For the second straight winter, high tensions between the MLB Players Association and Major League Baseball have fueled intense discussion surrounding procedural and structural changes changes to the game that would ease pace-of-play concerns on the part of MLB and foster more equitable labor relations that would mollify the players union.
Some of those long-debated changes are now coming over the next two years, as MLB and the MLBPA have reached an agreement, according to reports. And the two sides will continue to talk, despite the fact that the current collective bargaining agreement does not expire until December 2021.
Here is a breakdown of the agreed-upon changes.
Changes to be implemented in 2019:
- A single July 31st trading deadline.
- An All-Star Game election day.
- A million-dollar bonus for the winner of the Home Run Derby.
Changes to be implemented in 2020:
- Roster expansion to 26 players, with a maximum of 13 pitchers. September rosters will only be expanded to 28 players, with a maximum of 14 pitchers.
- The return of the 15-day injured list; similarly, the time period between when a pitcher is optioned to the minor leagues and when he can be recalled will increase from 10 days to 15 days.
- The shortening of breaks between innings at MLB’s discretion.
- A runner on second base to begin extra innings in the All-Star Game.
- A three-batter minimum for pitchers.
Of course, some of these changes are more substantial than others and the fingerprints of both sides can be seen on this agreement. Roster expansion creates more major league jobs, which the union hopes will be a step toward addressing the problem of baseball’s floundering middle class—the Adam Jones, Curtis Granderson, and Neil Walkers of the world. A single trade deadline will be implemented in hopes that teams will be more aggressive in the offseason and at the deadline, knowing there will be no August trades for more modest upgrades to fall back on for teams in the hunt.
Major League Baseball is clearly trying to curb what they see as misuse of the injured list and the option-recall system to get pitchers extra rest. The added incentives to the Home Run Derby and changes to All-Star voting are an effort on the part of both sides to drum up engagement and market the league’s stars, something baseball has been criticized for not doing well enough.
The elephant in the room and the most obviously controversial change is the introduction of the three-batter minimum for pitchers. Rob Manfred is imposing a limit on what the league sees as excessive pitching changes that drag down the pace of play and cause fans to tune out. However, critics see this move as an unnecessary limitation—a solution without a problem that will eliminate specialists and remove strategy from the game. The reaction from fans on social media to the impending rule change was overwhelmingly negative, with many citing obvious loopholes, such as the utilization of intentional walks to reach the minimum or simply feigning injury to remove a pitcher from the game.
The players union isn’t particularly happy with this change, either. Tony Clark made it clear that the MLBPA did not support the three-batter minimum; MLB implemented that change unilaterally without their backing. “It’s not an issue,” Tigers reliever Daniel Stumpf told The Detroit News in February. “I think they are trying to focus on too many things with rules changes,” he said. “Pace of play, we need to put a clock in, mound visits, no DH, facing at least three hitters. Stop worrying about all of that and start worrying about all the free agents we have still on the market. That’s a real issue. That’s getting ridiculous.” It’s safe to say Stumpf isn’t alone in this opinion among players.
Nonetheless, this agreement is meant as a gesture of good faith on both sides, as they move toward tackling the larger, more systemic problems in baseball—issues of free agency, minor league pay, tanking, and service time manipulation—that will come to a head in 2021 unless some compromises are made. There is a provision in the agreement that the sides will begin discussing these labor issues imminently, rather than immediately before the CBA is up, which is indicative of at least a certain amount of self-awareness on baseball’s part.
“We believe a lot of what we’re seeing and the responses that we’re seeing from the fans who love and enjoy our game is such that the longer we wait to address these concerns, the more challenges we’re going to have when the time comes to try to address it down the road,” said Tony Clark, executive director of the MLBPA. “So doing so sooner rather than later has value.” Clark is currently on his annual tour of spring training sites, speaking to players. He met with Mets players for nearly two hours on Wednesday.
“Having an opportunity to discuss the issues as we see them we believe is important,” said Clark. “To the extent that we’re not able to find common ground, then we’ll continue to address the concerns as we see over the next couple years until the agreement expires.”
As the Mets enter the 2019 season with questions looming over whether Pete Alonso will be a victim of service time manipulation, fans across baseball wait with anticipation—and perhaps some trepidation—as this all plays out.