Baseball’s Embattled Middle Class

Every spring, MLBPA chief Tony Clark travels around Florida and Arizona, visiting with all 30 major-league teams. He travels to learn of concerns and ideas from major-league players, and to communicate matters of importance. Clark also makes himself available to beat writers following major-league clubs.

In the spring of 2015, as collective bargaining talks loomed, I was in Bradenton, Florida, covering the Pirates. When Clark arrived at Pirates camp, I asked him if what players once considered a nonstarter, a salary cap — one that would guarantee a 50-50 revenue split — had become more palatable.

I asked him if any player that spring had expressed concern regarding the owners’ share of revenues, which has continued to increase over the last two decades. The trend has gained some attention in recent years at multiple media outlets.

“You’re the first person to ask,” Clark said.

I asked several union reps early that season whether there was interest in guaranteeing a split of revenues, which in 2015 and 2016 would have added tens, if not hundreds, of millions of additional dollars more into players’ bank accounts. But as we saw with the new CBA deal reached earlier this offseason, players and the union ostensibly seem most interested in protecting a player’s maximum earning potential.

Said former Detroit Tigers union rep Alex Avila: “When players hear ‘salary cap,’ to them it sounds like a limit.” Some players to whom I presented the idea of a revenue-sharing cap worried about adding framework that could be detrimental to players should careers begin to lengthen or revenue shares swings back into players’ favor.

But while the top earners among MLB players continue to do very well and while the average salary is at a record high, baseball’s middle class – in particular its lower middle class – is shrinking.

Beyond changes made to the qualifying offer, the new CBA does little to help the type of veteran free agent that remains unsigned as the opening of spring training draws nearer. The new CBA does little to address players’ lessened share of revenues. It does little to address productive players in their pre-arb years who feel underpaid.

For the purposes of this piece, I defined as “wealthy” those players earning at least three times the average player salary for that year. I considered the “minimum” earners to be compensated within 10% of the league minimum to cover most players with pre-arbitration status. All other players I combined into the “middle class” group, I used USA Today’s salary database of Opening Day payrolls as the research source. Sean Dolinar created these aesthetically pleasing charts.

In 1995, 147 players opened on MLB rosters at or near the league minimum salary. In 2006, the number had increased to 241. Last season? That number jumped to 333.

I also defined a “lower middle” group – those making up to twice the league minimum – which has been particularly encroached upon by the increased number of players being paid league minimum or something close to it.

A number of factors are conspiring against players’ revenue share and the lower-middle class of player.

Since PED testing began in 2004, player age is trending younger. There have been hundreds of fewer seasons from 30-somethings. The average hitter’s and pitcher’s age was 28.8 years in 2006. Last season, the average ages had declined to 28.4 and 28.3, respectively. (In 2001, the average batter age was 29.1 years; the average pitcher age, 28.7.) Teams have also become less interested in paying the veteran, mid-tier player when similar production is available from a pre-arbitration asset.

While there’s a luxury tax included in baseball’s CBA on certain payroll thresholds, there are no mechanisms forcing teams to meet payroll floors. The disparities between MLB revenue growth and players’ salary growth have held relatively steady since the turn of the century.

From 2003 to -16, MLB revenues have grown by 144% while player salaries have grown 84%.

Since 2003, MLB revenues have generally beat player salary growth by percentage year to year:

An embattled, endangered middle class is not unique to baseball. FiveThirtyEight found most Americans are no longer middle class.

While players are not in need of charity or tip jars and while the average salary exceeds $4 million, the application of something like the NBA’ soft cap-and-floor system to baseball, players would significantly increase their earnings.

This is what I found for Trib Total Media in 2015:

Using the NBA’s model, (if MLB) had instituted a salary cap-and-floor system for this season, 19 teams would have opened under the salary floor by a combined total of $413.5 million in payroll.

On March 11, 2016, about a year after I spoke with Clark, David Freese was interviewed in the same area of the McKechnie Field media workroom in Bradenton..

Freese seemed relieved to have found work. He had just signed a one-year, $3 million deal with the Pirates. Weeks earlier, he watched from his St. Louis home in February as full-squad workouts began. He became anxious as MLB Network began to broadcast highlights of exhibition games in early March and he remained unsigned. This was a former World Series MVP. This was a third baseman with a career 115 wRC+ mark. A year earlier, he had posted a 110 wRC+ with the Angels in 121 games. This was a middle-class ballplayer. But he was also the type of player for whom the industry increasingly did not want to pay.

Freese was 32. He was above league average, but not significantly so. He was the type of player, producing the type of numbers, teams would rather compensate near the league minimum. And after a strong first half in 2016, rather than test the open market in an industry that generated nearly $10 billion in revenue last season, Freese elected to sign a modest two-year extension. After the deal was announced, he told the media gathered before his locker, that his experience, his wait, the previous offseason had played a role in his decision. He didn’t want to be sitting at home in March again.

Said Freese to Yahoo! national baseball scribe Tim Brown last spring:

“The game’s definitely getting younger. Me personally, that felt like that this [2015-16] offseason. You sit back and, ‘Wow, this game got young.’ And I get it. I understand, they’re pushing prospects.”

Teams will pay for quality in free agency – there have been 53 $100 million-plus contracts signed since 2007 – but there are a number of free agents still available who are likely beginning to feel what Freese experienced as last winter began to thaw.

Consider FanGraphs’ top-50 free agents of the 2016-17 offseason. The top 19 free agents have all reached agreements this offseason. But note the amount of players ranked between 21-50, let alone those free agents not ranked, who are still looking for work less than a month before camps open.

Top Remaining Free Agents
FA Rank Player Crowd Proj. Projected WAR
20 Matt Wieters 3y/$40.3 1.9
23 Mike Napoli 2y/$20.9 1.0
24 Jason Hammel 3y/$35.6 1.5
27 Greg Holland 1y/ $8.2 0.2
31 Sergio Romo 2y/$13.6 0.1
36 Joe Blanton 2y/$13.1 0.3
39 Brandon Moss 2y/$23.8 0.5
41 Angel Pagan 2y/$16.7 0.5
42 Chase Utley 1y/$9.1 0.7
43 Doug Fister 2y/$19.2 1.2
46 Colby Lewis 1/$7.5 1.1
48 Pedro Alvarez 2y/$10.9 1.0
49 Jonathan Papelbon 1y/$6.0 0.0
50 Erick Aybar 1y/$5.5 0.4

The middle class of ballplayer, the Freeses of the sport, are perhaps becoming endangered.

There’s no mechanism forcing teams to spend. There’s no tax or penalty on low-end payrolls. There’s little reason for the game to halt its trend of becoming younger.

While teams are perhaps operating logically and rationally, is the union? Or is the union too concerned with the upper 10% of its constituency? While many fans care little for squabbles between billionaires and millionaires, these trends could eventually set the stage for a larger labor fight, which could threaten something about which fans care deeply: labor peace.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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6 years ago

I don’t see a problem here. Those unsigned free agents have made millions of dollars; they could make millions more if they sign at little more than the minimum.
I live decently, but not as decently as I’d like, on $1250 a month Social Security plus a few hundred a month I take from my savings after working hard all my life.
Want to trade lives with me, Matt Wieters?

6 years ago
Reply to  Baltar

I hear what you’re saying, but you’re missing the point. If you had the unique and highly marketable skills of, say, a major league baseball player, would you be pleased to see the owners of your potential employers make massive profits based on your performance while only sharing a very small piece of those profits with you? Would the fact that you only likely have about 5-10 years, or 15-20 if you are uniquely blessed and fortunate, to earn a living in the field for which you’ve trained essentially your entire life make you more, or less, understanding of the owners’ greed?

6 years ago
Reply to  SteveM

I think two points are being conflated.

1. The owners are pocketing more of the revenue.
2. The middle class is disappearing.

And I don’t think they’re all that related. Go back and look at the projected WARs in that table. These guys aren’t unemployed because the owners are cheap and refusing to put a quality product on the field. They’re unemployed because they just aren’t that good. We have a better grasp than ever of the value players provide in all three facets of the game, and with that knowledge comes the realization that you can get 90% of the value at 10% of the price from a kid as opposed to these veterans.

6 years ago

Then perhaps the solution the MLBPA should try is to establish a salary floor, and significantly raise the minimum and pre-arb salary levels to make the value-cost proposition more level between low-mid priced vets and prospects. Something like a qualifying offer-style calculation for post-arb player salaries to set the minimum each coming year?

6 years ago
Reply to  DD

It seems like the best solution is to pay the younger, very talented players more. I don’t know any good ways to do this, but maybe the MLBPA can figure it out?

The dollars going to aging, average-ish players will continue to fall, as teams get smarter.

Teams still should have some control over young players, but there needs to be a mechanism to drive more of the players total salary to the arb/pre-arb guys.

6 years ago
Reply to  DD

Yeah, a salary floor sounds good. I don’t think the pre-arb salaries need to be significantly higher, and with a good floor it wouldn’t be necessary. It would force cheapskates like the Rays and Athletics to both hold on to some of their more expensive arbitration eligible players and sign some of these fringe-type free agents rather than always restocking with cheap prospects, some of whom would benefit from not being rushed to the big leagues before they’re ready.

Then when teams go into a full rebuild, they’ll still need to fill out their roster with some more expensive veterans on one or two year contracts rather than dumping just about any veteran of value and completely tanking with at least a couple of years of 95+ loss seasons before turning things around. They may lose their chance to gain a few extra low-tier prospects but nothing that will significantly slow down the rebuild, and their fan bases won’t have to suffer through some absolutely embarrassing teams in the meantime, while once again prospects won’t be rushed into Major League starting jobs that they’re just not ready to have.

6 years ago
Reply to  SteveM

then they are free to try to negotiate higher salaries. nobody is obliged to pay them however.

6 years ago
Reply to  ice_hawk10

Um, the entire point of being pre-arbitration eligible those first three years is no, they can’t negotiate their salaries at that point, at least not with any kind of leverage beyond the MLB minimum salary.

6 years ago
Reply to  SteveM

I didn’t miss that point; I just don’t sympathize with it.

Sammy Sooser
6 years ago
Reply to  Baltar

Now that I know you don’t sympathize, I’ll get Tony Clark on the horn and tell him to stand pat.

Curious Gorge
6 years ago
Reply to  Baltar

Are you the same guy that goes wacko when people call the Rays “Tampa Bay”?

6 years ago
Reply to  SteveM

And if you had those skills but choose to hold out for an amount you shall not get, whose fault is it?

I do not own a company but I hate watching the ‘gifted’ athlete, who thinks he is entitled to millions upon millions of dollars for playing a game, **leak** their demands in order to drive up their price. greg.holland, I am looking at you!! You haven’t pitched in a season and a half, you are coming back from MAJOR arm surgery and you want to be paid FULL price WITH an opt out? You are a fxxking greedy ass bastard. And people, don’t tell me they have they right to ask because it all begins with the douchbag borasssss.

It used to be the owners screwing the players. Now it is the players screwing the owners…

Curious Gorge
6 years ago
Reply to  tuna411

Quick, somebody get Tuna a couple bags of Xanax…

Cheer up snowflake!

6 years ago
Reply to  Baltar

My reading of the piece is that the author is suggesting that if a balance isn’t maintained between player earnings and owner profits (especially when owners’ choose to put an inferior quality product on the field to line their own pockets) will lead to labor instability, which hurts everyone (owners included).

Johnny Dickshot
6 years ago
Reply to  Easyenough

I don’t think there’s any evidence here to suggest (and the author doesn’t suggest it) that the result of the shrinking lower middle class is an inferior product.

For one thing, the phenomenon is simply that the players in the lower-middle class will take less money to compete with younger, cheaper players. That doesn’t mean they’ll play worse. And, of course, more opportunities for younger, cheaper players at the expense of lower-middle class players may result in a better overall product in the end, because more “wealthy” players are produced.

I mean, basically, we’re talking about the effect of teams not paying premiums for the Craig Paquettes, Lenny Harrises, and Neifi Perezes of the baseball world anymore, and instead giving those PAs/innings to minimum-salaried players.

Sammy Sooser
6 years ago
Reply to  Baltar

I’d rather somebody just posted “First” than have to see a comment like this at the top.

evil kevin towers
6 years ago
Reply to  Baltar

matt wieters is 30 years old. its not his fault you spent your life not saving for retirement.