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Baseball’s Greatest Threat Isn’t the Lockout

The sport’s place in popular culture and the entertainment landscape is in danger not because of its economic structure, but because of how it is played.

What will Major League Baseball look like over the next five years? That is one of the major challenges for players and owners as they negotiate a collective bargaining agreement. A CBA is not just a snapshot in time but also an assessment of the future.

Expectations of rising revenues—and how to split them—traditionally have been at the heart of CBA talks. These talks are no different. But the greatest threat to the health of the sport is not even being discussed as players and owners meet this week in Jupiter, Fla., with a Monday deadline to save Opening Day.

It is not money. It is the product.

Baseball’s place in popular culture and the entertainment landscape is threatened by how it is played, not its economic structure. In a steady decline that largely goes unchecked, baseball gives fans less action over more time.

In the expired CBA, which was signed in 2016, the players agreed to increases in the Competitive Balance Tax and minimum salary of 3.2% and 5.4%, respectively. This time around they are asking for bumps of 16.7% and 35.8%.

What happened? The players are now fighting to recover from a system they didn’t see coming in 2016: an analytics-driven, risk-averse, youth-leaning game that is built on keeping the ball out of play. Their beef should be framed less against “greedy owners” and more against the front-office efficiency experts who over the length of this CBA usurped from field personnel the power to determine how baseball is played.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred

MLB commissioner Manfred has done little to address the league’s pace of play in his seven years at the helm.

When Rob Manfred was named commissioner in 2015, he declared himself “a fan of the pitch clock” and put pace of play near the top of his agenda.

When the last CBA was signed, MLBPA executive director Tony Clark admitted the two sides never discussed pace of play during negotiations. “I anticipate there being dialogue,” he said. Five years passed and whatever little dialogue there was led to nothing.

MLB wanted to introduce the topic into these labor discussions last July. An MLB source familiar with the talks said the owners offered to present to the union its findings from minor-league pace of play initiatives, to form a joint committee with the players to study the issue and to begin dialogue. The players “rejected it out of hand,” the source said.

However, a union source said the players later asked multiple times for owners to bring on-field issues into the current CBA talks. The owners did not, the first source said, because the players did not signal unanimity on the issue in July, leading owners to fear further complicating negotiations already bogged down by a multitude of economic issues.

Slight progress was reported in the labor talks Monday. “It felt like actual bargaining,” one source said. Owners added another $5 million to their pre-arbitration bonus pool (now at $20 million) and bumped the size of their draft lottery system from three teams to four. In another new wrinkle, owners proposed that any high-revenue team that pays into the revenue-sharing system cannot take part in the lottery for a second consecutive year—which would mean picking no higher than fifth even if that high-revenue team finishes with one of the four worst records again.

But like most proposals, those represented incremental steps. The two sides are likely to continue such shadow boxing until the end of this week when a “soft deadline” of Monday injects the most urgency yet. Every day past Monday without an agreement likely takes games off the regular-season calendar.

The game has never been slower. It takes, on average, three hours and 11 minutes, a record, to play a game—with fewer balls in play, fewer hits, more shifts and more pitching changes.

These trends can be reduced to one statistic that should worry both sides: Just since the past CBA was signed, the average wait to see a ball put in play increased from three minutes, 40 seconds to 4:07. That’s 13% more dead time. (Over 25 years dead time is up 29%.) Baseball turned over its raison d’être to efficiency experts.

“When you base the game on probability and efficiency,” says one veteran club executive, “it comes at the cost of entertainment value. And that’s what we’ve done to the game.”

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In the blink of the last CBA, efficiency drained from the game almost 3,000 hits, more than 7,000 balls in play and much of the beauty of the triple, the stolen base and the pitchers’ duel—while adding more than 1,000 pitching changes and 3,000 strikeouts. The traditional equilibrium of the game flipped. A CBA that began with 2,111 more hits than strikeouts ended with 2,661 more strikeouts than hits. Active yielded to passive.

Players should care because it is about more than aesthetics. It is also about jobs and pay. Analytics conspired against older players, left-handed pull hitters, veteran bench players, pitchers with options and speed players without power.

VERDUCCI: The Death of Ground Balls

Under the last CBA, analytical efficiency:

• Built a game that pivots on home runs because playing base by base is too difficult with how pitching and defenses evolved.

Only three players stole 100 bases and hit fewer than 35 home runs over the past CBA (Dee Strange-Gordon, Billy Hamilton and Mallex Smith, none of whom are on a 40-man roster). Ten years ago in a similar five-year window, there were 11. Thirty years ago, there were 19. Forty years ago, there were 25.

• Valued future wins over current wins in some scenarios. Teams in “rebuild” mode have no interest in adding even mid-level established players. They follow the “winning” formula of the Cubs and Astros, who checked out for a five-year span in which they were the two worst teams in baseball (2010–14), then won the World Series in ’16 and ’17.

• Created a gig economy that added 167 pitchers to the majors and yet somehow reduced overall pay to players to its lowest level since 2015.

• Increased by almost 50% the number of pitchers who can throw 100 mph.

• Cut by 22% the playing time for hitters age 31 and older.

“Everybody got into the aging curve,” the executive said. “There was a wholesale shift toward younger players. Far fewer teams are buying in to the idea that older free agents are worth it. That’s partly because the young players are far better developed. The quality of programs is exceptional—not just college programs, but travel teams and third-party independent entrepreneurs. They’re doing cutting-edge stuff. Now players at 21, 22 and 23 are just more advanced. The development process is just so much shorter than it used to be.”

Someday there will be an agreement. Much energy will be spent on breaking down the minimum salary, luxury tax rates, bonus pools and such. But here are the numbers that tell you where the game is going: how much the game has changed since the last CBA was signed—nearly all of it on the side of less exciting.

What’s Up

20162021Difference% Increase

Pitches w/Defensive Shifts

97,451

219,446

+121,995

125.2%

100-mph Pitchers

39

57

+18

46.2%

5+ Pitching Changes*

1,430

1,867

+437

30.6%

Pitchers

742

909

+167

22.5%

All Players Used

1,247

1,373

+126

10.1%

Pitching Changes

15,305

16,687

+1,382

9.0%

Strikeouts

38,982

42,145

+3,163

8.1%

Three True Outcomes

59,680

63,883

+4,203

7.0%

Home Runs

5,610

5,944

+334

6.0%

*Per team, games 9 innings or fewer

What’s Down

20162021Difference% Decrease

Triples

873

671

–202

23.1%

PA By Age 31+

53,671

41,655

–12,016

22.4%

Starting Pitcher Wins

1,628

1,346

–282

17.3%

Stolen Bases

2,537

2,213

–324

12.8%

Hits

42,276

39,484

–2,792

6.6%

Balls in Play

122,183

114,995

–7,188

5.9%

Batting Average

.255

.244

–.011

4.3%

Other sports move quickly to rebalance offense and defense in the name of entertainment. The NFL restricted defensive backs after New England cornerbacks stuffed receivers from getting off the line and into their routes. The NHL allowed two-line passes to mitigate the neutral zone trap. The NBA this year outlawed the practice of shooters leaning into defenders for the sole purpose of drawing a foul, which disrupts game flow.

MLB does little to address aesthetics, in part because hitters and pitchers view the game differently. In Manfred’s term as commissioner, even with pace of action on his to-do list, dead time has soared 17%. Owners and players can’t get on the same page.

The use of defensive shifts is a good example of what happens when you let efficiency experts rule. What began as a competitive advantage by teams such as the 2008 Rays over time ceases being a competitive advantage because everybody is using it—including the Braves, a late adopter who won the World Series last year after getting onboard in May. Instead, it becomes a nuisance that sucks hits out of the game. Pull-side ground-ball batting average dropped 20 points over the last CBA, from .213 to .193.

Baseball should have adopted a pitch timer and outlawed the shift years ago. Those two changes alone—even with the same three-true-outcome game—instantly would improve the pace and aesthetics of the game.

Arizona Diamondbacks infielders employ the infield shift

The infield shift has contributed to the league-wide cratering of batting averages.

Owners and players have not agreed on any major issue over the past three years, unless you count COVID-19 safety protocols that were needed to get the 2020 season off the ground. These negotiations have been so contentious that we are headed toward an agreement that will be more of a ceasefire than a partnership.

And here is the hidden danger of what will follow months of labor bickering that has turned off fans: The two sides will put the same product on the field. Except for advertising patches on uniforms and the DH in the NL, baseball will look the same. (The DH factor is vastly overrated. AL teams scored on average 23 more runs than NL teams last year; the equivalent of less than one run per week. Because of so many pitching changes and interleague play, NL pitchers took only 49% of plate appearances in the No. 9 spot.)

As part of a new CBA, owners and players are likely to form a committee to once again “study” how to improve pace of play. Good luck. Manfred should appoint to this group former players Derek Jeter, Chris Young and Raúl Ibañez to join Theo Epstein, the former Cubs president who has been assisting MLB in this regard, and Michael Hill, the senior VP of on-field operations. The voice of former players is especially important in talks with the union about on-field changes. If nothing gets done again, Manfred can implement changes for the 2023 season, which may be necessary but fosters more acrimony.

The reason these negotiations have turned nastier and longer from the previous three CBAs is because how players and front offices view competition diverged wildly in the past five years. Players see a world in which teams should compete as hard as they do: Give it your level best all the time. Never concede. Believe in yourself with a short-term focus. It is the Old World order.

Front offices have efficiency down to such a science they know too well their chances to compete for a playoff spot. They can be brutally realistic.

Consider this Rorschach test. In 2014, the White Sox were 73–89. They ranked eighth in runs and 13th in ERA in the AL. Outscored by 98 runs, they were the equivalent of a 71-win team. In short, they were not close to being a playoff team.

They responded that winter in Old World form, the way the players would advise. The White Sox spent $132 million on seven free-agent veterans: Melky Cabrera, 30; David Robertson, 30; Emilio Bonifacio, 30; Zach Duke, 32; Geovany Soto, 32; Adam LaRoche, 35; and Brad Penny, 37.

The result? The 2015 White Sox improved by three wins. They finished 19 games out instead of 17 games out. Attendance improved by 1,296 fans per game, which still put them 13th among the 15 AL teams.

In the post–CBA New World, front offices look at the 2015 White Sox as foolish. They don’t see the wisdom of adding $132 million worth of older players to a 71-win-equivalent team. Better, they believe, to fold in young players, especially because young players develop faster than they did back then. (The Twins, a 73-win, 71-equivalent-win team last year, have not signed a major league free agent this offseason.)

It is a clash of cultures. Front offices are motivated by efficiency. Players are motivated by competition. That’s not to say the motives don’t intersect. In fact, over the life of the past CBA, half of the top eight teams in baseball never carried a payroll in the top of half of spenders.

Best Record in MLB, 2017–21

Winning Pct. (MLB Rank)Payroll Rank by Years

Rays

.573 (4th)

28, 28, 30, 27, 26

Guardians

.566 (5th)

18, 16, 19, 23, 29

Brewers

.557 (7th)

29, 26, 16, 19, 21

Athletics

.552 (8th)

27, 30, 25, 21, 24

Efficiency works. How are the Rays not considered successful? They do the most with the least; they have won two straight division titles and have won more pennants than the Yankees over the past 18 years. They are masters of efficiency. During the last CBA, they never had an age 31+ player hit 25 home runs; they allowed just four pitchers to throw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title and they used 97 pitchers.

But that’s not enough for the players. As reliever Andrew Miller told ESPN, “The Rays have won, but we’re not necessarily happy with the way that they have always operated. They are large recipients of revenue sharing and the way they use that money, is that best for baseball? This is what we debate.”

If the players want more teams to be the 2015 White Sox, that’s not happening. Front offices are too smart. The information is too good. The good news is that neither side is arguing there is not enough money to go around. Baseball is healthy. The root of the argument is in distribution—especially about rewarding young stars, who get caught between caps on draft bonuses and data-based bias against older players.

What threatens the continued flow of money, however, is not being discussed this week in Jupiter. For baseball to thrive over these next five years, it must look different. Faster. More active. Less passive. And that is why when this CBA fight ends, the next fight will be even bigger. It will be a fight for the future of the game.

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