Baseball is BACK

The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and shortly, we’ll hear the sounds of live professional baseball being played. After an embarrassing 99-day lockout imposed by the owners, a new 5yr CBA has been agreed upon and baseball activities have begun. The season will begin about a week later than originally scheduled, but the expectation is for a full 162-game slate for all clubs. The news on Thursday was music to baseball fans ears and ends a really dark and ugly period in the history of baseball. There will be lasting damage from this public fight, but some of that will be tamped down by salvaging a normal-ish season. It’s time to play ball.

There are some notable changes in the new CBA including an increase from 10 playoff teams to 12. This is one that I feel could have a significant impact on the game. While on one hand it will afford more opportunities for teams to compete in the postseason, it will also impact the trade deadline and bigger in-season moves as more teams will be within striking distance of playoff contention. Also, by adding a team in each league to the postseason, it eliminates the thrilling 1-game playoff between the 2 Wild Card teams that has been fun to watch the last few seasons. I’m not sure how I feel on this shift, but know it’s better than the 14-team postseason proposal that was on the table during the negotiations. Let’s see how it plays out this season.

Additionally, they removed the runner on 2nd to start extra innings (thankfully). This was one of the dumbest rules the league has implemented over the past few seasons and I’m glad it’s gone. It was ridiculous that games were decided by whether the last batter to get an out in the 9th was fast or not. Yes, it may lead to some longer games, but it’s worth it. They also switched double-headers back to 9 innings vs 7, which I’m actually a bit bummed about. I really enjoyed the shift to 7 innings with double-headers, but understand why it makes sense to switch back to 9. It will be interesting in a slightly more compressed season and fewer off-days if there are a significant rise in double-headers throughout the year.

Some of the other shifts for this season are the universal DH (which has been discussed at length), a limit to the number of players you can option to the minor leagues (could play a significant role in roster makeup), a draft lottery to discourage teams from tanking for draft picks, and the ability for teams to sell advertising patches on their uniforms (who will be the first to sell rights?). For the 2023 season, there are a few bigger changes that will impact the game significantly. The elimination of shifts, a pitch clock, an automatic strike zone, and a more balanced schedule will fundamentally change the game. Whether the changes make the game better or not is yet to be seen, considering there is a lot of time to determine the exact details of each piece. I’m sure there will be thousands of hours of discussion on the 2023 changes as this season wears on (and that’s probably just on this blog).

Overall, there are changes that make sense and some that don’t (and I’ll surely dig deeper into all of them), but as long as the MLB can play a full season and we can watch professional baseball almost every night from April through September, I’m happy. I understand those who are complaining about this or that detail, but for me, I’m welcoming baseball back with open arms.

Baseball Headed Down a Disastrous Path

Despite teasing baseball fans with 7 different back and forth meetings on Monday, the MLB and MLBPA were still not in agreement on a new CBA. The fake deadline to not miss regular season games imposed by the owners was extended to 5pm on Tuesday and that has come and gone. The MLB has now cancelled opening day and the first two series of the season and it’s clear the owners are willing to miss a month of the regular season to try and leverage everything they can from the players union. To describe this whole situation as a shit-show would be too kind and the fact that Rob Manfred can’t get the job done and get players on the field is a failure of leadership. His comments about declining revenue for the league shortly after negotiations broke off on Tuesday should piss off anyone who cares about the game of baseball.

Rob Manfred: “The last five years were difficult from a revenue perspective.” In 2019, the last season before the pandemic, MLB revenues jumped for a 17th straight year to a record $10.7 billion, per Forbes.

Tweet by @JMastrodonato on Tuesday shortly after the 5pm deadline passed

While both sides spent time going back and forth in some capacity every day for the past week, the owners seem to be unwilling to seriously compromise and even at times negotiate in good faith. They made it very clear they are willing to miss a month of games in order to get what they want and are trying to wear out the players to keep a few more dollars in their pockets. They obviously feel that by being millionaires and billionaires, they can absorb a hit like 30-40 fewer games easier than an MLB player making the minimum $570,500, which is true. Don’t get me wrong, I’d be thrilled with $500k+ per year in salary and as a whole it’s the rich fighting with the richer, but the tactics and unwillingness to budge more than a centimeter for the owners is brutal. Manfred isn’t helping the cause by spewing false rhetoric about revenues and profits being down. He clearly doesn’t have the leadership qualities needed to find a compromise and doesn’t seem to care about the damage that cancelling games could cause to the game long-term.

As a lifelong baseball fan, the idea that this negotiation is still going on and regular season games are being cancelled is beyond disheartening. I’m not going to claim that I won’t watch another game if this goes on longer, because those who are real fans of the game will come back in full force once the league gets back up and running, but prospective fans and those who are not as strongly connected to the sport may have a harder path to returning or beginning to watch. The constantly quoted demographic is the age of the average baseball fan compared to all the other major sports. The younger audience is not interested in the sport as it stands and won’t even have the chance to invest if there is no product on the field. Whatever little bit of positive public perception that was left for the MLB has surely taken a gut punch the past few months and will continue to nose dive as more games are inevitably cancelled.

One of the most heated debates on a baseball article I wrote as of late was when I expressed my excitement for the DH in both leagues. People came at me from all angles about how “this isn’t real baseball” and “it takes the strategy out of the game.” There was real passion for the game in many of those comments, but the attitude and direction was stuck in the past like many of the current owners. Evolution in sports is inevitable and if you can’t see that, you’re missing the bigger picture. From the addition of the 3pt line in basketball, to the shrinking of goalie pads in hockey, to the addition of padding and helmets in football, sports evolve to meet modern audiences and need to react (to some degree) to cultural shifts. For most baseball fans, if the game had not changed since the 1940s, the viewership and fan support would be significantly lower than it is today, regardless of where you like or agree with all of the changes that have been made.

Now is the time for owners to step back and appreciate the situation they are in and the responsibility they have in getting players back on the field. There is still compromise to be found on the players side as well, but the owners seem to be digging their heals in over what will amount to small changes in their bottom line when all is said and done. It doesn’t matter how well your “negotiations” go if the end result is a kick in the nuts to the entire sport you’re investing in and an ugly, public display of greed isn’t going to pull in the younger audience, or frankly any audience. The clock is ticking and with each passing hour, the sport I love is taking another public hit in the stomach. End this madness.

Love for the Universal DH

When the MLB officially announced the universal DH would go into effect this season (if there is one), it was confirmation of the inevitable. It’s a win/win for owners and players in a time when it seems like they can’t agree on much. Since the announcement however, there has been significant pushback from certain segments of fans about the decision. One person even took up residence on the streets outside Dodgers Stadium with a sign reading “Death to the DH” to protest the change. While that’s clearly one person looking for attention, I’ve seen more and more fans disagreeing with the decision and I just can’t understand any legitimate reason why a universal DH isn’t good for the sport of baseball.

Regardless of whether you are a fan of low-scoring games or HR-filled contests, the universal DH is a much better product than having pitchers hit. For most pitchers, they are faced with the situation of needing to sacrifice over a runner or swing away (or not swing) and hope they don’t get hurt. In 2021, there were 4,829 plate appearances featuring a player who was pitching that day across both leagues and those plate appearances resulted in just 462 hits and a .110 average. The vast majority of those at-bats were non-competitive, which is terrible baseball to watch. The outcome of the at-bat was pre-determined based on who is or is not on base. If you compare the pitchers at-bats to the DH spot, players in the DH spot in the lineup produced a .239 average in 2021. The numbers show a significant increase in legitimate and competitive at-bats when there is a DH in the lineup. Additionally, you add a power-element for those who like lots of runs with a DH vs a pitcher. Pitchers produced a HR every 284 plate appearances in 2021, while players in the DH spot produced a HR every 24 at-bats last season.

There is certainly a lore around pitchers hitting and it seems like we see videos of a pitcher getting a big hit or RBI regularly, but that’s a rare occurrence. I’ve read a bunch of people making the argument that we won’t ever get to see a player like Bartolo Colon hit again with the universal DH and while that’s 100% true, it’s also extremely misguided. Everyone remembers Colon’s big HR in 2016 at the age of 42 and the excitement around that hit lingered for years. Well, in Colon’s career 326 plate appearances during his 21 seasons in the league, he hit .084 with 1 HR and 11 RBIs. Is that 1 hit worth hundreds of non-competitive, terrible at-bats that were unwatchable? The overall product would have been, and will be going forward, more enjoyable to watch. With the universal DH, pitchers in the National League won’t have an automatic out in every single lineup (never fear, there will still be plenty of easy hitters in many lineups) and we will finally be able to accurately compare pitchers in both leagues without needing the caveat that one was in the AL vs the NL.

As it relates to the players, the universal DH is a great thing for the sport. The DH allows an additional position player to get in the lineup every single night and it affords older players who have lost a step defensively a place on a roster and playing time. It creates more opportunities for players like Red Sox DH/LF J.D. Martinez, who would have been confined to the AL when is contract is up, but now can explore options in both leagues. The expansion in the NL now allows a team the option to take a player who is a defensive liability and remove them from the field while keeping their bat in the lineup. It opens up opportunities in both leagues for future stars like 1st ballot Hall of Famer David Ortiz, who was tremendously talented in the batters box, but was just average or below defensively. 

My least favorite argument against the universal DH is that it’s not “real baseball” or “not the baseball I grew up with.” First off, if you are saying either if those lines you’re probably right in the baseball average demographic, 50+ years old. Second, every single sport grows and evolves over time to attract a broader audience and fit the current environment. Just as basketball added a 3pt line and hockey reduced the size of goalie pads, baseball needs to adapt. I would argue that baseball is significantly further behind than other sports in terms of bringing in younger viewers, which in the long term is detrimental to the league. Adding a more competitive batter in the lineup every night is at least a push in the right direction (albeit a very small one).

With the MLB struggling with viewership and in the middle of a public, ugly CBA negotiation, the addition of a universal DH is at least one positive step forward. Finally we can put to bed the days of fundamentally different strategies depending on your league. I, for one, am extremely excited about this change and anyone who wants to see baseball not only survive, but thrive, should be as well. Now, let’s hope for a 2022 baseball season.

Dumb and Dumber: The MLB CBA Negotiations

As the calendar turned to February, there are less than 2 weeks until the planned start of spring training. Unfortunately, the MLB and MLBPA (MLB Players Association) don’t appear to be any closer to an agreement on a new CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) and an end to the lockout. With each passing day, the likelihood of a delayed start to the season or a shortened season grows exponentially and the damage to the sport grows deeper and deeper. Now that we are 2 months into the “negotiations”, a reasonable person would expect some serious progress, if not a resolution, but we haven’t really seen either. For a sport that has been struggling to bring in younger viewers for some time now, a prolonged stoppage and a shortened season could be a devastating blow.

Almost exactly 2 months ago, the MLB work stoppage began after MLB owners voted to unanimously begin a lockout when the current CBA expired. This is the first work stoppage in 25+ years and at the time the lockout began, there was some hope that both sides understood the devastating impact of a dragged out negotiation and would take that into consideration when making concessions. Unfortunately, that was just naïve optimism and both sides haven’t made any significant effort to bridge the gap since December. The two sides barely came to the table in 2021 and set their sights on jumping back in after the new year. After weeks of little to no movement, both sides have been meeting more regularly the past few weeks, but it’s been reported that they aren’t even tackling the major economic pieces that are dividing both sides at this point.

With the lockout not likely to be resolved quickly, let’s take a simple look at the main disagreements between the players and owners.

Salaries

This is the easiest disagreement to understand. The players want the minimum salary to move from $570,500 to $775,000, while the owners are proposing a scale, beginning with $615,000 for their first year, then $650,000 in year two, and $700,000 in year 3. The players want to be paid more from day 1 and the owners want to pay less. Pretty simple economics.

Competitive Balance

Luxury Tax

There are a few major areas that are focused theoretically on creating a more balanced league and the first is the luxury tax. It boils down to this: limiting big market teams (i.e. New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers) from spending unlimited dollars on every free agent player and thus preventing smaller market teams from fielding a competitive team. You can see how the players would want the luxury tax to grow more significantly because it would mean higher overall salaries from larger market teams. The players have proposed an incremental growth from $210 million to $273 million by 2026 and the owners obviously want a smaller increase, proposing steady growth to a max of $220 million in 5 years. There are also some proposed changes in the fees for going over the threshold which I’m not going to dig into, but as you can see, the gap is pretty significant.

Tanking

Another area of league balance revolves around teams tanking (losing games to get better draft picks). Both sides seem to agree that it’s an issue in the MLB (finally) and a draft lottery is a suitable solution, but they are disagreeing on which picks should be included in a draft. Essentially now, if you finish with the worst record, you get the #1 pick, 2nd worst gets the #2 pick, etc. A draft lottery would mean that any team that does not make the playoffs would have a chance at the #1 pick via a lottery, which in theory disincentives teams to lose games to get a better pick. That’s where the agreement ends, because the owners want only the top 3 picks to be decided by the lottery and the players want the top 8. It’s a fight between the owners wanting more control over draft order and the players wanting a more fair and competitively balanced league that discourages serious tanking. This is one area I think a compromise could be relatively easy to achieve.

Player Control

Arbitration

There are two areas of negotiations that revolve around player control and the first is arbitration. In its simplest form, the current arbitration system allows teams to control players who have been in the league for more than 3 years and less than 6 years if they do not already have a contract agreed upon. The system allows teams and players to negotiate a one-year salary each year and if they do not agree, the contract negotiations go to an independent arbiter to make a decision on the player’s salary. The idea is that a player gets a comparable salary to similar players who have received contracts in the recent past and remains in the team’s control. For top tier players, the teams are able to pay them less than they would make on the open market and retain their services until 6 years of service time are complete. After year 6, the players are eligible for free agency and the teams no longer have any control.

This is an area where owners said they would not negotiate, but the players association continues to push. The MLBPA initially asked for arbitration to be after year 5, then retracted that proposal. The current proposal from the players has shrunk and they are now basically only fighting for arbitration eligibility at 2 years vs 3 in the current system, which is out of the question according to owners.

Manipulation of Service Time

Like arbitration, service time manipulation this is an issue of player control for owners (and as always, money). Right now, there are certain requirements a player must meet in order to have a season count toward their service-time (essentially years in the league). By keeping top players in the minors for longer than they should, teams are able to manipulate that player’s service time, keeping them in team control longer (i.e. a longer period of time until they become free agents and thus need to be paid a much higher salary). This is connected to the “bonus pool” for pre-arbitration players also, because there would be certain benchmarks a player needs to hit in order to be eligible.

It boils down to this: both sides identify a need for changes in this area, but owners understandably want to retain control of a player’s contract for longer because it saves them money and the players want to be able to jump to arbitration or free agency earlier because it increases their earning potential. The owners have proposed a plan to incentivize teams to promote top 100 minor league prospects by giving the team an extra draft pick if they do, but the players don’t believe the incentive is strong enough to encourage a team to essentially relinquish a year of control for a top player. An often used example of this practice is 3B Kris Bryant with the Cubs. He was not on the opening day roster in 2015 despite clearly being ready for the majors. The team made excuses about him needing more time to work on his defense, etc, but it was clearly BS. He was called up strategically a few weeks later so that at the end of the season, he fell 1 day short of 172 days of service time required for it to count as a service year. This gave the Cubs control over Bryant for an extra season so he didn’t become a free agent until this offseason (and still is thanks to the lockout).


Unfortunately for fans of baseball, both sides are pretty far apart in negotiations as of today. Is it possible the two sides make an earnest effort and resolve most of their issues soon? It’s possible, but not probable. It’s not looking like either side wants to move the needle more than a little at a time and at this pace, baseball won’t return until summer and take another huge punch in the gut. The average baseball fan is age 57 (according to Front Office Sports), significantly higher than any of the other 3 major sports in the United States and has been growing. The league has been struggling to bring in younger fans and the MLB and MLB Players Association holding an ugly public fight over who gets more money is not exactly helping. As a baseball fan, I hope this ends soon and doesn’t further drag the sport into oblivion.