On Collusion

February 15, 2019

On Collusion


              One thing that baseball fans under the age of 40 almost universally do not understand, and many fans over the age of 40 do not understand, is that the Owner’s Collusion in the winter of 1986-1987 was not done in secret.   It was done entirely in the open.  The owner’s announced that they intended to do this, and they did it. 

              The owners, having mostly come into the game at a time when there was in effect no union, didn’t have ANY understanding of labor law, and were very badly advised about labor law.  They made the classic mistake of hiring lawyers who would tell them what they wanted to hear. 

              Peter Uebberoth was brought in in an attempt to force the owners to stay together, to stay united against the Player’s Union and fight back against rapidly increasing salaries.   Uebberoth’s idea was "We’re all going to agree not to sign one another’s players."

              Marvin Miller, a lifetime worker in the Labor Industry, knew immediately that this was not legal.   (Saying it was not "legal". . .it was not criminal in the sense of being a felony or a misdemeanor.  It was a violation of labor law.  It was prohibited conduct.)  Miller knew that immediately, and tried to tell the owners, in a friendly and straightforward manner, that what they were planning to do was prohibited conduct and would blow up in their face.   They wouldn’t listen to him.   They thought that, since they had a Supreme Court exemption from anti-trust law, that they were exempt from Labor Law.   They hired lawyers who told them that was right.   It wasn’t. 

              My point is, people now are asking "Are the owners secretly colluding again?"   Well, shit; they were NEVER secretly colluding.   That’s not what happened.  They were OPENLY colluding.   They just didn’t understand that it was illegal.   It has nothing whatsoever to do with what is happening now. 


COMMENTS (22 Comments, most recent shown first)

woventrap touched tangentially on a key point. Because of PEDs, in the late 1990s early 2000s, players, especially pitchers, were reliably performing at a top level at advanced ages. As a result, you really could go out in the free agent market and buy a pennant, and a number of organizations did just that. But those days are over.

11:53 AM Feb 27th
Marvin Miller agreed to forbid the players from 'acting in concert'

Anyone ever break this rule? what was the punishment?

Does this include agents?

7:28 PM Feb 20th
Agents can find anecdotal evidence showing the exceptions to the aging curve relatively easily. There are exceptions. The problem is that if you make contract decisions based on this, you’re betting against a mountain of data indicating it’s a losing proposition.

Can you win one of those bets? Sure. If you try it more than once, you’ll end up regressing to the mean. By the way, his aging curve is the best argument that Pujols was clean. The reason his decline shocks people is because of the PED era. Any HOF voters who are anti Bonds and Clemens and don’t vote in Pujols on their first ballot are hypocrites.
12:59 PM Feb 20th
wovenstrap, I think you're right, but you're also providing an example of exactly the opposite perception to the one Bill is talking about. Look at any commentary thread at The Athletic, not to mention sites with less literate readership, and not a day passes without five people asserting that long term free-agent contracts never work out.
11:08 AM Feb 19th
I actually think it's not that surprising. If I think back to the Abstracts where Bill discussed this, it's still a rather technical problem..... the set "includes" all these guys who are now retired, yes. We just passed through an era where the MVP for a decent stretch was a guy putting up historic numbers in his age-36-37-38-39 years. Bill has mentioned this statistical phenomenon of the set improving and shrinking over time a few times here and there, but it's a subtle point. Figuring out park effects is miles easier and people still don't *truly* get that.

It seems to me that if Pujols were performing at a decent level in the tail end of his contract, most GMs wouldn't be giving long contracts any thought at all. Pujols' complete swan dive has changed the parameters of this debate. Every GM in the country can look at the Angels and say, "Damn, I'm glad I don't have to deal with that contract......"
9:48 AM Feb 19th
Re what Bill said: Is it not pretty shocking that people within major league baseball wouldn't just know that?
(I'm not indicating doubt, just shock.)

We here have known it for decades, haven't we?

I've known it since the early Abstracts. I remember that in one of them from the later '80's, Bill wrote something quite similar to what he just did here. It started with a thing about examples of a couple of medium-old players (i.e. about 32) who were still doing well-- followed by a list of forgotten players who were now that same age; I remember Andres Mora being one of those.

Yeah, the 'age curve' got shredded a bit in the '90's and '00's, but in order to fall for the kind of tale mentioned there in Bill's post, it seems you need not just to fail to realize that that was an aberration but to have essentially no real notion of the age curve at all.
10:21 PM Feb 18th
There’s an important factor in the miscalculation of aging that you don’t think about until you are in the middle of it. Let’s say that you are talking about signing a 31-year-old free agent to a four-year contract, a position player coming off of a good year. The reality is that you have an expectation of roughly 1.5 good seasons out of the contract, but when you are there, people will talk to you about all of the 34-, 35- and 36-year-olds who are still having good years. His agent will talk to you about Ben Zobrist and Nelson Cruz and Edwin Encarnacion and David Freese and Yadi Molina and Yuli Gurriel and Jed Lowrey, etc., and then they’ll tell you that THIS guy, whoever it is that you are talking about, is in great shape and completely committed to his conditioning regimen, etc., etc.
But what they miss is, Ben Zobrist is the same age as Shane Victorino and Nick Swisher and Alex Rios and Brandon Phillips and Justin Morneau and Josh Hamilton and Hank Blalock and Jose Bautista. David Freese and Yadi Molina are the same as age David Wright and Grady Sizemore and Jose Reyes and Joe Mauer and Casey Kotchman and JJ Hardy and Stephen Drew and Michael Bourne and Omar Infante and Carl Crawford.
Out of sight, out of mind. You SEE the players who age well. They are right in front of you; you see them play. The ones who don’t age well disappear. You don’t give them a thought after they’re gone, and you miss the fact that they’re a large majority of the 34-year-old population of players. This causes you to misjudge the aging curve. It’s a trick of perception, just as much as those optical illusion tricks. It takes real discipline to avoid mis-perceiving the risk of sudden loss of value as a player ages. I think Raincheck has it right. It is a damning commentary on the historical business acumen of baseball owners that behaving rationally in the cases of Harper and Machado arouses such suspicion.

3:48 PM Feb 18th
It is a damning commentary on the historical business acumen of baseball owners that behaving rationally in the cases of Harper and Machado arouses such suspicion.

These players are hoping to sign deals for more money than they are rationally worth - and more time than is wise. Every team now has people in the office who specialize in calculating what players are rationally worth and what kind of deals they should offer. Therefore no team wants to sign these bad deals.

Amazingly, that is news!
9:05 AM Feb 18th
Two points: It may be that Bill remembers something that was totally common knowledge at the time among people working in baseball but that regular fans were not privy to in the same way. That's to address Kaiser's point.

Second, one of the consequences of the arrival of advanced metrics personnel in the front office of every team is that we would get closer to a situation in which all teams actually *would* arrive at the same conclusions about the players, and hence making it difficult for a player to sort of sucker a team into giving him an inflated contract or whatever. I think anyone who has played eveen somewhat semi-serious fantasy baseball has run into this problem, we're all reading the same blogs, in that instance. My point is that that sort of thing could potentially look a lot like collusion, every team simultaneously recognizing that Pedro Verdad has a hole in his swing or whatever.
5:03 PM Feb 17th
I agree there may (note I said "may") be secret collusion going on.

However, back in the 1980s, the notion about aging players not being particularly valuable isn't as well-accepted as it is now. Nor would significant flaws in Machado (so-so career on-base percentage, so-so defense at shortstop) and Harper (bad legs, defense gone to hell) be as apparent.

Given that, I think the rise of analytics in the front offices of baseball is a much bigger factor in Machado and Harper not being signed than any collusion, real or perceived.
2:56 PM Feb 16th
But when Brad Brach, a middling reliever, says he got zero offers in November and Decmber, then six or seven teams all make identical offers, that's pretty clear evidence of collusion. Or as he said, I know they all have algorithms, but should some of them end up with slightly different numbers?
It's reminiscent of the steroid era, when we constructed explanations for Sammy Sosa's large head and acne.

2:00 PM Feb 16th
I am a little older than Bill and I was following baseball very closely in the mid-1980s. i certainly am not disputing that the owners made the agreement he describes, but I most definitely do not remember any public statement to that effect. If he or anyone else could document that claim, I'd be most grateful.

I would agree that the offers to Harper and Machado that another poster mentioned were more than fair.

David K
8:27 AM Feb 16th
Most of what I know about labor law as it applies to baseball comes from John Helyar's The Lords of Baseball. This is on page 358-9 of the 1995 Ballantine paperback:

"Back in the winter following the 1981 strike, free-agent activity had slowed. Clubs were clearly reluctant to sign other clubs' players. So the union filed a grievance charging the Lords with 'acting in concert.' Such behavior, on either side, was explicitly barred in the first post-Messersmith labor contract, at the owners' insistence. The Koufax-Drysdale holdout was still a fresh memory in 1976. The owners wanted no such bloc bargaining by free agents. Nor did they want a Jerry Kapstein--an agent with a big client stable--orchestrating the movement of whole groups of players. Marvin Miller agreed to forbid the players from 'acting in concert' as long as the owners were forbidden as well. The language had been renewed in each subsequent labor contract."
7:11 AM Feb 16th
Allen Schade
I saw where Justin Verlander suggested that the free agency system is broken.

Why? Because Harper and Machado were still unsigned.

But they are unsigned because THEY haven't signed a contract. Not because they haven't been offered one.

Harper ( I think ) was offered 300 million for ten years by the Nationals. He said " nope "/ He said no to a contract that would have made him the richest ( or one of the richest ) players in the game.

Machado has been offered a near 200 million deal from the Sox which he has not signed.

People like Verlander seem to think that because they live in a time and a place that pays baseball players stupid money, that they actually are major contributors to society.

I have no problems with these guys making stupid money, but it seems ungracious for them to then say, " this isn't enough, I want more "
7:04 PM Feb 15th
Baseball needs more billionare egomaniacs for owners. Not these MBA nerds.

So they can compete with more millionaire egomaniac players.

Who cares. They're all greedy, and dealing in amounts of money that none of us can truly comprehend. Nothing they do affects our lives in any way. It's their battle to fight, not ours.

5:55 PM Feb 15th
Baseball needs more billionare egomaniacs for owners. Not these MBA nerds.
3:38 PM Feb 15th
I get the sense that back in the 1980s when a team signed a player to an what was viewed as an outlandish contract, the reaction from the other owners was: "You can't be doing this. Now we have to pay those prices to compete and we can't afford it."

My sense is now when a team overpays, in the eyes of the other owners, the reaction is "OK - good luck with that. Glad we don't have that contract"
3:31 PM Feb 15th
Marc Schneider
Agree with MarisFan61. Harper and Machado are very good players but not as good as their agents want to make them look. Boras made ridiculous statements about how Harper is already a Hall of Famer if he keeps up his current production. I don't see that at all. I think he has had one really great year and several good years, but if this is his career curve, it's not a Hall of Fame resume to me.

But even if they were, would it make sense for a team to pay (Harper) $400 million? Baseball isn't basketball where one player (Jordan, James) can almost will a team to a championship. Look at a team like the 1960s Giants with several Hall of Famers but who only won one pennant. And if you are already a very good team, I think it makes even less sense; if you are going to make the playoffs anyway, how much does one player, no matter how good, help you in the playoffs which are pretty random anyway.

I feel bad that a lot of decent players aren't able to get deals but, as long as there is no collusion, this just seems like a market correction to me. That's life.​
2:59 PM Feb 15th
Wasn't the owners' collusion also at least implicitly prohibited by the provision in the collective bargaining agreement that was intended to prevent another Koufax-Drysdale c

Totally mystifying comment. If something is explicitly prohibited by the National Labor Relations Board, what difference would it make if it was implicitly prohibited by something else?
2:58 PM Feb 15th
Wasn't the owners' collusion also at least implicitly prohibited by the provision in the collective bargaining agreement that was intended to prevent another Koufax-Drysdale case?
2:06 PM Feb 15th
(typo -- going on NOW)
1:17 PM Feb 15th
To summarize "what's going on how," if I may give it a try (I think this just reflects what's been commonly said here; don't recall if Bill directly said any of it):

A few related things, some probably of general applicability and some specific to this particular period:

-- Teams have just more-and-more recognized that veteran players are overpaid relative to good younger players.
-- They've gotten smarter and smarter about what we sometimes call the age curve.
-- The continued high productivity of many older players in some recent earlier periods (sometimes elevated high productivity) was a fluke, and isn't to be expected now.
-- Perhaps because of wider and wider awareness of analytics, and perhaps related to how most information is now disseminated instantly and everywhere, all the teams have gathered all these things and, mostly, sort of at the same times.

......to which I'd add this thing that didn't seem much to be said 'out there' but which was widely and loudly said on this site, starting way before the free agent period:

Harper and Machado aren't that great.

They're good, of course, and maybe 'sort of great' is applicable for one or both of them, but they each have issues that made many of us feel dumbfounded that such extremely high figures seemed to be assumed for both of them, and even were commonly stated as "starting points."
If Mike Trout were a free agent, he wouldn't have had such trouble getting such a high contract.
1:16 PM Feb 15th
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