Super Two: How the Detroit Tigers Saved Millions on Mize and Skubal

LAKELAND, FL - FEBRUARY 18: Detroit Tigers Vice President and Assistant General Manager Al Avila watches the action during Spring Training Workout on February 18, 2011 at Tiger Town in Lakeland, Florida. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
LAKELAND, FL - FEBRUARY 18: Detroit Tigers Vice President and Assistant General Manager Al Avila watches the action during Spring Training Workout on February 18, 2011 at Tiger Town in Lakeland, Florida. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images) /

The Tigers just gamed the service time system to save millions.

Modern sports fandom is annoying. It’s no longer enough to like a team, or know the players and their stats. To understand why teams make decisions, fans must have a basic knowledge of contractual esoterica like entry-level deals, franchise tags, and Larry Bird rights.

In baseball this means understanding minor-league options, salary arbitration, and service time. This article is for those who missed that day in baseball school, and hopefully after reading it you’ll know the real reason the Tigers didn’t listen to your pleas to call up a top prospect or demote a struggling veteran.

It’s Service Time

We’ll begin by talking about service time, which is simply time on a major league roster. Once a player has accumulated six years of service time he becomes a free agent. A regular MLB season is 187 days long, and players need to be in the majors (active roster or injured list) for 172 of those days to be credited with a full season.

But if players miss that threshold by just one day, they have to spend another full season in the majors. Most teams now hold their prospects in the minors a bit longer to ensure they can’t get a full year of service time, essentially garnering the club seven years of player control for the price of six.

This is technically prohibited, and players like Kris Bryant have been quite vocal about obvious service time manipulation. But it still happens all the time, because it’s nearly impossible to prove a team’s intent. For players this means lost wages, because they reach free agency a year later than they should have.

But there is one lesser-known rule that can work in a player’s favor. A rule buried deep in the caverns below MLB headquarters, presumably stuck to the distended underbelly of Smaug: The Super Two. (You can also find it here if you don’t have time for a dwarf-heavy quest.)

Super Two Status

We briefly mentioned the Super Two in this article about Casey Mize a few days ago, but it deserves a little more discussion. Super Two sounds like a comic book duo, but it actually refers to service time. Players who have been in the majors between two and three seasons, but are among the top 22 percent in their peer group in terms of service time, are qualified to enter salary arbitration a year early.

So now let’s back up a bit and discuss salary arbitration. For the first three years of a player’s career, teams are only obligated to pay the MLB minimum salary, which is roughly $565K. Once players accumulate three years of service time they become arbitration eligible, and they begin to get substantial raises over their next three seasons. The general rule is that in the first year of arbitration players get 40% of what they’d receive as a free agent, and then in year two they get 60%, and finally in year three they get 80%.

Got all that? Now, remember that players who qualify for Super Two become arbitration eligible a year early, and end up with a total of four arbitration-eligible years. So what does that mean, practically? We tweeted it out the other day:

That’s a pretty huge difference in money earned. Certainly player performance had something to do with it, but without that 4th year of arbitration Price would’ve earned $4 million more than Cole instead of $24 million more.

Saving to Spend

So if you’re wondering why the Tigers suddenly called up three of their top prospects on the same day, the Super Two is almost certainly the reason. Detroit had long since cleared the threshold to get a seventh year of control for Mize, Paredes, and Skubal, but by waiting to call them up until mid-August the team has all but guaranteed their prospects won’t qualify for Super Two status.

This is a more severe and dedicated form of service time manipulation, but for the Detroit Tigers it was a smart business decision. And once again it will be impossible to prove, because the 2020 season is so unusual. If Mize, Skubal, and Paredes perform to the level of Cole and Price, the Tigers may have just saved more than $50 million. Good for them.

But it means nothing to fans if the team simply pockets the money. The Detroit Tigers need to use the financial flexibility they’ve created here to make their team better in the future, but ownership’s willingness to spend remains a huge question mark.