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Of course collusion is happening

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It’s the only explanation that makes sense.

Fast Company Innovation Festival - Derek Jeter On Finding Professional Fulfillment After The Dream Career Featuring Derek Jeter, Founder, The Players' Tribune, And Jeff Levick, CEO, The Players' Tribune Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Fast Company

Members of the Major League Baseball Player’s Association are not happy campers.

After a long offseason where the ‘C’ word was whispered throughout baseball media but never quite brought to the forefront, agent Brodie Van Wagenen broke open the floodgates when he accused the owners of the ‘C’ word. Van Wagenen never used the ‘C’ word—collusion—but his word choice communicated the same language: “It feels coordinated.” That is what collusion is, of course.

There has even been talk about boycotting Spring Training, in part or in whole, though while the interest exists there is not yet a coordinated effort to do so.

Things got even more heated when, on Tuesday, Scott Boras stopped just short of accusing owners of collusion. Coming from Boras, the biggest name among agents and a well respected (if somewhat feared) baseball lifer, the accusation carried weight.

Boras stopped short of using the word “collusion,” but took issue with MLB revealing in its statement of response that “some” nine-figure ($100+ million) offers have been turned down. The 1987 case won by the players regarding collusion resulted in a $280 million settlement paid after it was found owners were colluding.

“I find it interesting that the league office can state as fact that the age free agents have ‘nine figure’ offers since the CBA mandates that teams not share that sort of information,” Boras said.

Is it really collusion, though?

Of course it’s collusion.

Consider the Major League Baseball offseason. The relevant individuals are numerous: free agents, signed players, player agents, scouts, front office employees, owners. The individual situation of each offseason varies drastically: which teams are rebuilding, which teams are unsure of their position, which teams are going for it? How many free agents of each position exist—and are there any impact free agents—and does the financials match up with the teams that need them? What players are available the following year? How do the minor leaguers look?

As I write this, only one player has won a deal longer than three years, that player being Lorenzo Cain, who has been among the top 20 position players by raw production over the last four seasons. Only four of ESPN’s top 11 free agents have signed deals, and it is February. Furthermore, it is not only the top teams who aren’t signing players. Teams that could be signing players to take the next step, like the Minnesota Twins, for instance, are not doing so.

Occam’s Razor states that, all things being equal, the simpler answers are more likely than the complicated ones to be correct. And while it usually dunks on conspiracy theories for that reason, in this case it points towards one. That’s because the options are that 30 teams began acting completely and suddenly in sync coincidentally or by decision. If the league were ten teams, maybe coincidence explains it. But there are 30 teams, in varying geological locations and with varying expectations.

The specific arguments against collusion just don’t hold up under pressure.

Scott Boras and his insane demands are ruining the market!

Boras is a notorious agent who always seeks the highest deal for his players, always. His players seldom sign extensions, and Boras is ruthless in avoiding the ‘hometown discount.’

But Boras has been doing this for 35 years. He was named ‘Most Powerful Sports Agent in the World’ by Forbes just a few years ago. Are we to believe Boras suddenly stopped being an effective agent overnight? Furthermore, are we to believe that hundreds of other agents and their clients are encountering difficulties because they, too, forgot how to do their jobs? That is flatly ridiculous.

Teams are smart now! They’re using analytics and know that free agency is inefficient.

To fans who are just hearing about things like WAR, DRS, spin rate, and other sabermetric stats, it may feel like analytics is a newfangled toy that all the front offices just started doing.

But that’s just not true. Bill James, the father of modern analytics, began publishing his yearly abstract in 1977. Moneyball, the book, was published in 2003. Moneyball, the film with Brad Pitt, was released in 2011. Teams have had analytics departments for decades. It’s not like teams are just now realizing that free agency is inefficient.

Besides, there wasn’t a lot of front office turnover last year. The Atlanta Braves have a new General Manager, but that was a product of a scandal and not a change in philosophy. And while the Miami Marlins changed ownership, they kept their GM. Most teams retained the same front office as last year. Are we to believe that 28 teams all acted in concert simultaneously?

The 2018 free agent class is bonkers! Teams are waiting on that.

The 2018 free agent class is a bit overrated. It’s got a few generational talents available—Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and Clayton Kershaw—but other than those three, the class is perfectly normal.

Even if you suggest that next year’s crop is particularly good, it’s not like that hasn’t happened before. Not every group of free agents has the same upside or depth. This has happened before, and it didn’t sink the previous market.

The canary in the coal mine

Managing Editor Max Rieper wrote about the canary in the coal mine yesterday: the low end of the free agent continuum. You should read the piece, but I’ll post the relevant table to this article:

table, free agency, collusion

Spring Training starts next week, and only one player has signed a deal longer than four years. One. The top end of the free agent market has not materialized.

But the real issue is at the low end of the free agent market. The reason that fewer free agents have signed overall is that fewer low-end free agents have signed: the Melky Cabreras of the world. None of the arguments against collusion explain this.

What now?

There is, so far, no hard proof of owner collusion. There won’t be for a long time, if ever. And it’s entirely possible that in the next week teams make a veritable blizzard of deals in order to complete their rosters.

And there are extenuating circumstances. As noted in the Deadspin piece I linked to above, the MLBPA is failing its players. Other leagues specifiy a percentage of revenues to go towards the players, but not baseball.

The NBA’s CBA requires that players receive between 49 and 51 percent of basketball-related income; in the NFL, players are supposed to receive between 47 and 48 percent of revenue. Baseball players’ salaries totaled more than 56 percent of revenue in 2002, when the luxury tax and revenue sharing guidelines were installed; that has cratered to less than 40 percent in the decade and a half since, as Nathaniel Grow noted at FanGraphs back in 2015.

But that merely explains that the players should be getting a larger slice of the pie in general; it doesn’t explain MLB’s aversion to free agency this year. It doesn’t explain the collusion.

Because, yeah, this is collusion. Reasonable people might disagree, especially if you’re someone who needs evidence for collusion specifically. That’s understandable.

What is also understandable is that collusion is the only thing that truly makes sense. Collusion has happened before in baseball. It’s the simplest explanation. And it’s really the only one that truly makes sense on multiple fronts.

This isn’t going away anytime soon.