Overall it’s been a pretty dull off-season for Major League Baseball. Not many “blockbuster” trades, and though there were two major free-agent signings, there are still a lot of good players available. It also seems like too many teams aren’t even trying to field a good team, which has pretty much preordained the results of the regular season.
What discussions there have been involved rule tweaks to make the game play less boring, and the upcoming financial negotiations as the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) is set to expire in a few years.
Nothing is ever simple enough to be blamed on one single cause, but this writer thinks that the increasing prevalence of advanced metrics (launch angle, batting average on balls in play, etc.) is having a ripple effect throughout the sport.
Defenses are being optimized to the point where the best approach for a batter is to always swing for the seats. The consequence of failure is all too often a strikeout, which no longer carries the stigma that it used to. The net result is a lot of players standing around doing nothing. Commissioner Rob Manfred has arranged with the Atlantic League (an independent minor league) to try out some rule tweaks this year. Everything from changing the size of the bases to prohibiting excessive defensive shifts will be field tested. We’ll see if any of them actually help.
From a financial standpoint, the reluctance to give free agents big contracts may also have something to do with advanced metrics. I suspect (though I have no evidence to support this) that we know a heck of a lot more these days about how a player’s production changes as they age, and teams aren’t willing anymore to pay players in their 30s as much as they used to. As it stands now, the hot young starts establish their reputations and have their most productive years while earning as little as the owners are willing to pay. This is something that will have to be addressed in the upcoming negotiations over the CBA. Perhaps increasing the base salary, and then moving up the years for arbitration and free agency eligibility would help. I’d also like to see minor league players get paid more; perhaps that can be brought up in the negotiations. Keep in mind that for the sixteenth straight year, MLB has seen its overall revenues increase. And last season, the average player salary actually went down.
It’s also an embarrassment that there are so many bad teams that don’t even appear to be trying to win. Yes, there have always been crappy teams, but recently it looks like some teams are adopting “tanking” as a real strategy. Dwell in the basement for a few years, and hope to get enough top draft picks as a result so you can win it all (or at least make the playoffs) a couple of years down the road. The Royals and Astros showed that this can be a viable strategy for some teams, so naturally, every team with cheap ownership thinks they can do it, too.
Whatever happens – and something had better happen as the serious possibility of a strike or some other labor action looms – let’s hope that they can resolve it in the background while we enjoy the game on the field.