For the first time in 27 years, Major League Baseball will lose games to a work stoppage in 2022. Commissioner Rob Manfred announced Tuesday that the first two series of the regular season have been canceled after MLB and the MLBPA were unable to strike a deal and reach a new collective bargaining agreement. So far 90 games have been lost to the owners' lockout.
"The game has suffered damage for a while now," MLBPA executive director Tony Clark said Tuesday. "The game has changed. The game has been manipulated. Players have been commoditized in a way that's really hard to explain in the grand scheme."
MLB and the MLBPA remain far apart on several core economic matters, most notably the competitive balance tax (i.e. luxury tax). The two sides did close the gap on the minimum salary prior to the owners' informal deadline Tuesday, though a gap still exists. Here is each side's most recent minimum salary proposal:
Consumer Price Index increase*
Consumer Price Index increase*
* The last few collective bargaining agreements have included increases to the minimum salary based on CPI calculations in the final two years, so this isn't out of the ordinary.
The minimum salary was $570,500 in 2021. As recently as two weeks ago, MLB proposed a $630,000 minimum salary in 2022 while the MLBPA was seeking $775,000. Each side has inched closer to the other across multiple proposals.
MLB and the MLBPA will resume bargaining on Sunday, and when they do, finding common ground on the minimum salary will again be a crucial step toward an agreement. Here's what you need to know about MLB's minimum salary, each side's offer, and why this is such an important matter to the union.
MLB's minimum salary lags behind other leagues
Among the four major North American sports, MLB has far and away the longest season (they play twice as many regular season games as the next longest) but also the lowest minimum salary. Here is each league's minimum salary for its most recent season:
With all due respect to the NHL, its annual revenues are a little less than half MLB's these days (the NHL projects about $5 billion in revenue for the 2021-22 season), yet their players enjoy a minimum salary that is more than 30 percent larger than their baseball-playing peers. That right there is reason enough for the MLBPA to seek a considerably higher minimum salary.
It's not just that MLB has the lowest minimum salary among the four major North American sports though. It's that the majority of the baseball player pool is making something close to that league minimum. Let's expand on that now ...
Most MLB players aren't millionaires
Sports work stoppage debates often devolve into "millionaires vs. billionaires" and yes, baseball players are paid very well relative to the general population. They are not all millionaires though. Not even close, really. The Associated Press reports 62 percent of players on 2021 Opening Day rosters had salaries under $1 million, and 32 percent had salaries under $600,000. A third of the league made something close to the minimum in 2021.
The average MLB salary was $4.17 million in 2021, though averages can be deceiving. $4.17 million is the average of $4.07 million and $4.27 million. It's also the average of two players making $600,000 and one player making $11.3 million, and that's a better representation of modern MLB roster construction. The vast majority of players are making close to the minimum, and only a handful manage to hang around long enough to really cash in and call themselves millionaires.
In 2019, the last non-COVID season, close to two-thirds of the players who stepped on the field had less than three years of service time, according to The Score's Travis Sawchik. With the exception of the few players who qualify as a Super Two each year, players with less than three years of service time do not have arbitration rights, and make close to the minimum. Only a little more than one third of the league is meaningfully above the minimum salary. From Sawchik:
Among all players to step on the field in 2019, 63.2% had less than three years of service time. They accounted for 53.6% of days of service time accumulated, but they combined for only 9.8% of player pay.
At the opening of the 2021-22 NHL season, 23% of players were paid within 10% of the league's lowest wage. In the NBA, it was just 3%.
Sawchik also found the average MLB career is around 3.71 years of service time these days, down from 4.79 years in 2005. Teams have not-so-subtly gravitated toward building their rosters around players early in their careers because they're significantly cheaper than veterans, first and foremost, and also because they tend to be in their 20s and not yet approaching their decline years, so you get peak performance. Players with less than three years of service time are the most desirable demographic to clubs.
A look at each proposal
Depending how you look at it, MLB's latest offer is either a historically large raise to the minimum salary, or a raise that is more or less in line with the last few collective bargaining agreements. Here are the increases to the minimum salary in Year 1 of the last 10 CBAs:
|Year 1 of new CBA||Previous year min. salary||New min. salary||$ increase||% increase|
The minimum salary really shot up during that period from 1980-2003. The average increase in Year 1 of each new CBA during that period was no smaller than 37.6 percent and often up around 50 percent. Over the last few CBAs though, the increase has been south of 20 percent, and only 5.4 percent in 2017. In terms of actual dollars, the 2017 raise was smaller than the 1990 raise.
Now here are the numbers on MLB's and the MLBPA's latest minimum salary proposals:
|Previous year min. salary||New min. salary||$ increase||% increase|
In terms of actual dollars, MLB's proposed minimum salary increase would be the largest on record and a substantial increase over the last few CBAs. The MLBPA's proposed minimum salary increase includes an even larger raise that is greater than the initial raise of the last three CBAs combined ($146,500). Either way, the actual dollar increase is enormous.
But in terms of percent raise, both offers are more in line with the 2007 and 2012 CBAs than the formative 1980-2003 CBAs. Both MLB and the MLBPA are proposing only the sixth largest percent raise in the last nine CBAs. So yes, in terms of actual dollars, the players would get a historic raise. In terms of percent raise, it's only slightly better than the most recent CBAs.
Also, the annual increase to the minimum salary within each proposal is very different. MLB is seeking a $10,000 raise per year for a $40,000 increase across the five-year agreement, or 5.7 percent of the base minimum salary in 2022. MLB revenues have grown average of eight percent per year since 2002. The MLBPA is seeking a $40,000 in increase in just the first two years.
Given the offers already on the table, the union is poised to land its largest minimum salary increase in quite some time based on the percent raise even though it isn't wildly out of line with recent CBAs. Also, the amount of money we're talking about is small beans for a major league operation. A 26-man roster of league minimum players would have cost $14.83 million in 2021. Under the MLBPA's proposal, it would be $18.85 million in 2022. The $4.02 million difference amounts to a rounding error for MLB franchises.
With roughly two-thirds of the league falling into the pre-arbitration service time level, the MLBPA has understandably focused on putting more money in the pockets of those players. This would help close to two-thirds of the players in the league right now and every player who comes up from the minors during the life of the CBA. Simply put, a higher minimum salary is the single best and most straightforward way the MLBPA can enrich the majority of players who step on the field.