The Major League Baseball Players Association rejected the league’s most recent proposal to implement a universal designated hitter, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported this morning in a larger, broad-reaching look at the issues facing the two parties. MLB offered up a universal DH and a willingness to rule in favor of two players on a pair of service time grievances, per Rosenthal, but in exchange they sought an agreement on expanded playoffs, the implementation of a pitch clock and a Spring Training trial run with electronic strike zones, among other elements.
The lack of clarity on whether there will be a DH in the National League next season continues to serve as a major impediment for teams and for some free agents alike. Nelson Cruz and Marcell Ozuna, in particular, can’t fully get a grasp on their markets until they know whether the NL will carry a DH. Meanwhile, NL teams are left to build a lineup and a roster without knowing whether they’ll have a spot for an extra hitter.
The MLBPA clearly doesn’t view the addition of a designated hitter in the National League to be as advantageous to its side as the expansion of playoffs is to the league. That’s plenty understandable, given that most clubs no longer employ expensive, dedicated designated hitters and that the expansion of playoff teams would create far more revenue for the league than for its players.
Rosenthal notes that MLB’s latest offer included an extra $30MM or so to be divided up among players — up from $50MM in 2020’s expanded field — but team-side revenues would increase on a much greater basis. Under the traditional structure (i.e. pre-2020), players’ postseason shares are tied to gate revenue, while teams collect 100 percent of television revenues. Last year, in the absence of fans, players agreed to an expanded, 16-team playoff field that saw $50MM of television revenues divided among players.
From the players’ vantage point, postseason expansion is a double-edged sword. A greater chance to play in October could very well be appealing, but there are likely some who (like many fans) worry about “watering down” the field. Of greater concern is the manner in which postseason expansion could also impact free agency. The league would surely argue that increasing the field will motivate borderline clubs to spend more on the open market, thus making it a win for the players.
However, the opposite effect could also play out as well; if the bar to reach the postseason is lowered, some clubs won’t feel as compelled to spend for an extra couple of wins to push themselves over the top. The margin for error is much greater when nearly half (or even more than half) of the teams in the game qualify for postseason play than it is when only a third of clubs do. That’s especially true when at any given point, there are a handful of teams tanking and actively doing everything they can not to win games.
At the end of the day, there’s a substantial disconnect between the extent to which the league and the union feel the universal DH will benefit players. The MLBPA knows that playoff expansion, and the associated revenues, is a massive bargaining chip to leverage in current talks and in the looming talks for a new CBA. That seems too large a concession to make in exchange for the universal DH — particularly because the commissioner’s office also wants a DH implemented in the National League.
Rob Manfred has continually sought to increase in-game action, and considering the fact that pitchers posted a combined .128/.160/.162 batting line with a 44 percent strikeout rate in 2019, swapping them out for a competent hitter would help with that goal. Of course, many traditionalists abhor the very notion of the designated hitter and are overwhelmingly against its implementation in the National League, but at this point it feels like an inevitability — whether that implementation comes in 2021 or in 2022.
As labor lawyer Eugene Freedman (who recently chatted with MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes about the CBA) points out on Twitter, the very framing of this scenario as a negotiation is somewhat misleading. The two sides already have an agreement in place in the form of the 2016-21 CBA, and the union is under no obligation to renegotiate that agreement simply because the league is now making a push for an expanded postseason format.
The MLBPA’s latest rejection doesn’t mean that the two sides won’t eventually agree to something, of course. The league is obviously very motivated to expand the upcoming postseason field and grow its postseason revenues, so perhaps they’ll put together a more enticing offer. We saw in 2020 that the two sides are willing to come back to the table at the last minute, as 2020’s expanded postseason format was agreed upon about three hours prior to the first pitch being thrown on Opening Day.