Dellin Betances made medium-level news a week ago when he lost his arbitration case. He’d been asking for $5 million — less, for example, than Trevor Rosenthal had made in his first crack at arbitration the season before. The Yankees, meanwhile, submitted a $3 million figure. The case went to arbitration, and the Yankees won. Randy Levine then took the medium-sized news and turned into big news by acting like a fool. While the $2 million difference might not seem like a big deal for Betances when he’s still guaranteed to receive $3 million, the affect on Betances’ finances in the coming years will be significantly greater.
Arbitration isn’t exactly the simplest of systems. Teams submit blind amounts, and if the parties can’t agree on a deal beforehand, they go to hearing. The FanGraphs glossary explains the process in slightly more detail, but if the player and team go to hearing, the arbitration panel decides on either the team’s figure or the player’s figure, with no option to choose a number in between. This makes the arbitration a winner-take-all scenario. If arbitrators could choose a number in the middle, settlements would be even more likely, simplifying the process and lead to far less debate. They can’t, though, and that means that arbitration decisions have a significant impact.
Also relevant is how service time fits into the process. Players’ salaries gradually increase based on service time, rendering the previous season’s salary quite relevant, as it represents the starting point for a raise. A few different researchers have gone through and figured out exactly how much salaries increase during arbitration. (Here’s a good one, for example.) As a general rule, though, it comes to something like a 50% increase in salary every year. Small differences, especially early in the arbitration process, compound to make bigger differences over time.