Saturday, February 7, 2009

Shawn, You're Not Worth a Hill of Beans

That's the kind of thing Shawn Hill had to listen to for about an hour from the Nationals yesterday in his arbitration hearing. "Shawn will never be able to stay healthy. Shawn's 5.83 ERA in 2008 was one of the worst of any starting pitcher in baseball. Bottom line, Shawn, you're lucky not to be bagging groceries."

Hill is the first player in all MLB to have his case go before an arbitration panel this year. The arbiters will listen to Hill's agent make the case for why Shawn doesn't suck, and then listen to the team explain why, yes, indeed, we believe he sucks sucks sucks. The arbiter will then decide whether Hill should earn the $775k he wants or the nearly minimum wage $500k that the team offered.

Last year there were only eight cases not to get settled before going all the way through the hearing process (the Nationals' Felipe Lopez was one). The teams won six of those cases, which is a typical winning percentage for the owner-slanted process.

Still, most teams prefer to settle with their players before taking their cases to the arbitration panel because it's often such a bad experience for the player. The risk is that the player becomes hard or impossible to resign as a free agent later, or you might even hurt his confidence so badly that it affects his performance in the short-term. (Remember, most of these players are physical marvels, not emotional or intellectual giants.)

Craig over at the excellent Marlins blog FishStripes, writing about Dan Uggla's scheduled hearing next week, explains why arbitration hearings are worth avoiding:
This is not good news. Maybe he has to go, I don't know. But this never works out for the best. Danny will sit in chair saying nothing while his agent makes his case and listen to the club running him down.

I remember running into an Astros' player in a place where they sold things like beer many years ago and we talked about going through the arbitration process. Years had passed since the hearings and he still vividly recalled sitting in the room during the process.

He relayed to me, basically, you go in there thinking it is just business but all you hear is the club talking about how sorry you are. He said, and I paraphrase, it was at least three-quarter of the year before he would even speak to a club official more than saying Hi.

Maybe the Marlins do it differently, I hope that they do. But even if they do, there is nothing positive about Uggla being in the room.
Going to arbitration with Hill I think is really a bad idea. First, the difference between Hill's number and the team's is just $275k. That's not much more than half the salary of a minimum wage player. If the team had just sat down and worked things out with him, they probably would have settled on a number somewhere in the middle, costing the team maybe $100-150k versus winning in arb.

Last year, of the eight teams that took players to arb hearings, only two were tight-fisted enough to do it over differences of less than $1.5 million. The Yankees took Chien-Ming Wang to arb over $600k, and then (you know where this is going) your Washington Nationals took Felipe Lopez to arb over a paltry $300k.

Now, I'm no FLop fan, but a reasonable case can be made that Lopez was unhappy here, that the arb hearing at least wasn't helpful, and that maybe things would have gone differently had we handled things better.

In Hill's case, the last thing we need is for him to enter the year with damaged confidence. He's always been known as a thoughtful guy who tends to beat himself up over every little thing. And I know he's been frustrating for fans, but just think what it's like for him going through surgery after surgery and rehab after rehab. Ultimately, Hill's still a pretty talented guy, with a power sinker that could make him a solid #3 or maybe even a 2. It's just not worth messing with his head or damaging your relationship with him over such chump change.

By the way, Hill should win. Five hundred thousand for a guy with three years of service time? C'mon. If he'd been ready, he'd have started on opening day last year. In 2007, he threw 97 innings of the most effective starting pitching of any Nationals pitcher not named Patterson since baseball returned to DC. And the team's spent a lot of time throwing around the word "ace" in reference to Hill (unfairly inflating expectations, BTW). The system is biased against players, so I'm not making predictions, but I really do hope the arbitrators side with Hill.

1 comment:

Brandon Heikoop said...

Great write-up.

Quick, off-topic question. I'm doing a series where I am asked authors of team specific blogs for input on my team-by-team previews. It will be a 5 questions type of thing and I'll give you a week or so heads up when you're "on the clock".

If you're interested, shoot me an email at