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The 2021-22 MLB Lockout: A Painful History

Here’s to hoping that there can still be baseball this year.

MLB: World Series-Atlanta Braves at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The word “lockout” has been hurled around over the past few months. Other than it being a literal lock out and cease of all baseball operations, let’s do a deep dive into why this tinder box of tension finally blew and what everyone is asking for in the aftermath.

How Did We Get Here?

This has become something painfully normal, so let’s just establish how totally not normal a lockout between MLB and the MLBPA is, not to mention the cacophony of nonsense that ensued when a global pandemic hit and owners expressed in no short terms that they didn’t really care. Here’s what’s going down this time around.

The owners of Major League Baseball, in a flex nobody asked for, locked out players on December 2nd, 2021, after the collective bargaining agreement signed in 2017 expired as the clock struck midnight. This move is just another rung on the ladder of labor battles that both sides have been embroiled in for some time (think MiLB labor issues and the negotiations over the shortened 2020 season as examples here). Both sides have met over the course of the lockout, and each meeting leaves baseball in a worse place than we were December 2nd.

So, what exactly does everyone want?

MLB Owners/Rob Manfred, MLB Commissioner

Well before this lockout began, there has been a push on the end of team owners to expand the playoffs–not because it makes baseball more fun or marketable or anything of intrinsic value, but because teams get 100% of television revenue during the postseason. Before the argument arises that this benefits players because they see a portion, too, consider that the players are included in the pooled gate revenue. That percentage is based on which game they are playing, and doesn’t account for every game of the series. Here’s the breakdown of the amounts that end up in the pool:

  • 50% of both Wild Card Games
  • 60% of the first three games of all four Division Series
  • 60% of the first four games of both League Championship Series
  • 60% of the first four games of the World Series

So if a team that was on the cusp of the playoffs is knocked into the postseason by a new rule that blurs the lines between competition and not, and that team is in a smaller market, the sale at the gate are going to pale in comparison to the number of TV viewers, who can access the game from anywhere (unless you have MLB.TV, which is more blacked out than my first year of college at roughly the same small fortune). Oh, and who is getting that money for the final games of a series, should teams make it that long? It goes entirely to the owners.

So, in exchange for this, owners made a concession with two demands players have also been asking for: a 154 game season and the addition of the universal DH. Do those things equal each other in value? Not even close. But if it doesn’t rock the boat, or worse, sink it, considering how profitable the previous CBA was, owners are going to support it.

MLBPA/Tony Clark, President

The players are asking for something truly outlandish: to get paid. I know, right? The absolute audacity. One of the biggest points of contention between the two parties is the dwindling percentage of profits that players receive each year (and we’re just talking about those in the major leagues, while minor league players still fight for minimum wage). In fact, Robert Manfred had the gaul to say that, “We have been at a very stable — approximately 50 percent of revenue going to player salaries — for five, six, seven years”. However, conflicting data and research done by both FanGraphs and Deadspin have concluded that the players’ shares of revenue have fallen to 40% or below in the last five years.

Speaking of things falling, not only have the salaries for younger players stalled out, but clubs have been accused of holding back prospects in an effort to manipulate their service time to, in turn, pay them less money. The Players’ Association wants restrictions in place to keep this sort of manipulation from happening.

While we’re on the topic of manipulation, a contentious theme has been the concept of tanking (and if you’ve checked FanDuel future bets lately, you know just how big of an example the Orioles are of this). Teams that are consistently tanking are privy to top draft picks and the leagues profit sharing, while getting away with keeping their roster severely under payroll. There are strong differences in opinion on what a potential MLB draft lottery (presumably to help deal with the tanking issue) would look like: owners want the lottery to be just the top four picks, MLBPA’s last proposal was for the top seven picks.

There are also significant differences in opinion over the luxury tax and how much it should increase and escalate in the coming years, how to better compensate players before arbitration (especially those that perform at a high level), who can potentially become arbitration eligible as “Super Twos” and why, and a litany of smaller issues as well. No one said this was going to be easy.

What Happens Next?

Other than hurrying up to wait, MLB has postponed Spring Training games until March 5th.

Is anybody blameless here? No. But is Robert Manfred the biggest to blame? Absolutely. In fact, Robert Manfred know he is so deeply incapable of his job, that he has used his authoritarian like power to silence anyone who feels the need to point out the obvious, just look at Jon Morosi, who lost his job at MLB Network after speaking out against Manfred and his handling of this lockout. Manfred has made it abundantly clear that he does not care about the integrity of the game or the needs of the players, but rather the bank accounts of the owners.

This isn’t to say that statues of Tony Clark will be built outside of stadiums across the country anytime soon. He has not steered the ship of the MLBPA true to course either, often indulging in petty and retaliatory behavior and in previous years a laissez faire attitude. While he has an uphill battle against the owners, he hasn’t done much for the players when there isn’t a CBA being negotiated and his previous CBA negotiations have....gone poorly to say the least which is probably why the league thinks they can get their way here. Yes, there was the massive victory of MiLB players finally receiving housing, but that’s also been met with a too-little-too-late line of criticism and MiLB players aren’t (for the most part) yet part of the player’s union anyways.

In fact, the way these sides are handling the situation months later makes fans question whether either of them want any baseball in 2022. Earlier this month, MLB said “no take backs”, and told the MLBPA it would not make a counter offer to their demands, despite saying they would counter two days earlier. In lieu of actually negotiating and making said counteroffer, Major League Baseball requested immediate assistance of a federal mediator to resolve the problem at hand. Under MLB’s request, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service were officially asked to get involved. You know something is bad when the pinnacle of clarity and communication in a labor situation is the United States government.

The most recent meetings between MLB and the MLBPA has been the most fruitful so far even if the movement thus far as has been small. While the exact details have yet to be fleshed out, it appears that the Player’s Association has made amendments to one of their proposals, despite the MLB owners having little flexibility. Needing to decide which hills to die on and fast, the MLBPA will be pressing their minimum salary plan, and having a little more give with their arbitration proposal. The initial proposal asked that all players with two years of service time would become arbitration eligible, instead of having to wait three years.

Here’s that compromise: MLBPA is instead proposing that Super Two eligibility be increased from the current model of top 22% of pre-arbitration service time accruals to the top 80%. The pre-arbitration bonus pool setup will be altered by that. This metric was previously encompassed the top 30 players—calculated by wins above replacement (WAR). The MLBPA had offered concession on the bonus pool proposal size to $100 million, but gave MLB a taste of their own medicine with a massive “JK”, brought the amount back up to the initial $115 million proposed. This would now cover the top 150 pre-arbitration players, while they hopefully develop a better metric than WAR to decide who would be eligible for the bonus pool.

The two sides continue to dispute whether there should be limits on how many times a player can be optioned to the minors each season and what that number should arrive at. In prime Batman villain fashion, MLB owners are also still bent on having the ability to further downsize the minor leagues. The MLBPA and Tony Clark have vehemently vowed to reject any offer that would cause that, but with Clark being so unreliable it’s still a coin toss.

The reality of the labor lockout is glaring. No amount of conversations, bargaining, mediating, or yoga is going to solve the labor issues that MLB is flooded with. The idea that minor league players just earned the right to team funded housing in the past year is disturbing and disappointing–and that’s after you realize their pathetic excuse for salaries and struggles to feed themselves. When (or should I say if?) the name CBA is signed, it will need to undergo strict dissecting to begin to dismantle MLB’s systematic labor asymmetry, including holding owners accountable for their operations and manipulation of loopholes. Maybe then, when this conversation is back on the table in five years, it won’t take nearly sinking an entire season to make progress.