MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred spoke to the media in Tampa yesterday, addressing a number of issues relating to the upcoming season, outstanding free agents, rule-changes, etc.
Given the pervasively slow free agent market, the existence of a free agent Spring Training camp, the possibility for unilaterally imposed pace-of-play initiatives, now feels like a good time to tune in to the Commissioner and see what he has to say.
- First up, Manfred said that there *will* be rules changes to improve the pace-of-play before the start of Spring Training games, whether he receives the union’s approval or not. But remember, if he gets the union’s involvement/approval, the changes are likely to be less dramatic (e.g., more mound visits, clock turns off with a runner on base, penalties don’t kick in until May 1). But if there isn’t agreement, he’ll be forced to impose the proposal he brought forth last season unilaterally, and it is far less forgiving.
- “We have delayed taken any action,” Manfred said. “We have made it clear from the very, very beginning is that our preference was to have an agreement with the players, and in fact, we have significantly altered our substantive positions based on input we’ve had from players.” Manfred is apparently open to punting on the pitch clock in 2018 – er, well, Nightengale says that “it’s still unknown” whether there’ll be one or not this season – but according to Manfred, the same cannot be said about limited mound visits, shorter breaks between innings, and requirements for players to be ready in the box (there’s even talk of bullpen carts!). Those changes are probably happening, no matter what, so I guess, prepare yourselves. (My guess is that a pitch clock happens eventually, too, but it’s always possible it’s pushed to next season).
- But while I mostly agree with Manfred’s desire to improve the pace-of-play in today’s game … I don’t feel quite as aligned with his thoughts on the current frozen market: “I don’t think the current [Collective Bargaining Agreement] has fundamentally altered the cyclical nature of the business,” Manfred said. “I believe all of our teams want to win. That’s why owners own clubs. It’s about winning, and I think our fans understand the timing for individual clubs in a particular year may vary ….”
- Come on, now. We’re all smarter than this. This is an example of a technically true, spiritually false statement. In practice/reality, the new CBA *clearly* made it more penalizing to exceed the luxury tax threshold and that, alone, directly affected the involvement of teams like the Dodgers and Yankees – two of baseball’s biggest spenders – in the free agent market. The loss of draft picks and international bonus pool money is fundamentally different than just paying a tax with cash.
- “We bargained a market-based system,” Manfred continued. “Markets operate differently year to year, particular true in our business, with different players, and clubs with different needs. This market has been different in terms of timing, but we believe that players who are major-league players will eventually be signed no matter whatever that timetable turns out to be, and we wish them the best of luck in that regard.” It’s possible that everyone will end up with deals. But it’s also possible that Yu Darvish didn’t get as much as he should have, Addison Reed didn’t get as much as he should have, and Todd Frazier didn’t get as much as he should have.
- And who wants to take the bet that Greg Holland, Jake Arrieta, and/or J.D. Martinez get as much as they were projected by a number of different analysts/publications? No one would, because they’re not going to get what was expected, or what we collectively think of as their value given the revenues of the game. And to be clear, I’m not talking about their reported requests (which, perhaps, are equally outrageous). No one is paying Jake Arrieta $200 million … but he also definitely deserves more than $100 million based on past markets and the growth in the business of baseball.
- And all of this goes without mentioning the fact that players’ salaries should probably still be rising. One of the ways people measure how well athletes of a certain sport are paid is by comparing what percentage of the league’s revenue goes to owners and how much goes to the players. In the NBA, for example, that split is 50/50 – and that’s etched into their collective bargaining agreement (specifically: between 49-51%). In baseball, the owners are held to no such standard. According to Manfred, things are just peachy in that regard:
“[Player] salaries are growing in line with revenues,” Rob Manfred says.
— Evan Drellich (@EvanDrellich) February 15, 2018
- But according to a study by Emma Baccellieri (Deadspin), the salary split for MLB players dropped from 56% in 2002 to less than 40% in the 15 years since. If the numbers are accurate there, then the players have all the reason in the world not to believe that salaries are growing in line with revenues. Here’s the argument, even if you just look at a granular level: the league is making more money than ever, thanks, in part, to the rise of outsized television contracts at the same time Yu Darvish landed a deal with an AAV lower than Jordan Zimmermann got when he was a free agent three years ago. That doesn’t quite square.
- With any luck, we’ll see some updated league-wide numbers soon and be able to have a more accurate conversation about the split, and what can be done to close the gap (either naturally, like decreasing the incentive to tank, or unnaturally, like setting a revenue split/price floor).
- And finally, here’s a statement from Manfred that rubs me the wrong way:
Manfred says studies this winter showed that the baseballs are fundamentally the same
— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) February 15, 2018
- Despite a number of outside organizations and publications more or less proving that there was something different about the baseballs last season (and, really, since mid-way through 2015), Manfred and the league never gave an inch in their response, and always qualified everything with words and phrases like “fundamentally the same” and “still within the accepted range.”
- The league has a certain set of parameters every baseball must meet to be used in a game. And while all of the baseballs in the Juiced Ball Era have fallen within this acceptable range, studies have shown that they generally skew MUCH further to one end of the spectrum than ever before (likely due to reduced drag on the ball in flight). So, in that way, the league can say things like “they’re all still the same baseballs!”, since there is an allowance there. But when the distribution of bounciness, lace heigh, and how tightly wound they are is far more skewed than ever before, aren’t we just playing a semantic game? The balls have been juiced, home runs have exploded, and our perspective of typical statistical rates has had to adjust. We’re fine with it. We just want all the cards on the table.