Amid the snaillike pace of the free agent and trade market this offseason, the argument that MLB owners are in collusion against the players does not hold water. It is, instead, the player’s failure to recognize the swing of the pendulum, and to fight back with some creativity in their thinking.
If the New York Yankees were to offer Yu Darvish an eight-year $190 million deal today, he’d sign it tonight, right? Except that it is 2018, not 2008 when George Steinbrenner went all in signing Mark Teixeria to a similar contract worth $185 million over eight seasons, and CC Sabathia for another $170 million and seven years. And that’s why, in the context of today’s market, Darvish will be lucky to get five years and may have to settle for four.
Owners throughout all of MLB, whether they operate in large or small markets have (finally) figured out they’ve been overpaying players at the top of the wage scale for more than a decade. Correction, the nerds with the analytical skills have figured it out for them, and they’re serving it up to owners on a silver platter.
Of all the stats out there today, the most powerful one is Wins Above Replacement, commonly known as WAR. WAR is a number arrived at utilizing a complicated algorithm which boils a player down to how many wins he represents his team if the team had to replace him.
Writing for Bleacher Report, Joel Reuter put together an impressive coalition of stats to demonstrate what he calls a player’s “Net Value,” which is derived from the player’s WAR value (1.0 = $8 million in salary (see FanGraphs), minus the player’s actual salary. Here’s an example of how a few of the Yankees and Mets rated in 2017.
New York Yankees Best
New York Mets Best
New York Yankees Worst
New York Mets Worst
Now, let’s take Reuter’s accounting one step further. If we total up the Net Values on the plus side benefiting the owners, the Yankees “saved” $43.7 million last season and the Mets saved $48.4 million. On the negative side where the owners took a hit, the Yankees “lost” a total of $28.8 million on those three players and the Mets $25.7 million.
Which, in sum, seems to show that owners are not taking as big a bath as they would like us to believe. And further, that it’s possible players are being underpaid instead of overpaid. To draw any firm conclusions, though, a comprehensive study encompassing the entire payroll of both the Yankees and Mets would need to be executed, which is something the Major League Player’s Association might want to tackle in making their case to MLB and the public.
My thinking is drawn more to the number of years in contracts rather than the money per year that concerns owners and general managers throughout MLB. Giancarlo Stanton, as an example, will likely be worth every penny he is paid – until he reaches a point when he isn’t. At that point, Stanton will become a reincarnation of Teixeria and Alex Rodriguez, each of whom burdened the team financially as their careers faded.
And if we reach far back into MLB’s past, players were routinely issued one-year contracts based exclusively on last year’s performance. MLB will never go there again, but the point the owners and GM’s seem to be making is the need for the pendulum to swing back the other way, in which two and three-year deals represent the top of the pay stratosphere.
The players and their union (MLBPA) are balking mainly because they (now) realize they shot themselves in the foot when the signed the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that is with us until 2021. There’s talk of boycotting Spring Training, but that will never happen, and so the players are getting ever more frustrated by their inability to nail down contracts for top-flight stars like Jake Arrieta, Darvish, and J.D. Martinez.
But, is it collusion on the part of the owners? Of course, it is. If you and I and ten other people decide to go to the movies tonight, is that collusion? It could be if we plan to rob the concession stand. But otherwise, it’s just twelve people who had the same idea at the same time, and they are acting on it.
The Players Need To Get Creative
The players can do themselves a favor by stepping up the analytics game themselves. They already have one bullet in their arsenal which is MLB Merchandise. For example, how many Matt Harvey t-shirts have been sold over the years? How many pairs of Yoenis Cespedes batting gloves, Noah Syndergaard headbands, and so on? We’re talking big money here, folks. Last year, according to Forbes, MLB Shop took in $9.5 billion (that’s billion with a B) in revenue, a $500 million increase from 2015. For being #1 in the T-shirt sales department, how much money do you think Aaron Judge collected?
Similarly, the players argue that fans come to the ballpark to watch them perform athletic feats that often challenge gravity. True enough, but why not use that as a means to demonstrate the value some of these players have for, as George Steinbrenner liked to say, putting asses in the seats?
Why not, for instance, issue a card to each fan entering the ballpark with a list of all players in uniform that day with one instruction. Check the names of five players on your ballot who you came to see play today. Total ’em up at the end of a season, and the players have their version of WAR. Only this stat can be called TAP, for Tickets Sold Above Replacement.
Individually and as a unit, MLB players are not political animals. They seek only to play the game they have grown up with and love to play. No one, these days, goes to the poorhouse playing major league baseball. No one needs a second job driving a milk truck during the offseason like Hank Bauer, and Yogi Berra did for years during their playing days.
At the time time, the MLBPA and the players themselves need to understand that owners and general managers are (indeed) drawing a line in the sand. In days to come, Albert Pujols and even, Giancarlo Stanton will be seen as dinosaurs, the topic of conversation in bars across America for the contracts they won.
The game as we’ve known it is over. And the players need to come up with some better ways to fight what is happening – other than saying, “I’m gonna take my ball and go home.”
Footnote: A good follow-up read if you have the time appeared in the New York Daily News, and features MLB player, Brandon Moss, who has some controversial views on the current stalemate (“We Screwed Up”)