Answering the Biggest Questions About the MLB Lockout

Zachary D. RymerDecember 2, 2021

HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 26:  Commissioner of Baseball Robert D. Manfred, Jr. speaks to media as he presents Shohei Ohtani #17 of the Los Angeles Angels with the Commissioners Historic Achievement Award during Game 1 of the 2021 World Series between the Atlanta Braves and the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on Tuesday, October 26, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Major League Baseball is going away for a while. No free-agent signings. No trades. And, potentially, fewer regular-season games in 2022.

Welcome to baseball's first work stoppage since the 1994-95 strike, wherein your first question might be how this one is different.

Well, whereas that one was a strike by the players, this one takes the form of a lockout instituted by the owners after they and the MLB Players Association couldn't agree to a new collective bargaining agreement before the last one expired at 11:59 p.m. ET on Wednesday. 

Jon Heyman @JonHeyman

Breaking: MLB owners vote unanimously to institute a lockout. It is expected to begin tomorrow but unclear what time.

This is not an unexpected turn of events. Though MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred was hopeful of reaching a deal as recently as the middle of November, he also warned that baseball was ready to take a page out of the lockout book from other sports leagues.

"The pattern has become to control the timing of the labor dispute and try to minimize the prospect of actual disruption of the season," Manfred told reporters, including Jeff Passan of ESPN. "That's what it's about. It's avoiding doing damage to the season."

On the players' side, rumblings of discontent were heard long before Wednesday. Perhaps never more so than in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the league and union into negotiations that got ugly before Manfred unilaterally instituted a 60-game schedule.

This time, the primary sticking points between the two sides are overwhelmingly of the financial variety. Since such things can get complicated, let's dive right into some of the questions you might have.


Does This Really Mean No More Signings or Trades?

All transactions are on hold while the lockout is in effect. So, yes, no more signings or trades. Which is a bummer, given just how wild the free-agent market had been in the days leading up to the lockout.


What Is the Biggest Sticking Point Here?

It might depend on who you ask, but it's seemingly related to the manner in which teams control players before they reach free agency.

Traditionally, teams control players for six seasons. The first three are pre-arbitration years in which the player is only entitled to the league's six-figure minimum salary. After that, they enter into a three-year arbitration process in which they can negotiate their salaries.

Who Would Change What and How?

According to ESPN's Jesse Rogers, the union wants a system in which players reach free agency "at 29.5 years of age if they've achieved five years of service time, or simply after six years of service time, whichever comes first."

Oh, and one more thing: The union would have it so that players reach arbitration after two years, not three.

As Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported in September, free agency at 29.5 years was the league's idea. So at least on that front, there's a window for agreement.


That's Good, Right?

Yes, but good luck to the union on getting the league to budge on its other proposals. 

Because if you're an owner, you like the idea of keeping homegrown players super underpaid for three years and then sort of underpaid for another three years. This status quo would be interrupted by the union's arbitration proposal, but not necessarily under the league's most noteworthy counteroffer. 


Which Is?

That team-controlled players could be paid according to their wins above replacement. Which, at least in the sense that it would bring a modern sensibility to an arbitration process that's usually defined by traditional baseball card stats, is not the worst idea.

Still, this proposal has serious problems. Even once you get around WAR's imperfections—particularly in relation to defense—you still have issues such as how it tends to undervalue certain players like sluggers and relief pitchers.


My Head Hurts. Just Tell Me Which Side Is in the Right.

OK. The players.

For one thing, those six years for which teams are supposed to control players too often becomes seven because of service-time manipulation. Or, that practice in which teams find some (usually questionable) reason to hold prospects back just long enough to stretch their team control to seven years. 

Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs, in the dugout during the MLB NLCS Playoffs game two, Chicago Cubs vs New York Mets at Citi Field, Queens, New York. USA. 18th October 2015. Photo Tim Clayton (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)
Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

Think Kris Bryant, who filed a grievance after the Chicago Cubs dragged their feet in calling him up in 2015. Had they put him on their Opening Day roster, he would have been a free agent after 2020, as opposed to after this season.

Plus, the way in which players are paid before free agency hasn't kept up with the times. It essentially hasn't changed, whereas the share of production coming from younger players has since the last work stoppage. Particularly on offense:

Data courtesy of FanGraphs

The picture here is of a league in which young players are coveted and yet also exploited.


Is There Any Good News?

Some. Per Mark Feinsand of MLB.com, the league's most recent proposals included some key concessions to the players. Among them are things that would potentially help the free-agent market, such as:

  • Eliminating the qualifying offer system so top players aren't tied to draft-pick compensation
  • An increase in the luxury tax threshold

That second one is notable because it indicates owners have moved off the big idea it previously had. In that one, the luxury tax threshold would have lowered from $210 million to $180 million, and there also would have been a $100 million salary floor. 


What Makes That a Bad Idea?

Well, it does sound good at first.

From looking at Opening Day payrolls for this season, 12 teams would have had to spend more while only four would have been pinched. Nine of those 12 would have been required to add upwards of $10 million in salaries, while the Pittsburgh Pirates would have needed more than $50 million!

Hypothetically, though, forcing more teams to carry higher payrolls might not lead to new spending.

It's just as easy to imagine there being a different kind of phenomenon, in which teams at the lower end of the spectrum take on bad contracts from other teams so they can effectively buy a prospect or two in the same deal, a la the Zack Cozart trade from 2019.

Besides, it seems like MLB has shifted its focus with regard to competitive balance.


In What Way?

For one, the league has an idea to stop teams from tanking that involves the draft.

As of now, the draft order is decided by records, with the worst team from the previous season picking first and so on. The league wants to prevent teams from intentionally losing year after year for the sake of stockpiling high draft picks, so it wants to implement a system similar to the NBA.


You Mean a Draft Lottery?

Exactly. Per Rogers, it's one of the more recent additions to the league's proposals.

Before you ask, it's a decent idea. Super-agent Scott Boras would say (and has said) that the bigger problem is the caps that teams have on how much they can spend on draft picks, and he's not necessarily wrong about that. But, hey, a draft lottery would be something.


Does MLB Have Any Other Big Ideas for Competitive Balance?

Yes, and this one would literally make the playoffs bigger.

Also according to Rogers, MLB wants to expand the playoff field from 10 teams to 14 teams. That's seven in each league, with three division winners and four wild cards.

How Would That Work?

The top-seeded teams in the American League and National League would get a first-round bye, like in the NFL.

Otherwise, the other two division winners would pick which wild-card teams they want to face, with the exception of the one with the top record. Then there would be a wild-card round consisting of three series, with the survivors moving on to the Division Series round.


Is This DOA for the Union?

The 14-team idea? Maybe.

But not expanded playoffs in general. Per another report from Rogers, the union countered with a proposal for a 12-team playoff. The catch is that this one would require reforming the two leagues into two divisions apiece, with seven teams in one and eight in the other.

That's probably unworkable, yet it's nonetheless encouraging that the union isn't outright rejecting a longer postseason. It's a sign that the players know they're going to have to give in to something that would mean more revenue for the league. Which, in turn, is key to the players making headway with their economic proposals.


Is Any Actual Baseball Stuff Involved in These Talks?

Plenty, actually.

The big one is that the DH could finally go universal for good in 2022. This was part of the league's most recent proposal, according to Feinsand.

TAMPA, FL - OCTOBER 08:  Nelson Cruz #23 of the Tampa Bay Rays is on deck in the eighth inning during Game 2 of the ALDS between the Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field on Friday, October 8, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Do I Like the DH?

If you're a National League loyalist and/or a stickler for baseball tradition, then no. 

If you're an American League fan or someone who simply realizes that pitchers are getting increasingly terrible at hitting for themselves, then yes.


Fine. What Else Is There?

How about a pitch clock and yet another new ball?

The league has already been experimenting with a pitch clock in the minor leagues, and Manfred said in November the league's owners "remain very interested in" it.

As for the ball, MLB clearly wants to avoid another controversy like the ones that preceded and followed the ban on sticky stuff from June. The league has been experimenting with pre-tacked balls, which Manfred thinks could be ready for the majors as soon as 2022.


Are These Good Ideas?

The pre-tacked ball sure is, provided enough players sign off on it before it's officially implemented in actual games.

As for the pitch clock, let's just say that something can be both sacrilege and necessary. The lack of a clock in baseball has long been part of its beauty, but it's the best weapon baseball has yet to deploy in its fight against the increasingly slow pace of games.

The average game in 2021 was three hours and 11 minutes, which is too long. That's not counting the postseason, in which games were closer to four hours on average.


Sheesh. Anything Else?

Uh, well, the last CBA was 373 pages. The next one could be at least that long, so this FAQ could potentially go on forever.


What About the Lockout? How Long Will That Go On? 

Probably pretty long. Because whereas the players had generally been willing to make sacrifices to keep the peace over the last quarter-century, it seems their mood has shifted this time around.

Max Scherzer might have said it best with this quote to Evan Drellich of The Athletic: "Unless this CBA completely addresses the competition [issues] and younger players getting paid, that's the only way I'm going to put my name on it."

Best guess? I'd expect this thing to last weeks, if not months. In the case of the latter, there will be a chance of spring training and, thus, the regular season being delayed.



Yup. But it is what it is, and it's been a long time coming.

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.