Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 1/18/12
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Yesterday was the deadline for arbitration-eligible players and their teams to exchange dueling salary figures in advance of arbitration hearings in February. The San Francisco Giants set a record in their $17 million offer to Tim Lincecum, the highest such amount ever offered a player with fewer than six years of service time. Lincecum countered with his own record-setting figure of $21.5 million.

Those numbers are close enough to lay the groundwork for a deal between Lincecum and the Giants, somewhere in the $19-$20 million range. That’s right where our own Matt Swartz pegged Lincecum’s 2012 salary ($19.2 million) in his arbitration predictions published at MLB Trade Rumors.

If the two sides don’t reach agreement before an arbitration hearing, who has the better case?

Baseball arbitrators are to make their decision based on the player’s performance, his prior salary, and the salaries of other players in his service-time class. The arbitration rules, however, do contain a “special accomplishments” provision which allows players to compare themselves to other players who’ve achieved similar accomplishments in the same time frame.

To the numbers.

The Best Case For Lincecum

Lincecum will focus on the entirety of his five-year career. As Giants beat writer Henry Schulman noted, Lincecum is one of only two pitchers in MLB history to pitch more than 1,000 innings, have more than 1,000 strikeouts and record an ERA lower than 3.00 over the course of first five seasons. The other pitcher was Tom Seaver. And Seaver didn’t win a Cy Young award in his first five seasons, while Lincecum won two, in 2008 and 2009.

Lincecum also stands out when compared to other starters with more than 800 innings pitched from 2007-2011. Over that five-year period, Lincecum leads the majors with 1,123 strikeouts , a K/9 of 9.87, and a HR/9 of .58. He’s also tied for second in ERA with Johan Santana (2.98), behind only Roy Halladay (2.81).

With those numbers and his two Cy Young awards, Lincecum will argue — based on the “special accomplishments” provision — that his salary should be comparable to other recent Cy Young winners who have maintained elite production over the last five years: Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee. Indeed, Lincecum’s $21.5 million arbitration demand is equal to Lee’s salary for 2012. Halladay will make $20 million in 2012. Sabathia will earn $23 million. The median of those two figures? $21.5 million.

The Best Case for the Giants

The Giants will, of course, acknowledge Lincecum’s unheralded accomplishments for a five-year player, but will focus in particular on the last two seasons. In 2010 and 2011, Lincecum slipped from the top rankings in most statistical categories, falling behind Halladay and Lee in ERA, behind Clayton Kershaw in total strikeouts and K/9, and behind quite a few other pitchers in HR/9.

In fact, several other starters close in service time to Lincecum have outperformed him over the last two seasons in all key statistical categories other than strikeouts and K/9. Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver, Cole Hamels, Felix Hernandez and Matt Cain — all of whom began their major league careers in 2006, one year before Lincecum’s debut — had lower ERAs, lower WHIP, and higher K/BB than Lincecum over the prior two seasons.

Of those pitchers, Verlander will be the highest paid in 2012, earning $20 million under the five-year contact he signed with the Tigers before the 2010 season. Next is Hernandez at $18.5, under his five-year deal with the Mariners. Cain and Hamels will each make $15 million in 2012 — Cain in the last year of his three-year contract with the Giants, and Hamels via the one-year deal he agreed to yesterday with the Phillies. The Angels will pay Weaver $14 million in the first year of his new five-year deal in which he admitted to giving a home town discount.

Where Will It Come Out?

Two years ago, in their first foray into the arbitration process, the Giants offered $8 million and Lincecum — coming off two consecutive Cy Young awards — countered with $13 million. As they waited for the arbitrators to enter the hearing room, the two sides struck a deal for two years and $23 million — $8 million plus a $1 million bonus in 2010 and $13 million plus a $1 million bonus for 2011.

The Giants’ $17 million offer would be a 30 percent increase for Lincecum over his 2011 salary. A jump to $21.5 million would be a 65 percent increase.

The arbitrators must choose a number. There’s no compromise. If it gets that far, my bet is on the Giants’ $17 million offer. It’s more in line with Lincecum’s service-time peers who have outperformed him over the last two seasons. Yes, he won the Cy Young in 2008 and 2009, but he has not kept pace with Halladay, Lee and Sabathia, and shouldn’t be compensated at their level.

At least not in 2012.

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