Scenes from Spring Training: My favorite thing to happen yet this spring

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That’s Hideki Matsui taking strike two on what turned out to be a strikeout in the fifth inning.  In spite of this — and in spite of him grounding into a double play with the bases loaded in the first — I still liked Hideki Matsui’s performance and I would like to have a player like Hideki Matsui on my team. In other news:

  • As soon as the game got going the following public service announcement came over the PA system: “Fans, the Oakland A’s say that a winner always uses a designated driver. Keep our roads safe …”  Between today’s Coco Crisp news and this week’s Charlie Sheenian redefinition of what constitutes “winning,” the A’s probably need to change that announcement.
  • Justin Masterson got the start for the Indians. I’m not a pitching mechanics expert, but watching him throw makes my shoulder hurt. It’s like his arm goes slack and then snaps back into tension before he pitches. Just, ow.
  • A’s pitcher Bobby Cramer, on the other hand, was pretty sweet to watch. He pitched two innings giving up one hit and no runs and striking out a guy. He doesn’t seem poised to be anything approaching an important part of the A’s staff this year, but given how tortured a path he’s taken in his career — time off, Tommy John surgery and all of that kind of thing — it’s cool to see him pitch well.
  • The A’s fans here in Phoenix are easily the sassiest I’ve encountered this spring. They taunted the Indians. They taunted other fans who couldn’t catch foul balls. They yelled at umps making fair/foul calls way the hell on the other side of the ballpark from them.  My kind of people!
  • Favorite bits of chatter: “C’mon, strike him out.”  Which, amazingly and quite rudely, the A’s pitcher refused to do.  I also liked it when a young couple stood up to get their picture taken with the field in the background.  An old guy right below the press box yelled “now take one of ’em swappin’ spit!”
  • An Athletics employee handed out lapel pins to the assembled sporting press during the game. Here’s mine.  I don’t wear jackets with lapels very often, but it was a nice gesture. Perhaps I’ll pin it to my fedora, right next to the little card that says “press.”

All in all this game was a major snoozer.  I think the parade of anonymous players after the third inning is starting to get to me. But that’s OK because — in keeping with my little Metafandom riff from a couple of weeks ago — a lot of what we’re here for isn’t the actual baseball game itself.  Rather, it’s the bright mornings, the stretching, the crack of the bat in BP and the guys shagging flies and taking infield. You know, the general vibe of it all.

And speaking of vibe, my absolute most favoritest thing to happen in spring training so far just happened as I was typing this up: the seventh inning stretch began and two of the Japanese reporters next to me here in the auxiliary press box sang along with “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

Baseball: it’s faaaaantastic.

MLB Network airs segment listing “good” and “bad” $100 million-plus contracts

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On Wednesday evening, Charlie Marlow of KTVI FOX 2 News St. Louis posted a couple of screencaps from a segment MLB Network aired about $100 million-plus contracts that have been signed. The list of “bad” contracts, unsurprisingly, is lengthier than the list of “good” contracts.

As Mike Gianella of Baseball Prospectus pointed out, it is problematic for a network owned by Major League Baseball to air a segment criticizing its employees for making too much seemingly unearned money. There’s a very clear conflict of interest, so one is certainly not getting a fair view of the situation. MLB, of course, can do what it wants with its network, but it can also be criticized. MLB Network would never air a similar segment in which it listed baseball’s “good” and “bad” owners and how much money they’ve undeservedly taken. Nor would MLB Network ever run a segment naming the hundreds of players who are not yet eligible for arbitration whose salaries are decided for them by their teams, often making the major league minimum ($545,000) or just above it. Similarly, MLB Network would also never think of airing a segment in which the pay of minor league players, many of whom make under $10,000 annually, is highlighted.

We’re now past the halfway point in January and many free agents still remain unsigned. It’s unprecedented. A few weeks ago, I looked just at the last handful of years and found that, typically, six or seven of the top 10 free agents signed by the new year. We’re still at two of 10 — same as a few weeks ago — and that’s only if you consider Carlos Santana a top-10 free agent, which is debatable. It’s a complex issue, but part of it certainly is the ubiquity of analytics in front offices, creating homogeneity in thinking. A consequence of that is everyone now being aware that big free agent contracts haven’t panned out well; it’s a topic of conversation that everyone can have and understand now. Back in 2010, I upset a lot of people by suggesting that Ryan Howard’s five-year, $125 million contract with the Phillies wouldn’t pan out well. Those people mostly cited home runs and RBI and got mad when I cited WAR and wOBA and defensive metrics. Now, many of those same people are wary of signing free agent first baseman Eric Hosmer and they now cite WAR, wOBA, and the various defensive metrics.

The public’s hyper-sensitivity to the viability of long-term free agent contracts — thanks in part to segments like the aforementioned — is a really bad trend if you’re a player, agent, or just care about labor in general. The tables have become very much tilted in favor of ownership over labor over the last decade and a half. Nathaniel Grow of FanGraphs pointed out in March 2015 that the players’ share of total league revenues peaked in 2002 at 56 percent, but declined all the way to 38 percent in 2014. The current trend of teams signing their talented players to long-term contract extensions before or during their years of arbitration eligibility — before they have real leverage — as well as teams abstaining from signing free agents will only serve to send that percentage further down.

Craig has written at great length about the rather serious problem the MLBPA has on its hands. Solving this problem won’t be easy and may require the threat of a strike, or actually striking. As Craig mentioned, that would mean getting the players all on the same page on this issue, which would require some work. MLB hasn’t dealt with a strike since 1994 and it’s believed that it caused a serious decline in interest among fans, so it’s certainly something that would get the owners’ attention. The MLBPA may also need to consider replacing union head Tony Clark with someone with a serious labor background. Among the issues the union could focus on during negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement: abolishing the draft and getting rid of the arbitration system. One thing is for sure: the players are not in a good spot now, especially when the league has its own network on which it propagandizes against them.