Moneyball & Organized Labor

Analyzing players & pitchers in MLB requires knowledge in many areas. A scout’s eye and natural athleticism help, but are no longer required. Any position player can be cross-sectioned as a hitter by (1) knowing if they bat R/L/S, and (2) their AVG/OBP/SLG line. Defensive is now scrutinized & measured with video analysis, computers and advanced metrics to gain a better understanding of its true value in baseball. The bottom line to old-school dinosaurs– it’s been severely underrated. Defense is an individual & team skill, and can vary widely from season-to-season. All players are in decline defensively by age 30. Generally speaking, veteran players get injured less, but take longer to recover. Health is a skill, but is also influenced by playing surface, teammates, coaching, and luck.

Pitchers are best measured by IP, ERA and WHIP, reflecting how any competent manager values pitching. Preventing injuries & blowouts are a manager’s and pitching coach’s primary responsibility at any level– including MLB. Understanding pitcher abuse as a concept (and reality) is the first step towards reducing Tommy John & shoulder surgeries. Recognizing fatigue and immediately removing that pitcher is the most-necessary correction, because once a pitcher hits the wall– he’s done.  Any pitches thrown afterwards will be maximum effort with failing mechanics [1]. Pitching through fatigue ruins more young pitchers with correct form (Mark Prior), than anything else. Skippers at all levels need to seriously improve at recognizing early signs of fatigue. This will lead to improvements in bullpen management, and end much of the up-and-down-in-the-pen nonsense, which is endemic at all levels.

Pitchers need to understand their body’s better, and be more honest with themselves and their coaches. A young athlete must find good coaches (not easy), and be willing to listen to them in order to improve. Expert advice & focused work can make all the difference for a motivated young individual. This path helps the athlete gain a better understanding of their body. Improving mechanics, conditioning, strength & flexibility all become more natural through this approach. Injury prevention science will become the next revolution in baseball metrics. The cost investment to acquire elite pitching prospects is already high and rising, while most teams are scrambling for pitching. This has created an urgency for a market that had never existed before in injury prevention & health care for pitchers. Organizations can no longer afford to have their top young pitchers go down with arm problems, wiping out a season, or even a team’s competitive window depending on the depth of investment.

Player-age and their contract status are modern baseball facts. It wasn’t always considered this way. A brief labor history of MLB payrolls starts with the reserve clause, which was a founding owner’s agreement that bound players to their teams through perpetual one-year contracts.  This was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1922, when it ruled in MLB’s favor granting it anti-trust exemption. The was no union or labor organizing, so players had little leverage under this system of indentured servitude, which remained largely unquestioned in MLB until the 1960’s. At this point, most good ballplayers were paid $20K-$50K per season, an improvement over pre-war, depression-era salaries [2].

Labor attorney Marvin Miller (1917-2012) began the MLB player’s revolution towards collectively bargained players rights in the late 1960’s. This led to MLB free agency in 1976, which has benefited every player since, but particularly the veterans.  It also paved the way for free agency in the other major sports. That victory for labor in MLB earned Miller the eternal enmity of old-guard ownership, which controls the HOF voting process.  That is why reviled owner/commissioner Bud Selig gets the nod, while Marvin Miller is left out in the cold– even in death.

Generally it takes a drafted baseball player at least 9-10 years before he becomes a free agent, if he’s fortunate enough to make it that far.  A top prospect drafted out of a premier college will need 2-3 years to navigate the Rookie leagues, A-ball (possibly at an advanced affiliate, otherwise low-A), then AA, and finally some seasoning at AAA before being MLB-ready. High school and Latin American prospects are younger, so they generally take even longer.  A first-year professional ballplayer makes just over $1,000 a month.  In AA, the monthly salary is $1700 and it goes up $100 per month for subsequent years. For AAA, the monthly salary is $2150 per month and it goes up to $2400 the second year and $2700 the third year. If a player becomes a minor-league free agent, higher salaries can be negotiated [3]. These are wages of poverty, and they are only paid through the season.  There are ~ 7,500 players in Minor League Baseball at any time, and the vast majority will never make it to the majors.

Clubs have exclusive rights to their players for the first six years of MLB service time. These are complex rule-systems, meant to keep labor costs fixed for MLB owners. Unless a rookie player was able to negotiate a ‘super-prospect’ deal when he initially signed, he makes league minimum which has now been raised to $535,000 in 2017. Second-year players get approximately double that. The following off-season begins the arbitration process for 3-4 years before the player has the right to shop his talents on the open market. Arbitration is when the team and the player exchange salary figures, and (if necessary) an arbitrator will choose the ‘fairest’ offer. Most teams negotiate a deal before this hearing. Old-school owners and their front offices tend to be the toughest negotiators in arbitration, which often embitters the player who already knows he’s underpaid. LF Barry Bonds with the Pirates was a perfect example of this mistreatment. Owners have argued throughout baseball history that  (1) they never have enough pitching, and (2) they have never made money. One of those is truth, and the other fiction– you figure it out.

In the early 1970’s (still pre-free agency), top stars like Pete Rose (Reds) & Reggie Jackson (A’s) made hundreds-of-thousands of dollars. By the end of that decade, Rose (Phillies) & Jackson (Yankees) were making millions. A MLB player’s strike in 1981 split the regular season and ended in a stalemate. Afterwards, the owners covertly resorted to collusion to break free agency. Collusion was a tacit agreement by every MLB owner, GM & team executive to NOT sign any free agents from ~1984-87. It was an owner’s agreement to not improve your team, led by old-guard ownership (mainly Jerry Reinsdorf– CWS), who hated George Steinbrenner, Ray Kroc (Padres), etc… for spending on their teams. To these ancient ‘caretakers of the game,’ baseball has always been a business first, and this was payroll. All this was finally settled in the courts (in the late 1980’s) when the MLBPA sued MLB, and won over $300M in damages to stars such as RHP Jack Morris, RF Andre Dawson & newly-minted HOF-er LF Tim Raines.

Losing legally on collusion only redoubled the resolve of the most-hardened opponents of labor. As ESPN took off with their regular coverage of MLB games, highlights on SportsCenter, expanded post-season coverage, etc…the really BIG $$ started rolling in. Owners once again couldn’t control their spending & greed, which led to the MLB labor stoppage of 1994, costing the fans a season, post-season and World Series. The owners provoked a strike with the players by threatening to unilaterally impose a hard salary cap, a condition the MLBPA would never accept. The players walked out after they had been paid the major portion of their 1994 season’s salary, while denying owners their annual post-season revenue bonanza. When everything was settled between the millionaires & billionaires in the spring of 1995, new revenue streams from regional sports networks and ultimately the Internet, would bring unprecedented sums into the game. This inflationary bubble has continued up to today, with free-agent pitchers and sluggers now commanding $20-$30M/season multi-year deals.

These blockbuster television deals have made MLB owners money at a much faster rate than every group of baseball players, outside of veteran free agents, while minor-leaguers and pre-free agency major-leaguers have their labor value suppressed.

Marxists define money as congealed human labor. The commodity ballplayers produce is the game we love, and they deserve to be paid fair value for their work. Profit is the difference between what labor is worth, and what he/she is actually paid, with the capitalist pocketing this surplus value.  MLB & the MLBPA work together (like all other corporate/union arrangements) to enrich themselves and an elite clique (veteran players), at the expense of everyone else.  This inequality is no longer sustainable with the obscene amounts of money flowing into today’s game. The level of awareness is increasing [4], and soon large-scale demands for revolutionary change in baseball will come from below.