John Coppolella is in his third season as the Director of Baseball Administration for the Atlanta Braves. He previously spent seven years with the New York Yankees as the Assistant Director of Pro Scouting and a Baseball Operations Assistant. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame and a former Student Manager for the Fightin’ Irish football team (editor’s note: Go Blue), he took some time to answer some questions about the salary arbitration process:
Walk us through how the team decides what number to offer in arbitration. How do you put a value on a player, and how do you factor in his service time?
Each player is his own individual case. Within that case and for that player, there is no set formula in terms of how we arrive at a number. Typically, we will look at relevant and recent comparable players with similar statistical performance and service time who ideally would play the same position.
We just settled a case with Jeff Francoeur, and it was difficult, both for our club and his agents, to identify comparable players. Everybody knows it was a difficult 2008 season for Jeff, but he was still a player who had historic bulk statistics (games played/started, plate appearances, hits, runs, RBI, etc) as a first-time arbitration-eligible player. He had also achieved some awards and remains one of our club’s more popular players. Jeff ended up getting paid more than some players who had a better 2008 season but less than some players who had worse career bulk statistics.
How much do you weigh past precedent in formulating the team’s offer?
Past precedent definitely plays a role, but as any agent will tell you, the most relevant contracts signed are the most recent. According to a study by the Associated Press, this year’s group of arbitration-eligible players reportedly earned a record increase of 172 percent. There’s no doubt that salaries escalate more in arbitration than free agency. There are many reasons for this – beyond it being a flawed process – but the biggest, in my opinion, is once you tender a contract to an arbitration-eligible player the power shifts completely to that player and his agent. In free agency, until a player signs, clubs, to a degree, can still determine a player’s salary.
How much game theory is involved? Do you ever consider what number the player might file, since the panel has to choose either yours or his?
Yes, but to a degree. We can try to make educated guesses as to what number the player might file, but the most important thing for us is filing a number we feel we can defend, both to the agents and, potentially, to the arbitrators in a hearing.
Once the numbers are filed, how relevant do they become in negotiations (assuming both sides want to avoid a hearing)?
Once numbers are filed, for the most part, the negotiation becomes more about numbers than about player comparables. Both sides talk more in terms of the midpoint – “we won’t settle for anything above the midpoint” – as each side tries to work toward an agreement.
The increased relevance of filing numbers can be seen in this year’s settlements. Consider the fact that, of the 46 players who filed, only three cases went to a hearing this year. Excluding the 12 players who signed long-term contracts after numbers were filed, 11 of 34 cases settled at the midpoint. Many of the settlements that were above (5 cases) or below (15 cases) the midpoint were relatively close.
How important is it to the Braves to get a deal done before the hearing? Some teams seem to pride themselves on never actually going to arbitration.
I don’t think any club looks forward to going to arbitration – it’s a lose-lose proposition. Players are present for their hearings and the points you make in a case can damage the relationship between the player and the club or, worse, affect a player’s confidence and mindset at the very beginning of a season. As our General Manager Frank Wren says, “you win the battle but lose the war.” And if you lose the case, after pointing out in detail every single shortcoming of a player, it’s a real double-whammy.
That being said, we won’t buy players out of hearings. Our Assistant General Manager, Bruce Manno, and I had our suitcases packed and flights booked for two hearings this year and our cases were ready. We don’t look forward to hearings, but if it has to happen we will always be prepared.
At what point will you stop negotiating with the player? If progress is being made, will you continue even after the hearing?
Up until a hearing, I don’t think there’s ever really a point where you stop negotiating. You can get deals done on the courthouse steps or even as the trial begins. I think once the hearing begins and the blood is spilled, so to speak, the chance for a deal is greatly diminished. Ultimately, we will do whatever makes the most sense for the Braves.
How do you build your case? What key points do you usually center it around?
In a typical year I will begin looking at player comparables for potential arbitration-eligible players during the last month of the season. Almost immediately after our season ends, I will finalize these comparables and discuss them with Frank and Bruce. Once we feel good about those comparables we discuss them with our arbitration practitioners, Mark Rosenthal and Alex Tamin. As the process develops, and negotiations evolve or stagnate, Mark and Alex begin preparing massive outlines and presentations on the remaining arbitration-eligible players. If we end up in a hearing, they present the case on behalf of the Braves. Mark and Alex consult with a number of clubs, have tons of experience, and do an outstanding job.
After talking through each player and potential case with Frank, Bruce, Mark, and Alex, the key points for each case become apparent. Like I said earlier, each player is his own individual case. Depending upon who the player is and what type of season he had, we structure key points in a strategic manner to best fit our argument. It’s the same way agents build their cases. In the end it’s all about performance and the players who have performed the best will get paid the most.
How much information do you ‘save’ for the rebuttals? Will you try to project the other side’s argument?
It’s not incredibly difficult to project the other side’s arguments. If Player X hit 30 home runs but has a .210 AVG, the agent will argue the 30 home runs while we will argue the .210 AVG. Obviously, that’s an extremely simplistic example, but it basically comes down to the idea that the agents will push the numbers and factors that make their players look the best.
The other thing is, the representatives for the player and the club have been through this process countless times. It’s not like a television drama where a surprise witness is called in or a case turns at the last minute. The player’s numbers, his contributions to the team and city, all of it – it is what it is.
How does the player’s agent affect your preparation?
Very little. Like I said, we are going to prepare a case that puts the Braves in the best possible position whether the player’s agent is Scott Boras or Scott Baio. As you work in the industry you develop relationships with agents that might help to facilitate an agreement more easily or make negotiations more amicable, but in terms of preparation it makes no difference.
What other changes, if any, could make the system more efficient for all sides?
It’s a flawed system, for sure, but I don’t have the audacity to think that I could come up with anything better. A lot of bright people who have been in the game a lot longer than I have agreed to this system in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). It’s not difficult to pick apart the process, but it’s the only system we have at this time. If we used the National Hockey League’s system – where the panel can choose a number in between the player and club file numbers – it would create just as many problems as solutions.
The only potential change I might recommend is the location of the hearings. Under the current CBA, the site of the hearings rotates every other year between Phoenix and Tampa. This year the hearings were in Phoenix, so if we had gone to any hearings we would have had to pull our players out of Spring Training and have them fly cross-country. It would be much easier if they could simply drive to Tampa. However, if we had two sites for hearings this would create problems in as much as particular arbitrators on the panel may be assigned to only one location. It would be difficult for clubs and agents, not to mention Major League Baseball’s Labor Relations Department and Player’s Association, to agree on which panelists should be sent to which location.
You’re also involved in payroll analysis and forecasting. Tell us a bit about what goes into that.
In some ways it’s similar to the arbitration process. It’s as simple as entering a contract into a database and as difficult as projecting arbitration-eligibles for other clubs. Most clubs, on a 25-man roster, by and large, will use five starting pitchers, seven relief pitchers, two catchers, six infielders, and five outfielders. Obviously, some clubs deviate from that and may carry 13 pitchers, three catchers, etc. Using information from our scouts and personnel, media, and my own personal experiences with roster construction, I put forth the best possible educated guess for a 25-man roster for each club. This is an entity that changes everyday for every club, but it allows Frank to see not only what we may be competing against on the field but more importantly in the bank account.
Bill Shanks wrote a book a couple of years back gushing over the Braves, which was mostly hostile to statistics and sabermetrics. Describe the culture within the Braves regarding newer, advanced stats.
The culture within the Braves is to find the best players, period. In order to find the best players we use as much information as possible throughout the process. That process begins with our scouts, trusting in what they see, hear, and project in, about, and for a player. I truly believe we have the best scouts in baseball, a virtual All-Star cast of former players, managers, general managers, farm directors, and scouting directors: Jim Fregosi, Chuck McMichael, Dom Chiti, Dick Balderson, Tony DeMacio, Tim Conroy, and Jeff Wren, and that’s just our Major League scouts.
I also truly believe we have the best scouting and player development system in baseball. The work being done by Roy Clark and his staff on the amateur side, Johnny Almaraz and his staff on in the international side, and Kurt Kemp and his staff on the player development side is nothing short of outstanding. I can’t speak for those three individuals and their methods, but the results speak for themselves. I can say that there is a synergy among all those departments and within our entire baseball operations group that provides us with a competitive advantage when it comes to identifying talent.
And yet that isn’t enough. We want to continue to get better and to learn more about players and methods. Just as we surround our organization with the best scouts we want to provide Frank with the best information to supplement the contributions made by those scouts. To that end, we explore any and all statistics that may be relevant to a given player. We are on the cutting edge of newer, advanced stats and have created some of our own statistics and formulas, which obviously we cannot discuss. I think that portraying the Braves as hostile to statistics and sabermetrics couldn’t be further from the truth.
Speaking of scouting, you signed Edwar Ramirez for the Yankees and Jorge Campillo for the Braves, two diamonds in the rough. Tell us about what you saw in them.
On Edwar Ramirez, it was a case of a pitcher whose statistics simply jumped off the page. During a routine check of independent league statistics, an intern named Kiley McDaniel and I came across Ramirez’s numbers with the Edinbug Coyotes in the summer of 2006: 45 strikeouts in 26 innings and a 1.07 ERA. After talking it over with my superiors I called up the area scout who lived closest to Edinburg, Mark Batchko, and he drove 3+ hours on a moment’s notice to lay eyes on the player. I remember talking to Batchko on the 4th of July from a pizza stand in a mall in my wife’s hometown of Peekskill, and hearing how much he liked the player. I called it into the office, called up the independent league, worked out an agreement, and we signed the player the next day. If not for the work of McDaniel or Batchko, he wouldn’t have been a Yankee.
On Jorge Campillo, again, it was a case of a pitcher whose statistics simply jumped off the page. I knew Campillo well from charting games in the American League and I remembered he had Tommy John surgery in late 2005. Typically, pitchers take at least 18 months to fully regain their velocity and stuff once they have that surgery. If you look at Campillo’s splits from 2007 in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League there is a big difference between how he pitched in the first half (6-5, 3.48 ERA) and second half (3-1, 1.99 ERA) of the season. There was a clear correlation between the recovery of his elbow and the effectiveness of his pitching. Ultimately, though, the credit should go to Campillo and to the pitching coaches who worked with him, Roger McDowell and Guy Hansen, among others.
Since the 2007 season we’ve had a tremendous amount of success in the minor league free agent market, signing players like Campillo, Willie Harris, Buddy Carlyle, Jeff Bennett, Luis Vadlez, and a number of other players who have been added to our 40-man roster. That’s just the past two years. The key is working together to identify talent and trusting in the staff we have to get the most out of these players.
What are your other main responsibilities with the Braves?
When John Schuerholz and Frank brought me aboard in October 2006, one of the first things they wanted me to do was create databases that systematically evaluate every organization. This led to the creation of a number of new systems, foremost among them our prospect lists and organizational summaries. The never-ending maintenance of these systems keeps me extremely busy, but also translates naturally to player evaluations, acquisitions, and contract negotiations.
Some other responsibilities include charting every Braves home game in our scout section, seeing and writing up all of our full-season minor league affiliates, and providing statistical analysis and studies. Candidly, with the Braves, it’s more about finding a way to be successful than it is about trying to assign the reason for success to a particular individual or group. We are fortunate to have a cohesive front office where a lot of departments overlap and everyone works together toward a common goal.
On a personal level, where do you see yourself in five years?
Since John took over the Braves in 1991, the two most successful organizations in baseball have been the Braves and the New York Yankees. I’ve had the privilege of working for the Braves the past three seasons and the Yankees the preceding seven seasons. I’ve been fortunate to learn from people like John, Frank, Bruce, Brian Cashman, Damon Oppenheimer, and Mark Newman, among countless others. The most important things to me are winning and learning.
Nobody knows what opportunities may arise and everyone has to do what’s best for their family, but I sincerely hope I am with the Braves in five years. I believe in the people in our office and on our staff, the moves we’ve made, and the players we have in our system. If our players perform to their potential we can compete with any club in the division.