MLB’s changing baseballs are a labor issue

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I know I just wrote a whole Baseball Prospectus piece with a tone that said, “I can’t believe I am writing about the baseballs again, please let me stop writing about the baseballs,” but it turns out I have even more to say on the matter, so now we’re all going to be subjected to yet another round of it. MLB constantly changing the baseballs, and doing so without the approval or even the awareness of the players, is a labor issue. It’s a lot of other issues, too, but for our purposes here, let’s focus on the labor part of things.

This isn’t a new thought, from myself or others. I wrote as much back at Deadspin in 2019:

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.

Of course, the ball has been “dejuiced” since that offensive explosion, with the much higher drag on the more recent versions used by the league causing offense to crater, and giving pitchers help they certainly did not need. Hitters are valuable once again, in the sense anyone who can actually launch these anti-offense balls into orbit consistently are going to be seen as worth paying for, but now what of the pitchers? The ones who are, as time goes on, more and more interchangeable and replaceable, as the concept of what a starting pitcher even is and does changes to lessen their importance and convert them into what is, as Russell Carleton described, basically a reliever who throws the most innings in a sea of other relievers? You’re still going to have some pitchers get big money, of course, but by and large, the combination of this max effort, short stint framework in conjunction with a dead ball is going to lessen the market value of pitchers as a whole.

Remember last June, when Pete Alonso went off about the baseballs being changed as a way for MLB to control how free agents were paid? As I wrote at the time, it’s probably a little more conspiratorial than the league is capable of pulling off, but what’s the difference between their actions being purposeful and this being an accidental side effect that the teams are all going to be happy to take advantage of on the market? The end result is the same: the players will suffer for it on said market, and which players depends on whether the ball is designed to leave the park or stay in it.

Let’s not forget, either, that the current baseball is also a problem for the health and safety of players. Now that pitchers can’t goop up the baseballs to get a better grip on them — which, yes, was heavily abused in order to generate a higher spin rate, and something needed to be done about it — they’re noticing just how much some tacking was necessary in order to be able to grip them at all. Mets’ starter Chris Bassit complained that the balls are “bad” and that their quality even inning-to-inning can be inconsistent, and that the league isn’t listening to pitcher complaints about these issues. More and more pitchers are throwing at velocities that would have stood out as superhuman just a few decades ago, and if they let one of those pitches rip and it goes off-target and hits a batter in the face? Maybe then MLB will admit they should have had a pre-tacked ball in place at the same time they authorized the end of pitchers handling this business themselves.

The players believe there are multiple balls out there again this year, and why wouldn’t they, when it was revealed MLB used two different baseballs in 2021 without telling the players? It shouldn’t be so difficult to have a ball that won’t be an extreme assist for either offense or defense, and that pitchers can also grip consistently without needing to cover the thing in product beforehand. MLB owns the production line for the baseballs, even, it’s not as if there is some third-party out there messing up the league’s orders. Until there is a consistent baseball, one that doesn’t have the potential to deflate the earnings of either hitters or pitchers, and one that can be thrown at high velocities safely without it being an accidental weapon, then the ball is going to be a labor issue.

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