project him to be stronger in 2023, the Brewers ace would have been worth $36.5 million on the open market last season. In 2021, he was worth a staggering $59.7 million despite barely pitching enough innings to qualify for the National League ERA title.

Following a two-year stretch in which he was the best pitcher in baseball, and entering a season in which ZiPS projects him to be the best pitcher in baseball, Corbin Burnes asked to be paid less than what the New York Yankees are paying Aaron Hicks, a salary which would put him outside the 100 highest paid players in the sport. The Milwaukee Brewers refused, and a panel of arbitrators sided with the Brewers’ offer to pay Burnes $10.01 million. From a player perspective, the loss of salary is probably not life-altering, but this is even more true for the team itself–the two sides disagreed on Burnes’s worth by just a hair more than Major League Baseball’s minimum salary.

There has been a conscious effort in baseball analysis over the last several years to give more focus to the player perspective–such analysis has historically been centered around the perspective of a front office, as the front office is a logical proxy for fans, most of whom care more about a team than individual players (note that this website is called St. Louis Bullpen and not Giovanny Gallegos Bullpen). But in most cases, it makes sense to explore the perspective of both parties. For Burnes, his motivation is simple and understandable–make the most money he can. For the Brewers, the motivation is similar, but since they, even as one of the less valuable MLB teams, are operating on a much larger scale than Burnes, caring about an additional $740,000 comes across as considerably more petty. I suppose I can understand how, even for a billion dollar enterprise, it’s better to have an additional $740,000 than to not, but the savings came at an intangible but very real cost–Burnes has reported that his relationship with the Brewers has soured as a result of the hearing, and that the hearing included the team assigning Burnes at least some of the blame for the team’s lack of postseason appearance last season.

Claiming that the Brewers did not make the postseason last season because of Burnes’s shortcomings is fairly ludicrous–I suppose if Burnes had been 1985 Doc Gooden instead of the very good-to-great pitcher he was, that might have done the trick, but he was certainly not the reason that the Brewers fell short. But in the context of this arbitration hearing, it made sense for the Brewers to pretend he was. But if the hearing alienates Burnes, this would almost certainly make it less likely that the team could successfully extend Burnes before he reaches free agency, and this animosity could spread to Burnes’s teammates. This does not mean that I expect the Brewers or any other team to hand arbitration-eligible players a blank check–had Corbin Burnes demanded $50 million, I would fully understand the Brewers aiming lower. But is $740,000 worth it?

Arbitration hearings used to be relatively rare–they existed as a last resort, with teams and players hoping to reach agreements on one-year contracts prior to them–but in 2023, thirty-three such hearings took place or will take place. The salary arbitration process, which occurs from a player’s fourth to sixth seasons of MLB service time, generally represents a major bump in paychecks for players previously accustomed to earning the league minimum, but the figures are almost always a fraction of what players could earn on an open market. Had Corbin Burnes, for instance, been a free agent rather than an arbitration-eligible player, he would have thirty teams competing for his services–maybe he really likes cheese curds and Spotted Cow (and really, who doesn’t?) and wants to stay in Milwaukee badly, but at the absolute bare minimum, that he could field offers from the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York’s heavy-spending baseball teams that would act as leverage. In arbitration, the Brewers are competing with nobody, and the salaries being presented are based not on what the open market would dictate (if Burnes would agree to a one-year contract, I suspect he would fetch somewhere in the forties of millions but he would certainly at least double or triple what he will make on a one-year contract with the Brewers) but rather on precedent for arbitration.

Mercifully, the St. Louis Cardinals do not have any arbitration hearings this season of the magnitude of Burnes, but they do still have two of them–Ryan Helsley and Génesis Cabrera. As far as Cabrera, who had a rough 2022 season, the gap is comically small–Cabrera wants $1.15 million while the Cardinals want to pay him $950,000–but ultimately it is unlikely that the Cardinals might otherwise try to extend the inconsistent lefty–he is the kind of pitcher, for better or worse, that teams tend to keep around on a year-to-year basis while they’re effective and then easily replace. But Ryan Helsley, who had a 1.25 ERA and was a 2022 All-Star, could be a reasonable extension candidate–yes, signing a reliever is risky, but given that he is three seasons away from free agency, the team could reasonably expect to sign him to a below-market extension not because Helsley is an idiot who doesn’t understand his worth, but because he does understand the risks of his career as a small-sample-size relief pitcher who could wind up making enough money to set him up for the rest of his life with a couple strokes of the pen. Even if the Cardinals don’t want to extend a relief pitcher, Helsley surely figures to have a major role with the team in 2023.

Instead, the Cardinals offered Ryan Helsley $2.15 million while Helsley requested $3 million. This gap is larger, by raw dollars and especially by percentage, than the Brewers and Corbin Burnes, so on that level, I can understand the team’s perspective to fight a little bit more. But Ryan Helsley is also coming off a season where he was worth $15.8 million. Even in 2021, which was widely considered a disappointment, FanGraphs deemed the reliever to be worth $2.3 million. Helsley’s request, in a logical market, would not be considered audacious–it is an identical contract to what the Oakland Athletics, presently as thrifty of an organization as exists in the sport, paid Jesús Aguilar, a defensive liability first baseman/designated hitter coming off a below-average offensive season when he was worth a full win below replacement level. Ultimately, the Cardinals decided it was worth fighting over not giving this money to a player who proved to be such a sensation in 2022 that, in the midst of Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina retirement-palooza, they still gave him a flashy, AC/DC-scored entrance.

Teams do this because they do not seen the upside in conceding to players–this is the league, after all, that once distributed a championship belt to whichever team “won” arbitration the most. This was the logical extension of hyper-worship of analytics–the part where teams prioritized batters who got on base and pitchers who struck out batters is sensible and essentially a zero-sum game from a player perspective (whatever money didn’t go to Dante Bichette instead went to Scott Hatteberg, but it doesn’t inherently cost the players as a collective anything), but boiling players down exclusively to their statistics is a grave mistake. I don’t know, and I likely never will know, what was said at Ryan Helsley’s arbitration hearing, but I do know that if I were part of a salary negotiation in which my employer repeatedly noted the lowest points of my professional career, my personal equivalents to Helsley’s Game 1 Wild Card collapse or his less accomplished MLB seasons, it would crush my confidence. Maybe Helsley has the mental toughness to completely tune that out, but it certainly seems like a risk not worth taking. Taking out an insurance policy to avoid that risk for under a million dollars would seemingly make sense for an organization as addicted to the low-ceiling, high-floor lifestyle as the St. Louis Cardinals.

The team-focused fan perspective is not some inherently evil one. If you are a Cardinals fan who didn’t want to trade for Juan Soto because you believe that holding on to a strong collection of young prospects is a superior method of team-building (and the salary cost of Soto, while well below his market value, still likely would have boxed the Cardinals out from Willson Contreras, even if by their own design), that’s a valid concern. If you didn’t want the Cardinals to sign Contreras not because you care how much money Bill DeWitt Jr. has but because you think the Cardinals could have spent the money in other ways to make the team better, I don’t agree but it’s not some disgusting stance to take. But when we’re talking about less than a million dollars in the middle of February, after just about any free agent worth signing is off the market, the Cardinals “winning” their arbitration case is not actually benefiting anybody but their own bottom line. Hopefully, for all parties involved (including myself, as a Cardinals fan, selfishly), the Ryan Helsley arbitration hearing is not some sort of relationship crusher, but to even reach that point is an unforced error, and that it is such a common one across the industry does not change that.

One thought on “The time for rooting against your favorite team

  1. The argument I see for teams going to arbitration over piddling (to them) sums is that giving in once raises the baseline for all the future players. Burnes was supposedly using the 10.01 million Shane Bieber got last year as the basis for asking for 10.75, and if he got it, then the next good young pitcher in arbitration uses that as a springboard, and the owners don’t want that. Presumably Helsley getting 3 million would have done the same for relievers. When boiled down, it’s still about the owners keeping the money in their hands, rather than those of the folks people actually come to game to see.

    The other argument I’ve seen on Brewers fan site is they know they won’t shell out to re-sign Burnes long-term, so it doesn’t matter if they piss him off. As you alluded to, the same is certainly true of the Cardinals and Cabrera, and possibly Helsley. Doesn’t seem like the sort of thing to foster a winning atmosphere (assuming the teams actually care about winning something other than that salary-depressing title belt.)


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