The standard started dropping in 2009 when Zack Greinke won the American League Cy Young award with 16 wins and Tim Lincecum won the National League award with 15 wins. It fell even lower last year when Felix Hernandez won the A.L. award with 13 victories. Now the standard has hit rock bottom. Ross Ohlendorf has won his salary arbitration case despite having won only one game last season.
One victory equals $2,025,000, the three-member panel of arbitrators ruled last week. The $1.4 million salary Pittsburgh submitted wasn’t enough of a raise from the $439,000 salary Ohlendorf earned last year.
The poor pathetic Pirates didn’t have to wait for the 2011 season to extend their historic 18-year losing streak. The arbitrators have done it for them.
It is the first time a one-win pitcher has won in arbitration. It might have been the first time a one-win pitcher went to arbitration, at least reached a hearing.
In the past a pitcher who won only one game the previous season would have been thrilled to settle his salary before a hearing for a figure between the salary he submitted and the figure the club put it; never mind even the mid-point of the two figures.
But times have changed for pitchers. They don’t have to win games any more. Just throw some good-looking statistics out there other than wins, and they can win Cy Young awards and salary arbitration cases. My goodness, even arbitrators have gone over to the dark side.
Arbitrators do not have to explain their decisions; they issue no oral or written opinions. Frank Coonelly, the Pirates’ president and a former management labor lawyer, recalled that club negotiators several times proposed during labor talks that arbitrators be required to issue brief opinions but said the union always rejected the idea.
Gene Orza, the recently retired No. 2 union official, said the union saw no reason to alter a system that was working.
“The system does what it’s supposed to do,” Orza said Friday. “The system is based on risk, and things which enhance the uncertainty of the process are good. We didn’t want arbitrators to take a week. We didn’t want them explaining their decision. We want them to just announce their decision.
“It is good that clubs can be told and players can be told anything can happen in salary arbitration so try to work out a solution yourself. The system provokes settlements. You do that better when there are people who say I don’t want to go to a hearing where there is so much uncertainty.
“Anything that reduces the level of risk runs counter to the beauty of the system. I’ve always said that any case that goes to a hearing reduces the value of the system. A written opinion would reduce the value of the system.”
The system has been in baseball since 1974. Counting the two cases heard and decided this year – including Jered Weaver, who had a 13-12 record last season, lost his case to the Angels – clubs have won 286, players 211.
The way salary arbitration has worked, though, is the players most often win even when they lose. As Mike Norris, an Oakland pitcher, said years ago after losing his case, “No problem. I was either going to wake up rich or richer.”
In most cases, clubs submit higher salaries than they want to pay the players to improve their chances of winning, or reduce their chances of losing. Players, then, win even before the arbitrators hear their cases.
Ohlendorf, a 28-year-old right-hander, was eligible for salary arbitration as a “super-two,” one of the top 17 percent of players who had more than two years but less than three years of major league service.
When the two sides negotiated the creation of salary arbitration in 1973, three years before free agency, they agreed to eligibility for players with two or more years in the majors.
In 1985, despite a two-day strike, the owners won a concession, increasing eligibility to three years, but in 1990, in ending a lockout, the clubs agreed to the creation of the super twos, which is where eligibility remains today.
Ohlendorf, with 2 years 139 days in the majors, was a super two and a first-timer in arbitration. This is not your usual major league pitcher.
A Princeton graduate who grew up on the family cattle ranch near Austin, Tex., he was admitted to the Sigma XI scientific research society founded in 1866 based on his college thesis, an economic analysis of the baseball draft Arizona selected him in the fourth round of the 2004 draft).
Post-college, besides pitching in the major leagues, he has served the past two winters as an intern in Washington, D.C., in the Department of Agriculture and on the energy and commerce committee of the House of Representatives.
He played for the Yankees in parts of 2007 and ’08 before they sent him to Pittsburgh in a four-player package for Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte. He had an 11-10 record and 3.92 earned run average in 2009
Last year an early-season back ailment and a late-season shoulder injury limited Ohlendorf to 21 starts in which he produced a 1-11 record and a 4.07 e.r.a. Yet he and his lawyer, John Fetterolf of the Washington firm of Williams (Edward Bennett) and Connolly, engineered an argument that overcame his one-win season.
They basically emphasized statistics other than wins and losses, especially the run support the Pirates provided Ohlendorf. In the new age of judging pitchers run support has become a telling factor. That’s why Hernandez won his Cy Young award.
Under this new-age thinking, if a team doesn’t score more than three runs a game, a pitcher isn’t expected to win. No longer is a pitcher expected to win 3-2 or 2-1. If his team doesn’t score at least four runs, it’s not the pitcher’s fault if he doesn’t win.
There was once a time when pitchers were expected to win unless their team scored no runs, and then they were expected to tie. But those days disappeared with the advent of the quality start, the questionable creation of a Detroit writer, John Lowe, a nice guy but a little off in his thinking.
If a pitcher pitches six innings and gives up three or fewer earned runs he is credited with a quality start. Never mind that three earned runs in six innings computes to a 4.50 earned run average; that’s a quality start.
Eleven of Ohlendorf’s 21 starts fit the so-called quality category, but he won only one, which happened to be a genuine quality start in the dictionary definition of the word because he shut out the Phillies for seven innings.
“You don’t know why the arbitrators decided it that way, what persuaded them,” Fetterolf said of the arbitration outcome. “From our standpoint, Ross is a very smart guy. He was involved in analyzing the market for pitchers. That factored in. we didn’t feel wins and losses were appropriate to measure his performance. Other factors were involved. We felt we could persuade someone of that in these circumstances.”
Ohlendorf said they knew they would have to base their case on something other than his won-lost record. “There were other statistics that were important. And the year before I had a good record so it wasn’t like I always had a bad record. I felt there were other statistics that were more important. e.r.a. and innings pitched are the two biggest statistics. I also served some time on the disabled list last year so I felt I was limited by that.”
In addition, Rick Shapiro, a union lawyer said, “We were able to show he pitched a lot better than a 1-11 record. He had historically low run support and over a three-year period, as bad as the Pirates have been, he was their best pitcher. And there’s always a comparison to comparable players.”
Players can compare themselves with others, and Fetterolf compared Ohlendorf with Armando Galarraga of Arizona and Brandon Morrow of Toronto, each of whom has a $2.3 million salary.
Arbitration hearings can be unpredictable, and player agents find them more difficult than negotiating contracts with general managers. Scott Boras, for example, lost the Weaver case. But Ohlendorf praised his lawyer.
“John did an excellent job,” the pitcher said. “I had complete confidence in him. He’s an experienced litigator.”
Fetterolf’s role was one of two ironic aspects of the case. He works for the law firm founded by Edward Bennett Williams, who as the owner of the Baltimore Orioles favored management victories in salary arbitration.
The other irony was the fact that the Pirates’ president is Frank Coonelly, who before and during his time in the commissioner’s office very likely argued and won more club arbitration cases than any other individual. He didn’t argue the Ohlerndorf case. Larry Silverman, the club’s general counsel, did.
Coonelly offered no reaction to the Ohlendorf decision. “We issued a statement and I’ll stick to that,” he said diplomatically, knowing from vast experience that it does no good to question or criticize arbitrators’ decisions.
“While disappointed with the result, we respect the process and the work that the arbitrators do for the parties,” general manager Neal Huntington said. “We look forward to a healthy and winning season from Ross in 2011.”
I have long felt the clubs made two mistakes where salary arbitration was concerned. One was their reluctance to try to cut player salaries in the process, shying from submitting for hearings salaries lower than the players made the previous year.
With rare exception, no matter how poor a season a player had the previous year, the club at worst submitted the same salary the player had the year before and more often put in a figure that represented a raise.
Instead of being challenged to cut a player’s salary, arbitrators became used to not having to decide if a player’s salary should be cut.
If they had been dealing with at least occasional paycuts, arbitrators this year might have looked at Ohlendorf’s 1-11 record and said don’t give me that nonsense about poor run support and other impressive statistics. Pitchers are paid to win games, and he didn’t win games. He won one game.
My other thought about the clubs’ mistakes was that when the players gained free agency in 1976, the owners should have tried to eliminate salary arbitration. But not surprisingly they didn’t have the foresight to see the impact the double-barreled effect free agency and arbitration would have on the escalation of salaries.
“I have no recollection of their proposing eliminating salary arbitration,” Marvin Miller, the union chief at the time, said the other day. “If it had been raised, it would have been rejected instantly.”
Miller explained that the players had already made a major concession when they agreed to limit free agent eligibility to players with at least six years of major league service.
“I felt that was a concession, and I wasn’t going to make another one,” he said. “There hadn’t been enough experience with salary arbitration, only three years. If you look back I don’t think you’ll find much of anything they were displeased with. They didn’t have free agency salaries to make comparisons with.”
By the time they did, it was too late and the owners weren’t sharp enough to see the future. They had, after all, just dismissed Charlie Finley’s idea to make all players free agents every year, an idea that terrified Miller because he understood what effect it would have on free agency and salaries. Finley’s fellow owners were too dumb to see what he and Miller saw.
A NEW OLDSTER
With the death of Tony Malinosky at the age of 101 last week, 99-year-old Connie Marrero (at left) becomes the oldest living former major league player, according to Hall of Fame records.
Marrero, a Cuban native, who will be 100 April 25 or May 1, depending on the source, pitched for the Washington Senators from 1950 through 1954 and had a 39-40 career record.
Malinosky, a third baseman, played 35 games for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1937, batting .228.
TANNER’S TALL TALES
Chuck Tanner, the long-time manager who died last week at the age of 82, was one of the nicest guys I ever met in baseball. He was friendly, jovial, pleasant and easy to deal with. As a manager, he was easy to play for.
One incident, however, stands out, and it has always bothered me about Tanner. He was the Pirates’ manager at the height of the cocaine crisis in Pittsburgh in the mid-1980s, and he denied any smattering of responsibility for keeping the clubhouse clean of cocaine.
Worse, he denied any knowledge of cocaine in the clubhouse. He was always in his office in the clubhouse and not aware of what was happening out in the clubhouse where the players were, he said.
His excuse for his ignorance was weak and not believable, but linked to a related matter it testified to Tanner’s truthfulness.
At the Pittsburgh drug trials Dale Berra testified that Tanner cautioned him to stay away from Curtis Strong, one drug-dealing defendant, and Dave Parker testified that the manager told him to stay away from Shelby Greer, another alleged dealer on trial.
Tanner denied saying anything like Berra and Parker said he told them. I found it hard to believe Tanner’s testimony.
Apparently the only person Tanner didn’t caution the players about was the Pirates parrot, the team mascot, who was delivering cocaine to the players in the clubhouse.