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THE HOT CORNER: Lions' logic leaves them eating crow

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THE HOT CORNER: Lions' logic leaves them eating crow

by Jim Allen (Feb 3, 2011)

The Lions unintentionally helped Hideaki Wakui to his first victory of 2011 last week, when the Saitama Seibu ace emerged from arbitration last Friday with a 33 million yen raise.

The team had insisted that because Wakui's 2010 numbers were down from his Sawamura Award-winning campaign of 2009, he shouldn't get a pay raise at all. The club had hoped to sign him for the same 220 million yen they paid him a year ago, but Wakui balked and took the case to arbitration.

While the Lions were on to something, they failed to objectively prove how much less valuable Wakui's 2010 season was, and this wound up hurting them.

Wakui's case became the first test of Nippon Professional Baseball's new arbitration system. Until 2008, cases were decided by a panel composed of the commissioner and the two league presidents, which had historically favored the teams' suggested figures. Instead, Wakui's salary was in the hands of a panel consisting of a consultant to the commissioner, a former player and a lawyer.

"Essentially, Seibu's point was that Wakui was paid 220 million yen in 2010, but his numbers were not as good in some respects as they had been in 2009," said consultant Katsuhiko Kumazaki, who chaired the committee.

So far so good. A comprehensive analysis of Wakui's past two seasons using analyst Bill James' Win Shares system estimates the pitcher's 2010 season, when he went 14-8, as being 64 percent as valuable as his 2009 campaign when he was 16-6.

The rest of the Lions argument, however, was that Wakui's inability to win one of several key games down the stretch cost them the pennant.

Seibu finished with a .5455 winning percentage, second to the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks' .5468. In four September starts, Wakui went 1-1 with a 5.79 ERA. Crucially, the right-hander blew a four-run lead in Fukuoka on Sept. 18, the opener of a series that saw the Lions swept in three games.

"The team emphasized how he finished the season and its impact on the pennant race," Kumazaki said. "This is understandable since teams are focused entirely on winning the pennant. We had to consider how much weight to give that.

"Every win counts. Winning on Opening Day [as Wakui did] is pretty important, isn't it? You have to consider the season as a whole. Of course, sometimes you're in position to win a crucial game, but that game by itself doesn't decide the pennant race. Opening Day is important, as is the fourth game of the season."

When filing for arbitration, the pitcher's side asked for a salary of 270 million yen based on his 14-8 record and having maintained his spot in the Lions' starting rotation for five consecutive years, with 10-plus wins in each season.

Wakui's reliability--what the Lions had called into question--helped win over the committee.

"It's not a case of which argument wins and which loses," said Tsuneo Horiuchi, a former ace of the Yomiuri Giants. "It's a case of which argument has more points to recommend it."

The committee decided Wakui's argument was sounder and handed him a 15 percent pay hike, saying 20 percent would be too much and 10 percent would be too little.

So how did the Lions end up paying 15 percent more for a player who was perhaps 36 percent less valuable?

One story said Seibu originally wanted to cut Wakui's salary by 10 million yen. However, the story goes, after Yu Darvish received a 170 million yen raise from the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters despite going 12-8 in 2010, the Lions chickened out.

Wakui and Darvish, however, are not similar talents. Darvish's 2010 season was a typical high-quality effort masked by a mediocre won-loss record. Wakui's 14-8 record made his season look better than it really was.

What the Lions needed to tell Wakui was: "Don't kid yourself. Your 2010 season was nowhere near as good as the magic you managed in 2009, but we will give you a 10 million yen raise based on what you've done the past five years."

Because the team failed to objectively demonstrate the value of Wakui's season, they wound up saying he cost them the pennant--an argument the the arbitration committee wisely rejected.

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