MLB’s service-time guidelines aren’t fair, but they’re fairly controversial

I once got pulled over on a dark stretch of rural highway by a cop who had been following me for a good five miles. Having seen him turn onto the road behind me, I took my speed down to what I believed was an acceptable level and initiated cruise control. We’re talking Northern Indiana here, so the road was straight and flat as could be. That meant nowhere to hide, but also nowhere to really mess up.

In any case, whether because there was enough of a downward plane at one to push my odometer past the nine-you’re-mine threshold or because my Lumina’s cruise control needed incontinence undergarments, or because the sadistic statie on my tail had simply grown tired of toying with me, I eventually saw the cherries and blueberries in my rearview. It wasn’t the first time I’d been pulled over and it wouldn’t be the last. It certainly wasn’t the fastest I’d been going when the radar gun caught me, either (sorry, mom).

But while I still harbor a small kernel of resentment toward the officer for what I felt was a bit of a dick move, the fact remains that he was well within the letter of the law. Sure, he may have deviated from the spirit a bit, as I was neither swerving nor driving recklessly fast, but you can’t really argue that before the judge. And though I also took issue with him making me drive a couple extra miles before finally getting to the inevitable conclusion, perhaps he just wanted to make sure he was ready to pull the trigger (not actually though, this wasn’t Chicago).

I’m sure you’re all wondering why I just spent all that time regaling you with something as seemingly banal as a 20-year-old traffic stop when I’m supposed to be writing about baseball, so I suppose I should get to it. What I’m driving at here is the concept of fairness. A wise man once told me on a fantasy football smack-talk chat board that there are only three types of fair: the World’s Fair, the State Fair, and the County Fair. Everything else is not fair.

And since the current service-time guidelines for major league ballplayers were collectively bargained by both MLB and the players’ union, not slapped together hastily by carnies with prison tattoos peeking from beneath sleeves rolled up to conceal and cradle packs of Marlboro Reds, you can be assured that they are not fair. But that’s such a relative statement, isn’t it? Not the carnie thing, but the fairness of the service-time rules.

Speaking of, I should probably take a moment here to make sure we’re all on the same page when it comes to service time and how it’s accrued. The link above lays it all out, but if we asked Cliff to put it in a nutshell for use, we’d get this out of that same FanGraphs piece:

  • 172 service days = 1 service year
  • Players max out at 172 service days/year; seasons usually have 183 service days
  • Players needs six full years of service to reach free agency
  • Players need about 2.130 years of service to reach arbitration

That means an MLB team need to only keep a player in the minors for 12 days — not games, actual calendar days — in order to obtain an extra year of club control. As you might imagine, this is really important for teams seeking to keep young talent in-house at a reasonable cost for as long as possible. It’s not, however, exceedingly amenable to the players who have to wait another year on that big free-agent contract.

This isn’t thing new, but the issue of service-time manipulation has come up again recently in light of grievances filed by the Cubs’ Kris Bryant and Phillies’ Maikel Franco, both of whom just missed the 172-day threshold. Franco actually debuted in 2014, but then started the 2015 season back at AAA before being called up in May. His total time on the MLB roster: 170 days.

That’s all well and good, but I’m going to focus a bit more on Bryant here. Not only am I significantly more familiar with the Cubs, but the issue of service time has been part of the Bryant conversation since well before the season got underway. Just like that cop on that highway all those years ago, this is an issue we’ve seen coming for a long time.

The Cubs stated publicly that they wanted Bryant to work on his defense before coming to Wrigley, so the kept him at AAA. But when starting third baseman Mike Olt suffered a broken wrist after being hit by a pitch in April, necessity overrode shrewdness and Bryant was called up on April 17. For those of you without the benefit of a calendar, that put him at 171 days of service at season’s end.

As a loyal Theobot and unrepentant Jedophile, I wholeheartedly supported the decision by Epstoyer (that’s the intellectual amalgam of Cubs President Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer) to suppress Bryant’s service time, but — and I, like Sir Mix-A-Lot before me, like big buts and I cannot lie — I can’t help but feel a little oogy about it. In the world of transactional justification, the Cubs’ reasoning for keeping Kris Bryant in AAA fell somewhere between “Because I said so” and “Respect my authority.”

That’s why, despite having agreed to the terms, the MLBPA is making a little noise when it comes to cases like those involving Bryant and Franco. Tony Clark, former player and now the union’s executive director, has been outspoken against teams’ adherence to the letter of the law and not the spirit.

“We have always (believed) – and will continue to believe – that it’s in everyone’s best interests to have the best players playing at any particular time,” Clark said back in March. “Any rules that are in place that some may be using against the spirit of how they may have been designed, we don’t believe (that’s) in anyone’s best interest – the fans, or anyone that loves our games, the players, or even the clubs for that matter.

“We will continue – as we always have – to monitor those types of scenarios and situations in the hopes that everybody does what’s best for the game.”

Those comments were directly related to Kris Bryant and the Cubs, but can be laid over all service time issues like an itchy wool blanket. The Players Association’s goals are always to protect its members, and if that means being a bit of an irritant to the league that employs them, so be it. The Cubs maintain that they were in the right and that they’ve got great relationships with both Bryant and his agent, the inimitable Scott Boras.

But this issue goes well beyond a single player or a single representative, particularly with the current CBA set to expire at the end of 2016. Boras spoke to that and perhaps gave a bit of insight into the MLBPA’s intentions when he addressed the assembled media at the GM meetings back in November.

“Unless you can argue the seven games of Triple-A baseball dramatically allowed him to improve,” the super-agent opined, “I think he proved his point that he’s an All-Star player and a huge part of a franchise.

“Our point was that in the ethic of the game, I think it’s good for Kris — and for the fans and everyone — that they understand that the rules of the game often allow teams to do things that are unrelated to the best interests of the team or the true talent evaluation of the player.

“I just think you (should) have a better ethic to it. Because in the end, we want to make sure our fans know the best players are always playing in the big leagues all the time.”

I’ve often criticized Boras — whose name could well be pronounced “boorish” but for the fact that he’s just so darn erudite and well-spoken — for his abrasiveness, but he really hit it on the screws with that last statement. Regardless of whether or not the Cubs followed the rules (they did), and whether the structure of the guidelines lead to the possibility of teams acting not in good faith (they do), I think we’d all like to see the same thing.

We all just want the best players out on the field. No chicanery, no duplicity, just baseball.

So what’s the answer? If I’m Tony Clark and I’m sitting down at the table come renegotiation time, I’m pushing to amend the definition of a full year of service time. Maybe that’s by reducing the number of days to, say, 150 or setting a moratorium on call-ups for the first month of the season, provided said promotion is not precipitated by an injury. Of course, the latter merely shifts the manipulation and creates a DL shell game.

On way or the other, I’d be willing to bet my entire salary as a blogger that the matter of service time is address in the new CBA. And I hope when it is, we can all put matters like this in our rearview mirror.

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