Friday, March 11, 2022

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, March 11, 2022 -- "Baseball Is Back"

This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and has been a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for nearly 25 years.

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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 14, No. 11
March 11, 2022

It’s two years to the day that we’ll consider, at least here in the U.S., the day everything changed. On a Wednesday an NBA game was canceled, one of our most popular actors announced he had contracted the novel coronavirus, and the World Health Organization declared that we were now facing a pandemic. By late Thursday afternoon, baseball had shut down, along with almost the entire sports world.

MLB eventually put on an abbreviated 2020 season, and then a full 2021 one, but the sport hasn’t felt normal in a long time. Shortened games, fanless games, quirky rules, constant vigilance against the virus, a neutral-site World wasn’t entirely the game we love. It was burdened. Following the ’21 season, in many ways a success, we got a three-month lockout that disrupted the Hot Stove League, brought the game’s problems to the forefront, and threatened to make the ’22 season a fractured disaster.

So it’s with no small sense of relief that we wake up on March 11, 2022, with a new Basic Agreement in principle, with players making their way to camps in Florida and Arizona, with a full 162-game schedule in place, with Covid rules left behind. Two years of holding our breath, perhaps on occasion literally, are coming to a close. We’re going to have baseball for the next five years. MLB and the players avoided the nightmare that a lockout-shortened season would have been. Baseball just doesn’t have the banked goodwill, the entrenched popularity, to have gotten away with what it got away with in 1981 and 1994.

That’s the headline. The lockout is over and baseball is back.

The agreement itself is a mixed bag. There are many good things in it. The players went into these negotiations focused on making things better for the plurality of their membership that has less than three years’ service time. To that end, they secured a much higher minimum salary -- $700,000 in 2022, rising to $780,000 in 2026. They secured higher minimums for 40-man players when those players are not on the MLB roster, the “up and down” guys like Nabil Crismatt, who I wrote about in September. They got an agreement to cap the number of times a player’s option may be exercised in a single season, so that players like Edward Olivares and Louis Head don’t go up and down a dozen times in six months. One hundred players who are not yet arbitration-eligible will split a $50 million pool based on their performance. Altogether, these rules will put more money in the pockets of players who are carrying a large percentage of the playing time, while restricting how teams can treat them.

The two sides did eventually meet in the middle on the luxury tax, with the first threshold jumping to $230 million in 2022 and rising to $244 million in 2026. Many teams have treated the first threshold like a cap, so this should free that group to spend $25-30 million more a year on players. Repeater and tiered penalties return, and a new Mets Tax has been introduced, starting on payrolls above $290 million in 2022. The tax thresholds are still too low given revenue growth. The small pace of increase over the life of the deal will serve as a significant restraint on payroll growth. We’ll have this fight again in five years.

Even the players themselves seemed split on the value of this deal. The MLBPA’s executive subcommittee voted unanimously against the deal, while the player representatives from each team voted 26-4 in favor of it. That split will be one to think about as the effects of the new CBA are felt over the coming years.

While the players met some of their goals, this deal is a disappointment for those of us hoping it would change the way MLB does business. The higher minimum salaries are welcomed, but they are not high enough to change the equation of losing for profit. Nothing in this deal addresses baseball’s most significant off-field problem, that owners can make good money while not trying to win games. The national revenues continue to grow: Deals with Apple and NBCUniversal were leaked in recent days. Local revenue sharing is untouched in this CBA. No serious minimum team-payroll proposal was ever on the table (which is fine; it’s not a good idea) but neither were better ideas that would have tied revenue sharing disbursements to on-field performance.

Rob Manfred all but taunted the players after the deal was done, saying, “The MLBPA historically wanted a market based system…. Markets produce market results.” He’s right about the players, but in talking about “markets” ignored the central distortion in the current system: Owners who don’t care whether they win or lose and who can make money by losing. There aren’t 30 teams competing for championships and the players who can help win them, and this CBA reinforces all the same processes that are financing a baseball underclass.

The changes that nominally address “tanking” entirely miss the point. Owners aren’t putting bad teams on the field because they’re trying to game better draft position, they’re doing it because the shared revenue lets them do so and lock in profits. It’s a financial calculation, not a competitive one. Establishing a draft lottery with some limits on how often a team can get high picks addresses concerns that do not exist. Nothing in this deal affects the business model of the Pittsburgh Pirates. It’s the money, stupid.

In this regard, baseball has the same problems today that it had six months ago. MLB went to the mattresses to defend this system, one that has detached profitability from winning. It was the most disappointing part of this whole process, a wasted opportunity to correct for changes over the last 15 years.

Then there are the details that we’ll not have much consensus on. The designated hitter is now universal, 49 years after the AL adopted it and well more than 120 since the need for one was apparent. I’ve made the case for the DH -- I was a defender of the status quo until maybe ten years ago -- and I know some fans just don’t like it.

The playoffs once again expand, technically from ten to 12 teams, though it’s more like from eight to 12 -- the 2012-21 system was really an eight-team playoff with two play-in games. This will expand the first round to a best-of-three and, for the first time, treat some division winners differently than others. The long regular season, which should be baseball’s greatest strength, wanders closer to being a 162-game seeding round.

More changes are coming...the new deal allows MLB to make on-field changes on shorter notice, and there’s a sense that a pitch clock, bigger bases, and restrictions on positioning are coming in 2023. We also know that a new scheduling model will make MLB more like the NBA and NHL, with every team playing every other team starting in ’23. The distinct leagues, which have been more like conferences for a quarter-century, will be a distant memory by 2030.

We won’t have a full Collective Bargaining Agreement into which we can sink our teeth for a while, and that’s a good thing. It’s time to put away the conversation about thresholds and minimums and service time for a bit, to put the focus back where we’d all prefer it to be. Trades will be made and free agents will sign. Over the weekend, we’ll see guys stretching, playing catch, taking swings. Mike Trout will be in camp. Mookie Betts will be in camp. Tim Anderson will be in camp. The future -- Adley Rutschman and Bobby Witt Jr. and Riley Greene -- will be in camp. Corey Seager will be in a Rangers uniform, Javier Baez in the Old English D, a whole bunch of new guys will pull on blue and orange for the first time.

Baseball is back.