How the Cookie Kimbrels

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Taking a look at the last of the arbitration cases for the Braves.

We've been over this before. Craig Kimbrel is the best reliever in baseball.

I went over it in this post where I advocated trading him - a bandwagon, it seems, that many have gotten on since - where I said:

I mean, I get that Kimbrel is awesome. He's so awesome that he's the best reliever in baseball. How good? His fWAR over the past three seasons - Kimbrel's first 3 full seasons - is 8.7 and a win and a half better than second-place Greg Holland, and he's almost 3 full wins ahead of the knuckleheads in third place and beyond. Kimbrel's FIP during that time period is 1.43 and a half run better than again-second-place Holland. Want his xFIP? At 1.62, he's more than half a run better than second-place Kenley Jansen. His K% of 42.9% is the best. One of the few categories he's not the best in is ERA at 1.48 because Eric O'Flaherty (1.45) edges him out with about a full season fewer innings pitched. And if you really want saves, his 138 is 28 more than anyone else in the sport. We get it. Kimbrel is more awesomer than everyone else's closer. You can use whatever stats you want, but that's the conclusion you're gonna get.

None of that has changed, obviously. No matter which way you try to skin the cat - sabermetric or traditional - Kimbrel is the bee's knees (or is it bees'?) of relievers. As he heads into his first arbitration season, that means he's poised to set records elsewhere, including financially.

When the two sides exchanged figures with arbitrators, the Braves offered $6.55 million, and Kimbrel offered a staggering $9 million. How ridiculous or not ridiculous is that?

The easiest comparison to make is with Jonathan Papelbon. It may be a little hard to remember, but Papelbon used to be the best closer in the game. From 2006-2009, he was staggeringly brilliant, and as he headed into arbitration for the 2009 season, he knew he could set records. And set records he did. Earning $6.25 million, he eclipsed Eric Gagne's record of $5 million - an increase of 125%. Kimbrel netting $9 million would be an increase of 144%. Is we worth the increase?

Here's how the three performed during their first three full seasons (only those seasons):

Kimbrel_comps_medium
(Click to enlarge)

All of them are/were pretty awesome. Sabermetrically-speaking, Kimbrel and Gagne were the most impressive if you look at their peripherals and assorted FIPs (Fielding Independent Pitching statistics). They had the big K totals with inflated (kind of) walk rates while Papelbon had the low walk rate. They all prevented home runs well, but Kimbrel does lead in that category. But when we get down to it, Kimbrel hasn't been that much more valuable than either of the other two relievers to warrant such a raise.

Arbitrators, however, aren't sabermetrically-inclined, and frankly, they aren't always even baseball-inclined. They are, first and foremost, lawyers. Most of them have a general idea of baseball statistics, and when it comes to closers, that means they'll go hard after ERA and saves. ERA-wise, Kimbrel bests the other two by 30 points - or 121% better. Saves-wise, he's better by 25 saves - or 122%. Given that he's been about 122% better than Papelbon and Gagne according to these statistics, a raise to $7.625 million would have been more appropriate.

But when it comes to arbitration cases, it's about who's closer to to the right number than having the right number. Arbitrators don't get to pick a number between the two. They chose one or the other. Given the two numbers offered and the $7.625 figure we just came up with, the Braves are only $1.2 million off, and Kimbrel is $1.35 million off. The Braves are closer to that number, but when looking at it, $100K is not that much of a difference.

Then, Kimbrel's side can counter with the amount of money that has poured into the game as a result of all the TV contracts. While the Braves may not benefit as much as other teams from those contracts, Kimbrel's agent can easily talk about the inflation of contracts and how it should affect arbitration prices.

While the $9 million figure is initially has some sticker-shock affect, it's actually a fairly brilliant ploy by Kimbrel's agents. Knowing that the arbitrators have to pick between the two numbers - $6.55 million and $9 million - Kimbrel's agents can claim that Kimbrel deserves more than the 105% increase the Braves are offering over the record. If the arbitrators believe the difference in ERA and saves, Kimbrel's side begins to make more and more sense, especially if you add in inflation. The arbitrators may not like the $9 million figure, but they may like it more than the $6.55 million offer made by the Braves.

Kimbrel doesn't "deserve" that much of a raise, but sometimes, that's just how the cookie crumbles.

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