FanGraphs Legal Mailbag: Long-term Contracts, Umpire Collisions, Arbitration Audits

By far the best part of writing for FanGraphs is you, our readers. That’s not just because if you didn’t exist my words would simply be shouted into the void and I’d be talking to myself. Over the past year, you’ve sent me dozens of really thoughtful questions about the intersection of baseball and the law, and the fast pace of current baseball events (and my day job) has meant I haven’t been able to respond to half as many as I would have liked. So we’re starting this feature to provide a place where you can get your baseball law questions answered. If you have a question for the mailbag, go ahead and hit me up on Twitter @Ring_Sheryl, or email me at Sheryl@sherylringlaw.com. A couple of quick disclaimers: these are questions about general baseball concerns only; I’m not going to give you legal advice or tell you how to handle your own personal legal issues. Also, your questions might be condensed or rephrased for space purposes. We’ll do this as often as the question volume allows and necessitates. Thank you in advance for your questions!

Jeremy asked: Hi Sheryl. I read your article a while back about the hypotheticals of giving Mike Trout a lifetime contract. Regarding California law, does this mean that the Dodgers (for example) couldn’t offer a contract to Bryce Harper that’s longer than eight years (if they wanted to)?

Mike Trout just signed a big extension with the Angels that will guarantee the future Hall of Famer $430 million over the next twelve years. Remember, however, as Nathaniel Grow explained a couple of years agom, California, like many states, has a law which caps the length of employment contracts.

A relatively obscure provision under California law — specifically, Section 2855 of the California Labor Code — limits all personal services contracts (i.e., employment contracts) in the state to a maximum length of seven years. In other words, this means that if an individual were to sign an employment contract in California lasting eight or more years, then at the conclusion of the seventh year the employee would be free to choose to either continue to honor the agreement, or else opt out and seek employment elsewhere.

As we discussed before, most states (with Illinois being the most notable exception) include either a statute or common law doctrine barring lifetime contracts, though not all include a requirement that the contract be capped at a specific number of years. Does this kind of law have an impact on the offer being made by the team?

The answer is actually pretty straightforward, and we can use Trout’s deal as an example. As Nathaniel explained,

Section 2855 would allow a player to opt-out of a contract after year four of a six-year contract extension, so long as he has been employed by the team for a total of seven or more years. Because of this precedent, some California companies require their employees to spend at least one day “unemployed” – i.e., not under contract with the company – every seven years in order to avoid the application of Section 2855.

What does that mean? The Angels’ contract is still legally binding. Section 2855 is simply an additional term of the contract implied by law, and creates an opt-out by operation of law. In other words, when the Angels offered the twelve-year contract extension to Trout, the law simply added another term not written down: that of Trout’s right to opt out after seven years. This is important, because a number of media outlets reported the contract had no opt-outs. But that’s not entirely true – California law allows Trout to opt out after seven years. Notably, the same is true of Manny Machado’s deal; he, too, can opt out after year seven. But it is not, notably, true for Bryce Harper – Pennsylvania law allows for employment contracts of any definite term.

Waldy asks: What happens if a player collides with an umpire during a play? Is it considered interference?

The official Major League Rules discuss umpire interference in Rule 6.01(f):

If a thrown ball accidentally touches a base coach, or a pitched or thrown ball touches an umpire, the ball is alive and in play. However, if the coach interferes with a thrown ball, the runner is out.

This doesn’t cover Waldy’s exact hypothetical, but you’ll notice it also doesn’t mention what happens if a batted ball collides with an umpire. For that, we need Rule 5.05(f)(4), which gives a batter an automatic hit where “[a] fair ball touches an umpire or a runner on fair territory before touching a fielder. If a fair ball touches an umpire after having passed a fielder other than the pitcher, or having touched a fielder, including the pitcher, the ball is in play.”

But neither of these Rules prohibit an umpire from colliding with a player. In fact, in the Comment to Rule 6.01(f), that scenario isn’t even mentioned, except in the context of catchers throwing to bases:

Umpire’s interference occurs (1) when a plate umpire hinders, impedes or prevents a catcher’s throw attempting to prevent a stolen base or retire a runner on a pick-off play; or (2) when a fair ball touches an umpire on fair territory before passing a fielder.  Umpire interference may also occur when an umpire interferes with a catcher returning the ball to the pitcher.

Generally speaking, that means that an umpire does not commit interference by making contact with a player other than the catcher. So if an outfielder or infielder collides with an umpire while trying to make a play, and the ball drops, the play continues even if the umpire was at fault.

DJ Asks: Are there any independent audits of salary arbitrations in MLB to make sure the arbitrators follow the rules?

In a word, no. Now, under the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the MLB Players’ Association has the right to audit “any particular transaction” of a team. If we give the broadest possible meaning to the term “transaction,” we could argue that this language includes arbitrations, which in theory would give the MLBPA audit rights of arbitration proceedings. Now, this is a pretty stretched interpretation; under the CBA, a “transaction” is an instance in which a player signs a contract with a team, or two teams make a trade, or a team is sold. So an arbitration isn’t so much a “transaction” as it is a device meant for conflict resolution. And as far as I can tell, even if the MLBPA believes it has audit powers over arbitrations, it has not – at least publicly – exercised those audit rights. And the CBA is explicit that arbitration awards are confidential.

 There shall be no release of the arbitration award by the arbitration panel except to the Club, the Player, the Association and the LRD. The panel chair shall initially inform the Association and the LRD of the award only and not how the panel members voted. The panel chair shall disclose to the Association and the LRD the individual votes of the panel members on each March 15 following the February hearings.

Although we know that teams have individual audits conducted on their own financial data, it doesn’t appear that those audits include arbitration results. And because the arbitrators don’t issue written findings, the result is that we don’t really know how or why an arbitrator makes a particular decision. That’s a feature of the system, not a bug, designed to protect the sanctity of the process. Whether or not it’s a good idea I leave for you to decide.

We hoped you liked reading FanGraphs Legal Mailbag: Long-term Contracts, Umpire Collisions, Arbitration Audits by Sheryl Ring!

Please support FanGraphs by becoming a member. We publish thousands of articles a year, host multiple podcasts, and have an ever growing database of baseball stats.

FanGraphs does not have a paywall. With your membership, we can continue to offer the content you've come to rely on and add to our unique baseball coverage.

Support FanGraphs




Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and General Counsel at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author's. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.

newest oldest most voted
John Thomas
Member
Member
John Thomas

Junior year of high school we had a controversial change of our baseball coach, so he had no assistants and the bench players had to coach 1st and 3rd. I was coaching 3rd and challenged this kid to a race to the plate if there was a sac fly. Next batter it happened, and in my enthusiasm I trucked the homeplate umpire as he was calling the play. Luckily the catcher didn’t hold onto the ball, but I have never seen such a commotion. Suffice to say, I no longer coached 3rd, but was often an example about going above and beyond for the team.

I wonder what the rules would say about this.

Matt Wallach
Member
Matt Wallach

I regret that I never tried this during my 3rd base coaching days of high school baseball