This article is free for anyone to read, but please consider becoming a Patreon subscriber to gain access to the rest of my work and allow me to keep writing posts like this one.
On Monday, Travis Sawchik asked a question to Five Thirty Eight’s audience: “Do we even need Minor League Baseball?” Sawchik’s theory is that so much of player development happens off the field these days, in comparison to how development used to work, that the minors are a waste of time and resources. Sawchik, you might recall, is one of the two authors of The MVP Machine, which looked at how players can kind of just be created these days thanks to advances in analytics and the introduction of the concept of “Betterball,” so this is an arena he knows his way around.
To a point, anyway. As you might also recall, the book brings to mind some key questions regarding labor and homogeneity it does not know the answers to (or even how to answer them), and this article is something of an extension of that. Deadspin’s Albert Burneko, for instance, wants to know who the “we” in Sawchik’s headline refers to, and it’s not an exaggeration that the entire premise of Sawchik’s piece relies on the reader identifying with management in order for it to accomplish the job the author set out for it.
You should read all of Burneko’s piece, as it’s fan-centric and a rebuttal to the idea presented in the initial piece that MiLB exists in the service of MLB teams alone, but I’ll pull this paragraph from it for now:
2. This gets directly at a much larger problem with the article. Who exactly is minor-league baseball for? The 30 big-league clubs use it as a developmental system for their young prospects, of course. Is the fact that tens of millions of people choose to buy tickets to watch affordable baseball games incidental to that, or is it the other way around? Getting rid of minor-league baseball isn’t going to lower ticket prices at big-league stadiums, or move those stadiums closer to the cities and towns in which minor league teams play, or magically add tens of millions of seats to the big-league venues where minor-league fans could now enjoy Major League Baseball instead.
Sawchik doesn’t concern himself much with any of that: his article focuses heavily on a more efficient player development, one that doesn’t have to deal with the costs of paying rosters full of minor-league players who will never make it to the majors, in the service of the small percentage of players who do. There’s also a quote from Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler that Sawchik pulled out on Twitter, and in the way it’s used completely misses the point of the real message within it:
Buehler thinks there’s another problem: There are too many players that aren’t MLB-quality in the minors.
“At any affiliate, there are three players who have a chance to play in the majors. The rest of the players are there so they so they can play. I don’t think that’s fair,” Buehler told FiveThirtyEight. “You are preying on their dreams.”
MLB is preying on those players’ dreams, absolutely. MLB knows most MiLB players are not going to become MLB players, or even survive within the minors long enough to get to the upper levels. It wouldn’t be predatory, as Buehler describes and reality confirms, if MLB simply paid minor-league players a living wage: you don’t need to dismantle the minors in order to fill it with just the small percentage of future big-leaguers and no one else.
Yes, maybe there are three players per affiliate who will make the majors someday, as Buehler estimates. The other 22 players per team deserve to be paid for their job, which is to help create an environment in which those three Future MLBers can sharpen their skills through in-game competition. Those within MLB disagree, obviously, which is how those 22, whoever they happen to be on your team of choice, get awful signing bonuses, followed by poverty-level wages, and finally, are sent packing sans education or training at the ripe old age of like, 26, because the pipeline never stops and there are always new kids to exploit.
Sawchik, and those he is quoting, are arguing that the in-game competition is not as necessary as it once was. And while there is some truth to the matter that, developmentally, teams likely do not need to have as many affiliates as they do under their umbrella, the reason MLB’s teams have so many is because they can. There are 6,000 MiLB players because MLB pays the vast majority of them almost nothing, making the stockpiling of teams and players to fill them out drops in the proverbial bucket (that pulling countless players of potential from the Dominican, Venezuela, Mexico, Korea, Cuba, and so on serves to weaken the leagues and structures of those countries, further ensuring MLB’s continued supremacy, is a fun bonus for them). Granted, MLB’s teams could pay every minor-league player in their employ $50,000 per year and it would still be a relative drop in that bucket, but they much prefer the way things are, where players are paid nearly nothing for just five months per year and aren’t eligible for overtime.
And the reason I bring that up alongside Sawchik’s piece is because shrinking the number of affiliates is already a threat MLB has made with regards to fixing player pay. In this Jeff Passan piece from March, contraction is mentioned as a potential response to MiLB’s owners not chipping in enough to satisfy MLB’s owners should there be a higher level of pay introduced to the minors:
For those who don’t, there could be a contraction of affiliates — another way perhaps to save costs for the increased expenses elsewhere. Teams’ player-development departments — which covet the multilevel system that has more than 6,000 players in the minors each year — would unquestionably push back on the idea of fewer teams.
So, MLB’s billionaire owners might punish their lesser cousins in the minors should they fail to adequately finance MLB’s own future, forcing them to shut down, which would mean multiple stories about the greedy players and their demand for pay taking baseball away from Medium-Sized City, USA, making this gross quest for ultra-efficiency the fault of the players who are its targets even at this early stage, when it’s just a dream. Cool!
Work like Sawchik’s here attempts to make the idea of fewer minor-league teams seem like some new, sexy development initiative, but it all comes down to the fetishization of efficiency. Fewer teams means fewer costs, fan experience be damned. We’ve already seen what this kind of brainwashing can do and allow teams to get away with at the MLB level — [gestures at everything] — and similar work on the minors has begun now that discussions of better pay there aren’t just whispered.
It’s tempting to dream about Minor League Baseball going independent again, and not being in the thrall of Major League Baseball like it has been for nearly a century now in order to escape this culling, but it’s likely the former is far too gone at this point. Minor League Baseball could bail on their agreement with MLB, sure, but as Passan noted in the previously linked article, they are “the beneficiary of free labor,” and that means they’re doing whatever MLB wants, even if it’s done begrudgingly. If they split from MLB in some capacity, they would suddenly be responsible for all of the costs. While they would also see all of the revenue pass through their hands in this scenario, they would no longer have MLB’s backing, financial or otherwise, in future labor disputes, the flexing of muscles against city councils, and so on. They aren’t about to give that up, even if it means a few current minor-league owners become former minor-league owners in the process, even if it means a worse version of Minor League Baseball that isn’t played in front of as many people, even though everyone in power could ensure it’s everywhere at once with dollar figures that, to them, are rounding errors.
So, in some ways, consciously or not, Sawchik is helping to lay the groundwork for this overhauled MiLB, where the fan experience is even more obviously secondary, and the role of MiLB’s players is to be even more obviously part of a feudalistic system that churns through them as greedily and efficiently as possible. MiLB, Now With Even More Capitalism doesn’t sound like much of a fun day at the park, but hey, none of the important developments happen there, anyway.
Hey, remember when I was concerned that the firing of Dave Dombrowski was the harbinger of a Red Sox team that didn’t leverage its most abundant resource, money, any longer? I’d say I hate being right, but I’d be lying, and I prefer being truthful with you.
I had a piece published at Deadspin this week, on the juiced ball and how it could further screw with an already screwed up labor market in MLB.
R.J. Anderson wrote about Kenta Maeda and the conflicts of interest contained within contract incentives.
Uber thinks they should be exempt from California’s new law that is meant to help hundreds of thousands of independent contractors be reclassified as employees.
- Rachael McDaniel is good at this whole writing thing.
Visit my Patreon to become a subscriber and gain access to more articles like this one.