On May 24, 2019, George Springer sustained what appears to be a significant hamstring injury. Almost immediately, Twitter fired off comments that Yordan Alvarez should be in Houston the next day. Alvarez has been phenomenal in Round Rock, but today is not his day; Derek Fisher is being recalled instead of Alvarez and Tucker. There are some baseball reasons Alvarez is not heading to Houston, but the primary reason is financial. Let us focus on his eventual move to Houston in the context of one of the most confusing baseball collective bargaining rules: the Super Two.
Definition of Super Two
Super Two is defined on the official MLB website as:
Players typically must accrue three years of Major League service time — with one year of service time equaling 172 days on the 25-man roster or the Major League injured list — to become eligible for salary arbitration. Super Two is a designation that allows a select group of players to become eligible for arbitration before reaching three years of service time.
To qualify for the Super Two designation, players must rank in the top 22 percent, in terms of service time, among those who have amassed between two and three years in the Majors. Typically, this applies to players who have two years and at least 130 days of service time, although the specific cutoff date varies on a year-to-year basis.
What Super Two is not
Before we break down what this definition of Super Two means, let’s make sure we are aligned on what it is not. A player’s Super Two status does not impact their years of control. A player has six years of MLB service time under team control before they reach free agency. The definition of a year is 172 days of service time.
Let’s take one more definition rabbit trail before we continue. Service time listings for players are often represented as for example 2.171 or 2.002. This means 2 years and 171days and 2 years and 2 days. There is no 2.172 because by definition 2.172 is actually 3.000. This detail is important when understanding any discussion on service time.
Therefore, a player with 5.171 years of service time is NOT eligible for free agency, and a player with one more day of service 6.000 is eligible for free agency.
The baseball season typically lasts 187 calendar days, and therefore almost all players (except a few this year — more about that later) wait 16 days into the season (or, more precisely, when there are only 171 days left in the season) to be promoted to the big leagues. It matters less when the season starts (for players on Seattle and Oakland this year) as it does how many days are left in the season. Those 16 days in the minors under current rules represent a year of control. Essentially, a team can get 6.171 years of control (nearly seven seasons) before a player hits free agency.
You may be asking why I am taking the time to explain this before I explain Super Two. Many analysts misunderstand Super Two status as impacting years of control. It doesn’t. Super Two does impact the years of arbitration.
What is Super Two, then?
Per the definition above, all players with three years (two years and at least 172 days) are eligible for arbitration for their fourth-year contract. This is extremely valuable for a player and often represents a salary that is 2X or even 10X the previous year. Players with less than 2.001 years of service will not be eligible for arbitration, and they will typically earn as a pre-arb player between $500M and $600M per season. Super Two refers to those between 2.000 and 2.171 years of service. Of that group of players, the 22 percent with the most service time are eligible for arbitration as Super Two players. As stated above, this generally happens at around the 2.130 mark (May 23 this year.) However, getting this wrong by a day or two has significant financial impact. The past few years of Super Two cutoffs have been:
To be on the safer side, a team may wait until a player has, say, 116 days of service left to insure they are not Super Two eligible for arbitration.
Why Super Two matters
The best way to illustrate this is to show the multiple scenarios.
A player who starts opening day (or before the 172-day mark) might not sign with the team and could leave after six seasons. The Super Two–eligible star player could make $55–$60MM over his first seven years. The non–Super Two–eligible star player could make $35–$40MM over the same seven-year period. This explains why players are 1) held back to mid-April and 2) often held back until early June.
Another way to think about this is to say: This is the real reason Alvarez is not an Astro today. Give it two weeks.
Why Super Two may not matter
One may ask “Why are so many players being promoted early this year?” First, I am not positive there are fundamentally more players promoted in April or May of 2019 than in previous years, but I think a line from Chandler Rome in the Houston Chronicle may provide the answer here:
Whether the Super 2 will exist or be reformed by a new collective bargaining agreement in 2021 is also a question Luhnow posed.
This entire discussion regarding Super Two assumes this system will remain after the collective bargaining agreement in 2021 or in any supplemental agreements reached before then. I do not believe it will. In two recent CBA articles, The Toxic MLB Collective Bargaining Agreement and more specifically in Medicine for MLB’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, I laid out a proposal:
Team control years are reduced in a two-stage process.
- 1st year of CBA: Revise the definition of yearly service time downward to require only 50% of service days (about 94 days instead of 172). Under this revised system, a player’s service time count as a full year if he has more than half of the yearly service days. This will reduce a team’s willingness to delay promotion of prospects to get the extra year of team control. To stay under the half year, a team would lose a potential young star player for three months instead of three weeks. Owners are less likely to take advantage of this scenario.
- 3rd year of CBA: Drop team control years from six years to five — three of pre-arbitration and two of arbitration. Arbitration rules for both years will be set as in year three now.
This would eliminate the Super Two definition and make it so that if one played for more than half a year, that player would have Super Two–like status. This simple change of 20 to 30 days of service time would likely set teams to not wait until mid-year for their top players — like Alvarez — and would lead to far more promotions in April.
The question then would become whether current players would be grandfathered into the rules that applied when they were called up. The above quote from Luhnow indicates that he is thinking about that too.
Therefore, if there are more prospects earlier this year, the reason is that their franchises are assuming the service time rules will change in the next CBA.
In this case, the question of whether Alvarez should be in Houston or not rests upon a combination of the financial picture and whether the Astros believe he can play left field or first base in the major leagues. As of right now, the Astros appear to believe the factors don’t add up in Alvarez’s favor.