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The curious case of Ryan Thompson and salary arbitration

A Law Talk Essay

Tampa Bay Rays v Kansas City Royals Photo by Fernando Leon/Getty Images

As I have discussed elsewhere, I normally do not do litigation anymore. That said, the principles behind a successful argument for arbitration are fairly universal: lay out the facts, lay out the law, address any weaknesses in your case, and profit.

But before breaking this topic down, some context might be needed. MLB’s salary arbitrations follow an odd quirk that one normally does not see in regular arbitration: it is an all-or-nothing affair.

The Dodgers and arbitration: oil and water

The Dodgers do not typically have trials with their players at arbitration.

One would need to go back to 2020 for the last time the team had a trial, two of them. The team prevailed against Joc Pederson but Pedro Baez beat the Dodgers. Before 2020, one would need to go all the way back to 2007 to find an instance of an actual hearing. Per Eric, the Dodgers had a hearing against Joe Beimel and the team prevailed.

Personally, I thought with the team’s settlement with Tony Gonsolin, which is something I adroitly argued for, that we were collectively finished with arbitration coverage for the year.

Suddenly, Rays reliever Ryan Thompson did something unexpected: he gave us a peak behind the curtain. And for those who insist on a Dodger-related thread in these essays, in his thread, Thompson mentioned Dodgers reliever Brusdar Graterol.

Thompson’s view from behind the curtain

In some ways, collectively, we should be grateful for Thompson’s act of going to Twitter to share insight from a process that most laymen do not know.

But first, the basics as to Thompson as I had to learn who he was for this essay after our own David Young posted about Thompson on Twitter. Thompson sought a 2023 salary of $1.2 million and the Rays countered with $1 million. On February 18, the Rays and Thompson had their arbitration hearing.

In the arbitration, the Rays prevailed and were (somehow) happier with their $200,000.

Five days later, Thompson went to Twitter and made his feelings known in a multi-tweet thread. After expressing no bitterness directed at the Rays, Thompson laid out the process used in the League’s arbitration and his corresponding thoughts.

Daniel Russell of sister SB Nation site DRaysBay took the trouble to compile the thread, which will be displayed in part below. I analyze Thompson’s thoughts out of order than he actually published in order to better provide analysis. I make it clear when I am taking tweets out of order. If you want to see the entire, unedited thread in order, click here.

I shall now break down what Thompson wrote, after skipping his introduction.

Criteria summary:

1. Platform year contribution

2. Career and consistency contribution

3. Record of past compensation

4. Comparable baseball salaries

5. Existence of any physical or mental defects

6. Recent performance record of the club

Our approach to the hearing was to stay as strict to the criteria as possible. My concern was that the 3 arbitrators have an unknown knowledge of the game of baseball. Maybe they play fantasy baseball or maybe they call scoring runs “points”. No one knows.

We had to assume that the arbitrators were savvy enough to understand basic rules and statistics. I believe that assumption was incorrect.

(emphasis added)

Here is probably the biggest mistake that Thompson and most first-time participants in arbitration have: not knowing that most arbitrators/judges/mediators have no background knowledge of a given dispute.

Rather than type arbitrators/judges/mediators over and over, I am just going to say arbitrator for this essay.

Most arbitrators know the procedure of their given hearing is going to take place, but the actual subject matter might be a total mystery to them before the hearing. It is up to the parties to argue and explain even the basics because, without context, an arbitrator will have to work harder to make a decision and if one’s position relies on subtlety, it may be lost on the arbitrator.

In my experience, taking the extra time to frame why foundational knowledge is important is usually well spent. Sometimes, the arbitrator will tell you “Counsel, I know what you are saying; let’s move on,” in which case I can spend more time on the meat of my argument and the times when the arbitrator truly has no idea what is going on, if you explain the foundational stuff first, the rest of the argument builds on the foundation.

Advocacy is telling a story. If you present your story logically and walk someone through your reasoning, you are more likely to get them to understand and, ideally, agree with you. However, if you fail to do so and if you assume...I leave the rest of that axiom to you.

Let us continue with Thompson’s thread.

The most important statistics for a middle reliever/set up man are holds and leverage index both of which I excelled in both the platform year and in my career with consistency.

The Rays did an excellent job discrediting holds and leverage while targeting me on blown saves, lack of LHH usage, and a fangraphs metric called “meltdowns”.

Blown saves is not a stat indicative of a middle reliever’s poor performance. A blown save can happen with no earned runs in the 7th inning or in extra innings from the ghost runner scoring. “BS” are for those attempting to record a Save and fail.

My career BAA is .214 against LHH. My lack of usage against LHH which is as high as Jalen Beeks(LHP) btw, isn’t from a lack of quality, but via team projections.

Meltdowns is not an official MLB stat. I’ve never heard of it and maybe never will again. We could have scoured the web for positive terminology but stuck to the criteria.

The use of “buzz words” by the team without a doubt swayed the arbitrators. Blown saves, meltdowns, and “protected” from LHH created a bias. Brilliant....

...The Rays of course used my IL time as an arguing point but placed a high emphasis on timing of injury which is not in the criteria.

(emphasis added)

I cannot disagree with anything that Thomspon wrote here.

Thompson had himself a fairly decent year in 2022 and the team did its level best to discount it, essentially by counting the same negatives twice. In my mind, it is not worth delving into this point any further, because it stems from the original mistake of assumption.

In 2022, Thompson appeared in 47 games primarily in middle relief with three saves (in eight attempts — which will be covered in a moment) and ten holds. He went 3-3, with a 3.80 ERA in 42⅔ innings. He struck out 39 and only walked 11. He gave up four home runs and 39 hits.

As a middle reliever, Thompson was generally not asked to close out games, so therefore the blown saves were lead changes, mostly in the middle innings. None of these occurred after June 18. From June 20th onward, Thompson was 2-1 and had seven holds. His ERA was 1.25 during this period with 22 strikeouts and two walks. Those stats are pretty good — I would take that from a reliever in the Dodgers’ pen in an instant.

But upon checking, his last appearance was August 25, which raises a question — what happened?

It was a right triceps inflammation injury that ultimately cut his season short. On August 27, Thompson went to the injured list and his season ended when he was transferred to the 60-day injured list on September 16.

Ultimately, the original mistake of not emphasizing why the foundational knowledge to explain why Thompson had a pretty good year is the most obvious error in advocacy that I can see from Thompson’s thread. Knowledgable readers would be able to tell Thompson had a pretty good year, but someone who was not knowledgable would likely fixate on the blown saves. Moreover, it is also clear that the Rays did use Thompson’s injury against him.

Thompson is not Brusdar Graterol

Thompson described the other crux of his argument, comparing himself on a one-to-one basis with other pitchers in the league, including Brusdar Graterol.

Our main focus was comparisons. Logically this made the most sense. If we prove I am above the midpoint of 1.1 then 1.2 is the logical choice. The comps we chose were Graterol at 1.225, Bedrodian at 1.1, Staumont at 1.050, Hernandez at 995K

Graterol (1.225) and myself were the most comparable, which is why we filed at 1.2.

Thompson career: IL- 137 G- 151 IP- 147.7 W- 9 L- 10 SV-6 HLD-32 gmLI- 1.40 LC- 53 ERA- 3.78

Graterol career: IL- 115 G- 152 IP- 155.7 W-9 L-10 SV-6 HLD-29 gmLI-1.14 LC-56 ERA- 3.58

And the arbitrators decided that I was worth 225 thousand dollars less than Graterol....

...Missing playoffs in 2 seasons hurts me against Graterol which is why we filed at 1.2 not 1.225 but should put me even farther ahead of Bedrosian and Staumont for they have 0 postseason experience to my 9 games with 1.93ERA and 3HLD

The argument against was a more emotional ploy that relied less on logic or facts but was excellently put together. Our case potentially made unwise assumptions on the arbitrator’s understanding of statistics and the logic of being over the midpoint.

(emphasis added)

Now, with the same energy as Tom Hanks in Toy Story, I say the following: Thompson is not Graterol.

For starters, while Thompson and Graterol did have similar years statistically in 2022 (including stints on the injured list), there are four core differences between him and Graterol, which jump out at me immediately regarding player value. These differences are enough to where, if it were up to me, I would not have made this argument.

  1. Graterol is a Super Two player, meaning he has enough service time to enter arbitration early, which is arguably more valuable to retain because of the extra year;
  2. Graterol settled his case with the Dodgers. Now comparing the top-5-in-payroll Dodgers with the bottom-5-in-payroll Rays may be an incredibly unfair comparison, but there is arguably some incentive and monetary value to avoiding the acrimony of the arbitration process;
  3. Graterol is seven years younger than Thompson. Do I think age really played a major part in the decision? Not really. But someone might; and
  4. Graterol did not finish his year on the injured list. Obviously, one cannot control injuries but there is something to be said in value for those who are available for the postseason and those who are not.

Thompson spends a good deal of his thread comparing himself to other pitchers on a one-to-one basis as a comparison. Frankly, a stronger use of the comparison criteria for Thompson might be to find a larger sample size of pitchers with similar year-to-year stat lines and try to argue comparable pay would be appropriate if the statistical trendlines matched.

I was going to do this analysis out of curiosity before I caught myself. Issues about the length of the essay aside, if Thompson, or a player like him, wants me to draft arguments to be used in arbitration: they can reach out and pay me.

After all, if you’re good at something, you never do it for free.

Tell me you’re not a lawyer without saying you’re not a lawyer

After focusing on player comparisons, Thompson discussed arguably the juiciest part of his criticism of the arbitration process.

The process is flawed without a doubt but fascinating how different approaches can prevail with so much unknown....

...The flaws:

I was told leading up to my case it was paramount not to share the date of my case for the arbitrators may be able to research me and create a bias.

However upon entry to the hearing, they all have phones out and they use them freely during the breaks. After the case, they don’t sit in the room and hash out the decision, but rather they head to the hotel bar.

It is extremely disconcerting that the arbitrators are socializing, drinking, and using their devices prior to making a decision. (Not at all assuming foul play). Just an obvious flaw I witnessed.

Remember that arbitration is a streamlined version of litigation, which I have discussed previously. As such, while there are rules, arbitrators are not jurors nor generally have to sequester themselves. Now if the arbitrators were talking privately with the participants about the case without anyone present and in an informal setting, not on the record, that situation would be problematic.

As it stands, the arbitrators did not do anything wrong in degree or in appearance unless there is missing information that I am not privy to. However, Thompson did inadvertently make a point for reform.

The biggest issue with this process to me is that the arbitrators get to make whatever decision they come to, but with no explanation or defense of the decision. In any other legal case, the decision is public, this for some reason is very hidden and secretive.

If the process is created in order for fairness, then why don’t we learn the laws of the land. In some sense, we were shooting in the dark not knowing what the arbitrators leaned into and what they disregarded. These understandings matter.

Considering my player comps and middle reliever statistics for PY and career were undeniable, they must have chosen the other side for reasons not stated in the criteria which is a dangerous thought for the process. If that is the case, they should be held accountable.

(emphasis added)

Now public disclosure of the arbitration reasoning is a non-starter as these are confidential hearings.

If I am understanding Thompson correctly, he is stating that the arbitrators released a final result without providing any reasoning. In my experience, arbitrators have customarily released their reasoning for their decisions. But that requirement is not a hard and fast rule in every jurisdiction. If the parties involved in arbitration do not agree to have language in the procedures to have the arbitrator give a rationale for the decision: then they will not.

The current MLB collective bargaining agreement has not yet been made public, but the previous CBA (2017-21) clearly outlines the arbitration process, including the decision from Article VI(E)(13):

Timetable and Decision. Arbitration hearings shall be scheduled to be held from February 1 to February 20 absent a con- trary agreement of the Parties. The arbitration panel may render the decision on the day of the hearing, and shall make every effort to do so not later than 24 hours following the close of the hearing. The arbitration panel shall be limited to awarding only one or the other of the two figures submitted. There shall be no opinion. There shall be no release of the arbitration award by the arbitration panel except to the Club, the Player, the Association and the LRD. The panel chair shall initially inform the Association and the LRD of the award only and not how the panel members voted. The panel chair shall disclose to the Association and the LRD the individual votes of the panel members on each March 15 following the Feb- ruary hearings. The panel chair shall insert the figure awarded in paragraph 2 of the executed Uniform Player’s Contract delivered at the hearing and shall forward the Contract to the Office of the Commissioner.

(emphasis added)

Now, as previously stated, challenging the validity of an arbitrator’s decision is extremely hard to do for reasons that will easily double the length of this essay. Without knowing what the exact procedures are in the League’s salary arbitrations, all I can do is speculate on general grounds on which someone might try to challenge an arbitration decision.

Generally, one can only attempt to challenge an arbitrator’s ruling if the award was obtained by fraud, the arbitrator was corrupt or an interested party, or if the arbitrator exceeded his powers (ex: one is there for a salary dispute and the arbitrator rules on something else entirely). And even then, a challenge is extremely unlikely to be successful as courts do not like getting involved in arbitration after the fact as that act defeats the purpose: streamlined efficiency.

Considering the speed of the salary arbitration process, a no rationale ruling likely is the trade-off. I can see the benefit of providing some reasoning for the decision-making or at the very least, allowing the arbitrator to actually exercise some discretion in the result rather than have the final result be a binary affair. But that issue would likely have to be collectively bargained and the League and Players likely have larger issues that will come to a head in December 2026. But that essay is for another day.