There’s Room for Compromise Between MLB and Union — If Anyone is Interested

In most situations, blame or credit can accurately be apportioned between multiple parties. If two cars collide, responsibility is divvied up between the drivers — Driver A was going three miles an hour over the speed limit, but Driver B was driving on the wrong side of the road, so Driver B gets most of the blame. In fact, in that situation, Driver A might not deserve any of the blame, because Driver B’s actions would have caused the accident either way.

This driver analogy can be useful in thinking about the latest round of “negotiations” between Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association. While it’s true that Driver A probably should have done some things differently, the outcome would have been the same regardless because of Driver B’s actions. Similarly, while you could pick nits and find things the MLBPA could or should have done differently, the end result of MLB’s actions — making a proposal that gives the union nothing they’re looking for and gives the league the thing it would see if it looked in the Mirror of Erised — was as predictable as the crash caused by Driver B.

In the end, the union predictably rejected the league’s proposal, saying in a statement on Monday:

Late last week, the MLBPA for the first time this offseason received a proposal from MLB to delay Spring Training and Opening Day by approximately one month.

Under the proposal, the end of the season would be delayed one week, the regular season would be shortened to 154 games and all thirty teams would be required to play several doubleheaders. Players would also be required to accept previously rejected proposals that link expanded playoffs with the expansion of the designated hitter.

Although Player salaries would not be initially prorated to a 154-game regular season, MLB’s proposal offers no salary or service time protections in the event of further delays, interruptions, or cancellation of the season.

The MLBPA Executive Board and Player leadership reviewed and discussed the owners’ proposal throughout the weekend and today. The clear-cut result of these deliberations is that Players will not accept MLB’s proposal, will instead continue preparations for an on-time start to the 2021 season, and will accept MLB’s commitment to again direct its Clubs to prepare for an on-time start.

We do not make this decision lightly. Players know first-hand the efforts that were required to complete the abbreviated 2020 season, and we appreciate that significant challenges lie ahead. We look forward to promptly finalizing enhanced health and safety protocols that will help Players and Clubs meet these challenges.

Let’s summarize the union’s concerns:

  1. Compressed schedule means a lot of doubleheaders.
  2. The full 162-game pay only happens if they play 154 games, and according to people familiar with the league’s proposal, it gives Commissioner Rob Manfred increased unilateral ability to cancel games — essentially leaving the players’ paychecks in the hands of a man they don’t trust.
  3. The league wants expanded playoffs — which would mean big money for them — but are not offering anything other than the universal DH.

The problem for MLB is that for each of the items on their wish list, their reasoning is clear. It’s not quite that they showed their hand — it’s just that their hand is obvious, and it’s almost always about money.

MLB wants to delay the start of the season because they want a higher percentage of the season to happen with fans in the stands. Once fans are in the stands, the owners want to play as many games as possible for the sake of both in-person attendance and television contracts. They want expanded playoffs because more games means more money, again both from in-person attendance and from televisions deals.

There’s nothing wrong, in and of itself, with the owners making more money. The problem is that some of these proposals come at the expense of the players, or at least put the players at increased risk. Doubleheaders increase the risk of injury to players, both in the moment and with the compounding effect of a compressed schedule. And expanded playoffs — at least in the form we saw in 2020 — would greatly reduce the need for teams to spend money on free agents. If there’s very little difference between winning 94 games and 84 games, teams will have very little incentive to spend the money necessary to win 94 games. It’s really that simple.

So while this proposal from MLB was doomed to fail — with MLB playing the Driver B role and deserving roughly all of the blame — there is a deal to be made here. The question is whether anyone is interested in compromising.

The unspoken elephant in the room is that the existing Collective Bargaining Agreement expires at the end of the 2021 season, so MLB and the MLBPA will be renegotiating all this stuff in nine months or so. If the union agrees to expanded playoffs for a second straight season, their position in the upcoming CBA negotiations will be weakened. So if they’re going to allow expanded playoffs in 2021, they need to get something of real value out of it.

So the first thing that needs to happen is to decouple “expanded playoffs” from “universal DH.” The two items are not even remotely of equal value, so there’s no need for MLB to keep offering that trade in different words. The union needs to make it clear to Manfred and the owners, in roughly these words: “Yes, we want the universal DH. So do you. It will make baseball better, which is good for all of us. If you want to jointly agree to the universal DH, we’ll put out a press release with you tomorrow and take nice pictures of all of us smiling on a Zoom meeting. The universal DH doesn’t create any new jobs for our members, so stop using it as a bargaining chip.”

Once that decoupling has happened, here’s a deal that I think works for both sides:

Expanded playoffs, but not in the 2020 form.

Use the idea Bob Costas laid out to Ken Rosenthal: Each league would have three division winners seeded one through three (DC1-DC3), and four wild card teams seeded one through four (WC1-WC4). On Monday, the day after the season ends, WC1 plays WC4 and WC2 plays WC3. On Tuesday, the winners of those games play each other. For all these games, the higher seed would be the home team. On Wednesday, the Division Series starts (expanded to a best-of-seven series), with DC1 hosting the winner of the Wild Card Single Elimination Extravaganza Tournament and DC2 hosting DC3.

This is a win-win idea for both the union and the owners. For the owners, they get up to 10 additional postseason games (each league has three games in the Extravaganza plus up to two additional LDS games), including six that are guaranteed elimination games. For the players, there is an increased incentive for teams to win their divisions, and on top of that additional incentive to have the best record in the league, because the DC1 team gets to play a team that most likely used its top two pitchers to win the Extravaganza.

In the end, four more teams make the “postseason,” but the competitive integrity of the playoffs is maintained or even increased.

Play 144 games in 2021, but pay the players for 162.

From a public health standpoint — and from a practical standpoint of trying to play the entire season — the idea of delaying the start of the season by a month is not a terrible idea. It would give the league and the country some extra time to hopefully get vaccinations for players and a higher percentage of fans. This would allowed some or all teams to start the season with at least some fans in the stands, lower the Covid risk to the players, and still allow for a robust, close-to-full season.

In exchange, with both sides firmly committed to playing as many games as possible and with precautions in place that make the full 144 probable, there’s no need to hang over the players’ heads the possibility of the commissioner unilaterally shutting down the season. If both sides are truly committed to playing games, neither side should need the ability to unilaterally make the decision not to.

Reducing the season by 18 games while reducing the length of the season by 23 days, you can limit the number of doubleheaders teams need to play. Doubleheaders do have some benefits to the players — most notably an additional roster spot for those days — and going from 154 games to 144 basically halves the number of doubleheaders each team would have to play.

For 2021, ownership would be paying the players for 18 games that weren’t being played, but they’d have the expanded playoffs to offset that revenue loss this year and they’d continue to have it going forward.

One last benefit:

One final overarching benefit to all of this: If the league and the union came to an agreement now that addressed some of their biggest sticking points in the upcoming CBA negotiations, public trust in their ability to not have a work stoppage next fall would greatly increase. Avoiding a work stoppage would obviously be good for business, and they could get a head start on that good business right away by making the public believe they actually care about what’s best for fans of the game and the game itself.

Isn’t that a refreshing idea?

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