Arbitration loss a harbinger of change
Players often shrug off defeat, but less likely to stay with team
The rash of signing announcements last week confirmed Major League clubs' desire to dodge arbitration hearings with eligible players. Otherwise, the lineup of scheduled hearings could have been of historic proportions.By our count, of the 111 players who filed for the process, 38 remained unsigned as of mid-week -- and the record for hearings is 35, in 1986. Seven recent signings lowered the number of potential hearings to 31. Realistically, even if there had been no agreements prior to the beginning of hearings on Monday, the number of cases determined by arbitration figured to be far fewer than that, inasmuch as the two sides can strike a deal any time prior to the arbitrator's decision. Teams' annual rush to avoid arbitration (typically, fewer than one out of 10 filers reach hearings) is motivated by economics and not, contrary to a popular assumption, by performance issues. Fiscally, arbitration hearings are lose-lose propositions for clubs. Actually, so is the entire arbitration process -- a master stroke during 1973 Basic Agreement negotiations by Marvin Miller, over Gene Autry's vehement warnings.
Effect of Arbitration Loss
The Singing Cowboy had seen how arbitration had undermined Hollywood's studio-contract system, but the Angels' owner couldn't strike the right notes for his fellow owners, who overwhelmingly approved the process (with, ultimately, only the Cardinals' Gus Busch and Oakland's Charlie Finley voting nay).Ever since, arbitration has been subtitled by the words uttered by Oakland pitcher Mike Norris on his way to his 1981 hearing: "I'll either wake up rich or richer." Norris lost his hearing, so he had to settle for rich. He had that in common with the majority of players in the process' 35 years, with ownership bringing a 279-205 hearings record into the 2009 fray. Something else Norris shared with most other arbitration losers: He did not let the negativity he heard in that room affect his performance, returning from his 22-win campaign of 1980 to go 12-9 in a 1981 season shortened two months by a players' strike. Recent trends disprove the theory that being subjected to an arbitration hearing -- and to listening to a club barrister nitpick his game -- dents a player's confidence, leading to a psyched-out drop in performance. However, the experience does tend to alienate them, with virtually every arbitration loser this century changing teams at the first opportunity as a free agent. Of the 33 arbitration losers in 2001-08, only 10 suffered a significant drop in production from the season leading to the hearings to the ensuing season. The majority -- 17 -- sustained the same level, while six showed dramatic improvement. Of the 18 arbitration losers who eventually became free agents while still with the clubs who had gotten the best of them in hearings, every one of them jumped to another team. Some of the most recent examples are All-Star closers Brian Fuentes and Francisco Rodriguez. Fuentes departed the Rockies for the Angels, while Rodriguez left the Angels for the Mets. Of course, that could be a statistical aberration: Few free agents, regardless of circumstances, re-sign with their teams. While no one except the participants knows what goes on behind the closed doors of the hearing room, an experienced voice says the procedure isn't nearly as contentious as perceived. Tal Smith, the Astros' president of baseball operations who has long moonlighted as teams' "hired gun" in arbitration hearings, recently told the Philadelphia Inquirer that "stories of mudslinging are exaggerated." "Contrary to what media and fans think, a hearing is rarely a demeaning or denigrating exercise. That's one of the great misunderstandings," Smith said. Still, neither is it a warm social. Arguments, not pleasantries, are exchanged. The evidence suggests that players leave the room with an I'll-show-them attitude and hit the field doing just that. Then, at the first chance, they walk out the door.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.