Since 1994 there has been labour peace in MLB meaning no strikes, no lockouts, and uninterrupted baseball. In 1998 the single-season home run chase by Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire reignited the game in the passions of many who had lost faith. I was a newcomer to baseball watching along on Channel Five as that extraordinary home run race unfolded.
Baseball has seen its ups and downs recently, but nothing like the cancellation of the 1994 World Series. The Steroid Era in baseball is generally considered to have begun in the late 80s and come to an end in the late 00s. The use of steroids (which was not outlawed by the game until 2005) led to a great deal of hand-wringing, clutching of pearls and ongoing Hall of Fame voting chaos.
The Astros and Red Sox won the World Series using technology to steal signs and relay them to batters. While sign-stealing is not specifically outlawed and is seen as part of the fabric of the game, it is stated that technology is verboten.
Those two issues will be nothing compared to a work stoppage. In this social media age, things will get nasty.
The Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between MLB (the owners) and the MLBPA (the players’ union) expires on 1 December 2021. There have been five CBAs negotiated since 1994, with relatively little acrimony. Those five have seen the players recently ceding financial ground and the owners gaining a greater share of income. Draft pools and international spending now have a hard cap. Rather than settling, teams more frequently go to arbitration hearings. Players are signed to VERY team-friendly contracts while under six years of control. Tanking is a huge issue as teams slash payroll to “rebuild” and garner draft picks. Qualifying offers suppress salaries by attaching penalties when signing. Teams are getting massive TV deals which do not require them to put a winning product on the field to attract fans to the ballpark.
Teams are treating the luxury tax like a de facto salary cap (hello, Mookie Betts). The luxury tax threshold is growing much more slowly than MLB income. Teams now exploit the threshold to suppress player salaries. Players must negotiate the threshold in future to make it a percentage of total MLB income.
Following a lack of diligence by the players and the MLBPA, player unrest is on the rise. Kris Bryant’s lost grievance over playing time manipulation, Joc Pederson’s recent arbitration hearing while he was in trade limbo, non-elite free agents going months without signing, and rumours of collusion. Hell, Gerrit Cole even mentioned Marvin Miller and Curt Flood in his introductory Yankees press conference. Early CBA discussions between MLB and the MLBPA are very sparse to non-existent.
This round of negotiations will be anything but smooth. I believe the major bone of contention is the salary suppression being experienced by players. The share of income going to players is falling year-on-year. Several $300+ million extensions have been handed out to “elite” players recently, but generally, players hitting free agency are just not bringing in the contracts they deserve.
That is happening because teams are exploiting six years of control (or seven in Bryant’s case) and/or signing players to cheap extensions way below market value (Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies etc.).
Analytics departments have fairly assessed young players are worth more, but the current system prevents players from getting paid without taking all the risk themselves. Players go through three years of minimum salary and then three years of year-by-year arbitration while earning a fraction of their worth. They finally reach free agency after or during their prime.
In an ideal world, players would get paid what they are worth from year two of their career. I would argue arbitration should start when a player begins his second season in the majors, and free agency should come much sooner. I would also argue that one year of service time should be something as small as 28 days in the majors. I would like to see minor league players invited to join the MLBPA. Baseball must find a way to fairly compensate both major and minor league players plus owners, so we can all enjoy the game we love and restore some broader competitive balance.
The MLBPA has very little leverage. The players must present their case well to the public via social media because the press will likely side with billionaire owners over millionaire players. Go figure.
The only thing the players have of real value is their labour, which means a strike or lockout are sadly the most likely conclusion following the 2021 season. If either of those happen, ask yourself the following question: Would you rather celebrate the success of a company and its owners in suppressing your colleagues’ salaries or celebrate a pay rise for all of your colleagues?
Al Clement is a guest writer for Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @clem_family
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