Ryan Spilborghs is a former big league outfielder. He is currently a color analyst for the Colorado Rockies on Root Sports Rocky Mountain and also works for MLB Network Radio. He came up in the Rockies organization and appeared for the club at the major league level between 2005 and 2011, playing a significant role in Colorado’s 2007 and 2009 postseason runs. Ryan also spent time with the Indians and Rangers organizations in 2012 before finishing out his playing career with Japan’s Seibu Lions in 2013. MLBTR is glad to welcome him as a contributor to our Player’s Perspective series.
Do you love September baseball? How can you not, with the baseball season coming down to the wire? Major League Baseball got it right by adding two extra wild card teams. More teams are in the conversation for a playoff spot than ever before. How many times have you heard teams say, “We just want a chance to play meaningful games in September?”
We’re in October now, of course, and this is when it really gets good. But I wanted to explain what it’s like to make it through that last month of the regular season as a player — whether or not your team ends up making the postseason.
For organizations that are out of the playoff race, especially, September gives opportunity by way of expanded rosters. Players, front offices and fans get to glimpse what their future holds. However, if you were to survey coaches and players about September baseball, most will say they hate it. Can you name another major sport that changes the rules during the most important time of their season?
There is a laundry list of reasons why September baseball is despised by most, from competitive imbalance to pace of play to personal accolades and incentives.
First, the basics. September 1st in Major League Baseball marks the beginning of expanded rosters, which runs through the end of the season. Teams are allowed to carry 40 players on their roster — an increase of 15 players per team. (And no, you don’t have to be on the roster before September 1st to be playoff eligible; players just have to be within the organization.)
September is a double-edged sword for managers: it’s an opportunity to watch and reward minor league players they have not seen play at the Major League level, but it is also a difficult task to manage playing time and prepare against the opponents’ extra players. Not every team takes full advantage of the expanded rosters. Team record can play a role, as can financial considerations. But on the whole, the impact is significant. Major League games in September are changed by roster expansion. With so many additional options, the pace of play slows, and the nature of the action is totally different.
There’s a lot at stake for players, too. I was not given a September call-up back in 2005, even though I made my MLB debut earlier that year with the Rockies and finished the minor league season with career-best numbers. During the last two weeks of the minor league season, I remember reading articles speculating on who the organization was leaning toward calling up. My name was always in the mix. But when things wrapped up at Triple-A, I was told by my manager that my season was over.
In fact, what had happened was that the Rockies decided they were not going to promote any player from within our minor league system. The Major League team was well below .500 but playing well at the time, and they didn’t want to “disrupt team chemistry.” I was devastated for several reasons. The first was that my best season was over and I wanted to be rewarded with more opportunities at the MLB level. The second reason was financial: I was a minor league player making slightly above the minor league minimum for the Triple A level, and needed the extra money to carry me through the offseason for living expenses and workouts.
Things turned out fine for me, though. I decided to play winter ball in Mexico to deal with those two disappointments, and it ended up working out better for my career. There’s also an impact that may go beyond the importance of the MLB service clock. This season, Rockies shortstop Trevor Story made national headlines for his historic start. Trevor acknowledges that not getting a call-up in September of 2015 really pushed him to work harder in the offseason. That “chip on the shoulder” attitude fueled his training and helped him get off to such a great rookie season.
For me, not getting the 2005 September call-up ended up impacting my career several years later. I was always considered more of a fourth outfielder, and in my first real season in the big leagues (2006), I was optioned up and down between the minors and majors. For those of you who are unaware, each day you spend in the major leagues is considered one day of service time towards your career. Service time in MLB is gold: there are 162 games in an MLB season, but it takes 183 days (21 off days) to play out the season. It takes 172 of those service days to earn a full year of MLB service time. A player’s service time also dictates a player’s pension, but more importantly, it gets a player closer to salary arbitration and free agency.
The thirty days of service time I lost in September of 2005 came back to prevent me from reaching my first year of arbitration by an entire season. I never like discussing money, because I acknowledge that the salaries of Major League Baseball (like all professional sports) are so far beyond what almost the entire population ever makes. But I think it’s worthwhile to describe my feelings and perspectives as a participant in this industry. Most players only have a small window to earn, which often only comes after spending a long time in the minors. Having my arbitration year pushed back from 2008 to 2009 meant a significant difference in my career earnings. For a role player like myself or any other players in a similar situation, that is a significant loss.
September roster changes don’t just impact the young guys who are (hopefully) reaching the big leagues for the first time. For players that have remained on the team’s roster over the course of the season, having an expanded roster presents challenges for playing time that can have several ripple effects on any team. In particular, role players that have had playing time during the season can lose opportunities to call-ups.
Although players will always support their newest teammates, those lost opportunities in playing time can cost players opportunities to gain contract incentives and compile statistics that help out heading into the offseason. This is especially important for players who most likely will not return to their current team after the season. Former Braves manager Bobby Cox was famous for making sure the players that had been on the roster over the course of the season met their individual player bonuses and got enough playing time to help their future when it came to looking for offseason jobs, but it’s a tough balance and there are competing priorities. It takes a self-aware manager and organization to recognize how these opportunities should be allotted.
All of those things can make for a tense time in September. When teams fall out of playoff contention, the at-bats and playing time can be critical for players to prove their standing in the major leagues. Players can read the writing on the wall whether or not their current team will make an effort to retain their services. While it is part of the business for younger players to receive playing time when they are expected to contribute to the team’s future success, that doesn’t make it any easier for the veterans.