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MLB is on its way back

What a long, strange trip it was, and who knows how successful any of it will ultimately be. But here we are.

The lack of a deal between MLB and the MLB Players Association led to the league imposing a schedule, as was its right in a March 26 agreement that also guaranteed players a fully prorated portion of their salaries. MLB on Monday told the union it planned to impose a schedule as long as the players would report to training camp by July 1 and codify a health and safety manual that runs more than 100 pages. The players agreed to both on Tuesday.

“All remaining issues have been resolved and Players are reporting to training camps,” the union tweeted Tuesday night.

The season’s success probably depends on MLB’s ability to contain coronavirus spread, an issue the health and safety protocol covers in immense detail. Addressing everything from travel to social distancing to a ban on spitting, the manual is a strict guide for a potential 2020 season and illustrates the difficulty of pulling off such an endeavor.

If it can, MLB in 2020 will look radically different:

  • Teams will play their four divisional opponents 10 times and each of the five interleague opponents in the same geographical area four games apiece.
  • The National League will use a designated hitter.
  • In extra innings, teams will begin with a runner on second base.
  • The trade deadline will be Aug. 31, less than a month before the regular season is scheduled to end
  • Rosters will start at 30 men for the first two weeks, then go to 28 for the next two weeks and stay at 26 for the remainder of the season.
  • Teams will have a taxi squad that allows them to have as many as 60 players available to play in major league games.
  • There will be a special COVID-19 injured list with no minimum or maximum length of time spent on it, while standard injured list stints will be for 10 days, and the typical 60-day stint will instead be for 45 days.

[…]

Under the imposed season, players will receive their full pro rata, a sticking point in negotiations during which owners sought pay cuts in their first three proposals. The players never budged from their stance, and they will receive in total around $1.5 billion — about 37% of their full-season salaries. Players will not receive forgiveness on the $170 million salary advance they received as part of the March agreement, and they are owed no bonus money from the postseason — two items that the league had offered as part of a deal that included the players rubber-stamping expanding the playoffs from 10 to 16 teams.

The players sought a 70-game season in which they would receive $50 million in playoff revenue as well as a cut in 2021 of new money from TV rights in the expanded playoffs. The league also would have received the ability to wear advertising patches on uniforms and the support of players wearing in-game microphones, among other ancillary items.

All potential deals fell apart amid the animus between the parties. That they wound up where they did on Tuesday, agreeing to the implementation of a season after not agreeing on anything for months, served as a bright moment after darkness had shrouded the sport since it shut down in mid-March.

This was more or less where everyone expected things to wind up after what turned out to be MLB and the players’ final offers were rejected. Both sides will now be able to file a grievance claiming the other side did not negotiate in good faith. I’d put more money on the players winning that than the owners. How successful any of this will be given that positive tests have become a frequent occurrence among teams and players in various leagues. I’m ready to see MLB play again, but there’s a big part of me that’s still very dubious, both about whether this can happen and whether it should. For now, it is and it will. The Chron has more.

We’re going to get the default MLB season

Ugh.

The Major League Baseball Players Association asked MLB to set a schedule for the 2020 season rather than counter the latest return-to-play proposal by the league, setting the stage for MLB to implement a significantly shortened schedule and deepening the labor strife between the parties.

In a statement Saturday night, MLBPA executive director Tony Clark rejected MLB’s latest proposal and said: “Further dialogue with the league would be futile. It’s time to get back to work. Tell us when and where.”

A March agreement between the parties allows MLB to set a schedule, and the league has suggested that in the absence of a negotiated agreement with the union it could impose a schedule of somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 games and pay players full prorated salaries worth a total of around $1.25 billion.

MLBPA lead negotiator Bruce Meyer, in a letter sent to deputy commissioner Dan Halem on Saturday night and obtained by ESPN, said: “We demand that you inform us of your plans by close of business on Monday, June 15.”

In a statement on Saturday night, MLB said in part: “We are disappointed that the MLBPA has chosen not to negotiate in good faith over resumption of play after MLB has made three successive proposals that would provide players, Clubs and our fans with an amicable resolution to a very difficult situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Upon any implementation of a schedule, players wouldn’t necessarily report to a second spring training immediately, sources told ESPN. The parties still do not have an agreement on a health-and-safety protocol and would need one before players arrive. Any season would be scheduled to start after a three-week spring training, though a coronavirus outbreak could change the league’s plans. Multiple players on 40-man rosters have tested positive for the virus recently, according to sources.

If MLB does implement a season, both parties could file grievances to be heard by an arbitrator, though neither would necessarily delay games being played, sources said. The union could file a grievance that the league did not fulfill its obligation to play the most games possible, sources told ESPN. The March agreement says the league should use “best efforts to play as many games as possible, while taking into account player safety and health, rescheduling needs, competitive considerations, stadium availability, and the economic feasibility of various alternatives.” The league could likewise file a grievance over a lack of good faith negotiations regarding salary by the union, sources said.

Commissioner Rob Manfred told ESPN this week that “unequivocally we are going to play Major League Baseball this year,” placing the chances at “100 percent.”

Here’s the full statement from the MLBPA:

Buster Olney puts most of the blame for this impasse on the owners. I’d make it at least 90-10 in that direction. The owners do have one legitimate complaint, which is that their revenue model depends a lot more on game attendance and associated items like parking and concessions than other sports, where national TV is the bulk of the income. As such, games with no fans will indeed eat into their bottom lines. The problem is that they basically never changed their initial offer, which would have slashed player pay by about a billion dollars, and any claim on their part about their actual financial situation is completely muddled by the secrecy of their accounting. Ben Clemens goes through a very simple exercise in financial engineering to show how owners can make lots of money while showing zero cash balances every year. Even a cursory study of MLB history would cast a large amount of doubt on any financial claims the owners would make.

We’re still not out of the woods here. Safety protocols for the players and everyone who works at the games still need to be established. The NBA has agreed in principle to restart their season, but even they still have player concerns to address before anyone laces up a pair of sneakers. And of course, none of this bodes well for the next round of collective bargaining agreements between MLB and the players. After a long and generally prosperous time of labor peace, it looks like it’s about to get tumultuous. Hold onto your hats.

NBA sets a plan, MLB still working it out

Happening today.

The NBA is finalizing details of a plan which is expected to be approved by the league’s Board of Governors on Thursday, paving the way for a return from the coronavirus shutdown.

The board is poised to give the green light to commissioner Adam Silver’s return of basketball which would begin July 31 with a 22-team format, and end in mid-October with a champion being crowned, ESPN reported.

The plan requires support from three quarters of the league’s 30 teams in order to be approved.

The NBA suspended its season on March 11 because of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

The Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, Nets and Orlando Magic currently hold the playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.

The Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies occupy the postseason positions in the Western Conference.

Under the plan, each of the 22 teams will play eight regular-season games for seeding purposes for the postseason.

The 16 teams currently in the playoff picture will be joined by the New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference.

In the East, the Washington Wizards are also included.

[…]

All games are expected to be within the confines of Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando Florida, with all teams remaining on site to minimise risk of COVID-19 outbreaks.

See here for the background. ESPN adds a bit more:

Life in the NBA bubble will be governed by a set of safety protocols. While players and coaches will be allowed to golf or eat at outdoor restaurants, they will also need to maintain social distancing, sources told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne.

The NBA is planning to have uniform, daily testing for the coronavirus within the Disney campus environment, sources told ESPN. ESPN is owned by The Walt Disney Company.

If a player tests positive for the virus, the league’s intent would be to remove that player from the team to quarantine and treat individually — and continue to test other team members as they play on, sources said.

Employees at the Disney resort will have to maintain similar protocols. For example, no staff will be allowed into players’ rooms, and hallways will be carefully managed to avoid crowding, sources told Shelburne.

Weird, but the NBA had played the bulk of its season anyway, and the playoffs are always a different thing entirely. I just hope those employees at the Disney resort had someone thinking about their welfare as this deal was being hammered out. The Chron has more.

And then there’s MLB:

Major League Baseball has rejected the players’ offer for a 114-game regular season with no additional salary cuts and told the union it did not plan to make a counterproposal, sources confirmed to ESPN.

Players made their proposal Sunday, up from an 82-game regular season in management’s offer last week. Opening Day would be June 30, and the regular season would end Oct. 31, nearly five weeks after the Sept. 27 conclusion that MLB’s proposal stuck to from the season’s original schedule.

MLB told the union it had no interest in extending the season into November, when it fears a second wave of the coronavirus could disrupt the postseason and jeopardize $787 million in broadcast revenue.

While management has suggested it could play a short regular season of about 50 games with no more salary reductions, it has not formally proposed that concept. Earlier this week, multiple players told ESPN that they would not abide a shorter schedule, with one saying, “We want to play more games, and they want to play less. We want more baseball.”

See here for the previous update. If this sounds dire to you, let me refer you again to Eugene Freedman, who’s been around this block a few times.

Basically, it looks like the sides have agreed to the March deal, and now need to work out the safety and testing details, plus what to do if a player wants to opt out. Maybe the NBA getting set to start at the end of July will inspire them to agree on some version of their July 4 Opening Day season. Fingers crossed. The Chron has more.

MLB players make their counteroffer

Back to the owners.

The Major League Baseball Players Association delivered a return-to-play proposal to MLB on Sunday that includes a 114-game season, deferred salaries in the event of a canceled postseason and the option for all players to opt out of a potential 2020 season due to coronavirus concerns, sources familiar with the details told ESPN.

The proposal, which was the first from the union and came on the heels of an MLB plan that was loudly rejected by the players, comes at a seminal moment as baseball tries to become the first major American professional sport to return. Although the players expect the league to reject it, they hope it will serve as a bridge to a potential deal this week.

The 114-game season, which under the union’s proposal would run from June 30 to Oct. 31, is expected to be immediately dismissed by the league; MLB has proposed an 82-game season and suggested that the more games teams play this year, the more money they lose. The union remains steadfast that players should receive their full prorated salaries, while MLB’s plan included significant pay cuts that affected the highest-paid players the most but covered all levels.

The inclusion of potential deferrals in Sunday’s proposal was an acknowledgement by the players that amid the coronavirus pandemic and unrest around the country, cash-flow issues could prove problematic for owners. The deferrals would occur only if the playoffs were canceled, a concern the league has voiced, and would total $100 million. They would apply to players whose contracts call for $10 million-plus salaries and include interest to make them whole.

Deferrals could be part of any counter from the league, which had not officially responded to the union’s proposal Sunday. With the desire to start a season by the first week of July, both parties recognize that time is of the essence for a deal.

While MLB’s 67-page health-and-safety protocol draft included the ability for high-risk players — those with preexisting conditions or family members more susceptible to COVID-19 — to opt out of the season, the union’s proposal suggests that players can do so and receive salary. Players not deemed high risk would be able to opt out but would not receive salary.

See here for the background. I would recommend you read these Twitter threads about collective bargaining by Eugene Freedman for a better understanding of what the players are doing. As he describes there and in the latest Effectively Wild, the owners’ proposal to cut salaries and the players’ offer of a longer season are both basically non-starters unless the other side agrees to reopen the matter. Now that they have both asserted that they won’t open those matters, the real negotiations about health and safety can begin. At least, that’s the hope. If there’s going to be progress on this, it will probably happen this week, but you never know. Fangraphs has more.

UPDATE: Lookie here:

Now, maybe, we are getting somewhere.

MLB’s latest startup proposal

The league still wants to stick it to the players.

Major League Baseball drew the ire of the players’ union Tuesday with an economic proposal that called for a significant cut in salaries that would affect all players and particularly the game’s highest paid, sources familiar with the proposal told ESPN.

The long-awaited plan, the first volley in an expected back-and-forth that will determine whether baseball returns in 2020, proposed a marginal salary structure in which the lowest-paid players would receive close to a full share of their prorated salary and the game’s stars receive far less than expected.

Players immediately bristled at the proposal, which includes an 82-game schedule that would begin in early July after a 21-day spring training, sources familiar with the plan said. Teams would play three exhibition games in the final week before starting a regular season that would finish Sept. 27.

The MLB Players Association is expected to reject the plan and counter in the coming days with a proposal that could include a longer season, according to sources.

The league’s proposal, which includes bonuses if postseason games are played, offers lower-salaried players a higher percentage of their expected wages and would give some of the game’s biggest stars a fractional cut of their salaries. The formula the league offered, for example, would take a player scheduled to make the league minimum ($563,500), give him a prorated number based on 82 games ($285,228) and take a 10% cut from that figure, leaving him with a $256,706 salary.

[…]

Although the proposal would keep a larger proportion of players close to their whole salaries — about 65% make $1 million or less and would receive more than 80% of their prorated salaries — players young and old objected to the plan, which they believe runs in contrast to a March agreement with the league that they believe legislated that players be paid full prorated salaries upon the return of baseball.

The league believes language in the deal calls for good-faith negotiations with the union about the economic feasibility of playing with no fans, which MLB expects to do upon a return. The league initially considered proposing a 50-50 revenue split with the players, citing massive losses due to the coronavirus pandemic. MLBPA executive director Tony Clark immediately rejected the idea, equating it to a salary cap.

See here for the background. Basically, this PR move by the owners is to stick to the highest-paid players, in an attempt to divide the union and make the players look as unsympathetic as possible to the public. I’ll outsource the analysis of this to Jay Jaffe, who sums it up as follows:

While this proposal does bear some resemblance to a progressive taxation scheme, the question that needs to be asked is why it’s the millionaires, whose careers have limited windows, bearing the brunt of the economic impact instead of the billionaire owners for whom annual profits — and for MLB, which has seen revenues grow for 17 straight years, there have been a whole lot of those — and losses pale in comparison to escalating franchise values. That’s without even considering the disproportionate risk the players are assuming by returning to play amid the pandemic. It’s not just their livelihoods that are at risk, it’s their lives. They can’t write those losses off.

Here’s a convenient timeline of the action so far, with some fact-checking as needed. By the way, while the owners as a whole are targeting the stars, one franchise is also sticking it to their minor leaguers, always a classy move. I’ll give a last word on this to Joe Sheehan:

More insidious, though, is the principle behind the plan. It’s asking Mike Trout to give money to Arte Moreno. Trout is rich; Moreno is wealthy. When Moreno had leverage, he paid Trout as little as he could. Now he’s asking Trout to give him back basically all the money Trout made in the first four years of his career.

Of course, any possibility of baseball or any other sport relaunching at this time is highly dependent on testing and keeping the players and coaches and umpires and staffers and everybody working at the stadiums COVID-free. Michael Baumann digs into what that means.

I asked Abdul El-Sayed, an epidemiologist and the former health commissioner for the city of Detroit, whether we know enough about COVID-19 to plan for games in October and November. “Yes, we do know enough about the virus,” El-Sayed says, “to know that we can’t make decisions five to six months in advance.”

One thing baseball has going for it compared to other major team sports—football, basketball, and so on—is that the actual gameplay isn’t particularly conducive to COVID-19 transmission. “An outdoor sport like baseball where [players are] not breathing heavily in each other’s faces seems like a good candidate for a sport that can return,” says Laura Albert, an associate professor of industrial and systems engineering at the University of Wisconsin whose research includes the optimization of emergency and public health systems.

While Albert isn’t worried as much about the in-game component of MLB’s plan to return in July, though, she has other concerns. Namely, even if the league prohibits sunflower seeds, tobacco, and spitting, there would still be plenty of scenarios during which a player with the virus could spread it to others. “There will be positive cases and there will be transmission between players,” she says. “And I anticipate it happening on airplanes and buses, in the locker rooms or bathrooms. It’s not totally clear how we can change those spaces to be safe if there’s a bunch of people using them.”

[…]

MLB’s return, whenever it happens, is already being heralded as a sign of things returning to normal. Indeed, as much as baseball fans miss the game itself, that touchstone to a more comfortable time is a huge reason why even a limited season is such an attractive proposition. But MLB has already accepted that if the league is going to have a prayer of making it to the World Series this year, the game won’t look, feel, or sound the same as it has in the past.

“Our lives are not going back,” Albert says. “They’re not returning to what they were like before, and there’s not one way we could really control the spread of COVID-19—there’s many things we have to do. And so it’s great that the leagues are embracing this. It’s not window dressing. I think it’s important for us to get used to these things.”

There’s a limit not only to what MLB and the MLBPA can do to ensure that the game is safe, but also to what they can know and predict. It will certainly be difficult for such a powerful industry to comprehend that idea, but it will be necessary for the baseball world to understand and embrace it. Given how COVID-19 works, the data on infection rate leaves investigators and public officials to work on a lag.

“We’re not dealing with linear dynamics here. That’s the hard part that I think is confounding so many of our best efforts to respond reasonably,” El-Sayed says. “You’re talking about exponential growth. Everything that we see today is information about the dynamics of the virus two weeks ago. And so all of a sudden you could be having exponential growth dynamics that only start showing up after it’s too late for you to act to stop them.”

As much as everyone is tired of having the course of the country and the economy determined on a fortnightly basis, [Thomas J. Duszynski, the epidemiology education director at the Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis] says that’s about as far ahead as we can responsibly plan right now. He’s open to the idea of MLB coming back—but only if the league is willing to stop the season if conditions change. “If they go down this road and start to play games, which personally I hope they do, and we see a shift in that science that says, ‘Hey, wait a minute, the disease is getting worse again,’ is MLB going to be able to pull this back?” he says. “Are they going to be able to shut it down and still survive?”

Both El-Sayed and Duszynski believe that it’s possible that a leaguewide infection could progress to the point where MLB simply can’t press on.

“God forbid a player dies because of this,” Dusynski says. “What kind of ripple effect would that have through Major League Baseball?”

I’m actually not that worried about a player dying. It could happen, but it would be unlikely. I’m much more worried about a coach, or an umpire, or a stadium staffer dying. Or a member of a player’s family, or a family member of one of these other groups. That could happen regardless – about 0.7% of players have already had COVID-19, per the MLB antibody study. Clearly, the risk is greater if the games are played. The players have the most leverage to assess and try to mitigate the risk to themselves and their families. I hope that’s sufficient for everyone else.

The NBA inches closer to a return

We’ll know more soon.

NBA teams are expecting the league office will issue guidelines around June 1 that will allow franchises to start recalling players who’ve left their markets as a first step toward a formal ramp-up for the season’s resumption, sources told ESPN.

Teams expect a similar timeline from the league on when they’ll be allowed to expand individual workouts already underway with in-market players to include more team personnel, sources said.

The NBA suspended the 2019-20 season on March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic. The league is discussing a step-by-step plan for a resumption of the season that includes an initial two-week recall of players into team marketplaces for a period of quarantine, one to two weeks of individual workouts at team facilities, and a two- to three-week formal training camp, sources told ESPN.

Barring an unforeseen turn of events, many NBA owners, executives and National Basketball Players Association elders believe commissioner Adam Silver will green-light the return to play in June — with games expected to resume sometime before the end of July, sources said.

The NBA is still considering a two-site format for the return of the season, including Orlando’s Walt Disney World and Las Vegas, sources said.

See here for some background. That story was from Thursday. As of Saturday, things had progressed a bit further.

The NBA is going to Disneyworld. Or at least, it hopes to save its season and declare a champion in a single-site scenario outside of Orlando.

In the most public sign yet that the NBA is hopeful that it can resume its 2019-20 season amid the coronavirus pandemic, NBA spokesman Mike Bass said the league has begun exploratory talks with the Walt Disney Company about using its venue in central Florida to hold practices and games without fans present.

“The NBA, in conjunction with the National Basketball Players Association, is engaged in exploratory conversations with The Walt Disney Company about restarting the 2019-20 NBA season in late July at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Florida as a single site for an NBA campus for games, practices and housing,” Bass said in a statement.

“Our priority continues to be the health and safety of all involved, and we are working with public health experts and government officials on a comprehensive set of guidelines to ensure that appropriate medical protocols and protections are in place.”

The MLS is also looking at Orlando, at the ESPN Wide World of Sports facility. I don’t know how much that might complicate the logistics, but one presumes they will figure it out. The Chron had reported earlier in the week that the Toyota Center in Houston had been in the discussion as a potential venue, but that is apparently no longer in play. It’s possible the NBA will go straight into a playoff system, or it may play some more regular season games but eliminate the teams with the worst records to limit the number of people required to be there. I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

As you know, Major League Baseball has also been working on a season-starting proposal, though in typical fashion the owners are making up claims about financial losses in an attempt to back out of the previous agreement with the players and squeeze them on salaries. I suspect this will get resolved at some point, in which case we may suddenly have a lot of sports coming back to us. Assuming, of course, that there isn’t a big post-reopening spike in infections or other insurmountable obstacle. But if things go as the optimists hope, we could go from no sports to a fairly full slate in a hurry. We’ll see.

Here’s the MLB season-starter proposal

Make of it what you will.

Major League Baseball owners gave the go-ahead Monday to making a proposal to the players’ union that could lead to the coronavirus-delayed season starting around the Fourth of July weekend in ballparks without fans, a plan that envisioned expanding the designated hitter to the National League for 2020.

Spring training would start in early to mid-June, a person familiar with the decision told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because details of the plan were not announced.

[…]

Teams will propose that players receive the percentage of their 2020 salaries based on a 50-50 split of revenues MLB receives during the regular-season and postseason, which likely will be among the most contentious aspects of the proposal during negotiations with the players’ association.

That proposal would take into account fans being able to return to ballparks at some point, perhaps with a small percentage of seats sold at first and then gradually increasing.

Rosters would be expanded from 26 to around 30. With minor leagues shuttered, there likely will be the addition of about 20 players per club akin to the NFL’s practice squad.

MLB officials are slated to make a presentation to the union on Tuesday.

Players and teams agreed to a deal on March 26 that called for each player to receive only a portion of salary, determined by what percentage of a 162-game schedule is played. As part of that deal, if no season is played each player would receive 2020 service time matching what the player earned in 2019.

But that deal is contingent there being no restrictions on mass gatherings at the federal, state, city and local level; no relevant travel restrictions in the U.S. and Canada; and Commissioner Rob Manfred after consulting the union and medical expects, determines there is no risk to playing in front of fans at regular-season ballparks.

Players and teams committed to “discuss in good faith the economic feasibility of playing games in the absence of spectators or at appropriate neutral sites.” Manfred has said about 40% of MLB revenue is tied to gate, including concessions, parking, ballpark advertising, luxury suites and programs.

Union officials and players have cited the March 26 agreement as setting economic terms and say they have no inclination for additional cuts.

See here for the background and some more details about the initial proposal. I’m going to hand this off to Fangraphs for some deeper analysis.

In a half-season scenario, if teams lost nearly all of their stadium revenue, and every other revenue and expense stream (including player payroll) were cut in half, there’s an argument that the owners might lose about $50 million per team this season. While that’s still about $2 billion shy of the profits they’ve made over the previous three seasons ($4 billion including BAMTech money), it’s a significant loss. Of course, the vast majority of those non-stadium revenues will not be cut in half. MLB is still in a very good position with its television partners, and even getting 75% of non-stadium revenue would allow the league to break even without renegotiating the deal it previously agreed to with the players. And that’s before we even get to teams taking lower annual local rights fees in exchange for ownership stakes in regional sports networks, which might send another half-billion dollars or more to teams annually. Those profits aren’t included in the revenue sharing among teams, and similar issues will make revenue sharing with players incredibly difficult to determine.

And even if we were to assume that by playing half a season without fans MLB is going to operate at a loss paying the players half their salaries, and then further decide that players should share a greater part of the burden of potential losses in the form of revenue sharing despite not having received any of the benefits of increasing profitability the last three years, what constitutes revenue in this scenario? Calculating revenues in a normal year is hard; calculating them this year will be near-impossible. We can talk about the under-market local TV deals of the Red Sox, Mets, Yankees, and Cubs, which siphon off baseball revenue in the form of network ownership, as a potential sticking point but even more difficult is determining revenue on national and local television deals and sponsorships.

If a team or the league agrees to take a discounted amount for a television deal or local sponsorship in order to make more money in future years, would such a deal require player approval? After all, the team or the league would be actively negotiating away money that might go to the players this year, but wouldn’t in future seasons when revenue sharing wasn’t in effect. The league and teams have longstanding relationships with their television partners and sponsors and they want to keep each other happy and provide each other with the biggest possible return on those relationships. The players are uniquely disadvantaged when trying to determine revenue due to these relationships and the potential for moving money around to the advantage of the parties already engaged in the deal. Involving the players will only lead to more acrimony and bigger headaches down the line.

So I dunno. I would dearly love to see baseball start again, if it is sufficiently safe, but I have no desire to see the players sacrifice their salaries for the owners’ benefit. I’m sure there’s room to make this work better, if the sides are willing to talk. We’ll see how the players react. ESPN has more.

MLB’s restart plan is coming

Get ready.

According to multiple reports, commissioner Rob Manfred will present a blueprint for the season’s resumption during a Monday conference call with league owners. From there, the first formal proposal for a return to play would be given to the Players Association, perhaps as early as Tuesday.

Reports on Saturday characterized the situation as still extremely fluid, with many hurdles to overcome. Approval is not only needed from the players but also from local governments and medical experts with whom the league has been in constant consultation.

According to reports, the plan presented to owners is expected to contain an 80-game season that begins in early July with the goal of playing as many games as possible in empty home ballparks.

Some form of a second spring training would be required in June — either at home ballparks or at facilities in Florida and Arizona. Active rosters would have to be expanded beyond 26 players, perhaps as big as 45 or 50, according to The Athletic.

Teams would play exclusively against their divisional opponents and against their geographic counterpart in the other league — meaning the Astros could face teams in only the American League and National League West. The postseason would expand from 10 to 14 teams, too.

Concerns about harder hit areas of the country, travel and the availability of widespread testing for COVID-19 are still obvious. What to do if a player or staff member tests positive is still unknown.

In an agreement between the league and its players association on March 26, MLB promised not to resume its season until there were no bans on mass gatherings, medical experts determined there was no health risks for players, team personnel fans or ballpark staff and travel restrictions were lifted in the United States and Canada.

The agreement did offer flexibility for the league and union to discuss playing in empty stadiums, which is now almost a certainty. The economic impacts of such a scenario could offer the most discontent between the league and players union.

The three-divisions plan, with teams playing in their (likely empty) stadia against the teams geographically closest to them is different from the three states plan, which was the last one I had taken note of, but it’s in the same vein. The idea is to minimize travel (which also reduces costs) and make it easier to keep the players close by. Whatever gets proposed will have to be approved by the players, who have their own concerns about safety and compensation and other things. There’s basically no other news out there about this right now, or at least there wasn’t yesterday when I drafted this. I’m sure we’ll see more once the actual plan has been released. In the meantime, I am hopeful that we are on a path to getting baseball back, and more than a little concerned that it’s all an illusion that will not be able to withstand the reality of our situation. I’m sticking with the hope for now.

MLB begins to contemplate its return

Well, this is interesting.

Major League Baseball and its players are increasingly focused on a plan that could allow them to start the season as early as May and has the support of high-ranking federal public health officials who believe the league can safely operate amid the coronavirus pandemic, sources told ESPN.

Though the plan has a number of potential stumbling blocks, it has emerged above other options as the likeliest to work and has been embraced by MLB and MLB Players Association leadership, who are buoyed by the possibility of baseball’s return and the backing of federal officials, sources said.

The plan, sources said, would dictate that all 30 teams play games at stadiums with no fans in the greater Phoenix area, including the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Chase Field, 10 spring training facilities and perhaps other nearby fields. Players, coaching staffs and other essential personnel would be sequestered at local hotels, where they would live in relative isolation and travel only to and from the stadium, sources said. Federal officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the National Institutes of Health have been supportive of a plan that would adhere to strict isolation, promote social distancing and allow MLB to become the first professional sport to return.

The May return date depends on a number of concerns being allayed, and some officials believe a June Opening Day could be more realistic, sources said. Most important would be a significant increase in available coronavirus tests with a quick turnaround time, which sources familiar with the plan believe will happen by early May and allow MLB’s testing to not diminish access for the general public.

While health officials see MLB players as low-risk candidates for COVID-19-related issues because of their age and health, putting protocols in place to ensure the health and safety of older managers, coaches, umpires and other personnel would be paramount to the plan working, sources said.

The logistics to pull off such a plan would be enormous and cumbersome on the league side and require the buy-in of players, who sources expect to be skeptical of separating from their families for an indefinite amount of time — perhaps as long as 4½ months, if the inability to stem the coronavirus outbreak keeps teams from playing in their home stadiums in 2020.

Still, there is hope among leadership on both sides that the combination of receiving paychecks for playing and baseball’s return offering a respite to a nation beset by the devastation of COVID-19 would convince players to agree to the plan, sources said.

[…]

While the possibility of a player or staff member testing positive for the coronavirus exists, even in a secured setting, officials do not believe that a positive test alone would necessarily be cause to quarantine an entire team or shut down the season, sources said. The plan could include teams carrying significantly expanded rosters to account for the possibility of players testing positive despite the isolation, as well as to counteract the heat in Phoenix, which could grow problematic during the summer, sources said. The allure of more players potentially receiving major league salaries and service time would appeal strongly to the union, according to sources.

Both sides acknowledge the uniqueness of the season would not be limited to stadium location or roster size. Among the possibilities that have been discussed among people from both sides, though not in the talks on Monday, according to sources:

• Implementing an electronic strike zone to allow the plate umpire to maintain sufficient distance from the catcher and batter

• No mound visits from the catcher or pitching coach

• Seven-inning doubleheaders, which with an earlier-than-expected start date could allow baseball to come closer to a full 162-game season

• Regular use of on-field microphones by players, as an added bonus for TV viewers

• Sitting in the empty stands 6 feet apart — the recommended social-distancing space — instead of in a dugout

Each option, though far from certain, is likely to be bandied about in the coming days as the viability of the plan for everyone involved takes shape.

That’s a lot, and MLB has subsequently clarified that pretty much everything is still under discussion. A June start date may be more feasible, for one thing. I’m glad they’re willing to consider all kinds of outside-the-box ideas, and I’m glad that they are in discussion with the NIH and not just winging this, but there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about this. I mean, if the goal is to avoid having no baseball at all in 2020 – which, let’s face it, is a real possibility – then this is the sort of thinking that will be required. Nothing is sacred other than the health of everyone involved. If that can be managed, then let’s make something work. I’ll be very interested to see where these negotiations go. Fangraphs has more.

UPDATE: The Ringer is dubious:

But one crucial element necessary for the enactment of any “Baseball Biodome”–style plan is missing from these early drafts. It’s the Maldivian resort workers waiting on one couple, trapped by someone else’s flouting of the COVID-19 danger.

Baseball games don’t just need players and coaches and umpires. They also need grounds crews. They need trainers. They need janitors and laundry workers and security, and clubhouse attendants and team chefs and equipment personnel. Team hotels need almost all of those people, too. And games will likely need some sort of scouting or front office framework, and media members. They’ll certainly need television crews on site—even if announcers might be able to call games remotely, camera operators and producers would have to penetrate the biodome—if the goal is to provide entertainment for the masses without fans in the stands.

Thus, two possibilities present themselves. Either all those hundreds (thousands?) of workers spread across 15 stadiums and numerous hotels in Arizona would come into contact with the otherwise completely isolated players and coaches, risking an immediate piercing of the COVID-free bubble, or else all those hundreds (thousands?) of workers would need to be sequestered as well, in which case the logistical nightmare would amplify exponentially.

Yeah, the sheer numbers involved make it seem much less likely to work. And of course, all these other people are paid much less, and thus have much less incentive to go along with this four-months-of-isolation idea. I don’t know how you make this all work. I still think it’s worth thinking about, but we can’t lose sight of reality.

The conditions under which baseball can return

If coronavirus cooperates. Cross your fingers and hope for the best.

Major League Baseball owners have approved a plan to address salary and service-time issues amid the indefinite delay to the start of the regular season, according to ESPN and multiple reports.

The owners completed an agreement reached between MLB and the players’ union Thursday night, which came after nearly two weeks of morning-to-night negotiations that involved players, owners, agents, executives, union officials and commissioner’s office staff.

As part of the agreement, obtained by ESPN’s Jeff Passan, the players and MLB primarily agreed that the 2020 season will not start until each of the following conditions are met:

  • There are no bans on mass gatherings that would limit the ability to play in front of fans. However, the commissioner could still consider the “use of appropriate substitute neutral sites where economically feasible”;
  • There are no travel restrictions throughout the United States and Canada;
  • Medical experts determine that there would be no health risks for players, staff or fans, with the commissioners and union still able to revisit the idea of playing in empty stadiums.

While there was no formal framework in the agreement, owners and players both want to play as many games as possible. The flexibility of both sides was seen in the willingness to extend the regular season into October, play neutral-site playoff games in November and add doubleheaders to the schedule.

That’s the basic gist of it, though I’d recommend you read the whole story. There are a lot of moving parts, and who knows under which conditions Commissioner Manfred might reach for that “appropriate substitute neutral sites” clause. You also have to wonder when leagues like the NBA and NHL, which are in the middle of suspended seasons, will come out with some similar document for their own return. (The NBA is watching the Chinese basketball league to see how their efforts to restart go.) This agreement between MLB and the players’ union will also have profound effects on amateur players and potentially the minor leagues – I recommend you read this Fangraphs article for the details on that. We should all also remember that we’re still on the upslope of this curve. There’s an ending out there and it’s good to look forward to it, but we can’t yet see it from here.

The robo-umps are coming

Not right away, but you can see it from here.

Computer plate umpires could be called up to the major leagues at some point during the next five seasons.

Umpires agreed to cooperate with Major League Baseball in the development and testing of an automated ball-strike system as part of a five-year labor contract announced Saturday, two people familiar with the deal told The Associated Press. The Major League Baseball Umpires Association also agreed to cooperate and assist if Commissioner Rob Manfred decides to utilize the system at the major league level. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because those details of the deal, which is subject to ratification by both sides, had not been announced.

The independent Atlantic League became the first American professional league to let a computer call balls and strikes at its All-Star Game on July 10. Plate umpire Brian deBrauwere wore an earpiece connected to an iPhone in his pocket and relayed the call upon receiving it from a TrackMan computer system that uses Doppler radar.

The Atlantic League experimented with the computer system during the second half of its season, and the Arizona Fall League of top prospects used it for a few dozen games this year at Salt River Fields.

MLB has discussed installing the system at the Class A Florida State League for 2020. If that test goes well, the computer umps could be used at Triple-A in 2021 as bugs are dealt with prior to a big league callup.

[…]

It is not clear whether the Major League Baseball Players Association would need to approve computerized ball and strikes.

“We are aware the umpires and MLB are in negotiations over a new CBA,” said players’ union head Tony Clark, a former All-Star first baseman. “MLB will have their negotiation with them, and they will need to discuss with us.”

See here for the background. Everyone agrees that robot umps are coming, at least for ball/strike calls, we’re all just arguing about the timeline. One of the things we’ve learned from the Atlantic League’s experience, is that the low-and-away part of the rulebook strike zone is generally not called a strike by human umpires but is by the robo-umps, and there’s a good argument that the automated system should be adjusted to be more like the human umps. Another thing we’ve learned is that accurate height data for the players is needed, else the automated zone, which is calculated based on those measurements, is not a true reflection of what it should be. There are still refinements to be made, and there’s no rush to get there. I’ll be a little surprised if we have this system in place in five years, but I’ll be even more surprised if we don’t in ten years.

MLB All Star Game will no longer determine World Series home field advantage

Hallelujah.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12944222

By Source, Fair use

The Associated Press reported early Thursday morning that, as a part of the new collective bargaining agreement, home-field advantage in the World Series will no longer be determined by the All-Star Game. Home-field advantage will now be awarded to the pennant winner with the better regular season record.

After the 2002 All-Star Game ended in a 7-7 tie, Major League Baseball and the players’ union agreed to allow the “midsummer classic” to decide home-field advantage for the 2003 and ’04 seasons. That agreement was extended to ’05 and ’06 and then was made permanent.

Critics have rightfully said that the All-Star Game is a rather capricious way to determine home-field advantage, which can sometimes be a big factor in the outcome of the season’s final series. Compared to regular season and playoff games, players are oddly used as position players tend to stay in for about three innings and pitchers only get an inning or two on the mound. Players don’t tend to take the game as seriously as they would a regular season or playoff game.

Thank goodness. This was such a dumb thing to do, done in a panicked way after that tie game and the nonstop chatter about it in 2002. The All Star Game has always been an exhibition game, originating in a time when the American and National Leagues were truly separate entities. Even if there was a legitimate need to make a for-funsies game more competitive and meaningful – which I have always argued was baloney – tying its outcome to the World Series made no sense. This is a much more rational way to determine home field advantage. Kudos to all for finally getting it right. Deadspin and Fangraphs have more.

MLB adopts expanded instant replay

Excellent.

Baseball’s replay age has finally dawned, thanks to Thursday’s unanimous approval by owners of what commissioner Bud Selig called a “historic” expansion of replay to correct missed calls.

The new system, which will go into effect this season, will give managers most of the power to trigger reviews, by providing them with one challenge per game, along with a second potential challenge if their first is upheld.

Only after a manager has used up all of his challenges, and only from the seventh inning on, would umpires be authorized to initiate a review on their own.

For the first time, calls at first base, at the plate and on the bases will be reviewable. There will be limited exceptions, including the fabled “neighborhood play” at second base. But MLB executive Tony La Russa, one of the architects of the new system, estimated that almost 90 percent of all potential calls are now reviewable.

Disputed home runs will be reviewed under existing rules and do not need to be formally challenged.

Baseball officials paved the way for Thursday’s vote by negotiating late deals with the Major League Baseball Players Association and with the Major League Umpires Association. Sources said an agreement with the players’ union wasn’t finalized until Wednesday night.

“The Players look forward to the expanded use of replay this season, and they will monitor closely its effects on the game before negotiating over its use in future seasons,” MLBPA executive director Tony Clark said in a statement.

Meanwhile, MLB alleviated a key concern of the umpires by agreeing to hire two additional umpiring crews (a total of eight new umpires), and staffing the replay center in New York through a rotation of current umpire crews instead of with former umpires and umpiring supervisors.

“For some, the discussions regarding expanded replay appeared to move too slowly, too deliberately. But there were technical and operational challenges that needed to be addressed, and that took time,” World Umpires Association representative Brian Lam said in a statement.

More details are here. As you know, I’m a big supporter of replay technology to get as many calls right as possible. I just see no reason not to be able to review and correct where needed calls that are obviously, painfully wrong. Umpiring is hard – I’ve done it for youth baseball – and MLB umpires generally do an excellent job. But nobody is perfect, and even the best umps can get caught out of position or get a sub-optimal view. Why hang them out to dry when a fix is so easily done? The NFL has used instant replay with great success for years, and while it was controversial at first, there’s basically no one arguing against it any more. I’m sure there will be some reactionary voices this season, and I’m sure the system will need some fine-tuning – MLB has committed to tweaking it as needed over the next three years – but before you know it we’ll all be wondering what took so long. Pinstriped Bible and Hair Balls have more.

RIP, Marvin Miller

Marvin Miller, whom Red Barber said was “one of the two or three most important men in baseball history, along with Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson”, has died at the age of 95.

Marvin Miller

It is impossible to overstate Miller’s impact on Major League Baseball. While some — including Hall of Fame voters — have long given Miller short shrift (or piled on utter disdain), baseball today cannot be understood without understanding Marvin Miller’s contributions. He was a truly transformative figure who, after Jackie Robinson, did more to correct the excesses and injustices delivered onto players by baseball’s ruling class than anyone.

When Miller took over as the head of the MLBPA in 1966 there was no free agency. Players were told by ownership what they would make the following year and if they didn’t like it, tough. They couldn’t switch teams. They couldn’t do what any other worker can do and shop their services elsewhere. They were stuck thanks to baseball’s reserve clause and the ridiculous Supreme Court decision which exempted baseball and its owners from the antitrust laws.

Miller took all of that on and he won. He started small, negotiating the union’s first collective bargaining agreement with the team owners in 1968, which raised the game’s minimum salary from $6,000 to $10,000. In 1970 he got the owners to agree to arbitration for the first time. In 1970 Curt Flood, with Miller’s support and guidance, challenged baseball’s antitrust exemption — and the dreaded reserve clause, which kept players tied to one team against their wishes — in the courts. Flood ultimately lost that case in the landmark 1972 Supreme Court decision. The decision did not, however, blunt Miller’s resolve, and he took his fight to other forums.

In 1974 he exploited a loophole — and an oversight by Oakland Athletics owner Charlie O. Finley — to get Catfish Hunter free agency and baseball’s first $1 million contract. Up next: the whole enchilada. In 1974, he got Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally to play out the season without contracts, placing them in cross-hairs of the reserve clause and giving them standing to fight the provision in arbitration. In 1975 they won, with the Seitz Decision ushering in the age of free agency. Baseball players’ indentured servitude was over.

In all Miller led the union through three work stoppages: two short ones — 1972 and in spring training 1980 — and then the long, season-altering strike in 1981. In all three stoppages, the union prevailed. Overall during his tenure the average players’ salary rose from $19,000 to $241,000 a year and their working conditions improved dramatically. It is no understatement to say that Miller turned the MLBPA into the most effective and successful labor union in the United States. Not just in sports: in the entire United States.

The New York Times has a thorough obit that you should read as well. Truly, Miller was one of the giants of the game, who changed it for the better in a profound way. His exclusion from the Hall of Fame is a monument to pettiness and spite, but he took it in stride. Rest in peace, Marvin Miller.

UPDATE: Keith Olbermann remembers Marvin Miller.

MLB labor deal calls for more use of replay

This overview of what’s in the proposed collective bargaining agreement for Major League Baseball has the following interesting tidbit:

MLB wants to expand replay to include fair-or-foul calls, “whether a fly ball or line drive was trapped” and fan interference all around the ballpark. Umpires still must give their approval and it’s uncertain whether the extra replay will be in place by Opening Day.

As you know, I approve of video reviews where possible to ensure a correct call was made. The “human element” should be about the players, not about the possibility of an egregious, uncorrectable error from an arbitrator. I just hope MLB gives some thought about how to resolve these situations when a call needs to be reversed. It’s usually easy enough to handle when the call should have been “foul ball” or “proper catch”, but how do you restore equity when a ball that was declared foul should have been called fair, or when a catch should have been a trap? It’s hard to know what “should” have happened when the action comes to a premature halt. Obviously, there will need to be a certain amount of umpire discretion, and some outcomes will be less than fully satisfactory though still better than they would have been otherwise. Expect a few bugs in the system, and be willing to go back and make refinements as needed.

MLB realignment?

Well, this is interesting.

A simple form of realignment being seriously considered has been raised in the labor talks between Major League Baseball and the players’ association, according to four sources: two leagues of 15 teams, rather than the current structure of 16 teams in the National League and 14 in the American League.

According to a highly ranked executive, one consideration that has been raised in ownership committee meetings is eliminating the divisions altogether, so that 15 AL and 15 NL teams would vie for five playoff spots within each league. Currently, Major League Baseball has six divisions.

A source who has been briefed on the specifics of the labor discussions says that the players’ union has indicated that it is open to the idea of two 15-team leagues, but that the whole plan still hasn’t been talked through or presented to the owners.

“I’d still say the odds of it happening are less than 50-50,” one source said.

Apparently, the Astros have been identified as the NL team that could change leagues, from the six-team NL Central to the four-team AL West, where they’d be joined with the Rangers. I’m not a big fan of this idea, mostly because I don’t think more interleague play would be advisable, but if we’re going to think about changing alignments and schedules, I’d prefer an approach that’s both more radical and more simplistic. David Pinto wrote a series of three articles for the Baseball Prospectus back in 2007 that proposed abolishing the leagues and going to five six-team divisions that made a lot of sense on many levels, and allowed for easy expansion to boot. I’d love to see the discussion be broadened to include such ideas. What do you think?

Selig avoids All Star Game issue

We always knew he was a weenie.

With a lengthy non-answer, Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig on Thursday gave no indication he would move the 2011 All-Star Game from Phoenix in response to Arizona’s immigration law, saying MLB has already done everything it should do regarding equality.

[…]

The players’ union has come out against the law, and some — including the city of San Francisco — have called for MLB to pull its Midsummer Classic from Arizona.

But asked about it after a quarterly owners’ meeting adjourned, Selig responded only by citing MLB’s progress in hiring minorities.

“We have enormous social responsibilities,” Selig said.

“We’re a social institution. We have done everything we should do — should do. Our responsibility, privileged to do it, don’t want any pats on the back. And we’ll continue to do it.

“We’ve done well. And we’ll continue to do well. And I’m proud of what we’ve done socially, and I’ll continue to be proud of it.

“That’s the issue, and that’s the answer.”

That’s also a whole lot of nothing. Honestly, though, it’s not unexpected. While sportswiters and bloggers may call on Selig to take action, I don’t see him doing anything unless he’s compelled to do so. Maybe Congress could force the issue, but that’s a long shot at best. No, if Selig can be goaded into action it’ll have to be the players’ union, which didn’t directly address the All Star Game in its statement but did say they would “consider additional steps necessary to protect the rights and interests of our members” if the law went into effect, which it now has. Your move, MLBPA.

MLBPA opposes Arizona immigration law

Good for them.

New York, NY, Friday, April 30, 2010 … The following statement was issued today by Major League Baseball Players Association Executive Director Michael Weiner regarding the immigration law recently passed by the state of Arizona.

“The recent passage by Arizona of a new immigration law could have a negative impact on hundreds of Major League players who are citizens of countries other than the United States. These international players are very much a part of our national pastime and are important members of our Association. Their contributions to our sport have been invaluable, and their exploits have been witnessed, enjoyed and applauded by millions of Americans. All of them, as well as the Clubs for whom they play, have gone to great lengths to ensure full compliance with federal immigration law.

“The impact of the bill signed into law in Arizona last Friday is not limited to the players on one team. The international players on the Diamondbacks work and, with their families, reside in Arizona from April through September or October. In addition, during the season, hundreds of international players on opposing Major League teams travel to Arizona to play the Diamondbacks. And, the spring training homes of half of the 30 Major League teams are now in Arizona. All of these players, as well as their families, could be adversely affected, even though their presence in the United States is legal. Each of them must be ready to prove, at any time, his identity and the legality of his being in Arizona to any state or local official with suspicion of his immigration status. This law also may affect players who are U.S. citizens but are suspected by law enforcement of being of foreign descent.

“The Major League Baseball Players Association opposes this law as written. We hope that the law is repealed or modified promptly. If the current law goes into effect, the MLBPA will consider additional steps necessary to protect the rights and interests of our members.

“My statement reflects the institutional position of the Union. It was arrived at after consultation with our members and after consideration of their various views on this controversial subject.”

Well said. Though I would prefer for it to not come to that, I hope the union follows through on its consideration of additional steps in the event the law doesn’t get blocked. It would be nice if Commissioner Selig followed their lead, too. Now maybe MLS will take a stand, too. Thanks to David Pinto for the link.