Play ball!

With a new five-year agreement in place, players, owners gear up for new season, new rules

Baseball fans everywhere breathed a sigh of relief last week when Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association announced they had agreed to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA), bringing an end to a bitter lockout that had spanned more than three months. After a contentious offseason marred by stalled negotiations, cancelled games, and acrimonious sniping, the two sides engaged in a bargaining marathon to salvage the season and bring to an end the second-longest work stoppage in baseball history. Spring training games get underway on March 17 as players and coaches prepare for a full 162-game regular season beginning on April 7 – a proposition that once seemed very much in jeopardy.  

Harvard Law Today recently discussed the new agreement and the impact it will have on the game of baseball with sports law expert and faculty supervisor of the Sports Law Clinical Program Peter Carfagna ’79, who, since 2006, has taught three different sports law courses at Harvard Law each year to more than 100 students.  


Harvard Law School Lecturer on Law Peter Carfagna

Harvard Law Today: One point of emphasis from the union throughout the negotiations was improving the situation for younger players — addressing everything from service-time manipulation to performance-based compensation. How do the next generation of stars stand to benefit from this agreement?

Peter Carfagna: That has been the whole play here, if I were on the players’ side, addressing service-time manipulation that was preventing players from getting to arbitration. There are now limits on how many times you can send a player back and forth to the minors, it’s five times per season, so that helps them with the service-time manipulation issues. Then there is this pre-arbitration salary bonus pool. This is a way of rewarding the top young talent and softening the underpayment of the superstars’ pre-arbitration eligibility. It’s a win for the union and a good compromise for both sides. The union stood strong on some of these —especially some of the manipulations that were occurring — and good for them. And for the owners, I think that was not an easy compromise, but a reasonable compromise. There were a lot of reasonable middle grounds here.

HLT: Financially, this deal seems to have gotten some wins for the players union, especially looking at the large jump in the minimum salary. Going from $570,500 to $700,000 in one season is a substantial increase.

Carfagna: Absolutely. And I really think this was a must have for the players union, as we like to say in negotiation terminology. It was a must have, and they got it. I don’t want to say that it was a no-brainer, but it’s the kind of thing where I don’t know how the owners could object to it, honestly. In the grand scheme of the multi-billion-dollar industry, it’s a small price to pay for labor peace.

HLT: From the owners’ perspective, minimum salaries may be increasing, but so too are their projected revenues. Do those factors offset?

Carfagna: Well, that’s the other side of the coin. When you put the increases in the Competitive Balance Tax, over the life of this Collective Bargaining Agreement against the anticipated revenue growth, the owners I think got the better of that negotiation.

HLT: From a purely baseball perspective, one of the biggest changes is the permanent adoption of a universal DH, designated hitter rule. For a sport that prides itself on tradition, this is a clear departure, but will it benefit the game in the long term?

Carfagna: You know, it comes down to pace of play. I don’t want to say that we’re losing a generation, but people are used to instant stimulation through their iPhones all the time. To have the pitchers batting, then a series of pinch hitters, and then all the switches, it just made the game so darn long. I think for the long-term best interest and increasing fan interest, it was a good move. It will also prolong careers for guys that just hit and can’t do much in the field. Everybody loves the homerun ball. I think everything they’ve considered — no more shift, which is still being discussed, increasing the size of the bases, a pitch clock — all these things that are aimed at increasing fan interest, pace of play, and getting more people on the bases and scoring more runs, I think those are all good things.

HLT: Fans of the game will also get an expanded playoff field under this new agreement, presumably giving their team a better chance at the postseason each year. Is the move to a 12-team playoff devaluing the regular season too much though?

Carfagna: It really keeps fan engagement when you expand the postseason. Yes, it’s a lot more games, but it’s a lot more fan interest. It used to be, back in the day, by the Fourth of July your team may be totally out of contention. With the expanded playoff pool, many teams will still be in it until August, even September, and that’s good for the game. The postseason is where the ratings are, that’s where the media money is, and that’s where the brightest stars shine.

HLT: On the opposite end of the spectrum, this deal also has provisions to keep the worst teams from tanking for better draft picks. Will the introduction of a draft lottery have a big impact on the product on the field?

Carfagna: This concept of this draft lottery is an attempt not to have a race to the bottom. You don’t want teams saying ‘I want to be last so I can be first,’ right? The NBA has figured that out, and the lotteries work well for them.

HLT: Finally, you mentioned some of the pace of play initiatives that are being discussed but aren’t yet part of this agreement, like a pitch clock. Those seem poised to be in place next season due to the formation of a new rules committee comprised of players and MLB personnel, as well as an umpire. This group has the power to enact changes to on-field rules with 45 days’ notice starting in 2023. This is a shift from the unilateral power MLB had in the prior agreement to enact on-field rules with one-year’s notice. MLB executives still outnumber the players on the committee though. Do you see more changes coming from this committee?

Carfagna: This 45-day clock is quintessential collective bargaining in the sports world. Starting in 2023, case law would support them in imposing a pitch clock on day 46 if, after negotiating in good faith, they couldn’t reach agreement. There are really good labor lawyers in Major League Baseball. I think that’s the hold card for them — the ability after those 45 days to say ‘OK, we negotiated in good faith, we hereby unilaterally impose a pitch clock.’ I think within the law, they would not get an unfair labor practice ruling from that implementation.