Player Valuation Trends Remain At Issue In CBA Negotiations

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As the lockout draws on, time has proved insufficient in healing the conflicts surrounding the current collective bargaining agreement negotiations. The latest reports suggest that the league owners and MLBPA are no closer to finding middle ground on most issues. The most recent concessions were catalogued here by MLBTR’s Darragh McDonald. Today’s analysis, however, comes from thescore.com’s Travis Sawchik, who provides valuable context for a number of trends that have been at issue during these negotiations.

Sawchik tackles the current imbalance between production and pay, the changing demographics of the player populous, and the role that analytics has played in shaping the game’s financial landscape. I urge you to read Sawchik’s full analysis, but below are a couple of passages from Sawchik’s article that frame the current debate.

For starters, player careers have declined. Sawchik writes, “The average service time of MLB players was 4.79 years in 2003 and fell to 3.71 years in 2019, according to MLBPA data from last year.” It’s no coincidence that players become eligible for their first arbitration raise after three years of service time.

Careers are closing in on players from both sides. Sawchik provides the following data: “…the share of position players aged 30-plus declined from 40.4% of all hitters in 2004 to 29.9% this past season. Of all players to step on an MLB field in 2019, 63.2% had less than three years of service time. Careers are also starting later. The average debut age of 25.6 years this season was up from 2011 (24.6 years) and 2001 (24.5), according to Baseball Reference.”

Not only are there less players in their thirties than in the past, but younger players are debuting at older ages than usual. What this amounts to is owners taking advantages of players’ few prime years between the ages 25 and 30, thereby avoiding the growing pains of youth and at the same time forestalling free agency until players are on the tail end of their athletic peaks. Excepting where those superstar players are concerned, teams can then feel comfortable replacing those players with the next wave of cheap, young players entering their primes.

Advanced analytics has made it so that teams have a better understanding of the advantages that this system provides them. Meanwhile, player care has improved and the field of biomechanics has taken on an increased role, only deepening the information available to owners and front offices.

What makes this situation so very complex is that as individual players use these advancements for the benefit of their own careers, the aggregate only pushes the balance of power further in the direction of ownership. The MLBPA knows not to expect owners to yield their high ground willingly, which is why we are where we are in terms of the lockout.

The entire revaluation of an economic ecosystem as complex as Major League Baseball is hardly a simple matter. There is no reset button, especially when only one side of the conflict sees the current system as broken. Still, for the sport to resume, both sides will have to engage in persistent and significant compromise. In the meantime, we all get a little older.

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