Wednesday, January 21, 2009

$18M Foot Longs

Jim Rice's recent election to the Hall of Fame was one benchmark in the raging, nonsensical conflict between old-timey baseballniks and nerdy, basement-dwelling stat geeks, or so the media narrative tells me. Ryan Howard's upcoming arbitration hearing is likely to be another one. Howard has filed for $18M; the Phillies are offering $14M. By all accounts, Howard's team views him as a historically unique player who should (and will) receive a historically unique salary. The question is, which historically unique price tag will he get?

Howard's argument rests on the old reliables, homers and RBI. Simply put, he racks up more of 'em than anybody, and that's impressive. On the other hand, if you look at more analytical statistics like WARP3 and VORP, Howard suddenly drops from "Incredible Hulk" to "Doc Samson". Sure, he's still up there, but suddenly the discussion involves all the things he doesn't do as well as some other guys, and how the total package stacks up. And let's face it, Ang Lee isn't champing at the bit to direct "Doc Samson: The Movie" for a reason.

It's a calculated risk for the Phillies. If they do use more advanced statistics to counter Howard's case, the same old-timers who flogged Howard's case for MVP will come out of the woodwork to talk about how those darn kids robbed that nice Mr. Howard of his paycheck. If they don't, all they've got left is the service time (and maybe batting average) arguments, and those aren't nearly as persuasive, and for a team that just shelled out big raises to Jamie Moyer, Shane Victorino, and Ryan Madson, among others, that $4M difference could be big.

Of course, this case only becomes a flashpoint if the Phillies actually do drag out the sabermetric argument, and nothing in new GM Reuben Amaro Jr's track record thus far indicates he'll make that play. But if he does, it's going to open up an interesting can of worms, and we just might hear about who the "most feared" arbitration case is as a result.
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