You’re probably hearing the words “Super Two” a lot these days.
You hear it every time someone not named Gerrit Cole or Francisco Liriano makes a start for the Pirates. You hear it every time Tyler Glasnow or Jameson Taillon makes a start for Indianapolis. You hear it whenever another team calls up a top prospect early in the season (although oddly enough, you never get the follow-up when those players are struggling, or when it turns out they were only there for a spot start/injury replacement).
At this point, we’ve been through the Super Two process many times. It was huge in 2014 with Gregory Polanco. The year before that, it was Gerrit Cole. The year before that, Starling Marte. And prior to that, it didn’t really matter when prospects came up, since the Pirates were usually out of the race by the end of April.
I assume that everyone knows the Super Two process, but that can often be a bad assumption. That’s especially the case when I see so many references to “Super Two” being about an extra year of service time. So each year when this situation is relevant, I try to dedicate one article to explaining the process in detail. As you may have guessed, this is that article. If you know the basics, maybe the details here will tell something new. If you know the details, then you might be better off spending your time checking out our latest Top Performers article, which features reports on over a dozen prospects from the last week.
What is Super Two?
Players aren’t eligible for arbitration until they have three full years of service time. Each year of service time is 172 days, and if you’re up all season, you get a full year (the season is usually around 183 days, but you only get credit for 172 in a given year).
Super Two players are the players who are eligible for arbitration after their second full year of service time. In order to qualify, they must be in the top 22% of players with more than two but less than three years of service time.
As a recent example, prior to the 2015 season, the Super Two cutoff was two years and 133 days of service time (expressed as 2.133). Any player with that amount of service time or more was eligible for arbitration early. Jared Hughes qualified for the Pirates, since he had 2.156 years of service time heading into the 2015 season. Vance Worley also qualified at 2.139, beating the deadline by a week. However, Jordy Mercer (2.093) and Jeff Locke (2.016) didn’t have enough days to qualify.
Is the Date the Same Every Year?
Short answer: No.
Super Two always fluctuates, representing the players with the top 22% of service time between two and three years in that given off-season. Here are the historical cutoff dates:
Players who are called up for the first time this year won’t be eligible for Super Two status until after the 2018 season, assuming they remain in the majors after they get called up. We don’t even know what the Super Two cutoff for the upcoming off-season will be, making it extremely difficult to project out to the 2018-19 off-season (and with the upcoming CBA, it’s possible that there either won’t be a Super Two, or will be an adjusted system — the last CBA increased the amount of eligible players).
Because of this uncertainty, teams usually call players up about a week after that 120 days of service time date goes by. This gives them plenty of cushion, just in case the cutoff is lower in the future.
For example, this year, Gerrit Cole had 2.111 years of service time. If he was called up just 19 days earlier in 2013, he would have been eligible for arbitration for the first time this past off-season. But if this year’s cutoff was the 2.122 date from a few years ago, then we’re only talking about an 11 day cushion.
What About an Extra Year of Control?
That’s something totally different. An MLB season is 183 days long, and a year of service time is 172 days. If you keep a player down for a few weeks at the start of the year, you can call him up and have him finish with less than 172 days of service time. This allows you to control him for six more years beyond the current season.
At this point, every player is beyond that deadline for years of control.
So It’s All About Money?
For the most part, yes. But it’s more complex than most make it seem. This is where the “Nutting is Cheap!” arguments start taking over the conversation.
Prospects are held in Triple-A because they have legitimate things to work on. If you only look at the stats, then it’s easy to assume that a player is ready when he actually has things to work on. The best prospects (i.e. the ones who are usually impacted by Super Two) are good enough that they can dominate Triple-A with flaws in their game.
Two years ago, everyone assumed Polanco was ready to come up and make an impact in the Majors around this time, all because he had a 1.015 OPS through his first 5-6 weeks of the season. And yet, he was called up a month later, had a ten game hot streak, then struggled for an entire year in the Majors before he started putting it together. And it took him a year and a half from his call-up to really break out.
Other players are less extreme. Gerrit Cole might be the best case scenario for guys like Glasnow and Taillon. He’s also an example of someone struggling in Triple-A, but still putting up good surface numbers. Cole had a 2.31 ERA in his first month of the year, with 19 strikeouts in 23.1 innings. The problem was that he had 15 walks. That was a problem that carried over from the previous year in Altoona.
He cut down on the walks the next month, with 11 walks in 30.2 innings, although during this development, the surface numbers struggled, with a 4.70 ERA and 20 strikeouts (the ERA was blown up by one really bad outing). Finally, he made two starts in Triple-A where everything came together, with 14 shutout innings and an 8:2 K/BB ratio.
Cole wasn’t magically ready after those two good starts. But Super Two had passed, and it made sense to have him work on his development in the majors, now that there was no high long-term cost involved. He was a league average pitcher his first month in pro ball, posting a 3.94 ERA and striking out a batter every two innings. He showed improvement throughout the year, and by September, he was showing flashes of his potential as a top of the rotation arm.
Cole’s story is really what this discussion is about. If you’ve been reading this site, then you know what Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon are working on. They’re not polished pitchers with no flaws, waiting for a magic date to pass to be called up. They’re still developing, and it makes more sense to do that development in the minors, while the cost is so high in the majors.
How High Is This Cost?
There’s one recent example of a player who was Super Two eligible, posting top of the rotation results, and going year-to-year in arbitration: David Price.
Price made $4.35 M in his Super Two year. He then made $10.1125 M in what would have been his first year of arbitration, followed by $14 M and $19.75 M.
By comparison, Max Scherzer was a year-to-year player who wasn’t Super Two eligible. He received $3.75 M in his first year of arbitration, which was slightly below what Price received. His second year got him $6.725 M, which was below what Price received. His third year made up for that, landing him $15.525 M, which was in line with what Price made in his third year. And then Price made close to $20 M extra in his final year.
Then there’s Stephen Strasburg, who just signed a massive extension with the Nationals. Prior to that, he made $3.975 M his first season, $7.4 M his second year, and $10.4 M this year. That’s a bigger difference than Scherzer/Price, but Strasburg didn’t have the massive year that Scherzer had before his final arbitration year.
This rough estimate puts the cost of Super Two around $20 M. A more conservative estimate might have it closer to $15 M.
Ultimately, if you call up Glasnow and Taillon now, and they go on to become the pitchers you expect them to become, you’d be signing on for an extra $15-20 M in the long-term, just to get one month extra in the short-term, when they’re still developing and still have legitimate things to work on.
This feels like a good time to point out that David Price had a 4.42 ERA his first season in the Majors (not counting his brief call-up in 2008). The Rays traded him two years before free agency, although they might have been able to afford to keep him an extra year by giving him more time in the minors in 2009, while avoiding Super Two status.
Price is an example of why the majority of teams wait for Super Two. He got paid in arbitration because of the player he became a few years after being called up. But he got the Super Two status for getting called up early in 2009, when he wasn’t close to the player getting those arbitration dollars.
Calling a player up early and exposing them to Super Two results in paying the player extra in his prime, based off his prime years, and getting one month extra of his development period, where he’s adjusting to the majors and far from the player he will eventually become. That’s not a good trade-off.
Even if he’s the extremely rare case of a player who comes up and dominates right away, you’re paying $15-20 M extra in the long-term, for one month. That’s essentially a pro-rated $90-120 M contract (6 months in a season x $15-20 M per month). No player in baseball is worth that.
I will bring up that some players have signed early extensions, where the cost of Super Two ends up being closer to $5-10 M if the player would have otherwise been eligible. That’s much easier to deal with than $15-20 M if a player goes year-to-year, but it’s still high, especially when you consider that this argument comes up every year.
Every year, Pirates fans want to ignore Super Two and just call a player up. Let’s recap: With Starling Marte, Gerrit Cole, Gregory Polanco, and now Glasnow and Taillon, you’ve got five players you’d expose to Super Two. Best case? You extend all of them and it only costs $5 M extra per player.
That’s still $25 M extra over the long-run, just to call each of those players up a month early. We know in hindsight that this wouldn’t have helped Polanco. Cole was still working on things in Triple-A, and would have had a much worse transition to the majors in early-May than early-June. Marte wasn’t even a factor for Super Two, as he came up in late July.
And if you don’t get that $5 M, best-case scenario? Then you’re looking at potentially an extra $75-100 M over the long-run, once again just to call these guys up a month early. It won’t stop here either. The Pirates aren’t done with Super Two scenarios, which means if you continue ignoring Super Two, the costs continue to add up.
Overall, Super Two is about money. But more specifically, it’s about spending money in a smart way.
It’s easy to compare numbers in Triple-A to numbers in the Majors as if they’re similar. But this ignores the massive gap between the two levels, and ignores that top prospects can put up strong results in the minors while still having legitimate things to work on. Using Polanco as an example, he posted a .945 OPS in Triple-A before his promotion. He had a .650 OPS in the Majors that year.
Calling a player up at this point isn’t going to get a guaranteed massive upgrade over Jon Niese, Jeff Locke, or Juan Nicasio. It’s possible that Glasnow and/or Taillon could post better numbers than those guys right now, but the long-term cost would be massive. It’s easy to just not care about that as a fan, but as noted above, those costs can add up, and it’s the job of a General Manager to think about the impact of moves in the short- and long-term.
In a month, Taillon and Glasnow could both be in the Majors. They might just put up league average numbers at first, and that would be an optimistic expectation, despite their current Triple-A numbers. They will still have things to work on, but at that point, it won’t cost a lot of money in the long-run for them to carry their development to the Major League level. And that’s what the whole Super Two debate is all about.
**Prospect Watch: Taillon Goes Seven Innings Again, Keller Dominates Again. This seems topical. Continued success from Taillon, along with another great start from Mitch Keller. I have a feeling I’m going to be doing an article soon explaining why the Pirates will keep Keller in West Virginia all season, despite his numbers.
**Morning Report: Is This the Best We Have Seen From Jameson Taillon? More on Taillon, as John Dreker breaks down his performance this year, and his stuff coming back from his injuries.
**Top Performers: Newman and Kramer Lead a Big Week For the Bradenton Offense. Our weekly Top Performers section, with reports on over a dozen prospects.
**Mel Rojas Jr. Traded to Atlanta Braves. Rojas made it to Triple-A, but was struggling at the level the last two years, eventually getting demoted back to Altoona last year, and Extended Spring Training this year. This move seems like it was made to give him an opportunity elsewhere, since he wasn’t finding that in Indianapolis.