The Case for Rewarding Walker Buehler in His Upcoming Arbitration Battle

The following is a submission in the 2020 National Baseball Arbitration Competition, held annually by Tulane University School of Law. This brief is a part of Western New England University School of Law’s submission.

Introduction

This brief analyzes the assets and contributions of Walker Buehler (The “Player” or “Mr. Buehler”) to be reflected in his 2020 contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers (“the Club” or “The Dodgers”).  The Major League Baseball (“MLB”) Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”) governs this arbitration hearing and sets the following criteria for determining the player’s award: (1) the quality of the Player’s contribution to this Club during the past season; (2) the quality of the Player’s past compensations; (3) the record of the Player’s past compensation; (4) comparative baseball salaries; (5) the existence of any physical or mental defects on the part of the Player; and (6) the recent performance of the Club, including, but not limited to, its League standing and attendance as an indication of public acceptance.  For competitive salary purposes, the arbitration panel shall give particular attention to the contracts of Major League service not exceeding one annual service group.

Walker Buehler has accrued 2.168 years of Major League service, surpassing the threshold for Super Two status thus allowing him to be eligible for arbitration.  Mr. Buehler filed for a salary of $4,300,000 while the club has filed for a salary of $3,200,000, creating a midpoint of $3,750,000.  The evidence will show that Mr. Buehler had (1) a phenomenal platform season in spite of a small sample size, and (2) an elite career performance showing consistency and stability, among the best in the league since he began at the Major League level.  Moreover, Mr. Buehler should be rewarded for his gritty performance in the 2020 Playoffs, being a critical component of the Dodger’s unorthodox and untraditional usage of pitchers in the abbreviated season in their quest to become World Series Champions.

Quality of Player’s Contribution During the Platform Season

At first glance, Mr. Buehler’s contributions in his platform year and rankings among his competitors seems underwhelming.  Mr. Buehler seems to be caught in a statistical paradox, where his record does not show the whole picture of his contributions towards his team in this abbreviated and unusual season due to a small sample size.  He did not qualify for any leaderboards in 2020, and thus has diluted rankings.  In order to qualify, a pitcher needs to throw more innings than games his team played in (60 innings for the 2020 season).  In fact, there were only 40 pitchers across the entire league who did qualify, but none of these pitchers played for the Dodgers; a testament to Dave Roberts’ unorthodox usage of the opener in the 2020 season.

Another factor in Buehler’s failure to qualify among pitchers for the leaderboards was the expanded rosters for the 2020 season. Coinciding with COVID-19 protocol, clubs relied more on young players who would typically be on the cusp of making their rosters in a normal year (i.e. Garrett Crochet, Randy Arozarena, Sixto Sanchez, etc.). The expanded rosters thus injected a lot of young blood into the league, but by doing so took away opportunities from players like Walker Buehler. On the Dodgers, young pitchers like Dustin May, Tony Gonsolin and Brusdar Graterol all competed with Mr. Buehler for time on the mound. All of these pitchers were comparable to Mr. Buehler in age, but with less service time. They all recorded significant usage in 2020 with 56, 46.2, and 23.1 IP respectively, which undoubtedly took away opportunities from Mr. Buehler.

Considering his contributions in his platform season, he was given the nod to start in eight games but he was given the opportunity to record a decision in only half of those starts.  Where a decision was available, he was typically pulled in the 5th inning, and never beyond the 6th.  Recording one decision through eight starts is not ideal; however, with the implementation of the opener throughout the league, he fit this mold for the Dodgers when healthy.  

Where Mr. Buehler shined, it showed.  His SO9 was among the elites, edging many top-tiered veterans like Charlie Morton and Mike Clevinger in 2020 with an average of 10.3.  He also had an outstanding BAbip (batting average on balls in play), at .198.  This shows that Mr. Buehler proved to be an instrumental part of their rotation and subsequent success in the shortened regular season, even when paired with a below-average defensive team.  The Dodgers’ defense had a total fielding percentage of .982, which was below the league average.  A very low BAbip paired with a low fielding percentage is typically a volatile combination; however, Buehler’s individual attributes make him a valuable component to his team’s rarely-found success.

Among his team, Walker Buehler did not appear in many games when compared to others.  Because his season was hampered by blisters in an already shortened season, two 10-day IL stints made it tough to find consistent starts during the regular season.  Considering his small-sample sized averages, his BAbip was among the best on his team, with two ahead of him in the team rankings having pitched less than 5 IP each.   

Mr. Buehler was almost exclusively used as an opener in all of the games that he pitched in the 2020 Postseason.  Still haunted by his continued blister issues, he gutted out stellar performances in every start he made.  In his only World Series appearance, he struck out 10 in 6 IP during Game 3.  Mr. Buehler became the youngest pitcher since Josh Beckett (23 y/o in 2003) to strike out double-digit batters in a World Series Game.  Accruing a total ERA of 1.8 and a very low WHIP of 1.2 across all competitions in the 2020 Playoffs is outstanding, and he deserves to be rewarded for being the Dodger’s most consistent starter in the playoffs.  

Length and Consistency of Career Contributions

Mr. Buehler was considered a top prospect out of the 2015 MLB June Amateur Draft. Drafted 24th overall from Vanderbilt University, he was compared to Roy Oswalt due to his build. He possesses an arsenal of pitches; four-seam fastball, curveball, slider, cutter, and sinker. His fastball ranked within the 88th percentile for velocity among the MLB. Additionally, his BAbip remains phenomenal and trends downward. He also shows a pattern of having a mature sense of control over his pitches, with low H9, BB9 and HBP statistics throughout his career. His career BAbip (of .270), but especially his platform season BAbip (of .198) will show that he knows how to force weakly-hit balls that will likely be a put-out.

Past Salary Compensation

Comparative Baseball Salaries

It remains to be seen how much the 2020 season will impact the careers of many, but for some, it brought great success.  One of the fortunate people to benefit from the abbreviated season was Mr. Buehler.  When compared to other arbitration eligible starting pitchers, Mr. Buehler had a (1) fantastic platform season when given the opportunity to play, and an (2) elite, top-tiered career performance showing consistency and stability.  This shows that he is more than deserving of a salary above the midpoint of $3.75 million.  Dallas Keuchel’s agreement for a salary far above the midpoint represents a ceiling that Mr. Buehler smashes with his dominant platform season and career averages.  Mike Clevinger, Gerrit Cole, and José Berríos represent pitchers who were statistically among the best in the game by the time their platform seasons had concluded.  Each of these players are blown out of the water in almost every substantive category by Mr. Buehler, despite the fact that they settled for less than the midpoint.  Among every other first-year arbitration eligible player, including the aforementioned ones, the evidence will show that Mr. Buehler is markedly better in almost every way.

  1. Dallas Keuchel

One pitcher that emulates Mr. Buehler’s style is Houston Astros pitcher Dallas Keuchel.  Although he throws with his other hand, Mr. Keuchel provides a baseline for awarding a player over the midpoint.  He and the Astros avoided arbitration, after settling for $7.25 million, far above the midpoint.  

Considering the much smaller sample size for Mr. Buehler, he possesses a better H9 (5.9 to 7.2), SO9 (10.3 to 8.4), WHIP (.955 to 1.017), and BAbip (.198 to .269) than Keuchel in their platform seasons.  Seemingly contrary to these statistics, Keuchel has the edge over Buehler in ERA (2.48 to 3.44), however the strength in their respective defenses are a factor to be considered.  The 2015 Houston Astros were objectively better on defense as a team, with a fielding percentage of .986 to the 2020 Dodgers’ .982.  With more defensive support, a lower ERA may have been attainable for Mr. Buehler in the 2020 season.

Despite not having the edge over Keuchel during their respective platform seasons, Mr. Buehler’s track record is more impressive when compared to Keuchel’s as a whole.  In less games, Mr. Buehler leads Keuchel in ERA (3.15 to 3.58), WHIP (1.028 to 1.25), H9 (7 to 8.9), BB9 (2.3 to 2.5), SO9 (10.3 to 7) and BAbip (.270 to .298).  

  1. Mike Clevinger

Another starting pitcher that represents a similar style with similar pitches is Cleveland Indians pitcher Mike Clevinger.  While Clevinger elevates with some velocity in his fastballs, he relies more heavily on deceptive pitches.  He displays a more aggressive, attacking style of pitching than Mr. Buehler does, with an exceptional 12-6 curveball.  Mike Clevinger and the Cleveland Indians agreed on an amount slightly below the midpoint, at $4.1 million.  

Mike Clevinger relies more on striking out the opposing batter, and thus leads Mr. Buehler in SO9 (12.1 to 10.3).  He may have had a better platform season as a whole, however Mr. Buehler has the lower WHIP (.955 to 1.056) and H9 (5.9 to 6.9) which are valuable individualized statistics.  

In their short careers, Mr. Buehler blows Mike Clevinger out of the water.  Walker Buehler has the edge over Clevinger in almost every meaningful statistic.  Mr. Buehler leads in ERA (3.15 to 3.58), WHIP (1.028 to 1.25), H9 (7 to 8.7), BB9 (2.3 to 2.5), SO9 (10.3 to 7), and BAbip (.270 to .298), despite the difference in sample size due to the shortened year.

  1. Gerrit Cole

Another highly touted prospect out of college, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole, had far lesser results in his platform year than Mr. Buehler.  Despite the small-sample size from Mr. Buehler’s platform season, he led Gerrit Cole in every metric possible.  While Gerrit Cole may have deserved to settled for far less than the midpoint, agreeing to a $3.75 million deal with the Pirates, Mr. Buehler’s performance significantly outweighs Gerrit Cole’s and therefore he deserves to be rewarded for a stellar platform season.  

Similarly to his dominance during his platform season, Mr. Buehler leads Gerrit Cole in a substantial number of important categories, like ERA (3.15 to 3.23), WHIP (1.028 to 1.205), H9 (7 to 8.5), SO9 (10.3 to 8.4), and BAbip (.270 to .321).  Because Cole had more BF (2378 to 1469), the average-based statistics should be considered with more weight, but a consistent trend is otherwise shown for Mr. Buehler.  He has averaged a significantly better ERA, WHIP, H9 (7 to 8.5), SO9 (10.3 to 8.4), and BAbip ( .270 to .321), giving the edge to Buehler by a significant margin.

  1. José Berríos

In his platform season, José Berríos unarguably made more contributions towards his team when considering the whole season.  With the Minnesota Twins, he received a decision in 22 of his 32 starts, with only 8 losses.  This is a good return for a young player, but Berríos and other pitchers on the Twins were given a tremendous amount of run support in 2019. The Twins broke the record for homeruns in a single-season and, accordingly, José Berríos’ sub-par ERA of 3.68 does not correlate with his amount of wins. Therefore, like some of the aforementioned players, José Berríos rightfully settled below the midpoint with an agreement for $4.025 million with the Twins.  While José Berríos had worse stats over a larger sample size in his platform season, Mr. Buehler is remarkably better in every category besides BB9 (2.7 to 2.3) and HR9 (1.7 to 1.2).  We believe that Mr. Buehler’s season, despite an abbreviated one, greatly outweighs José Berríos’ modicum of successes.  

Mr. Buehler has proven to be at least a class above Berríos over the span of their careers, as he has a significant lead in WHIP (1.028 to 1.262) and ERA (3.15 to 4.21).  José Berríos does not have the experience through career achievements, but because Buehler is the more disciplined pitcher, he accordingly deserves to be awarded above the midpoint.

Existence of Physical of Mental Defects

A factor that plagued Mr. Buehler in his platform year is that he dealt with a recurring blister issue on his throwing hand.  He was placed on the 10-day IL twice, once in late August, and early September.  Effectively missing out on at least 20 days in an already-shortened season had a detrimental effect in reaching the 60 IP threshold to qualify for leaderboards.  In addition to the blister issues. Walker Buehler had suffered an injury in his rookie season when he was hit in the chest by a linedrive.  He was placed on the 10-day IL with bruised ribs in June of 2018.  

Other than these unpredictable and unforeseeable injuries, the club and the player would agree that Mr. Buehler has sustained a healthy career up to this point, and there is no reason to suspect any significant issues concerning Mr. Buehler’s physical or mental state in the future.

Performance of the Club

The 2020 Los Angeles Dodgers finished the season with the best record in all of baseball while possessing a subpar defense.  As stated prior, the 2020 Dodgers’ fielding percentage was .982. They were successful in their endeavor to become World Series Champions, after foiled attempts in 2017 and 2018.  For reasons previously stated, Walker proved to be a critical piece of the 2020 Playoffs run, as he made pivotal appearances in big games.  The Dodgers won their division outright, topping the San Diego Padres who had the third-best record in the league (43-17 to 37-23).  The Dodgers eventually beat the Padres in the playoffs, sweeping them 3-0.   

Conclusion

In both his major league career and platform year, despite being forced to have a small-sample size for both metrics, Walker Buehler shows that he is more than deserving of receiving a salary of over the midpoint.  This is shown by considering Mr. Buehler’s statistics among other starters, such as Dallas Keuchel, Mike Clevinger, Gerrit Cole, and José Berríos.  Buehler is the player that aligns most with Keuchel, who settled for well over the midpoint, despite having far better stats than Keuchel.  Clevinger, Cole, and Berríos all represent high-quality pitchers that failed to meet Buehler’s echelon of play, serving as a baseline of what is deserving of a salary below the midpoint.  Mr. Buehler has a significant advantage over each of the aforementioned players, and his salary should reflect his dominance.

Note: H/t to fellow WNEU Law students Andrew Fernandes and Erik Scalzi for their help on this project!

What a Second Wave of COVID-19 Means for Professional Sports

Rumblings of increases in infections started to fuel suspicions that a second wave of COVID-19 is inevitable. These fears have manifested into a volatile market, in some of the worst days since March. The paranoia of Quarantine, Part II, is real.

While the MLB’s owners are squabbling over revenue percentages with the players, some leagues have set out to determine how the rest of their season will look in 2020. Some abroad have returned to play (see Bundesliga, Premier League), as others have formed concrete plans (see NBA, MLS).

At the time of conception for these return to play plans, government-mandated quarantines were still in effect. The infection rates were low because the general public had been in quarantine longer than the gestation period for the virus. Since lifting many of these restrictions, the recent return to normal life has clouded judgement.

There was general agreement against cancelling the entire season after being stuck at home for months— this was an easy choice for many fans wishing to see sports back. Today, we are approaching the two week mark from the date that many states reopened. We will get a better picture of this developing scenario in a few days, but there is a direct correlation between the reopening process and the spread of the virus, when compared to the declining rates when we were quarantined.

The virus never went away, we just did.

This paints a grim picture for the return of sports… Travel will be an issue. Being away from families will be an issue. Contact with teammates will be an issue. There is no vaccine, and we don’t have herd immunity yet. Declining infection rates should not have justified the resumption of play when there was some recency bias involved. The timeframe from when these plans were made to when the government mandated quarantine mostly ended, was shorter than the gestation period of the virus. On the backend, experts are recommending that sports should not be played past October.

The time to act on any plan for a return has passed, and I fear that we will have this stop-and-go economy until the discovery of a vaccine. Another wave of COVID-19 is at our doorstep, and an uptick is on the horizon. Sports will suffer from this, and they will face the similar ramifications as they did in the Spring of 2020.

For the reasons mentioned, the resurge in cases is a daunting hurdle for all of professional sports.