How Will Labor Talks Impact Immediate Future Of MLB?

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The Rolling Stones once sang “You can’t always get what you want.” They added: “But if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.”

When it comes to negotiations between the Major League Baseball Players Association and MLB team owners, it’s a certainty that neither side will get all they want. And: baseball fans are guaranteed that they’ll likely not get everything they need.

The MLBPA and ownership are currently in negotiations for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. What is a CBA? It’s the sports legal equivalent to a pre-nuptial: you wish you didn’t have one, you don’t want to read it, but deep down you know it’s necessary.

Baseball fans will watch with interest as the two sides hammer out details on a new agreement. The current CBA expires on December 1. When and how the players and owners agree on new terms for the sport will have an impact on how fans and gamblers enjoy baseball in 2022 and beyond.

Important Topics For New MLB Collective Bargaining Agreement Negotiations

According to MLB.com, the sport of baseball generates $10 billion in revenue annually. How that money is carved up is at the root of the issues between ownership and labor. The primary issues on the table are:

  • A cap on team salaries
  • A competitive tax
  • Revenue sharing between the union and owners on merchandising and licensing revenue
  • The expansion of the postseason
  • A universal designated hitter
  • Manipulation of player service time
  • Changes to the game to increase the number of balls put in play
  • The status of the minor league system
  • Clarification on rules that govern “cheating” like use of substances to grip the baseball and electronic gadgets to steal signs

Is that enough? Maybe the two sides could try to solve global warming while their at it.

The most important issues will be a salary cap and/or competitive tax that would serve as a de facto salary cap. Essentially, players want to ensure owners are required to spend a certain amount of money on salaries to compete. Some owners want to impose a salary cap to save themselves from spending outrageous sums on players.

How A New CBA Could Impact The Game On The Field And At The Sports Betting Window

Salary Cap

Proponents of a salary cap argue that it would give small-market teams a fair chance to compete on the field. They say franchises like the Yankees, Red Sox, and Dodgers can buy the best talent and win more readily. Small market teams would be teams such as the Rays, Royals, and Indians.

The problem with such arguments is that the Rays, Royals, and Indians have each played in a World Series in the last six seasons, and the Oakland A’s, a team that has a smaller piece of a shared market in the San Francisco Bay area, has made the playoffs in each of the last three seasons, and six of the last nine.

The reality is this: all MLB team owners are gazillionaires. Some of them are willing to spend money to have a good product in uniform, some are not. If a cap is implemented, expect your smaller market team to be forced to try to win more, since they won’t be able to make the “haves vs. have-nots” argument.

Competitive Tax

All professional sports organizations are copycat leagues. Once one franchise tries something and it works, other teams will follow. The vogue currently in MLB is “tank and draft.” Ever since the Chicago Cubs used the strategy to erase The Curse of the Billy Goat and win the 2016 World Series.

In the tank strategy, teams strip all established stars from their team, lose for several seasons, and ask their fans to be patient. Meanwhile the front office uses high draft picks (earned through losing) to select young prospects. Eventually, those prospects will percolate to the top and the team will compete for a title.

That’s how it’s supposed to work in theory. But in reality, teams are losing and hoping to strike gold with young players, which is like trying to win consistently at a slot machine. You may get a winner now and again, but it’s tough to make a living pulling that lever.

With several teams currently in full tank mode, the players union wants a competitive tax that kicks in after a franchise suffers X number of losses over X number of years. The hopes are that teams will avoid long rebuilding phases. Of course this would benefit players too, since more teams with a chance to win means established players are in higher demand.

Revenue Sharing

Current revenue sharing gives a portion of profits garnered by MLB to the union, to be disseminated to the players. But the last CBA was crafted in a different time. Even with the low-revenue pandemic year of 2020, baseball is raking in more profits than ever before. New revenues are streaming in from naming rights, fantasy sports, and online gaming profits and partnerships, as well as even more lucrative television and media deals. Players may want a larger piece of the pie, especially if they don’t get other items on their wish list.

The Expansion Of The Postseason

Owners want more teams to make the postseason, to increase profits in the playoffs from ticketing and TV and other broadcast rights. Players are concerned that added layers will water down the regular season and add more strain to players who will play even more games.

An expanded postseason, say to as many as 16 teams per league, would make it much easier for your team to come through on that futures bet and win the World Series. On the other hand, more fluky playoff results could occur, knocking off favorites.

The Universal Designated Hitter

The DH is baseball’s oldest argument. The American League began using it in 1973 to introduce more run-scoring into the game. The National League, guided by crusty “back in my day” owners, stubbornly held onto pitcher hitting for decades. Finally, in 2020, the DH was used in both leagues, as part of temporary rules changes in use during the season marred by Covid-19. But the union wants this one, badly.

The players union supports the universal DH because it creates 15 high-paying jobs (and more offense for your fantasy team). According to the league, in 2019 “the average player signed by an American League team to be its primary DH got $13.65 million.” That figure dwarfs the average $4.3 million salary across the sport.

This topic is likely to be accepted by the owners, who are only lukewarm in their opposition to it.

Manipulation Of Player Service Time

This is a hot-button issue for players, the owners, and fans. To understand the issue, you need to know how MLB free agency works. Players on the 40-man roster accrue service time for every day they are in the major leagues. Under the current CBA, teams hold the rights to their players for six seasons. That clock starts ticking as soon as a player is on the active roster, and it’s based on how many days they are on that roster in the regular season.

Teams understand that most players have their athletic peak from the age of 24 through 29 (or thereabout). Thus, they try to get their best players into the big leagues when they are 23-24 years old. They have little to no incentive to bring up talented players earlier because that means the player’s “free agent clock” is running. Fans get understandably frustrated when their team holds a talented young prospect in the minor leagues rather than let them get valuable experience in the big leagues. Teams are crafty at manipulating service time, often sending a prospect down just as they are about to accrue a milestone in service time, so the team can control them for another year. It’s expected that the union will push vigorously for changes to this system, and perhaps the entire free agency system.

Changes To Increase The Numbers Of Balls In Play

If you’ve watched an MLB game lately, you will notice the increased lack of action on the field. The “three true outcomes” are defined as a strikeout, walk, and home run. Over the last 15 years, we’ve seen a sharp increase in walks per game, strikeouts per game, and more home runs per game.

In 2011, 29 percent of all plate appearances resulted in a strikeout, walk, or home run (plays that don’t produce any action on the playing field). In 2019, the last full season, the rate was 35 percent. Strikeouts and walks account for 31 percent, meaning that nearly one-third of all plate appearances results in a ball never being put in play.

Traditionalists decry the boring nature of “swing-and-miss or walk-to-first home run derby” baseball. New, younger fans are turned off by the long periods of non-action. It seems like something needs to be done.

Should MLB and the MLBPA agree on something to increase the rate of balls in play (like moving the mound back) it would lead to more runs scored and higher offensive outputs by your favorite batters.

What About The Minor Leagues?

In 2020, with Covid-19 shutting down or delaying sports, MLB grabbed the opportunity to slash their commitment to the minor league system. Historically, MLB financially supports the minor leagues, which serves as a feeder system for the sport. But that expense has long been gnawing at the cheaper owners.

The players union understandably wants as many professional ballplayers as they can get. The more potential union members for them, the better. MLB has reduced the number of organized leagues and is trying to eliminate travel expenses and developmental costs as much as they can.

Clarification On Rules That Address Cheating

Unless you’ve been living in a bear cave while wearing sound-canceling headphones the last few years, you know that cheating has been big news in baseball recently. In 2019, we learned that the Astros used a trash-can banging scheme to steal signs from opposing teams. That’s notable, and quite an interesting caper, but it’s more amazing when you consider that the Astros were world champions in 2017. Oops.

Then we found out the Red Sox used technology (Apple Watch, anyone?) to steal signs in 2017 and possibly during their 2018 world championship season. Double oops.

During the last offseason news sources broke the story that a longtime clubhouse employee of the Angels was supplying pitchers with a substance to enhance their grip of the baseball. According to the story, pitchers on several teams were using the stuff (which is illegal in baseball) to increase their spin rate. The better the spin rate, the more movement on pitches. The more movement, the harder it is to hit.

As of the first few months of the 2021 season, we’ve already seen pitchers called out on using illegal substances, with rumors swirling. Because that’s what rumors do: swirl.

With MLB attendance dipping in recent years, and controversy surrounding MLB’s decision to not discipline players for using a sign-stealing scheme, the last thing the game needs is a sticky (quite literally) scandal over spin rate. It would also benefit the game if illegal substances were reigned in, since offensive numbers have sunk steadily the last few seasons.

Likelihood That Baseball Will Have A Work Stoppage

It’s been more than two decades since MLB games were canceled due to labor strife. But the odds that it will happen in 2022 seem good, unfortunately. A salary cap and revenue sharing are topics that deeply divide the men in uniforms and the men in the executive suites.

Technically once the current CBA expires on December 1, the sport will be in limbo because the players will not have a working agreement to do their jobs. Should the two sides not agree before spring, there could be a lockout (when owners keep players from attending spring training) or ownership could try to unilaterally extend the old CBA. In that case, players could not report and strike.

We’ve been here before. In 1972 a strike canceled 86 games. The following spring, owners locked out players, though the two sides agreed on terms before opening day. There was another lockout in 1976, but no games were missed. After the 1980s season, the players dug in and the following season walked out in June. The season was on hold for nearly two months, the schedule reduced by roughly 54 games for each team, and both the owners and players suffered with fans. Again in 1985 and 1990, when the CBA expired, a lockout occurred as each side circled the other, suspicious.

The worst labor stoppage happened during the 1994–95 MLB strike, which halted the season in early August, and canceled the entire 1994 post-season. For the first time in 90 years the World Series was not played. The 1995 season was shortened by almost three weeks because the strike wore on into spring training, when owners tried to use replacement (scab) players.

Since 1994-95, the MLBPA, owners, and the commissioner’s office have tried to keep the peace, realizing that another protracted stoppage in play could be catastrophic to the sport. But more than 25 years have passed since the last bad blood, and issues this time are so polarizing, you can’t help but wonder if the players and owners will remember how bad it was for the game to air their dirty laundry.

About the Author

Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes has written three books about sports. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Major League Baseball. He enjoys writing, running, and lemon bars. He lives near Lake Michigan with his daughters and usually has an orange cream soda nearby.

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