No Bad Blood
By Michael Horvath
It is officially that time of year again in the wonderfully complex world of Major League Baseball (“MLB”) contracts and arbitration. The players are antsy for spring training, the agents are elbow deep in hearing preparation, and the fans are still trying to occupy themselves until the first pitch of Opening Day. In the past few weeks, many deals have been made, many contracts have been signed, and several important trades have commenced. Perhaps the spotlight of where free agents Manny Machado and Bryce Harper will land has taken the spotlight away from the rest of baseball’s offseason fun. As an avid baseball enthusiast and arbitration-tracker, I feel the need to discuss one of the more underrated, yet interesting, negotiations from this offseason: Michael Fulmer of the Detroit Tigers.
There is nothing ‘normal’ about Michael Fulmer’s case. Fulmer is eligible in 2019 for his first year of MLB salary arbitration. Typically, this status applies to players who have acquired three or more years, but less than six years, of Major League service. Fulmer, however, qualifies as a ‘‘Super-2,’’ which is a designation that allows a select group of players to become eligible for salary arbitration before reaching three years of service. To qualify for the Super-2 designation, players must rank in the top 22% in terms of service time among those who have served between two and three years in the majors. Fulmer has filed for a salary of $3.4M and the Detroit Tigers (“Club” or “Tigers” hereafter”) have filed for $2.8M, creating an astonishing salary gap for a first-year arbitration case at $600K.  February 1st kicked off the first day of salary arbitration hearings in Lakeland, Florida and Mr. Fulmer still remains one of few players without a contract.
The crux of the case revolves around Mr. Fulmer being a very capable player but having an unorthodox service record in the MLB. When deciding arbitration cases, the two most important factors are a player’s career contributions and platform season, which is the season before the arbitration year in question. Viewing his career numbers, it seems as if he has put together a solid profile to date. Mr. Fulmer has posted a career 3.81 ERA in 75 games started with 356 strikeouts and a 1.189 ERA.  Not bad, right? Even more impressive was his rookie season in 2016 where Mr. Fulmer produced an amazing 3.06 ERA, a 1.119 WHIP, and 132 strikeouts in 159 innings.  The same year, Mr. Fulmer won the American League Rookie of the Year Award and finished 10th in Cy Young Award voting, which are two amazing accomplishments for a first-year player.
If things had stayed the same, the Tigers would not have even flinched when Mr. Fulmer filed for $3.4M this year. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Despite a 2017 All-Star Game appearance, Mr. Fulmer has struggled over the past year and a half. In his 2018 platform season, Mr. Fulmer posted a 4.69 ERA, a 1.315 WHIP, and only produced three wins for the Club.  Additionally, the player suffered the second season-ending injury of his career when, in September, 2018, he tore his meniscus while fielding a bunt. What makes this case intriguing is that Mr. Fulmer has done the opposite of what most players do in their pre-arbitration careers. The average player will trend upward: start slow early, get adjusted to the speed of the game, and have their best year during their platform season. Conversely, Mr. Fulmer came out guns-a-blazing in his rookie year, he has trended downward in performance, and has proven to be injury prone along the way.
This case is different because it is going to be decided based on what the arbitration panel predicts from Mr. Fulmer: is he the 2016 Rookie of the Year caliber player or is he the regressive, injury prone starting pitcher that isn’t a vital performer to the Club? Whichever direction to which the panel points that $600K salary will tell us all we need to know. Fortunately for both sides, Mr. Fulmer understands that this is just a matter of business opinions. He claims that “It is nothing personal” and “There is no bad blood here.”  While I think the Tigers should have settled and awarded Mr. Fulmer the $3.4M, I understand their concerns. I think it is in their best interest to keep their go-to pitcher happy and show confidence in him, especially in this period of struggle for the organization. Additionally, coming into this year the Tigers have not gone to an arbitration hearing since 2001, which they have now sacrificed in finalizing this contractual agreement.  But that just goes to show how important this deal is overall.
In short, the Club will enter this hearing displaying their concerns about Michael Fulmer and showing his regression since 2016. They will harp on the platform year and zero-in on statistics and injuries from last season to refrain from paying Mr. Fulmer that extra $600K on the other side, the agents for Mr. Fulmer will be ready to prove his potential, show his value to the Club, and discuss the accomplishments of their client to date. But in the end, the real question is: “What do you think, Mr. Arbitrator?”
References: : McCosky, Chris. “Michael Fulmer Arbitration Case Goes Deeper than $600K Salary Gap.” Detroit News, AP, 24 Jan. 2019, www.detroitnews.com/story/sports/mlb/tigers/2019/01/24/michael-fulmer-detroit-tigers-arbitration-case-goes-deeper-than-600-k-salary-gap/2666982002/. : https://www.baseball-reference.com/ : Id. : Id. : Id. at  : Id. at .
*Michael Horvath is a first year student at Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law and a staff writer for the Sports Law Society Blog.