Wednesday, November 21, 2018

A Coming MLB Salary Crisis?

We have been very fortunate to live with relative peace between MLB and the players' union. There is an entire generation that has not experienced a work stoppage or a owner / player crisis. The game has changed since the current agreement between the sides was last negotiated. Players are getting younger and it has become harder for older free agents to get jobs. Is a crisis looming?

The current pay system made sense when the agreement was being signed. Players would bide their time through the team control years and then reap their rewards. The owners got great value in the early careers of its players and then coughed up the money to re-sign them after control was over or sign other players on the market.

An inkling of trouble ahead occurred last winter when free agents could not find jobs and shouts of "Collusion!" filled the air. But it was not collusion. The facts are that analysis now rules decision making for teams and teams are going younger and reaping value from its players during their young, peak seasons.

For the exceptional players such as Manny Machado, Mike Trout and a few others, this has worked out just fine as they started young and were then positioned to make big bucks at an age when it seems more reasonable to ask for it. A ten year deal to a 26-year-old is somewhat more palatable than the same deal to a 30-year-old.

The trouble is, not all players are Mike Trouts and Mookie Betts. Some like Josh Donaldson (for example) are going to find it extremely difficult to get multiple years after hitting free agency in the early thirties. And players who start young and play just above league average will replaced by younger players who can do just as well when it is time to "cash in."

The old standby of artificially keeping young players in the minors to keep control longer is going out the window. Young players are exploding all over baseball as analysts succinctly show that these young players will never be better (and more valuable) than they are right now.

One just has to look at the WAR leaderboard over the last ten years. was used for position player leaders because it is easier to see ages on that site.

The Median age for the top ten position players looks like this:

  • 2018 - 25
  • 2017 - 25.5
  • 2016 - 25.5
  • 2015 - 26
  • 2010 - 27.5

The Median age has decreased by 2.5 years since 2010.

The average age of players in baseball has changed as well. The numbers may not seem drastic, but consider how many players there are and the decrease holds much more gravity.

Average player age:

  • 2018 - 28.1
  • 2017 - 28.3
  • 2016 and 2015 - 28.4
  • 2014 - 2012 - 28.5
  • 2011 - 28.7
  • 2010 - 28.4
  • 2009 and 2008 - 28.8
  • 1998 - 28.9

Let's look at the 2018 Yankees for a moment. 21.9 Wins Above Replacement were tallied by players making less than a million dollars. That is 42.6% of the team's total. Back in 2008, that tally was 12.2 WAR or only 28.4% of the team's total. The Yankees are getting more value from younger players than ever before. Even if you go back to 1998 in the second year of the Core Four, that group making less than a million dollars (which included Jeter and Rivera) tallied 38.2% of the team's WAR that season. Gene Michaels was way ahead of his times.

Thinking about these things, the players' union has a lot to discuss before the current agreement is up. Much more of the value of play is being provided by younger and younger players. These player are not making any money (comparatively speaking). Analysts rightly have convinced teams that this is the way to go and signing (hopefully) break even value deals long term for free agents does not make as much sense. There is the positive that younger players get to free agency quicker. But this only benefits the elite talent. The union will need to ask for more of a value / pay system to counteract this trend.

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