In an article on Yahoo Sports yesterday, Tim Brown discusses Tim Lincecum‘s upcoming arbitration filing. Brown argues that, as a two time Cy Young winner with super-two status, Lincecum blows up the system of comparable pitchers used to determine salaries in the arbitration process, and that Lincecum may just file for $23,000,001 (one dollar more than Sabathia’s AAV) to drive home the point of how unique his circumstances are.
It’s true that very few pitchers achieve this much success so quickly in their major league career. It is not true that Lincecum is an historically unique player without comparison, however. We saw this same scenario unfold 22 years ago in Boston, when a guy named Roger Clemens took the baseball world by storm.
Clemens debuted in the majors in 1984 at age 21, but didn’t pitch a full season until 1986. He threw 254 innings with a 2.48 ERA, winning both the Cy Young and MVP awards. He followed that up in 1987 by throwing 281 innings with a 2.97 ERA, winning another Cy Young Award (but inexplicably falling to 19th in MVP voting).
At age 24, after the equivalent of three full seasons in the big leagues, Clemens had two Cy Young awards, 60 career victories in 104 starts, and a 3.08 ERA in about 767 innings of work. For the numbers that arbiters are likely to care about, Clemens’ case was even stronger than what Lincecum can offer today, with 33 percent more wins and an MVP award to go with his multiple Cy Youngs.
His 1988 salary? $1.5 million, a 230 percent raise from his 1987 salary and a 567 percent premium over the league median salary, which was $265,000. That was a nice paycheck back in the day, but it didn’t even crack the top 25 salaries of the season, nor was Clemens the highest paid player on the Red Sox team that year – Wade Boggs ($1.7MM), Jim Rice ($2.2MM), and Dwight Evans ($1.6MM) all earned more than Clemens.
If we just took those percentages and applied them to Lincecum, the numbers wouldn’t come out as rosy as his agents might like. Lincecum interestingly made the same $650,000 last year as Clemens did in 1987, and the median salary in 2009 was $1.4 million. A 230 percent personal raise would slot Lincecum in at around $1.4 million, while a 567 percent premium over the 2010 projected median (2009 median with 1% inflation) would put him at $7.9 million.
Its safe to say that Lincecum will file for a number north of those two, and no doubt his agents will argue that the economic climate of the game has changed in the last 20 years. While that is true, it’s also true that the 1987 version of Clemens had a better resume than the 2009 version of Lincecum, so an argument that he should be treated significantly better is unlikely to be convincing.
If we agree that Lincecum shouldn’t get more (relative to today’s dollars) than what Clemens got 22 years ago, then a realistic cap for his 2010 payday looks to be about $12 to $14 million, which would put him in the same area in ordinal rank of payroll (just outside the top 25), but would also reflect that baseball players are earning more money now.
He can take his two trophies to arbitration if he wants, but he’s not getting free agent money as a guy with two years of service time. He’ll get more than Ryan Howard did in 2008, but probably not much more. He’s a great pitcher, but there are comparable performances for the arbiters to look at – you just have to go back a little farther than normal.
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