COLLEGE PARK (2/5/19) — With advanced analytics increasingly driving decisions made by baseball executives and veteran players seeing their market value plummet, a trio of sportswriters said Monday that Major League Baseball is probably headed for a work stoppage.
In a wide-ranging discussion about baseball writing hosted by The Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism — moderated by Povich Center Director George Solomon — the reporters talked about covering the game, its personalities and its future.
They kept coming back to the data revolution and what they see as its inevitable consequence.
“What I think is happening is that we have a new breed of general manager who is young, Ivy League educated, brilliant … and they don’t care about anything other than the value system that they have in place,” said Tim Kurkjian (‘78), an ESPN baseball analyst. “And if you don’t fit into the number of years and the amount of money that they think you’re worth, you are not going to get signed.”
Kurkjian, along with Baltimore Sun Orioles beat reporter Jon Meoli and author Jane Leavy, agreed that veteran players — in other words, the ones who run the Major League Baseball Players Association — are making less money and have less job security than in recent years.
“I had a G.M. tell me last year ‘the days of a 32-year-old average player getting a four-year deal paying him through age 36, those days are over,’” Kurkjian said. “‘They are never coming back.’ And if that’s indeed true, that’s going to lead even more to a work stoppage in a few years.”
Leavy, who like Kurkjian covered the last strike of MLB players in 1994 — it lasted so long the World Series was canceled — said the reliance on analytics and an error by the players’ union will be most responsible for the next strike.
“I think when the major league players’ association decided to have players run it rather than professionals … they made a classic mistake,” said Leavy, author of Babe Ruth biography “The Big Fella.”
“I think they were snookered a little bit in the last” collective bargaining agreement, she said.
Meoli said the market correction on veteran players can have an on-field effect. Last season, the Orioles signed free-agent pitcher Alex Cobb late in spring training. When the veteran finally joined the major league club a few weeks into the season, he struggled mightily before rounding into form late in the season — too late for the Orioles, who had already fallen out of contention.
This season, longtime Orioles center fielder Adam Jones — who is 33 — remains unsigned despite being recognized as a strong veteran presence and consistent hitter. Four years ago, 31-year-old former Orioles outfielder Nick Markakis signed a four-year contract with the Atlanta Braves that paid him $44 million.
“The value system is flipped on its head,” Meoli said. “There’s really not jobs out there for these people because you can get that production for $600,000.”
Kurkjian said he saw some of this coming, but is surprised that superstar ballplayers Bryce Harper and Manny Machado remain unsigned. Spring training begins next week.
He’s amused when teams talk themselves out of signing such premium players — who may still command more than $20 million annually — by deciding those players aren’t the right fit for their team.
“Bryce Harper is the right fit every day for any team,” Kurkjian said. “If you don’t want to pay him $400 million, I understand. But to say we don’t have a place for him is ridiculous.”
Despite labor uncertainty and the need for MLB to attract younger fans, the three baseball writers agreed interest in the game remains high. Amid the turbulence, they said there are more jobs in baseball and baseball writing than there have ever been.
“There’s so much space for innovation,” Meoli said. “If you can find a niche for yourself that isn’t already filled, I think that’s going to be the key. Because no one really knows what it’s supposed to look like going forward, so someone has to do it and kind of be that example.”