In case you haven't noticed, this offseason has been very slow in the way of free agent signings with most of the top Major League free agents looking for work just weeks before the start of Spring Training. Owners have left their wallets in their other pants and even the dirty word "collusion" has been uttered in hushed whispers around the league.
With that bad taste in the mouths of players, the jockeying for positioning has already begun for the next collective bargaining agreement in the wake of the current two-year-old labor deal between the owners and players.
Revenue – thanks to big TV deals, record attendance, and taxpayers offsetting stadium costs – is at an all-time high, but the percentage of that revenue going to the players pockets is getting smaller and smaller.
Thanks in part to the luxury tax, which financially penalizes the teams with the highest payrolls and gives that money directly to the owners of the smaller markets with no real stipulation that they spend it on players, now the teams that used to spend are treating the tax as a harder cap.
The luxury tax discussion brings us back full circle to a big reason why the free agent market has been so slow. Teams have grown wary of spending on big name, expensive free agents, when they can rely instead on their young, home-grown talent at little expense.
A sort of organic collusion is developing even if the owners aren't actually colluding nefariously. Young, cost-controlled players (whose earnings are essentially capped) are leaving free agents to consider that if they're unable to get paid the market rate for their talent when they're young, and owners don't want to pay them when they're older and hit the open market, when is that percentage of expanding revenue going to reflect in their bank accounts?
So it seems that, thanks in part to poor bargaining by the players union – the MLBPA – the players feel, perhaps justifiably, like they have been outmaneuvered by the owners under the current rules and are already behind in the battle for the next CBA, which will need to be negotiated before the 2022 season.
The tension developed from a winter with a cold stove has manifested just in time for an opportunity for the players to put their foot down. That opportunity? The new pace of play rules proposed by the Commissioner Rob Manfred.
Over the last several years baseball has tried, with mixed results, to modernize and update the game with little tweaks here and there. Instant replay has been the biggest, and most impactful change but last year they implemented a pitchless intentional walk, saving at least 17 seconds per at-bat that includes an intentional walk (which is less than once per game on average) and eliminated the possibility of fun shenanigans that can result when an intentional walk goes awry.
This year’s new trick is a pitch clock, but it’s not all bad – just hear me out.
If you’ve been to a Frisco Roughriders game, or any other minor league game for that matter, in the past three seasons, you were witness to the use of a pitch clock – whether you realized it or not. This 20 second clock between each pitch is more comprehensive than it seems but to the average observer is almost completely unobtrusive. It does carry pretty heavy consequences however. An automatic ball or strike (depending on who violates it) is a serious consequence for being lackadaisical.
A 20 second rule is not as straightforward as it sounds. There are lots of stipulations that eliminate it from coming into play. The most notable clock eliminating action in a normal at-bat would be a foul ball or any other sort of dead-ball situation.
The batter has to be in the dirt circle. The clock restarts if the pitcher or catcher requests a fresh baseball. The clock doesn’t start if the catcher is standing up giving defensive signs or looking at the bench. The pitcher is considered to have finished the clock (and cleared the potential 20-second violation) when he begins going into his set or begins his motion to the plate – but he could stay in his set for five minutes between pitches if he really wanted to.
I think you get the point…it’s not that impactful, especially once everyone gets used to it.
Some of the other changes that seem likely have to do with mound visits. They have already implemented a time frame for mound visits, but now there will be a maximum of two visits (catcher or coach) allowed before a pitching change. After six visits in one game each subsequent visit has to result in a pitching change.
This is a big departure and will lead to less communication between pitchers and catchers to change signs, especially with a runner on second. Another unfortunate consequence will be less glove-over-mouth talking on the mound, something we’ve all grown to love.
So why is this a big deal? Because it’s something that the players union can disagree with. The fact that they’re disagreeing with it will actually have no bearing on whether or not it goes into effect this year. Commissioner Manfred has unilateral authority to implement changes as long as they’re introduced in time – the players have their union to thank for that… and the fact that he is checking with the MLBPA is more of a courtesy than anything.
It’s just something to squabble over, sound familiar? It’s all political, and it’s not going to get any better. At this point they’re just warming up for what’s sure to be a whale of a bargaining table discussion in about three years. Don’t worry about the pitch clock, the pitch clock isn’t a big deal. The next CBA is going to be the real game changer.
Are you ready for clocks in baseball or are you with the players on going to war with MLB over the issue? Share your thoughts with Chris on Twitter @realchrisroland.