Chicago White Sox pitcher Dylan Cease could win the American League Cy Young award and Arizona Diamondbacks ace Zac Gallen has thrown 41⅓ consecutive scoreless innings, but both trail the leader in the Wins Above Replacement metric that will award money for baseball's new pre-arbitration bonus program: Oakland A's catcher Sean Murphy.
A memo distributed to teams Thursday outlined the plan to enrich standout players in the early parts of their careers who still make around the major league minimum, which this season is $700,000. The memo, obtained by ESPN, also included the totals for the new version of WAR created by Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association to reward players.
The $50 million pool, agreed to in the new collective bargaining agreement and funded by the league, starts by distributing money to players who place high in awards voting, which will allow Cease, star rookies Julio Rodriguez, Adley Rutschman, Michael Harris II and Spencer Strider, and potentially others to reap the largest paydays.
Those who are not yet in arbitration, in which players typically with three to six years of service negotiate their salaries, receive $2.5 million for winning the MVP or Cy Young awards; $1.75 million for second place in either and $1.5 million for finishing third; $1 million for fourth- or fifth-place finishes or first-team All-MLB honors; $750,000 for first place in Rookie of the Year voting; and $500,000 for second place in Rookie of the Year and second-team All-MLB.
Once those awards are handed out, the remainder of the pool -- which would have been $39.75 million last year -- is split among the 100 players in the group with the highest WAR.
Tops in the group right now is Murphy, the 27-year-old catcher who is hitting .252/.333/.442 this season. While his offensive numbers pale compared to some of his peers, Murphy gains significant value from his fielding numbers and the positional adjustment that rewards more difficult defensive positions, such as catcher and shortstop.
The rest of the top 10 include Houston designated hitter Yordan Alvarez, Cleveland second baseman Andres Gimenez, Tampa Bay left-hander Shane McClanahan, Seattle's Rodriguez, St. Louis shortstop Tommy Edman, Cease, Los Angeles Dodgers starter Tony Gonsolin, Gallen and Toronto catcher Alejandro Kirk. Despite signing long-term contract extensions, Alvarez and Rodriguez are still eligible for the bonuses.
Among the top 25 are nine starting pitchers, seven catchers, four infielders, four outfielders and one DH. Less than a month remains in the regular season for players to improve their standing.
To calculate how much in bonus money each player will receive, the WARs of the top 100 players will be added up and whatever percentage of the sum an individual's WAR constitutes, he will receive that proportion of the leftover pool following the awards. For example, there were 276 WAR in last year's class. At 5.2 WAR, Murphy would receive around 1.9% of the $39.75 million -- just shy of $750,000. If Cease wins the Cy Young, his combined takeaway would exceed $3 million, illustrating the value of awards in the system.
The WAR metric, according to the memo, "was designed to represent the contributions Players make on the field as comprehensively and accurately as possible, while also achieving a high degree of correlation with publicly available WAR metrics."
Hitters earn value in four categories: batting (based on their weighted on-base average), baserunning (stolen bases and advancing on batted balls), fielding (for position players, judged by Outs Above Average and for outfielders, throwing arms; among catchers, for framing pitches, throwing out runners and blocking balls in the dirt) and positional adjustment.
Pitcher WAR is a combination of the two most prominent calculations: runs allowed per nine innings, used by Baseball-Reference, and Fielding Independent Pitching, preferred by FanGraphs. Relievers are given extra credit for pitching in higher-leverage situations.