Minor Leaguers To Be Paid More, Not Enough

Last Friday, Jake Seiner and Ben Walker of the Associated Press reported that Major League Baseball has opted to raise minor league player pay to, at minimum, $4,800 dollars a year. As usual, the change was announced unilaterally: minor league players are not unionized and cannot help but accept this compensation. Specifically, MLB decided to set minimum pay levels (not including spring training, which is unpaid, and not starting until the 2021 season) at:

  • $400/week ($4,800 for a three-month season) for Rookie or short-season (up from $290/$3,480)
  • $500/week ($10,000 for a five-month season) for Class A (up from $290/$5,800)
  • $600/week ($12,000 for a five-month season) for Double-A (up from $350/$7,000)
  • $700/week ($14,000 for a five-month season) for Triple-A (up from $502/$10,040)

Assuming that players work an eight-hour workday five days a week (which is an assumption you’d make only if you both knew nothing about how long minor leaguers work and also were feeling extremely generous towards the league), the new pay scale works out to an hourly minimum wage of $10, $12.50, $15, and $17.50, respectively. Assuming even 50 hours a week puts everybody below $15 an hour; 60 hours a week puts everyone below $12. And all of the scenarios assume either that players are independently wealthy or that they’ll fit their year-round conditioning and training in around finding some other way to make money seven or nine months out of the year.

Minor League Baseball, for its part, said that it “fully supports MLB’s decision to raise the pay rates for players in affiliated Minor League Baseball,” but added it “believes MLB can afford these salary increases without reducing the number of players by 25 percent … we have provided MLB with a specific proposal on how we can work together to ensure improvements to older facilities and reduce travel between series through limited realignment. We look forward to continued good faith negotiations with our colleagues at MLB and our principal goal remains to preserve Minor League Baseball in as many communities as possible.”

The league has justified this level of pay — for players who are, at minimum, among the 5,000 or so best in the world at what they do — by advancing the argument that playing minor league baseball is “not a career but a short-term seasonal apprenticeship” akin to that pursued by “artists, musicians, and other creative professionals” who are exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act.

This argument, while about as convincing as Uber’s case that the drivers who steer cars hailed on their app are independent contractors rather than employees who deserve fair wages and a stake in the company’s success, at least has the advantage of being mostly logically consistent with MLB’s ongoing effort to contract 42 existing minor league teams (covered by Craig here, here, and here, and which conveniently would entirely cover the cost of this week’s pay raise). Boiled down to essentials, the league’s incentives — underlying both this improved but inadequate pay raise and minor-league contraction — come down to this:

Major league baseball teams usually have a few players under contract who they expect will eventually play in the major leagues, but they aren’t quite ready to do so yet. Those players, most of whom were talented enough coming out of the draft to earn multi-million dollar signing bonuses, need a place to prepare for the majors. Playing simulated games gets boring after a while, so it’s helpful to have the future stars play against real live humans. Those players, in turn, should be savvy enough to understand that they’re not really meant to be doing this long-term. They’re welcome to hang out and hit a few balls around so the elite prospects have someone to play with, of course, but they shouldn’t expect much in the way of compensation.

Viewed in this light, the minor leagues and the players and coaches who work in them don’t have any value in their own right. They have value only in terms of their relationship to major league teams, who in turn see them primarily as an expensive job training program for elite new hires. In this light, contracting 42 minor league teams makes perfect sense. At least that number of minor-league players won’t ever make the major leagues. It’d be cheaper and more efficient to place the few prospects who do have a chance of making it onto a smaller number of teams. As for the players on teams who won’t have a place in the new system? Well, they should really have been doing something else anyway.

Given the incentives it’s facing, I understand why MLB is proposing minor league contraction. I also understand why they’re trying to keep minor league pay as low as possible. I just think that those are terrible things to do. Anyone who’s ever been to a game knows that minor league baseball has value in its own right, as more than just an ancillary to major league baseball. Even if it didn’t, it’s insulting to our collective intelligence to suggest that anyone on a minor league roster isn’t in the business of being a professional athlete full-time (even if, under the current wage system they have to, say, drive an Uber on the side to make ends meet). Given that reality, it stands to reason that the league ought to pay its players like the full-time employees that they are. That $4,800 just isn’t going to cut it.

There is an instinct, when assessing a major sports league’s actions, to put them against the framework proposed by the league itself: that the league is a business, and that businesses try to keep costs down and revenues up. Any move that is intelligible within that particular framework is deemed acceptable, too. I reject that logic. The league is a business, yes, but a business that has been acknowledged by law (and by common sense long before that) as holding such a special place in our cultural landscape that it deserves an exemption from federal anti-trust law. Surely an institution granted such extraordinary legal standing ought to be held to a higher and better standard. Last year, I wrote that:

We as fans of the game have the means, through our voices and our wallets, to express our opinions on the balance of power in major league baseball, and I can think of no particular reason we should want to shore up the position of owners as a class having considered that balance. Major league baseball — as opposed to baseball as an amateur game we play only for ourselves, or our friends — exists because of the cultural meaning we fans assign to it, and the money and attention we pay to effectuate that meaning. That makes us shared stakeholders in its future, perhaps not as entitled to a voice in its direction as the players who play it and the league that facilitates it, but entitled enough to an opinion nonetheless. What we say matters, and how we choose to react to the choices teams have made this offseason can and should affect the way the game moves forward.

We have a part to play in determining the way we want the world we live in to look. Anyone who’s ever had a friend make bad choices on the basis of wholly intelligible motives will understand that our obligation to that friend is to tell them that what they’re doing is wrong, that they can do better, and that we’ll help them do it. I love baseball and I want to see it be a better and more responsible part of American life. I’m glad minor league players will be paid more next season. And I think they could stand to be paid even more still.





Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he works with communities around the world to end homelessness.

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Curacao LL
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Curacao LL

40% raise is nothing to sneeze at.

Alby
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Alby

Gesundheit.

puddle
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puddle

The whole point of this article was to make the case that it is something to sneeze at.

TKDC
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TKDC

I understand why this comment is getting negative reviews. It adds very little if anything to the discussion. I do wonder if, paradoxically, a massive percentage raise would possibly create a PR fiasco itself. If MLB bumps pay 100-200 percent, which perhaps would be a more appropriate result, the response would be “if you could raise pay so much so easily, why were you paying these paltry figures in the first place?”

If you are being an optimist, you could hope that this will not be the end of this readjustment and shortly these players will be earning a decent living wage. It seems as though MLB has responded to public criticism, so no reason for that criticism to stop when the response clearly did not go far enough.

GoGo-Matsui
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GoGo-Matsui

If you are being an optimist…

Why would you? Do you really think the 32 owners picked Rob Manfred because he is is a nice guy who is trying to do what is best for fans and the game? What I think is more likely is that the owners pay Manfred $milions to forward their own interests in the most palatable way. In this case that means Manfred is out there to make us think “We gave them a 40% bump… what more could you possibly ask of us?” This sounds nice until you remember that this is a billion dollar industry that could easily double this salaries after this raise, for every single minor leaguer, without cutting teams, and see a change of only a few basis points on their bottom lines.

TKDC
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TKDC

Why do you think MLB did this? Do you think it was in response to public pressure? Do you think maybe they anticipated continued public pressure and perhaps the idea all along was that they would eventually raise salaries higher? Is that at least possible? Considering the substantial negative feedback this has received, if the idea was to offer this token and only this, I’d have to wonder “why even bother?”

GoGo-Matsui
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GoGo-Matsui

Yes. It was clearly in response to public pressure which has been building. If there is more public pressure they will do it again. But it was designed to satisfy enough of the public so they could move on. It’s not anything generous on their part. It’s simply a reaction to try and keep people happy and they’ll the minimum to maintain that.

GoGo-Matsui
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GoGo-Matsui

40% of nothing is something to sneeze at.