Greed, control and Rob Manfred
Baseball's latest work stoppage bears similarities to the 1990 lockout that threatened the start of the season.
Major League Baseball's ninth work stoppage is upon us, and once again, money is the cause.
The owners locked out the players at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, moments after the collective bargaining agreement between the groups expired. Transactions are currently barred (thus, the flurry of free-agent signings in the past few days). Players also can't work out at team facilities.
Commissioner Rob Manfred put out a mawkish "letter to baseball fans" (the same fans who boo him everywhere he goes?) suggesting the owners were "forced" to take this step "because the Players Association’s vision for Major League Baseball would threaten the ability of most teams to be competitive." In fact, competitive balance in the game in recent years hasn't been this bad since the Eisenhower administration.
It's also insincere to accuse the players of anything untoward when the league was reportedly using two different baseballs last season and failed to tell anyone about it.
While it's easy to think back to the World Series-erasing 1994 player strike any time there's labor unrest in the sport, the current situation bears more similarities to the 1990 lockout that pushed back the start of the season.
Back then, as now, the owners want to maintain control over salaries of younger players and the arbitration process. The earlier lockout came on the heels of 1980s collusion, mind you, when the owners were manipulating the free-agent market (the owners ended up paying the impacted players $280 million in grievance settlements).
Heading into talks between the owners and players union in late 1989, Manfred, then assisting MLB in collective bargaining, was on a committee credited with authoring a proposed system called PFP, or Pay For Performance, that would set aside a bank of money to be divided among players with less than six years of service and establish their salaries based on their statistics.
Player agent Randy Hendricks, in his fantastic book "Inside the Strike Zone," correctly noted that the PFP system "represented a zero-sum game for the players. Since the pool of money would be fixed, the better one player did, the less money available from the pool for other players. PFP would have pitted player against player -- probably a happy thought for most owners, but bad for the game of baseball." He highlighted how players might focus on the stats that drove PFP, neglecting other team-oriented tasks like moving a runner over or hitting a sacrifice fly, or how players could end up rooting against their teammates in order to maintain their stats.
"PFP embodied all the components necessary to create the ultimate, selfish baseball player," Hendricks wrote of the plan, which was ultimately rejected.
And here we are, three decades later, and one of the topics that's been floated by the owners ahead of the lockout involves salary benchmarks for pre-free-agency players that would be based on Wins Above Replacement -- a system that seems a whole lot like PFP.
Evan Drellich @EvanDrellichBefore free agency and in place of arbitration, MLB proposes paying players based on FanGraphs’ calculation of WAR. With @Ken_Rosenthal and @enosarris https://t.co/K1BPmUdTCW
The MLBPA wants to improve salaries for younger players and fix service time manipulation and tanking, among other issues, with a new CBA, while owners want to keep a lot of things the way they are while expanding the playoff format.
How long the lockout lasts is anyone's guess, but if it bleeds into next year, spring training could be impacted. If that happens, it won't really mean much for the owners or established players -- the real impacts will be felt with bubble players trying to hang on and prospects trying to prove themselves.
Players on their team's 40-man rosters were frozen in place during the 1990 lockout, left to work out and train on their own (minor league spring training went ahead as planned for players not on the 40-man roster). After the 32-day lockout ended, major league spring training was shortened, leaving players with little time to prove something and many still out of game shape.
Baseball will return in the spring, somehow, someway, because there's too much money to lose, for both owners and players, if the season is significantly impacted.
But once again, the fate of the game comes down to greed, control and Rob Manfred.