Let’s talk about Pete Alonso’s conspiracy theory

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I’m not here to tell you if Pete Alonso is correct or not when he says Major League Baseball is tweaking their baseballs to manipulate market prices for impending free agents. That’s a task for someone who can speak more on the makeup of the balls and do fancier math than I’m able to. My guess is that MLB is uh, not equipped to manage something on that scale, but maybe the people running the league have just been pretending to be incompetent dipshits this whole time, to lull us all into a false sense of security and make us constantly annoyed with them and their inadequacies. Hey, it could happen.

What matters, both for our purposes and at large, is that players like Pete Alonso believe that MLB would stoop to this kind of low in order to depress the salaries of pitchers or hitters, depending on which there are more of in line to make bank on free agency in a given year. Alonso is an active player suggesting it, and he says that there are players talking about it — how many players, it’s unclear, but it’s apparently not just him. A couple of former players spoke up, with the linked video of Alonso above coming from former catcher Anthony Recker, while former infielder Will Middlebrooks says that the theory “makes sense.” Here’s Alonso, for those who don’t feel like watching a video…

In 2019, there was a huge class of free-agent pitchers and then that’s quote-unquote “the juiced balls,” and then 2020 was a strange year with the COVID season. But now that we’re back to playing in a regular season with a ton of shortstops or position players that are going to be paid a lot of money like high-caliber players — I mean, yeah, that’s not a coincidence. It’s definitely something that they do.

…and here’s Middlebrooks speaking to CBS Sports on the subject:

“Now, they have the rights and the capability of accessing the manufacturer of the baseballs that they use every day,” Middlebrooks said. “That’s something to think about. I’m not a big conspiracy theorist here, but I do think there’s an issue there. And, another thing is they change the ball every year. What other sport does that?”

“His point makes sense. All of a sudden in 2018, they juice balls and then like he said, they had that big class of pitchers,” Middlebrooks said. “Well, those ERAs are obviously through the roof and there are home runs given up, runs given up, everything is bigger. So you don’t have to pay them as much. It makes sense.”

My ego is not so big that I’m going to take credit for making players former and current paranoid like this about the baseball and MLB’s intentions with it, but it is big enough that I want to point out that I suggested these kinds of financial problems in player market values due to the juiced ball back in 2019, in a feature at Deadspin. Apologies for the sheer volume of quoted text here, but, it is about as relevant as you can get to the story of the day:

Any discussion of how the new ball might impact free agency and the like should be prefaced with an acknowledgment that baseball’s economics are, professionally speaking, a goddamn mess right now. The return of the juiced ball is not going to clean that up at all. If anything, the ball leaving the park all the time means that pitchers can easily be viewed as unreliable, or at least more susceptible to giving up runs than they would have been. Less reliability means less of a pay day, and we’ve already seen that play out in a few different ways for arms around the league.

The dollar figures assigned to each of the pitcher deals were especially concerning. Aaron Nola, who finished third in the National League Cy Young race in 2018, agreed to a four-year extension with just $45 million guaranteed. German Marquez and the Rockies agreed to a five-year, $43 million extension, which seems fair enough until you consider that Marquez understood, as Nola did, that he had no real alternative waiting for him in free agency. Luis Severino was in the same situation: he signed for just $40 million over four years, despite consecutive top-10 finishes for the AL Cy Young and a 137 ERA+ that easily led the Yankees over those two seasons.

Pitchers, even ones this talented and relatively fresh-armed, are being underpaid because free agency is effectively a dead letter below the elite level. It’s not just a matter of those three young pitchers, either.

If so many hitters are hitting homers that they’ve made literally Mike Trout seem relatively worse than he is, then no one is going to go out of their way to shift the dollars unspent on pitchers to hitters instead. We’ve already seen what happens when teams are given a chance not to spend on one thing they used to spend on, and the result is never “spending it on something else.” Power is everywhere, now, and therefore there is no need to pay for it

Really, you should just read the whole piece, as it came to the same conclusions as Alonso and Co. without the conspiratorial side effects. Instead, it’s as the kicker says, that, “the distortion wrought by that juiced ball is going to make for a pleasant side-effect for the 30 owners looking for even more excuses to avoid paying players what they could and should.” Alonso is saying they did it on purpose; I’m saying they didn’t even have to in order to bring about the result that got Alonso talking.

The “if everyone is a power hitter, no one is a power hitter” point can be reversed and applied to pitchers in 2021, who are now using a baseball that was supposed to bring a bit of balance back to things, but instead, has given hurlers even more of an edge over offenses across the league. That’s not just a guess of mine, by the way: Robert Arthur wrote as much in one of his recent research pieces, and it played a significant role in my own distrust of MLB’s ability to fix any problem they’re currently dealing with.

If pitchers who can get hitters out are essentially everywhere, then there is little need to pay a premium for any but the very best ones out there. Just like, previously, if basically anyone is capable of launching 30 homers when the balls have tiny rockets attached to them that ignite when struck, no one is going to pay a premium for homers — even if homers were basically the only reason any runs were being scored around the league. MLB might not be doing this to the ball on purpose — manipulating it specifically around which free agents are prevalent, I mean, they are absolutely messing with the ball and have been for years — but what, exactly, would look different about any of this if they were?

What piques my interest here is in how belief in this kind of thing — again, whether Alonso is right or not, the evidence that MLB loves that this is happening is right there, so it’ll be easy to continue to believe — impacts collective bargaining. If the players are at a point where any of them feel comfortable suggesting conspiracy theories meant to devalue players, then the owners aren’t going to be in for the kind of CBA talks they’ve grown accustomed to since the players first began to back down from their demands decades ago. The conspiracy portion of things might not be necessary, but the kind of energy that brings it certainly is.