Pitchers and Catchers
Joe Sheehan — he of the essential Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter (sign up now!) — did some back-of-the-envelope math the other day, and he basically determined that the reason we are not talking right now about pitchers and catchers reporting and players being in the best shape of their lives and, well, BASEBALL, is $440 million.
The actual amount is just an estimation, a placeholder — it might be $370 million or $510 million or some other nine-digit number that is unfathomable to the rest of us — but the point is not the number.
The point is that it IS a number.
The point Joe makes — and, alas, I agree with this — is that there is no larger fight here, no grander ambitions, no effort whatsoever to deal with the many issues baseball faces. The players have caved on all of that. They’ve given up on getting earlier free agency. They’ve given up on getting earlier arbitration. They do not seem interested in getting minor leaguers a living wage. They do not seem to know how to stop major league teams from manipulating service time. As far as I know, they have not pressed to right the absurd wrong of the MLB pension plan excluding older players who didn’t play four years (the rule now is just 43 days of service).*
*Just one example of this would be Pat Darcy — who was a key figure in the Big Red Machine’s 1975 run to the World Series. He went 11-5 that season, and is probably best known for throwing the pitch that Carlton Fisk waved fair in Game 6 (he threw two scoreless inning leading up to it). Darcy played three years in the big leagues. He is not eligible for the pension because the rule didn’t change until 1980.
So what ARE the players fighting for?
Well, I’ll tell you: They’re just fighting to stem the tide; the owners have been kicking their butts for 20 years now — they owners have basically put in a salary cap with their payroll tax, they are paying younger players significantly less than they’re worth (they have almost entirely stopped giving older players obscene contracts to make up for it), they have made it advantageous for any number of teams to tank for a few seasons and build back up with young and relatively cheap talent, they have taken an ever-larger piece of the pie (which they now want to grow with more rounds of playoffs).
This is the time when many people will say: “Hey, baseball players seem to be doing just fine for themselves.” And, indeed, many of them are. But that misses the point. Let’s say you hire Harry Houdini to perform escapes in various theaters across America, and the net gain after expenses is $1 million and you pay him $750,000. Well, you can argue whether that’s fair or not. But let’s say that the net gain after expenses is $100 million, and you pay him $750,000 — well, yes, $750,000 is still a lot of money, nothing has changed there, but you’re obviously cheating him.
Of course, you don’t need a fictional example — here’s a real life one: Atlanta signed the young Ronald Acuña to an eight-year, $100 million deal, with the team option making it a 10-year, $124 million deal. Nobody could say that $12 million a year is a bad deal. But I don’t think anyone doubts that Acuña will be worth much, much, much, much more; FanGraphs ALREADY has his career value at $126 million.
But Acuña signed that deal because the system has it so that the first three years of his career, he was going to make a tiny fraction of his worth, and for the next three years he still wouldn’t be allowed to go into the open market, he’d have to rely on an arbitrator to get paid somewhere close to his value.
Don’t believe me? In 2019, Acuña led the league in runs and stolen bases, had a 35-35 homer-stolen base season, helped carry the Braves to a 97-win season, finished fifth in the MVP balloting, and FanGraphs valued his season as worth $44.3 million. He was paid $560,000. That means he was paid roughly 1.26% his worth.
So what to do? The promise of money down the road carries all sorts of risk. What if you get hurt? What if your career somehow careens off track? So, he gives up the possibility of several hundred million dollars for the security of a long-term deal. Who wins in that deal? You know who wins.
Now, you might say, “Well, doesn’t the team take on the risk by giving a long-term deal?” And the answer is: No. Of course not. Not at those prices. Acuña is 24 years old, extraordinarily talented, and he has already paid off the Braves contract. The next seven years (SEVEN YEARS!) is basically house money for Atlanta.
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But here’s the thing: The players have given up on changing the system. There’s nothing grand at stake here. They are doing too well, many of them, to have a stomach for that fight. And, being honest here, they seem to lack the imagination or will to push for real improvements in the game or offer any extra support to those players on the fringe.
No, instead, the players are simply trying to work around the edges. Raise the minimum salary. Get some extra money to the top young players before they are arbitration eligible. Get the owners to raise the payroll tax threshold in a meaningful way so that the most committed teams can spend more money on players without being excessively taxed.
And the owners — even though they vaguely concede that these things should be done — are simply willing to lock out the players, torpedo spring training and put the season in jeopardy so that they can put their foot on the necks of the players. They like the way things are going. They like sharing exactly the amount they share with players now; they’d love less, but certainly no more. They don’t want to change the system in any even halfway meaningful way — except to add more teams to the playoffs so that they can make even more money.
That’s it. That’s all that this stupid, stupid fight is about.
Not one bit of it is about trying to make baseball a better game for the fans. Not one bit.
One of the frustrating themes of baseball is it so rarely has a 100 percent good day. Big Papi gets elected to the Hall of Fame, the talk is about PEDs. The World Series goes on, the talk is declining ratings or bad umpiring or the length of the games. A thrilling and promising young player emerges in the minor leagues, the talk is about how long to keep him down there to delay him getting paid fairly. An all-time great veteran player approaches hallmark numbers like 3,000 hits or 3,000 strikeouts, the talk is about how overpaid he is.
There are a million more examples of this, but none more horrifying or heartbreaking than the billionaire owners telling everybody that they would rather fight for the last dollar than play ball. At some point, surely, they will get the players to cave properly — this is, after all, how they got to be billionaires in the first place — and the game will return, and all of baseball’s myriad problems will be exactly as they were, and we fans will come back because this game has a grip on us.
In the meantime, pitchers and catchers and the rest of us are locked out. The owners will tell us when they’ve gotten rich enough to let us all back in.