Baseball has a labor war coming, and the fires stoking the coals on either side are finally starting to heat up both at the team level (hello, Kris Bryant’s trade availability), and across teams (re: collusion).
The latest on the latter front comes from this press release from the MLBPA:
Statement of MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark pic.twitter.com/Xk5gsJQuGM— MLBPA Communications (@MLBPA_News) November 6, 2019
Responses across baseball came quickly, including the following explanations from two lead MLB writers and the GM in question:
Baseball's labor arguments can be confusing. So here is a simple breakdown of what happened Wednesday, when a GM's off-handed comment in a news conference led the MLBPA to allege teams are coordinating in the free agent market, and what it all means: https://t.co/aGxjfUYQsc— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) November 7, 2019
Clark’s mention of “club coordination” is a reference to potential collusion between the clubs. CBA prohibits teams from sharing information on free agents. It states, “Players shall not act in concert with other Players and Clubs shall not act in concert with other Clubs."— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) November 6, 2019
Let’s get into it. Is this a legitimate claim by the MLBPA?
I think this is an interesting development in MLB’s labor wars, depending on what benefit of the doubt you give Clark.
First off, it’s totally possible that there is collusion at a meeting like that. Let’s say Erik Neander asks Anthopoulos what he’s doing at third base, and does he want to trade for Matt Duffy? Anthopoulos says he wants to re-sign Josh Donaldson, and let’s slip that he’s willing to go 3/45. Neander won’t match that, so he doesn’t really bid. Donaldson doesn’t have a 2/30 offer from the Rays, that he’d have otherwise received, to use against Anthopoulos and to bid up the price. Eventually he signs with Atlanta for 2/32.
Now it’s only definitely collusion if Anthopoulos actually said “3/45,” if I understand the CBA (it might be arguably still collusion even in more vague terms), but there’s a line to walk up to, and it’s a line that’s easily crossed, and I think that in the absence of credible oversight it probably gets flirted with by GMs all the time, to the detriment of free agents. Clark’s statement and “investigation,” if nothing else, provides a threat and reminds GMs at the meeting of their contractual obligations of what not to discuss.
Secondly, remember that we think about this plenty as baseball writers (or at least we should, I definitely didn’t always) but most people don’t. What does and doesn’t constitute collusion, and even the possibility of it happening, isn’t high in people’s minds. With a simple statement, Clark grabbed a news cycle. The breakdown of the actual articles that get written here matters for whether this grabbing of the news cycle helps or hurts the MLBPA’s case. My bet is that it’s broadly in their favor.
There’s a public battle coming with the next CBA, so the general zeitgeist matters, even if nothing specific comes out of this investigation. So if the statement makes GMs watch their mouths, and makes writers write articles that make people focus on the integrity of the CBA? Then I think Tony Clark’s done his job.
Now if we take Tony Clark at face value, and he really thinks there’s a smoking gun that can be investigated and found in Athopoulos’s words, then no, I don’t think he’s doing it right, but I don’t think he’s that simple. It would be uncharitable to assume that. And I do think that the carefully worded statement/apology from Anthopoulos, rather than just a “lol, u mad bro?” text is evidence that there’s a real lever in there that the MLBPA has.
To me the most positive interpretation of this is efforts to shape the narrative as we approach CBA negotiations.
On first impressions, my gut says MLBPA should be putting their eggs more in the “raise minimum pay and decrease years of team control” basket rather than in the “make sure free agents get big payday” basket. More players are helped (since not all make it to that big free agent pay day) and since much of this will play out as a public relations battle, they will seem more sympathetic. But I can be convinced otherwise by smarter people who understand this better.
Clark is an advocate. That is his job. But I think collusion will be SO hard to prove. There are so many ways teams can arrive at similar numbers for contract offers without colluding. They all use similar kinds of analysis!
Strategy-wise, I think there’s maybe some danger to the MLBPA in trying to sell the narrative that “players making the minimum are too poor,” because the Man On The Street thinks of $500K as a lot of money.
I’ve been feeling this argument out with a close coworker of mine — Yankee fan, immigrant, former taxi driver, politically liberal, union guy, blue collar. He doesn’t want to sign Gerritt Cole for a ton of money because he thinks guys shouldn’t make hundreds of millions, and that the Yankees are better off with “hard-working” guys making less. He’s not at all bothered by the fact the Judge is making like $600K, and at that level is wildly underpaid. He loves and knows his baseball, but I think I’m the first person who’s introduced to him the idea of a $/WAR price, and how much a good player brings in for his team, and this whole framework of who is “overpaid” and “underpaid.”
There are a lot of bubbles out there, and we can forget that “people who talk about the dollars and cents of baseball economics” are one of them.
My point is that if this guy, who is totally primed to be on the side of labor based on everything else in his life, thinks this way about baseball, then there are a lot of people who are not going to be receptive to the idea that MLB players don’t make enough, when the base pay is larger than what he’s made in a decade. And I legitimately don’t know how to message that if I were doing it for the MLBPA.
(And highlighting the tiny minor league wages would probably help.)
I get that Ian, but $500K is still more relatable than $50 million. Also, I think the point about the younger players is: 1) They are paid way below their value to the team, and 2) Guys train their whole young lives for baseball, but most never make it beyond that initial contract (or so I think; there must be data on average MLB career length?).
For many players, injuries or other setbacks will derail their career. Imagining that you’d want them to have a cushion if their career ends early thanks to injury seems humane and reasonable.
I totally agree. I just think that in some ways “The owners, who are colluding are bad” is easier to say than that, which is why that’s where the narrative will go.