Randy Levine Makes a Fool of Himself and the Yankees

Here are some undeniable facts.

  1. Dellin Betances was the third-best reliever in baseball by WAR last year.
  2. He has the third-best strikeout rate, all-time, among pitchers who have thrown at least 250 innings.
  3. He has 22 career saves, with 12 of them coming last year.

Betances, eligible for arbitration for the first time, filed for a $5 million salary this winter; the Yankees countered at $3 million. This was the second largest gap for any player that got to the filing stage this year, only $100,000 behind the $2.1 million difference that Drew Pomeranz ($5.7M request) had with the Red Sox ($3.6M offer), and unlike the Red Sox, the Yankees decided to not split the difference and instead head to a hearing.

Salary arbitration has historically been unkind to relievers who don’t have the Proven Closer title, but as Betances and his representatives at Excel argued, he also isn’t exactly a typical setup man. Over the last three years, no reliever has thrown more innings than Betances. Only Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller have higher strikeout rates. Only Chapman, Miller, Wade Davis, and Zach Britton have lower ERAs. By any metric besides “saves”, Betances rates as an elite bullpen arm, and the game is increasingly acknowledging the value of non-closer relievers.

The Yankees are even one of the teams accepting this new reality, as they spent last off-season building a super bullpen. This acceptance of non-closer relief value is why they gave Andrew Miller $36 million for four years even though he had, at that point, one career save. The Yankees know what’s up. It’s not about the inning, it’s about the leverage of the situation, and you don’t need to earn a save to be the reason the team held a lead.

Baseball has moved beyond the notion of closers and others. As we saw in the postseason, baseball is even moving away from the idea of your best pitcher having to be saved for the end of the game. These days, tradition and by-the-book management are being cast aside in favor of doing whatever it takes to win.

This morning, however, the arbiters in charge of Betances’ case sided with the Yankees, picking a $3 million valuation over a $5 million salary, likely because there wasn’t an historical precedent for a guy with 22 career saves getting $5 million in his first trip through arbitration. The attempt to move the economics of the game’s arbitration system more in line with the reality of how Major League Baseball actually works fell short, and so now the Yankees get to benefit again from Betances’ willingness to pitch in any situation by holding that flexibility against him in order to reduce his future salaries.

But instead of simply taking the high road and attempting to repair any damage done to the relationship with one of the team’s most valuable players, Team President Randy Levine instead decided to throw lighter fluid on a fire that could have easily been extinguished instead.

On a conference call with reporters today, Levine took some time to lay into Betances’ agents with a verbal machete, and took a few sideways swipes at Betances himself in the process. Here are the greatest hits, beat-by-beat.

This was after Levine said that Betances “doesn’t have the stats” to make him worth $5 million. By which, of course, he means that Betances didn’t have enough saves, because that’s the only stat that you could look at and conclude anything other than that this guy is an upper-tier relief pitcher.

The arbitration process is designed (by both parties) to reward old-school statistics, and neither side has shown much interest in modernizing the process, so arbitration overpays closers and sluggers and underpays defenders and setup men. Betances’ agents took a stab at trying to change the degree to which great non-closer relievers are undervalued, but this particular arbiter wasn’t quite ready to go there yet, so for now, the system will continue to take money from elite middle guys and give it to guys who pitch the ninth inning.

But what value was there in Levine going after Betances and his representatives after the system had already declared his side the victor? How could the franchise possibly gain anything from his bloviating celebration of the fact that there’s a systemic bias in place that works specifically against guys who, like Betances, don’t argue with their manager when asked to pitch at any point in a ballgame? What good could possibly come from Levine insulting Betances for being willing to pitch innings that pay at a reduced rate, and why would the Yankees expect him to continue to do so without complaint now that he knows that they’ll use it as a hammer against him in the future?

Unsurprisingly, Levin’s comments have already backfired. Betances addressed the media and was frank in his remarks. He complained about how the Yankees claimed to love him but then “take me in a room and trash me for about one and a half hours.” Then he said this.

Given how volatile relievers are, maybe the Yankees aren’t planning on re-signing Betances once he’s eligible for free agency anyway, but it certainly sounds like the team may have just hurt their chances of getting a home-town discount from a kid who grew up in Washington Heights. Taking a lifelong Yankee fan, a kid who has turned into one of the better player development success stories in a time when the franchise has struggled to develop another batch of home grown stars, and giving him a reason to look for the exits just seems like a poor way to run a franchise. Even if you don’t think that you’re going to get any extra credit on his free agent contract by settling arbitration cases, this seems like Levine just took some potential value to the organization and lit it on fire for no reason other than he wanted to hear himself talk.

And even in the shorter term, this probably doesn’t help the 2017 Yankees either.

If you’re Dellin Betances, and the team is going to treat you this way even after they win their arbitration case, maybe you’re a little more likely to say that you need a day off here and there. Maybe you’re not as often available to pitch the sixth or seventh inning. Maybe you want to throw 60 innings this year, not 70-90 like you did the last three years, and you’d prefer those all come in the eighth inning with as much notice to warm up as possible. After all, why potentially sacrifice any of your long-term value to another franchise if the Yankees are simply going to argue that your flexibility means you’re a less valuable reliever when they have the chance to save a few bucks.

None of this is a shocking development for those who know the Yankees and their brass. Remember when COO Lon Trost said that fans who buy the most expensive tickets shouldn’t have to sit with people who couldn’t normally afford them? Or when Levine criticized reporters for writing “nonsense” that the Yankees may sell at the trade deadline, right before they sold at the trade deadline?

In the long run, this probably won’t matter much for the Yankees. They’ll use their considerable funds to find another reliever on the free agent market to replace those innings from Betances. They’re the Yankees. They’ll buy a solution, because they can. But Levine just handicapped the franchise for no obvious gain, and the Yankees stopped being The Yankees when they started wasting financial advantages because they assumed they had enough others to cover for obvious mistakes.

Beyond just the Yankees and Betances, this decision — and Levine’s public celebration of the systemic under-valuation of middle relievers — is also just bad for baseball. The game is better if the best players are willing to be used in ways that help their team win without worry that being a team player will cost them money in the long run. Now, unless you have a guaranteed multi-year deal, what’s the incentive to be a non-closing relief ace?

Teams want relievers to be used in this role, but until they’re willing to financially reward them for doing so, the players have every reason to push back on that kind of usage. If Levine and his counterparts are going to forever argue that the only stat that counts for reliever is saves, then we’re going to be stuck watching inefficient bullpen usage, all because an out of touch team president was happy that an arbiter who doesn’t really know much about baseball agreed with the league that 1990s reliever valuations are still relevant in 2017.

Nick is a columnist at FanGraphs, and has written previously for Baseball Prospectus and Beyond the Box Score. Yes, he hates your favorite team, just like Joe Buck. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets, and can contact him at stellinin1 at gmail.

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The Kudzu Kid
7 years ago

This is seriously the dumbest thing I’ve heard a baseball executive say in a long time, and that includes all the Dave Stewart nonsense.

Dave Stewart
7 years ago
Reply to  The Kudzu Kid

He acted like he LOST the freaking arb case.

Dumb ass.