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Salary Arbitration: Why Corbin Burnes Will Cash In

Updated: Aug 6, 2022


There probably isn’t another player who is in more of a pole position to cash out this offseason than Corbin Burnes. Burnes was a catalyst in Milwaukee’s 95 win and playoff bound season -- not only did he just have his best individual season, but he was THE most dominant in the league at his respective position. Both his individual and team success this season came at a great time as he is first-year arbitration eligible this offseason, meaning he and the Milwaukee Brewers will revisit his current salary of $608,000. If they cannot strike an agreement for the 2022 season, they will head to a hearing where an arbitrator will decide which salary to award the player.

While there are no specifics per the MLB CBA for arbitration, the following are typically considered in arbitration proceedings:

· Player’s performance in their “Platform Year” (or PY) in the year immediately prior to arbitration

· Player’s performance in the two seasons preceding Platform Year, or PY-1 or PY-2

· Recent salaries of players of similar position and production value

· Contribution to team success

· Individual accolades

A rare combination of a power pitcher with fall-off-the-table off-speed, Burnes is the type of bull you want throwing deep into games. Even after the crackdown on spidertack his stuff remained virtually untouchable -- while his spin rate did go down (like almost every other pitcher in the league) his status among the elite persisted. He was the most dominant pitcher over the entire breadth of the season, and thus is a likely frontrunner for NL MVP and NL Cy Young.

In his prior years, he found a mixed bag of results. He did not find the same success in his PY-2 in 2019, but in PY-1 he was more in line with the ace he has become. In the 60 game 2020 MLB season, he posted an ERA of 2.11 with a career high SO9 rate of 13.3.[1]

Burnes’ agent probably will argue that he is worthy of a significant salary increase due to his presumed candidacy for NL MVP and NL Cy Young, and his NL All Star appearance in his PY. His eye-popping statistics from his PY are also worth noting -- his 11-5 record, an ML best 2.43 ERA, ML second-best WHIP of 0.940, and ML fifth highest SOs.[2]

For all of you sabermetric people, Expected Weighted On-base Average (xwOBA) is formulated using exit velocity, launch angle and, on certain types of batted balls, sprint speed. xwOBA is distinct from wOBA because it removes defenses from the equation, while still measuring an offensive contribution. The formula for xwOBA is:

xwOBA = (xwOBAcon + wBB x (BB-IBB) + wHBP x HBP)/(AB + BB — IBB + SF + HBP)

In short, Burnes’ xwOBA during his 2021 season is .218 after 657 PAs, which is the third best in the league behind Jacob DeGrom and Liam Hendricks (a closer).[3] DeGrom faced less than half of Burnes’ PAs this season, and the next best xwOBA of a similar sample size to Burnes is Lance Lynn’s xwOBA of .248 after 641 PAs.[4] Burnes’ agent would argue that Burnes was the most effective pitcher in the league, while supplementing that with being a key piece in their run into October as he was the ace of their 95-win team.

There really is no comparison to any other player this season; all signs point towards Burnes smashing first-year eligible arbitration records.

Burnes’ 2021 PY trumps Dallas Keuchel’s 2015 PY, where Keuchel was the AL Cy Young winner and was thus awarded $7.25 million in his first year of arbitration eligibility. Keuchel currently holds the record for first-year arbitration eligible pitchers and is probably the best floor for Burnes.[5] Burnes PY has the clear advantage over Keuchel’s PY in ERA (2.43 to 2.48), WHIP (0.940 to 1.017), SOs (234 to 216), H9 (6.6 to 7.2), HR9 (0.4 to 0.7), and BB9 (1.8 to 2.0), all by a significant margin. Burnes could very well break Keuchel’s first-year arbitration record among pitchers.

Somewhat less likely though, we could even see Burnes break the record for all first-year arbitration eligible players, set by Cody Bellinger after his 2019 NL MVP season in his PY for his awarded $11.5 million salary.[6] It’s tough to gage the apples-to-oranges comparison between a pitcher and a position player, but if Burnes’ name is in the conversation for NL MVP, you can be assured that his contributions towards his team make his case strong in breaking the record for all first-year arbitration eligible players as well.

Can Milwaukee pay out? They have the $102 million in payroll space, so its likely that they can.[7] In spite of the organization’s recent valuation of $1.37 billion, before the investment from Giannis Antetokounmpo, they might be a bit reluctant to dish out pricey commitments after agreeing to a monster contract with Christian Yelich.[8] They will be paying him until 2042 when he is 50 years old for a total of $215 million…[9]

Corbin Burnes’ expected arbitration value is presumed to surpass Keuchel’s $7.25 million record for first-year arbitration eligible pitchers, but don’t be shocked if it also eclipses Bellinger’s $11.5 million record for all first-year arbitration eligible players.

Scott DeCapua is a 2L at Western New England University, School of Law.

Sources: [1] [2] Id. [3] [4] Id. [5] [6] Id. [7] [8] [9]

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