Reese Kaplan – Baseball Service Time for Dummies

There are approximately 180 days to the baseball season covering the six months of April, May, June, July, August and September.  In some seasons there are early openers in March and occasionally it spills over into the first few days of October, but for all intents and purposes, you’re looking at those 180 days.  (If you want to get picky, the league defines a season as 183 days). 

This number is critically important in a few baseball calculations as related to service time in the big leagues.  This year, for example, the Chicago Cubs held back top prospect Kris Bryant until April 17th when he debuted batting cleanup (imagine that – a rookie in a position to succeed!) against the San Diego Padres.   That he started more than 12 days into the Cubs’ season is critically important to the manipulation of service time rules as the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) states a player will receive credit for .171 years rather than 1.000 years had he been on the roster from day one of the season.  That means in terms of free agency, the Cubs have succeeded in keeping Bryant around not just for the traditional six years of service time but 6 years plus 171 days of service time by holding the man back for just 12 days. 

Now many people (myself included) mentally blurred this line with another “new math” exercise known as the Super Two boondoggle.  This one has nothing to do with free agency but rather with when a player is deemed arbitration-eligible.  Again under the CBA a player is normally considered arbitration eligible after completing three years of service time.  That means for the first three years of a player’s career the team that employs him ultimately decides how much the player should earn.  However, in years 4, 5 and 6 the player has the right to submit a proposed salary figure to an independent arbiter who will then decide between his figure the player submitted and the one submitted by his employer. 

Obviously during these second three years the player has the ability to increase his salary dramatically if he performs well.  Sometimes it doesn’t even take stellar performance to merit large arbitration bumps in pay.  Many here can remember, for example, Mike Pelfrey pricing himself out of the payroll budget based upon what he delivered in value and the Mets chose to non-tender him, rendering him a free agent who ultimately signed with the Minnesota Twins (much to their chagrin as he's pitched to an 8-16/5.08 line for them thus far though doing well in 2015).  Non-tendering has become one of the teams’ few weapons in controlling their payroll budget.  Eric Young, Jr. was more recently a casualty of this payroll protection strategy.

Another complex loophole evolved under the last CBA which said that a player who accumulated between 2.086 and 3.000 years of service time AND has accumulated service time within the top 22% of all players who have had that much time in the majors would then fall into a newly created category called Super Two which would theoretically give the player 4 chances at arbitration increases instead of just 3.  The thinking behind it was to protect the players who came up mid-season and performed well, but just as quickly the owners came to realize how to rig this game, too.  By holding a player in the minors until approximately mid-June, the likelihood of both service time conditions being satisfied becomes nil and they don’t have to worry about facing a potential 4th year of salary arbitration.  Last year the Pittsburgh Pirates conspicuously held back top prospect Gregory Polanco until June 10th to save themselves money down the road. 

Now these topics came up once again with the debut of Noah Syndergaard for the Mets taking place on Tuesday night.  He’s obviously already past the 9 day deadline for free agency but may likely be Super Two eligible when he reaches his 2017 contract in the mail.  For once the Mets management which has been rightfully ripped for being too cost conscious should be acknowledged for taking the hit when Dillon Gee went down by bringing up someone who could cost them dearly in the future.

Of course, the salary protection game is not over.  By returning Syndergaard to the minors they turn off his service time clock and thus can still manipulate whether or not he becomes Super Two eligible.  Had he been healthy, the Mets more likely would have stuck to the Rafael Montero plan as they didn’t foresee him costing nearly as much in the future as would Noah Syndergaard or Steve Matz. 

The Mets have quietly played this game for the past several years.  Think hard – who is the last full time starting rookie player the Mets had on their opening day roster?  The first one that came to my mind was back in 2010 when Jerry Manuel, desperate to keep his job, lobbied to make Jenrry Mejia part of the squad going north.  Jon Niese was a part of that 2010 rotation, too, after having had cups of coffee the two previous years.  Jacob de Grom did win Rookie of the Year in 2014 but he didn’t make his debut until May (and then it was more due to injury and ineffectiveness in the rotation rather than the economic considerations of artificially delaying his major league debut). 

After looking it up Travis d’Arnaud has the honor of having retained his rookie status and starting with the big club in 2014 after having had 99 ABs in 2013, well under the 130 limit for rookie eligibility.  One could make the argument for Sean Gilmartin this year, too, but considering he’s only had 7 IP since the season began it’s unlikely he’s considered a major cog.  

Obviously fixing the CBA is going to take a lot of negotiations on both sides.  Some have argued for a signing date clock rather than a service time clock.  Others have argued for 100 days of service time constituting a full year.  Others have said make it a flat 3 years for payroll control and 3 years for arbitration with no service time considerations whatsoever.  Something’s got to give.  


Mack Ade said...

Reese -

An interesting problem for teams that have healthy players that deserve to play every day.

Thomas Brennan said...

After reading that, I have a Super 2 headache.

A better system should be devised. It screws promising young players.

Mack's Mets © 2012