Updated: Aug 4
Since he burst onto the scene at 19 years old, Juan Soto has been one of Major League Baseball’s (MLB) best hitters. He is a rare example of a young prodigy panning out exactly the way his organization promised. The transfer of power from Washington’s former right field prodigy to Soto has been seamless and, in many ways, Soto has exceeded the success of his predecessor. Now, Soto will get to reap the rewards of his elite play as he enters his second year of arbitration eligibility.
MLB arbitration is a process that was established in the 20th century that allows players to earn more money while giving teams more control over their players. After three years of “service time,” a player is eligible for arbitration for the next three seasons. If the two parties cannot come to an agreement, they will both set figures on what they think the value of the player is. From there, they will argue their case in front of an independent arbitrator, who will decide which figure is more appropriate.
The MLB’S Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) sets forth criteria for the purposes of salary arbitration argumentation. The following are the five most common considerations:
Player’s performance in their platform year (PY), the year immediately preceding the arbitration year.
Their performance in the two years before the platform year (PY-1 and PY-2).
How players of similar performance have performed and been compensated.
Soto’s production can be best compared to three notable players who have settled in arbitration in the last 4 years:
Cody Bellinger, $11.5 million (2020)
Carlos Correa, $11.7 million (2021)
Mookie Betts, $10.5 million (2018)
Juan Soto’s most favorable set of statistics comes from Statcast, which includes measures like exit velocity, barrel percentage, and hard-hit rate. Unfortunately, the CBA doesn’t allow Statcast in arbitration. However, Juan Soto isn’t limited to one set of statistics to break the limits of arbitration in 2022. Let’s take a look at the platform years of these athletes. We will use the traditional stat line and power numbers (Home Runs and OPS+). OPS+ measures the athlete’s On-Base Plus Slugging numbers against the league average, which is 100 OPS+*. Carlos Correa’s platform year was played in a pandemic, so I have extrapolated his home run total to match Juan Soto’s 151-game total in 2021:
Juan Soto: .313/.465/.534, 29 HR and 175 OPS+
Cody Bellinger: .305/.406/.629, 47 HR and 167 OPS+
Carlos Correa: .264/.326/.383, 13 HR (extrapolated) and 93 OPS+
Mookie Betts: .264/.344/.459, 24 HR and 108 OPS+
Soto begins to solidify himself at the top of this list. Statistically, he exceeds the performances of Correa and Betts, falling closer in line with Bellinger’s 2019 MVP season.
PY-1, Awards, and Postseason Success
Each of these players had a “separator” entering their arbitration proceedings. This separator pushed them above that year’s field and earned them a substantial amount of money. As we can see, Mookie Betts’s platform year doesn’t necessarily line up with his compensation. However, the year preceding, his PY-1, was the first inkling of proof that Boston had something special. Let’s compare the PY-1 of Betts and Soto, which is extrapolated to the 158 games Mookie Betts played in:
Soto (2020): .351/.490/.695, 43 HR (extrapolated) and 217 OPS+
Betts (2016): .318/.363/.534, 31 HR and 133 OPS+
Cody Bellinger’s separator was his personal accolades. Let’s look at some key awards that both Soto and Bellinger earned entering arbitration:
Soto: NL Rookie of the Year (2nd, 2018); 2 Top-10 MVP finishes; 1 Silver Slugger (2020); All-Star Appearance (2021)
Bellinger: NL Rookie of the Year (1st, 2017); MVP Award (2019); 1 Silver Slugger (2019); 2 All-Star Appearances (2017 & 2019)
Taking a quick glance at everything, Juan Soto doesn’t necessarily perfectly match the separators of Bellinger and Correa. But he has come close enough to prove that no matter how you cut it, Juan Soto is special. He sufficiently checks every box, from Platform Year performance to career accolades and postseason success. One may ask, however, what is Juan Soto’s separator?
Soto is the face of baseball. From being on video game covers to perennial MVP candidacies, Soto gives Washington more attention than it deserves. Plus, he’s only 22 years old, two years younger than any of the other athletes discussed entering their second year of arbitration. With Washington trading away almost its entire roster, the Nationals have made it clear that the 2021 NL MVP contender is not a guy they want to get rid of1. Nothing is more valuable than a young superstar to build an entire organization around.
Let’s say Juan Soto miraculously make it to arbitration. How much would he earn? What amount should his side of the “vs.” file for? The winner-take-all process requires a meticulous balance to be struck in the process of determining the amount to submit. Go too low and win, you may be underpaid. Go too high and lose, you may be criminally underpaid. It’s not crazy to think that he could file anywhere in the range of $13 million to $15 million and have a winning case. If his salary settled in that range, it would set an arbitration record. Juan Soto’s skillset is special. His compensation will reflect that.
The bottom line: front offices don’t allow their franchise players to make it to arbitration. It is far too unpredictable and has the propensity to damage the fragile relationship between a player and the front office. Soto won’t make it to arbitration, but sometimes it’s fun to imagine how the market would react if he did.. Regardless, the Nationals would rather lock down their franchise cornerstone for as long as they can. With Soto becoming Spotrac’s first ever “$500 million man,” he is destined to sign a major deal this offseason2.
Britton Yoder is a 1L at Penn State – Dickinson Law. He can be found on Twitter @yoyoyoder04.
* All statistics and awards were taken from baseball-reference.com