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MLB LOCKOUT: THE AFTERMATH

Peering into a fuzzy crystal ball

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Casey Stengel Looks Into The Future Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images

As the MLB Lockout drags on with no end in sight, I’ve found myself wondering about the aftermath and potential ramifications, both short and long term. As anyone who follows the game at all knows, when the CBA expired on December 2nd, the owners chose to lockout the players. Since then negotiating sessions have been sparse and unproductive with little movement towards an agreement.

Yesterday the league announced they were seeking federal mediation, which the players rejected today as expected. For anyone with an Athletic Subscription you can read about the reasons why federal mediation was rejected HERE. For the purposes of this article it doesn’t matter why, or who is right or wrong. I’m not using this article to advocate for one side or other, (although readers of my comments here and on twitter probably have a good idea where I lean)

SHORT TERM IMPACT: INJURY RISK DUE TO HURRIED SPRING TRAINING RAMP UP

Spring training is delayed. Pitchers and catchers were supposed to report by the 14th or 15th, and position players by the 20th. Even if by some miracle the two sides came to agreement over the next 10 days, (They won’t), there isn’t enough time to finalize rosters, signings, trades, etc to and get everyone checked in on time Don’t forget about Covid Protocols and testing intake, visas for international players, etc etc. Even if they announced Spring Training were starting on February 15th, teams would be lucky to have half their rosters in place by that date.

Games were supposed to start on February 26th. It’s almost impossible to imagine a scenario where that happens. Regardless of when they do start, players are going to be rushed into spring training games and ramp up mode. Players have been training on their own since the lockout started. Team coaches and medical staff and trainers are not allowed to have any contact with them at all. Usually by now many if not most players are already working out at team facilities and interacting with strength and conditioning coaches, or rehabbing injuries, especially players who’ve undergone major surgeries. So all of that is already compromised to some degree at least.

Then, whenever spring games do start, the schedule will probably be curtailed or cut short somewhat to minimize the regular season games lost. Less time for pitchers to ramp up their pitch counts, less time for players to get up to game speed and get their muscles and joints ready for the season.

MLB had already seen a sharp increase in injuries and days lost to the injured reserve prior to the pandemic. The CBA that went into effect in 2017 reduced the minimum IL stay from 15 to 10 days. Initially I thought that manipulation might be the cause for increase, but the increase from 2016 to 2017-18 was moderate. 2019 saw a huge jump in IL days however for both pitchers and position players.

NOTE: I don’t include 2020 in the charts below, I’m just looking at full seasons. Also Covid IL and “Undisclosed” were removed from the 2021 figures so it’s apples to apples. 2021 IL days were actually lower than 2019, but still well above 2016-2018. My source is the Spotrac Injured Reserve Tracker

For those curious, see below the increase in TJ Surgery, which is mostly pitchers.

It’s pretty difficult to see where the above trends don’t get worse under the circumstances of this lockout. Organizational depth will be more important than ever. For the Diamondbacks in particular, this has to be a be a major concern, coming off the season they just had with a roster decimated by injury and exposed for being shallow and lacking in viable MLB ready options behind the front line starters. That depth, while hopefully improved, will likely be severely tested again.

One other short term impact could be an increase in sloppy play, especially early in the season. Pitchers struggling more with command and walks. Lots of defensive mistakes, poor pitcher fielding, confusion on shifts, missed cutoffs, etc etc could really make a noticeable impact on the quality of play

LONG TERM IMPACT: THE GAME MAY NEVER RECOVER TO PREVIOUS HEIGHTS

This part of the article is born out of an offline discussion I was having with NikT77. It’s been the position of many people that MLB and the MLBPA wouldn’t steer this enterprise over the cliff of losing regular season games because they have too much to lose. They were half right. There is in fact a great deal to lose. But it appears that both sides are in fact that stupid and greedy to allow this to happen.

A few weeks back ed bigghead wrote an excellent article, Nobody Wants to Work Anymore that discussed the impact to rank and file that work or depend on the industry, and also the impact to us fans.

When I was talking to Nik, I wrote the following:

The last time there was a major stoppage in 1994-95 it took two things to get the game off the mat. The lead up to Cal Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played record, and then the 1998 HR chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. On top of that the most popular team, the New York Yankees were just entering their dynasty phase, and their rivalry with the Boston Red Sox reached peak levels.

So the league and the players have to ask themselves do they think that there is anything like that on horizon that would restore the league to prominence if there were a big hit to fandom/attendance ? Seems doubtful.

Also the demographics of baseball fandom are quite different now. The average baseball fan is much older compared to 1995, and the league has been struggling to attract younger fans. Attendance had already been declining prior to the Pandemic. There are so many more entertainment options compared to 1995, and people consume that entertainment in vastly different ways. Youth baseball participation has been down for years as other sports vie for the attentions of kids and parents, and that weakens the youth fanbase as well.

These are the reasons for MLB’s full on embrace of gambling. They hope to hook in that 20-44 demographic with gambling. How successful that is or whether it will be a blip on baseball’s road to “niche sport” remains to be seen.

One thing seems clear to me at least: The overall platform to rebound from is just not as springy as it was in 1995 due to all the aforementioned issues. So the combination of last two years of Pandemic economics coupled with an extensive lockout and lost games or even a lost season could be the straw that breaks the camels back.

Lets hope my crystal ball is not quite so clear, and things take a turn for the better in both the short and long term. Fingers crossed.