The State of Baseball: MLB under Manfred
Written By: Matt Code and Dylan Drummey
With the MLB lockout still in effect, fans everywhere are divided over whether this event is the fault of the MLB & Rob Manfred or the MLBPA & Tony Clark. At The Drummey Angle, we believe it is extremely important to give both sides of this raging debate. Consequently, we will be providing two dissenting opinions in this post. On the MLB owner’s side, Dylan will be advocating for the sound reasoning behind Rob Manfred’s decisions. On the MLBPA’s side, Matt will be fighting for the players and against the actions of Rob Manfred. With these arguments, we hope the reader will be able to come to an informed conclusion about the matter.
The Astros Scandal
Matt’s Take: In 2019 and 2020, Manfred presided over Major League Baseball’s sweeping investigation into the Houston Astros and their sign-stealing program. Upon completion of the investigation, Manfred was tasked with levying punishments for all involved. He fined the organization $5 million, the maximum fine under MLB’s constitution, revoked their first and second-round draft choices for two years, and suspended both general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch for the entirety of the 2020 season. Manfred granted full immunity to every Astros player in exchange for cooperation with the investigation. Many fans and pundits argue that Manfred did not go far enough in his punishment of the Astros by allowing the organization to retain its World Championship.
In defense of his decision, Manfred said, "It has never happened in baseball" and that he felt "that precedent happens and when you deviate from that, you have to have a very good reason." Perhaps the most infamous remark from Manfred in defense of his decision was his statement on the Commissioner’s Trophy. In longer remarks to ESPN, Manfred referred to the Commissioner’s Trophy as “a piece of metal.” Conduct that causes “fans, players, executives at other MLB Clubs, and members of the media to raise questions about the integrity of games” is not “a very good reason” to take back “a piece of metal.”
Dylan’s Take: As my colleague aforementioned in his argument, one thing is clear - Rob Manfred imposed the biggest punishment against an MLB team in modern-day history. He took away four total high-value draft picks, the majority of the “brains” behind the Astros organization, and an enormous sum of dollars. The only thing that he did not do was place individual blame on players or take away their World Series trophy. And while many questioned this decision, I find it notably sound. Because, in the end, it all comes down to a justification that must be irrefutably proven. While the Astros did cheat, there is no specific proof that sign stealing was the fundamental reason for why they won the 2017 World Series. Having one of the most power-packed rosters in the entire MLB, their World Series appearance was of no surprise to the avid fan. It could not have possibly been behind their entire victory, which is what taking back the trophy would imply.
The same sort of philosophy applies to the individual blame aspect. The MLB had no irrefutable proof that one player was solely responsible for the sign stealing. Rather, they found the manager and the GM to be responsible, with the players only acting in the direction of their employer. Even if fundamentally wrong, one cannot apply such a deep punishment of blame and discipline on one player if there is no evidence to support such a claim. Given all of the facts available, I believe Rob Manfred imposed a fair punishment to the appropriate parties that were accountable.
Matt’s Take: Major League Baseball suspended its spring training operations on March 13, 2020, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. At this point, it became obvious that the 2020 season would at the very least be delayed for months. Both Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association expressed a desire to play baseball in 2020 and attempted to negotiate the terms of a season in our new COVID world.
Manfred, representing Major League Baseball and its owners, was set on dramatic reductions of player salaries for the 2020 season. His first proposal to the Players Association sought a 75% reduction of baseball’s highest salaries. Rightfully, the Players Association immediately rejected this proposal. The Players Association remained entrenched with the requirement that players be paid their full salary prorated for the number of games played. Owners attempted to oppose this position by arguing that they would lose money on each game that was played. Thus, leading the union to propose a 114-game regular season and the owners to propose a 48-game season. For months the two sides remained in conflict-filled negotiations with the Players Association and MLB rejected every proposal from the other side.
Under an agreement from March, Manfred was given the power to unilaterally implement a season so long as players were paid their full prorated salaries. Manfred did just that, putting in place a 60-game season. While Manfred’s handling of this situation was not a complete debacle, I do believe that he and the owners acted in bad faith by running out the clock until all that was possible was the 60-game season they had wanted in the first place.
Dylan’s Take: In describing the COVID-19 Pandemic, one word is constantly and rightfully brought up - unprecedented. As we are all aware, this pandemic is like nothing that any of us have ever faced in our lifetimes. And in truth, we are all making things up as events go along. This same logic should be applied to Major League Baseball. Faced with this frighteningly new situation, Commissioner Manfred had to propose a solution that was fair to both players and owners - a seemingly impossible task given the nature of the differences between the two parties. Owners were hemorrhaging money to operate their teams, as all sources of revenue universally came to a halt suddenly. Players were losing their salaries, as they were no longer being paid for their work. Given these circumstances, Manfred imposed a fair decision - a 60-game season meant to both pay the players and somewhat help owners counteract losses.
Such a compromise will not be liked by some. And the time that the matter took to solve will be questioned, even if solving such an equation is, in its nature, a very time-consuming exercise. In reality, I appreciate that a compromise was met at all. With the obvious looming labor crisis, tensions were already high. Both sides easily could’ve forgone the season, anointing it to a loss and playing one more year before they were again negotiating. Yet, it happened. And without Robert Manfred’s leadership, I do not believe that would’ve been possible.
Matt’s Take: While Rob Manfred’s 2020 was rather poor, his 2021 was perhaps even worse. Early in the 2021 season, discussions of pitchers using foreign substances to increase spin and decrease ERA reached the forefront of the sports world. For the longest time, Major League Baseball had ignored the issue of foreign substance use. Yet as soon as the unsavory headlines began to fly, Manfred implemented new orders forcing umpires to inspect pitchers throughout the game. Pitchers and defensive managers became furious over the new rules with Max Scherzer dubbing them the “Manfred rules.”
While I agree with the commissioner that the issue of pitchers using foreign substances needed to be addressed, my issue with Manfred’s actions is that he only addressed the issue when it became public. It is simply impossible that Major League Baseball simply became aware of the issue when it hit the press.
Dylan’s Take: In a somewhat tiny degree of agreement with my counterpart, I believe it is highly unlikely that the issue of the foreign substance being published was the first time that the Commissioner became aware of the problem. On the other hand, I would argue that the prevalence was not known. It may’ve been regarded as a possible reason behind the suppressed offense, but the issue was more than likely not thoroughly researched.
When Robert Manfred became aware of the deep effect the issue had on the game, he acted swiftly and justly - immediately implementing inningly checks to cut down the use of these substances. The implementations worked. According to a report by Ben Lindbergh from The Ringer, leaguewide spin rates fell roughly 87 RPM. Around 3% of a pitcher’s total spin rate, this change made a difference. While the timing of the matter can be argued, in the end, the issue was addressed. The appropriate regulations were introduced and enforced, leaving the game better than it was.
Matt’s Take: One of the more surprising Major League Baseball stories of 2021 was the revelation that MLB had used two different balls during the season. Dr. Meredith Wills, a sports physicist, discovered that some games featured the balls MLB had promised to use in 2021 which contained lighter cores to deaden offense, while other games featured the old ball which flies considerably further.
MLB claims to have informed the MLBPA about the two different balls to be used, however when Business Insider talked to ten Major League players none of them said they were notified of the change. The impact of this discrepancy is impossible to quantify. Furthermore, it raises several important questions that deserve answers and will receive none. Is MLB certain that each team was given the same amount of new and old balls? What was the statistical impact of these discrepancies? If a team had more new balls than old balls does that explain offensive declines on that roster? What role will these discrepancies play in future contract negotiations?
While the issue of differing baseballs is not entirely on Rob Manfred, it points towards a pattern of mismanagement from Major League Baseball’s upper brass and leads to a myriad of questions regarding the fairness of this regime. Why Major League Baseball felt using two vastly different baseballs in the same season was acceptable is beyond me.
Dylan’s Take: In the interest of total honesty, this action is hard to defend. Altering baseballs between certain games can have serious contract negotiation implications, as well as the possibility to alter Statcast and scouting data that Major League teams rely on for the success of their organization. The main issue comes down to the awareness of such a matter. Either way, we can never truly know how involved Commissioner Manfred was in the process. Assuming one way or the other would be a fallacy, as we genuinely lack the information to make an informed decision.
If the Commissioner was directly involved in the substituting of baseballs, I am to say that this was a lapse of judgment. I understand the appeal and necessity of testing new baseballs for the better of the game, but doing that during a live, recorded outing seems far from fair for anyone involved in the process. If he was not involved, this rule of thumb applies to the party responsible. Baseballs can be appropriately tested in a controlled, non-important environment, which would yield the same results.
Matt’s Take: Perhaps the biggest issue faced by Major League Baseball in 2021 and into 2022 is the ongoing league-wide labor stoppage. When Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement with the MLBPA expired at midnight on December 2, 2020, Manfred and the owners elected to impose a lockout upon the players. In announcing this choice, Manfred penned “A letter to baseball fans.” This letter is packed with misinformation and gaslighting in an attempt to blame the lockout on the player’s union. Manfred, in the letter, claims that the owners were “forced” to impose a lockout. That is false. In the long history of expired baseball CBA’s, this is the first occurrence of a pre-spring training lockout. The lockout is simply a move by the owners to strongarm the players union and force capitulations to their demands.
MLB’s proposals have been aimed at reducing the range between teams’ combined salaries. Owners are seeking a $100 million minimum for clubs and a luxury tax which begins at $180 million. MLB is also looking to expand the postseason to 14 teams from 10 teams beginning in 2022.
MLB is seeking a reduction in the Competitive Balance Tax threshold to address the player’s calls for a reduction in non-competitive teams. Owners will claim that the luxury tax is designed to ensure that team payrolls are more similar and competitive balance is achieved. That is simply inaccurate. In reality, the luxury tax is an effort to limit the cost of labor. If every organization is obsessed with remaining below the luxury tax threshold, then there will be less money up for grabs for players. The owners attempt to pass off a view that lowered team salaries will regulate the lack of competitiveness in the league, meanwhile, the players present a much more valid solution.
The players support conditioning revenue sharing upon team performance as opposed to team existence. Under the current system, some teams rake in more money from revenue sharing than they spend on payroll. By conditioning revenue sharing on success, teams will feel compelled to assemble competitive rosters, and tanking would be greatly reduced. Contrary to the claims of the owners, the players are pushing to make the worst MLB teams more competitive, not less.
The Players Association views this collective bargaining agreement as an opportunity to right numerous wrongs within the Major League labor system. While the league made some concessions to the players in Thursday’s proposal, the owners have not gone nearly far enough in improving the labor conditions for ballplayers. As Dayn Perry of CBS Sports writes, “Given all those facts on the ground, it's entirely unsurprising that players would seek to correct those inequities. The owners know this, of course, but Manfred's is built upon hopes and assumptions that you don't.”
Dylan’s Take: Arguably the most tumultuous event of Manfred’s tenure, the owners of Major league Baseball have made many efforts in negotiation towards the players. With the MLBPA refusing to yield its demands to a more reasonable level, unlike what my colleague wrote, I believe that a Lockout was the only option. Manfred properly addressed this fact. As evident in the 2020 negotiations, negotiations could compromise without the threat of a clock. The Lockout is just that - a timer, forcing the players to act. This is a common use of negotiation tactics, widely accepted in other fields of business, that should be viewed as an effort to hurry along the process for the core issues.
The first issue is towards a minimum payroll, which MLB owners are fighting heavily against. Small-Market teams simply do not have the resources to be successful if they are no longer allowed to save funds to be competitive. Primarily used by the Astros before their multi-year World Series run, they dedicated themselves to not spending funds to be great in the future. Commonly termed as “tanking,” the concept allows poor teams to be able to have a somewhat similar payroll to the MLB giants in competitive years. Supporting a payroll minimum is supporting the end of MLB competitiveness.
The next disagreed upon issue is that the Owners support the maintaining of the luxury tax. Given that the system is working now, there is no need to fix it. Relative parity in the MLB, compared to the past, is quite healthy. One way that this is measured is through the standard deviation of Winning Percentages in a given season, with the smaller number being healthier. In an article by Neil Paine, the 2021 MLB Season had a standard deviation of 0.075, while the 1981 season had a 0.145 (nearly DOUBLE!). Competitive balance is only getting better.
The owners also want revenue sharing on the general terms of acting as a franchise, which players believe should be based on record. And while this may be like supporting a more competitive game, it will do just the opposite. Teams that lack the necessary funds to compete will now attempt to win every year. Given that they lack the necessary funds, they will never be able to truly win, making this proposed system obsolete and ultimately futile.
In viewing the core issues of disagreement, it is prevalently known that Tony Clark and the MLBPA seem to have a chip on their shoulders after not doing well in the last negotiations. Instead of trying to make up for that loss through compromise, they are orchestrating an all-out public smear-job to paint the owners as monsters. I cannot agree with that tactic whatsoever.
The Firing of Ken Rosenthal
Matt’s Take: In addition to the lockout, Major League Baseball and its commissioner faced a media firestorm and public reprimands in the early days of 2022. On January 3, Andrew Marchand of the New York Post published a story reporting that MLB Network, the league-owned media arm of MLB, had cut ties with insider Ken Rosenthal over criticism of the commissioner. Marchand reports that sources have told him that Rosenthal was suspended in 2020 for analysis of Manfred’s handling of the league’s COVID situation. Marchand claims that this suspension and Rosenthal’s writings regarding Manfred for The Athletic are the primary reason Rosenthal’s contract was not renewed for 2022.
Dan Le Batard, now of Meadowlark Media, claims that the commissioner had attempted to have him fired from ESPN in 2017 when he conducted a rather tense interview with Manfred. Le Batard described the interview with Manfred as “the single worst interview a sports commissioner has ever given.” Le Batard said, “We caught him saying some things that we could prove, factually through documentation, were not true. In doing that interview, what happened after that, ESPN defended us a hell of a lot better than MLB Network defended Ken Rosenthal. MLB Network is a propaganda arm. NFL Network is a propaganda arm. Some things will not be discussed on those platforms because they are not independent entities. If Rob Manfred could have gotten me fired at ESPN, he would have.”
Ken Rosenthal’s non-renewal presents two primary issues. The first issue is the non-independence of league-owned media. That is an issue for a different article. The second issue is the league and Rob Manfred’s alleged attempts to control narratives through force instead of controlling narratives by avoiding negative narratives in the first place.
Dylan’s Take: In response to this controversial call, I will be relatively brief. MLB Network, which is primarily owned by Major League Baseball, fired Ken Rosenthal for defamatory comments against Robert Manfred. Whether a journalist or not, this is clear - he was fired for talking against his employer. And in accordance with any major employment law, this is fair ground for termination. Robert Manfred (whether he ordered the termination or not) was within his rights to do so.
To criticize the Commissioner for using his rights is similar to criticizing a defendant for invoking the fifth amendment - it is inadmissible hearsay. As MLB has always used MLB Network as a positive avenue to promote the game, something to the contrary should be addressed. This is exactly what happened. MLB and Rob Manfred acted in the best interest of supporting the positivity of the sport.
Whether one agrees with Robert Manfred or not, both sides can agree that his tenure has been an interesting one to watch. Matt argues an organization is only as strong as its leader, which is why the state of Major League Baseball is as shaky as it has ever been. Dylan argues that the scrutiny of the commissioner is primarily unwarranted, with Major League Baseball undergoing growth that will forever change the game for the better. But in the end, the importance lies within our ability to recognize and accept our fundamental differences. Dialogue between both sides is forever important in reaching a compromise, whether that is in an MLB conference room or an online blog. Through our dialogue, I hope that we have provided the resources necessary to properly inform about The State of Baseball: MLB Under Manfred.