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Mudville: April 14, 2024 1:13 pm PDT

The Domino Effect

When the Major League Baseball lockout ended on March 10th after approximately 100 days of no traditional baseball activity, we knew this season was going to be different.

Not just different because the previous two seasons were so deeply impacted by a pandemic that, in many ways, they were incomparable to any season over the past century; but different because the 100 days of no actual MLB activity and the negotiations with the MLB Players’ Association were going to have domino effects this season. Domino effects that we could foresee — and very likely, a few we couldn’t.

For starters, the traditional spring training wasn’t quite so traditional. It was launched pretty abruptly, and was shorter by quite a few days than usual. Spring training games began almost immediately; without all the usual, multiple pitcher/catcher reporting days preceding them and without a significant timetable for hitters/fielders to get ready for in-game activity.

There were no split squad games played this year, and the implication of that little factoid is that each pitcher/player practicing or in try-outs for the various teams received fewer innings on the playing field than they typically would have — even putting aside the shortened spring training schedule. It stands to reason: when teams play split squad games, twice as many pitchers and players get time in a game that day than otherwise. Intra-squad practice on the back fields just isn’t the same.

Sure, fans don’t like the split squad schedule, as they may unintentionally end up attending the game with more minor leaguers playing on that given day. But long-term, the regular spring training schedule, including split squad games, benefits the players; and they probably play better during the season as a result. For that, in most years, MLB says “you’re welcome.”

Baseball fans watch Los Angeles Angels players taking part in a workout on the first day of spring training in Tempe, Arizona, on March 14, 2022. (Photo by Kyodo News via Getty Images)

One of the impacts foreseen by many from the shortened spring training was the potential for more pitcher injuries — especially early on — this season. And that prediction seems to be coming true, as we’ve been seeing the likes of Jacob deGrom, Chris Sale, Stephen Strasburg, Lucas Giolito, Lance Lynn, John Means, Hyun Jin Ryu, Wade Miley, Lance McCullers, Jr., Sonny Gray, and multiple other pitchers all hitting the IL either toward the end of spring training or early on this season. Another impact foreseen was hitters who normally have a great eye at the plate having trouble seeing the strike zone and striking out more early this season. Josh Donaldson, a 13-year MLB veteran and known for his eye at the plate, struck out looking three times in one game for the first time in his career on April 10th.

But spring training wasn’t the only aspect of the typical MLB season impacted by the lockout and by the ensuing collective bargaining agreement negotiations.

There was a domino effect from everything that occurred between December and March, and one result is that even though the extra inning “automatic runner” was supposed to be removed from 2022 major league baseball, he’s right back with us. The so-called “Manfred Man” is in play because statistics have shown that this intentional placing of a runner at second base in extra innings actually cuts down on the number of extra innings played. And due to the shortened spring training, MLB and its teams want to get players off the field in as close to nine innings as possible – in order to prevent unnecessary overwork and injury.

Well, you can’t really argue with the statistics. Extra-inning games are typically shorter with the phantom runner in play; but it’s enough of a deviation from traditional baseball to try to get rid of it as soon as possible. Unless you really hate watching extra-inning games.

WEST PALM BEACH, FL - MARCH 16: Lance McCullers Jr. #43 of the Houston Astros poses for a photo during the Houston Astros Photo Day at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches complex on Wednesday, March 16, 2022 in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

The seven-inning double header has not been brought back, however; and though it was convenient when you had, say, a four-hour window in your schedule to watch a double header and not a six-hour window, it somehow didn’t feel like real baseball, either. I don’t know about you – but I’d much prefer to have to leave a nine-inning double header early rather than have each of the two games truncated to seven innings. At least you get to watch one complete game that way.

April has been treated differently in 2022. Active rosters have been expanded to 28 players instead of 26, and there’s no cap on how many pitchers can be included in that 28. Normally, and as will be the case when rosters return to 26 players in May, teams are limited to 13 pitchers on their active roster at any one time. This month, many teams have been carrying 15 or 16 pitchers; and it’s not at all surprising — because of the loss of the usual February days of pitcher/catcher spring training.

One rule change that was built into the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) was the permanent installation of the designated hitter in the National League. This change was used as a temporary measure in 2020 as part of an assortment of stop-gaps introduced due to the pandemic. Under the new agreement, however, it’s no longer stop-gap. Strictly speaking, the DH in the NL isn’t one of the domino effects of the lockout itself; but it’ll likely lengthen some hitters’ careers and it’ll change the strategy and complexion of scoring in half of the major leagues. Here’s one other domino effect, though: it may even lengthen the careers of some pitchers whose arms got taxed due to regularly hitting. The most obvious one who comes to mind is Jacob deGrom, who was pretty sure last year’s arm injury stemmed from a swing and not a pitch.

Although I make it a practice to never pay attention to the standings until (roughly) the first week of June, a quick glance at this year’s current standings tells me more than ever that they’re not predictive of what the final standings will be — in either league. I attribute this to all the usual factors that make standings irrelevant in April; plus the added factors having to do with the truncated spring training, the temporary inflation of the rosters, the stop-gap ghost runner on second in extras, and some more permanent and complicated factors having to do with changes to the luxury tax threshold and resultant team roster budgets. Changes that may shake things up for a long time to come.

The so-called luxury tax is actually the “competitive balance tax” (CBT), and in the new CBA, it was set at $230 million for this year, and will be at $244 million next year, and so forth. But how might the CBT changes in the new CBA impact teams’ divisional and league-wide standings over time?

There are the teams that have never been big spenders and probably never will be, even if they’re the beneficiaries of the luxury tax; and their rosters are the least likely to be impacted by the changes to the CBT threshold. But when you start to get into the territory of the bigger spenders and how they might manage their roster dollars, that’s where you may start to see things shift a little.

Some teams may bypass the threshold and just pay the tax for doing so (the Dodgers notoriously said this year they’re over the luxury tax and they simply don’t care – they just want to win). But others may start to pay closer attention to their player payrolls; and in so doing, may shift the fulcrum of the “winning by spending” teams versus the “winning by cultivating the best talent” teams. And you have to imagine that just because a team has traditionally been good at winning by spending doesn’t mean it automatically will be just as good at winning by cultivating talent.

As an aside, the reverse holds true as well. A team that all of a sudden has big bucks to spend (say, the Mets) will be taxed more highly, so they’d better be sure their higher expenditures net them winning teams — or they’ll be paying that larger luxury tax for nothing.

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 24: Nelson Cruz #23 of the Washington Nationals bats against the San Francisco Giants at Nationals Park on April 24, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)

Ultimately, then, the changes to the luxury tax may cause some domino effects, as well. Teams we’ve been used to seeing capture almost all the “faces of the game” may choose to no longer pay to have as many of these players on their rosters. And yet, these high-profile players are going to be signed by some team. So the actual goal of the luxury tax may finally begin to be achieved – we may start to see a more level playing field, which was the intent all along. More “Minnesota Twins sign Carlos Correa” kinds of deals may occur — which spreads around the talent more equally and provides more joy for more fans in more baseball cities.

At long last, a domino effect that may actually be good for the game.

BallNine's fearless editor. Sports addict who's lived on both coasts (though loyal to her hometown New York City teams). Writer of many articles on education. Speaker of little bits of many languages.

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