The New York Yankees won their arbitration case against Dellin Betances today, allowing them to pay the reliever $3 million this year instead of the $5 million he filed for. But it apparently wasn’t enough for Yankees president Randy Levine simply to be able to underpay the three-time All-Star, because he then went off and accused Betances of requesting an “over the top” salary “not based on reality.”
Levine called a press conference this morning where he criticized Betances’s agent for “using” him to try to “change a marketplace.” He went on to say that the salary requested by Betances would be appropriate only for an elite closer rather than a set-up man because “he doesn’t have the stats.” Betances’s request was the equivalent of Levine claiming “I’m not the president of the Yankees, I’m an astronaut,” he said.
It’s not surprising that Betances lost his arbitration case, as baseball’s arbitration process is naturally set up to give the teams leverage over the players. Relief pitchers are in an especially unenviable spot here—arbitration success often depends on a player’s ability to accumulate counting stats to prove his value, which is obviously not a system that offers many opportunities for non-closers. But it’s ridiculous for a team executive to go out of his way to admonish one player for simply trying to negotiate his salary. And it’s especially ridiculous that Levine would demonstrate a seemingly willful misunderstanding of bullpen value and compensation in order to scorn that player.
There’s first the fact that $2 million should be relatively nothing to an organization as wealthy as the Yankees, especially when it comes to one of the team’s best players. There’s also the comparison Levine made to an “elite closer.” Asking for $5 million a year is not asking to be paid like an elite closer. The Yankees are paying Aroldis Chapman an average annual salary of more than $17 million. The Dodgers are paying Kenley Jansen $16 million, and the Giants are paying Mark Melancon more than $15 million. Given just the market value of relief pitching this offseason alone, a closer who makes $5 million a year is likely not elite. A closer who makes $5 million a year is Shawn Kelley.
More absurd than Levine’s comparison to an elite closer’s pay is the assumption it relies on, particularly the disdainful note that Betances doesn’t have the old-school strength of a closer’s stats. The Yankees themselves can attest to the value of a building a bullpen around the assets of set-up men, rather than a closer alone—this is the same team that used Betances alongside Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman for the first half of last year, before swapping the latter two for prospects at the deadline in a quick rebuilding move. After being traded to Cleveland, Miller went on to prove the value of a team using its best reliever when the stakes are highest rather than when simply sticking them in the traditional closer’s spot and leaving it at that. That’s not to say that a definitive bullpen management revolution is finally here or that these changes would make sense for every team, let alone every reliever. That’s simply to say that the look of “elite” relief pitching is demonstrably changing, and the worth of an elite set-up man or otherwise flexible bullpen arm is clear. It’s stupid for Levine to ignore that for the sole purpose of devaluing and underpaying one of his best pitchers.
Betances, for his part, made his thoughts on Levine’s comments clear: