Before arbitration figures were exchanged almost two weeks ago, I thought the arbitration case of Gerardo Parra was unique and uncommonly interesting — there isn’t a modern arbitration precedent for an outstanding defensive player in right field. It has been interesting thus far, with the Diamondbacks filing a number that was actually higher than the $4.2M projection of Matt Swartz of MLB Trade Rumors.

But it may be Mark Trumbo’s case that ends up being the more interesting of the two. Trumbo’s $5.85M figure was well over $2M more than the D-backs’ $3.4M number, a gap that was third-largest in MLB in terms of dollars (fifth-largest by percentage). Swartz’s projection was $4.7M, so Trumbo is closer, if not by much. That may embolden Trumbo to actually go to arbitration — if they elect to buy him out of his arbitration bet, the D-backs may need to meet him more than halfway.

At the beginning of last week, I suggested that in Trumbo, the club “isn’t necessarily getting a boatload of production — they’re just getting the expensive kind.” And it’s true that Trumbo’s resume features the counting stats (HR, RBI, etc.) that traditionally get rewarded in the arbitration process. Freddie Freeman (almost the same amount of service time) was a better hitter than Trumbo in 2013 — he created runs at a clip 50% above average (wRC+ 150 to Trumbo’s 106).  But Freeman’s career RBI (280) and HR (68) don’t match Trumbo’s totals (284 RBI, 95 HR), and while Freeman asked for a Trumbo-esque $5.75M, the Braves countered at $4.5M. So what is the D-backs front office thinking?

I think there’s a method to their madness, especially in light of the Parra strategy. They clearly think that the arbitration process is more than ministerial — they think an arbitrator will be swayed by the unusual aspects of both cases. I applaud them for that.

Freeman is a slightly better comparison to Trumbo than I realized — it looks like Trumbo is the better first baseman, and Trumbo’s overall defensive numbers are better than Freeman’s, which are pretty bad (although Freeman was average-ish in 2013). They’re both “run producers.” But gee whiz, that 150-to-106 discrepancy in wRC+ is enormous. It’s a dropoff much bigger than that from Aaron Hill (124 wRC+) to Gerardo Parra (96 wRC+). Yes, Trumbo has the counting stats. But in the arbitration figures filed on January 17, we saw the D-backs bet on being able to make the arbitrator see past the home runs.

Keep in mind that we’re not talking about a mere $2.45M here — that’s a platform from which Trumbo’s subsequent arbitration salaries will be raised. I think that effect is proportional, with the discrepancy growing year to year, but I could be wrong (there’s no way to know for sure). Even if the discrepancy remained stable, we’d be talking about $7M or so (in D-backs terms, “Putz money”).

Seems like I enjoy reading tea leaves when it comes to arb negotiations, but I think what happened here is that the club made its expectations clear to Trumbo before the filing deadline. Maybe they even dusted off the old Mark Reynolds file — although Reynolds did get $5,333,333 in what would have been his first year of arbitration, the Orioles non-tendered him after he made $7.5M the next year, adjudging him not worth $11M (club option amount), but also not worth $9M or so (Swartz had him at $8.9 in arbitration if the option was declined). And before you say Trumbo is better than Reynolds, keep in mind that Reynolds signed that deal before the 2010 season (with a year to go before arbitration eligibility), coming off a 44 HR, 127 wRC+ campaign that is a fair sight better than any of Trumbo’s three seasons. If a free agent Trumbo would be worth just $9M or so (and the Reynolds history makes that seem possible), why would he be awarded more than half that amount in his first year of arbitration?

My initial reaction to the Trumbo trade was that it was terrible, in part because it was a bad move value for value, in part because Trumbo has been a below-average major league position player, and in part because Trumbo’s skills happen to be the expensive kind, and money could be better spent elsewhere. I haven’t learned anything new to move me from that position, but if the D-backs were planning to take this tack with Trumbo all along, the trade makes a bit more sense.

The D-backs may have informed his representatives that they thought the Swartz projection was unrealistic for Trumbo, drawing a line in the sand. If Trumbo’s team then felt fairly certain that the D-backs would put this big a cushion between themselves and the Swartz number, that might explain why Trumbo was so assertive (although he’s not getting anything Reynolds didn’t get). The sides may be at an impasse, and the guess here is that if either side felt comfortable with the Swartz number ($4.7M), a deal would be done right now.

But back to the trade. Surely, you might think, it’d be hard for the D-backs to argue that Trumbo is only deserving of $3.4M next year, after clearly valuing him so highly in trade. But the two things are not unrelated — the club may not have given up quite so much if they thought he’d get so close to his market value so quickly (after all, Mark Reynolds was available). No, maybe the D-backs would not end up making the case to the arbitrator that they thought Trumbo would be undervalued. But if Trumbo’s reps bring up the trade return as some evidence of Trumbo’s worth, expect the D-backs to come back with the contention that they would not have pulled the trigger if they thought Trumbo would so quickly become overpaid.

Still, it’s separately very interesting that team and player were so far apart after a trade like this one. Stranger still is that Logan Morrison, also recently traded and also eligible for arbitration for the first time, was also far apart from his new team (he filed for $2.5M, Seattle filed for $1.1M, Swartz projected $1.7M). Not sure if there’s an explanation that works for both discrepancies, other than the plain fact that in the circumstances of a recent trade, club and player have had less of a chance to advance the negotiation (if you have another idea, please submit it in the comments).

I do find the D-backs’ approach to its arb-eligible players extremely encouraging. The Brad Ziegler extension was outstanding, the Josh Collmenter extension was excellent, and the Matt Reynolds extension was also very good. On a scale of -10 to 10, I’d give the Thatcher deal a 0, nothing to write home about. But the figure the team filed for Parra was extremely well played, and if an extension is not worked out, I’d expect Parra to settle with the team at a number very close to the team filing amount. Parra got outflanked.

As for Trumbo, the D-backs seem to have taken an aggressive stance long before any numbers became public, and it looks like the team is motivated to teach Trumbo’s representatives the error of their free-filing ways. There were no arbitration hearings last year, so the chances are good for any player that he’ll have a deal worked out before a hearing. In that context, I think there’s a particularly good chance that Trumbo and the Diamondbacks will end up in front of an arbitrator. Both sides will have their work cut out for them in terms of persuading the arbitrator. But with a Swartz number almost at the midpoint, and with the Swartz projection probably inflated with respect to Trumbo’s “true” value, I think Trumbo will have more trouble persuading the arbitrator than will the team.


6 Responses to Expect an Arbitration Hearing for Mark Trumbo

  1. Paulnh says:

    I am starting to believe that I am the only person on the face of the earth who likes Mark Trumbo. Everybody thinks that he is a awful defender who can’t get on base. No one gives him respect for a being a really good baseball player. Do you know how many people hit more home runs than Mark Trumbo last year? The answer is five. Do you know how many people hit more home runs and doubles than Mark Trumbo did last year? Two. Paul Goldschmidt and Chris Davis. He did this while playing in a park that significantly favors pitchers. The idea that he has no plate discipline confuses me. This guy’s walk rate was a whopping 0.1% lower than major league average last year. The reason that his OBP was low is because he only hit .234. I am extremely confident that that number will rise though because his BABIP was an astoundingly low .273 last season. He couldn’t do that again even if he tried. This guy can hit the baseball. Mark Trumbo will play in a hitter’s park with protection in the lineup next year and will have a huge season.

    I also believe that Mark Trumbo will be downright average next year in left field. He has a career 0 defensive runs saved in the outfield, but he has never played there consistently before. This guy will be better than Jason Kubel out there for sure, but I think he could become a good defensive outfielder in a year or two. Trumbo is also not a terrible base runner, as he swiped five bases last year.

    Having said all of that, the Diamondbacks are crazy for offering him such a low figure. The arbitrator will definitely side with Trumbo if this case comes down to it. We need to come to a long term agreement with him before this hearing because I really believe that he will have a breakout season for us next year.

    • Ryan P. Morrison says:

      Hey Paul — I didn’t mean to imply that Mark Trumbo is not a good baseball player. He’s an above-average baseball player, and that’s saying something. But he’s not as good as you think he is, and in LF instead of 1B, he’ll probably be a tick below that. Please stick with me for a minute.

      WAR is not the end-all be-all, but it’s not a bad starting point for these kinds of questions. Trumbo had 2.5 WAR, which is definitely above average, but is not All-Star level. He did that in a whopping 678 plate appearances, so it’s not like that total suffered from lack of playing time. For reference, Martin Prado had 2.4 WAR. Goldy (6.4), Parra (4.6), and even Pollock in limited playing time (3.6) were a sizeable step above Trumbo in 2013.

      Why? Trumbo was actually an ABOVE-average fielder last season at first base, where he played the vast majority of his innings. So while he got dinged for a positional adjustment at first, it’s not like he was held back in WAR by his defense. He just wasn’t that stupendous a hitter, creating runs at a rate 6% above league average (106 wRC+). Gerardo Parra created runs at a rate 4% below league average (96 wRC+). Cody Ross checked in at 2% above average (102 wRC+). Eric Chavez was 14% better than average (114 wRC+). And all of those guys were extremely far off of an elite hitter like Paul Goldschmidt (156 wRC+).

      I know it seems crazy that Trumbo was not a stupendous hitter in 2013 — as you noted, the home run totals were AWESOME. But there’s more to hitting than that, and yeah, his walk rate was not very good (8.0%), and his strikeout rate was kind of horrific (27.1%).

      You count HR, but while HR are very good, are they somehow more good because they’re rare? Four singles are worth a LOT more than one home run. Trumbo was tied for sixth in all of baseball with 34 HR, but does that, on its own, entitle him to a highly unusual $5M in his very first year of eligibility? He hit that many home runs last year, but was still just a 2.5 win player. You don’t add the home runs on top of that, they’re already accounted for. Triples are almost as good as HR, believe it or not. Denard Span led the majors with 11. Does he deserve yearly salaries above $16M (that’s what $5M in first year of arb implies)?

      Please don’t misunderstand — I like Mark Trumbo. I’ll be rooting for him every step of the way. He’s a big asset for this team, but he’s probably not as big an asset for the D-backs at LF than he was for the Angels last year at first.

      Mark Trumbo, even accounting for the home runs, is a slightly above average hitter. Aaron Hill is a better hitter, and it’s not that close. I happen to agree that he’ll be better defensively in LF this season than he’s been in the OF historically (-7.0 UZR/150, or more than half a negative win per season). But if you think Trumbo will be worth more than A.J. Pollock in 2014, you’re betting on improvement at the plate AND improvement in the field. And I just don’t think he’s going to be better in LF than the majority of LFs in 2014.

      Side note — maybe you don’t believe in wRC+, but you really should. It’s the best statistic we have for putting hitters’ true contributions in context.

  2. Paulnh says:

    I think we have had this debate before when you posted your article about the ZiPS projections, so it is probably not necessary again. While I do understand your point, I think it is fair to say that we don’t see eye to eye on this topic. I also want to make it clear that I was not actually mad about the article, I just wanted to make a point. I realized after I posted my comment that it came out a little rude and I want to apologize for that. You guys do a terrific job here and I just have fun discussing baseball with anyone who will listen.

    In regards to wRC+, I certainly believe it is a useful tool. I consider myself slightly more of an “old-school” baseball fan, but the newer statistics can be helpful if taken in the right context. I think offensive stats can be judged very accurately with the new way of thinking, so I look at those every time I evaluate a player. On the other hand, I don’t care much for defensive saber-metrics at all. I only include them on my posts for the people that do take interest in those stats. They don’t take into account where the player was before the pitch or if the pitcher hit his location. I think it is easier to play defense behind Greg Maddux than Mitch Williams because you know where the pitch will be located and adjust accordingly. I think WAR favors defense more than it should, so I am not a fan of it. My favorite statistic is Win Probability Added. I like how it takes in context every event that a player did and how important it was to each individual game. Overall, I think some things in baseball can’t be measured by numbers, but I certainly take into account all available data when I look at a player.

    • Ryan P. Morrison says:

      No worries, you didn’t come across as rude.

      I’d humbly suggest that even though defensive statistics aren’t perfect (shifts can be a problem, too), they’re still pretty darned useful. Eyeballs can lie, especially on TV, as we almost never get to see a fielder’s first step, which can be half the battle. On WAR, I think that if there was a part that was out of whack, it’d be pretty apparent pretty quickly (to people smarter than me). Still, you might like the Baseball-Reference version of WAR a bit better than Fangraphs’.

      I like WPA, too, but more for looking back than trying to look forward. For pitchers, I like RE24, which is basically WPA, except not dependent on the score. For hitters, wRC is the equivalent, but it’s easier to see once it’s set to league average as wRC+.

      I tried to send you an email earlier when I posted my last comment — I think maybe it didn’t go through. Drop me a line at ryanpmorrison (a gmail address), so I can re-send my email from earlier, if you don’t mind.

  3. […] Mark Trumbo on their terms, which better reflect Trumbo’s “true” value, or else take it all the way to a hearing. If the D-backs pay Parra based on “true” value but do not hold the line with Trumbo, […]

  4. […] hat on is why I was so certain about Swanson, and why I was confident that the Trumbo negotiation would go to a hearing last spring, even though the team hadn’t done that for a decade. I stand by my evaluation of […]

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