Image credit: Tony Clark (Photo by Barry Chin/Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Baseball changed dramatically in the 2010s, both on the field and off it.
On the field, strikeouts soared, batting averages plummeted and, late in the decade, home runs were hit in record numbers.
Meanwhile, youth was served like never before on the field as teams prioritized younger players and the value they afforded relative to veterans on long-term contracts.
Off the field, hard spending limits on amateur talent were introduced, both in the draft and the international free agent market.
Training methods improved so dramatically that players could improve more in one offseason than they could during a minor league season.
The 2020s are shaping up to be equally tumultuous for baseball. Here we outline eight major storylines to watch.
1. A salary cap tied to baseball-related revenues
For decades, the owners in Major League Baseball have fought and lost for a true salary cap. The issue was so contentious that the 1994 strike wiped out the World Series, and eventually the owners moved off the notion. Since then, the league has thrived with revenues approaching $11 billion.
The amount of that $11 billion revenue that was paid directly to major league players went from a non-inflation adjusted $3.2 billion to $4.5 billion, an increase of 44%. That’s according to data from the MLB Players Association that totals player salaries plus benefits from 2010 to 2017.
By comparison, league adjusted revenues that were non-inflation adjusted went from $6.2 billion to $9 billion, an increase of 47%. And this disparity will surely rise over the next decade.
While the MLBPA has said that it is steadfast in its opposition to any form of a salary cap system tied to baseball-related revenues, MLBPA executive director Tony Clark said at one point that “everything was on the table” regarding the system. It’s possible within the next decade that a true discussion around whether a system tied to MLB’s growing revenues, which owners are largely benefiting from, becomes a serious topic.
2. The impact of in-market streaming deals by clubs
At the most recent owners meetings, Commissioner Rob Manfred said owners had “approved unanimously a revised interactive media rights agreement.” In other words, going forward, all 30 clubs are free to negotiate their own deals around streaming in their local and regional television markets.
This shift will allow clubs to renegotiate rights with the likes of Amazon, Facebook and YouTube as their local television deals approach their expiration. Over the next decade, this will provide whole new revenues, and become a key part of the shift from pure linear television to platforms that allow cord-cutters to access live baseball games without the hassle of authentication attached to cable or satellite providers.
3. Is this the last of the major linear TV deals?
In 2018, the FOX network announced an extension of the current national TV deal with MLB that will expire in 2021. When the new deal kicks in, it is valued at $5.1 billion and runs through 2028, a 40% increase over the prior agreement.
Over the next decade, ESPN and Turner Sports will likely also renew, growing MLB’s coffers further. While traditional linear television is not going away, the advent of streaming services as major players in the live sports content space is growing by the second. It’s likely that the deals over the next decade will be the last large payouts by the major networks as the streaming services look to get a piece of the pie.
4. The “juiced baseball” and Rawlings quality control
Not one, but two reports have been issued in response to home run surges that began in 2017 and reoccurred in 2019. The culprit appears to be changes in launch angle by batters coupled with changes in seam height that have independently been verified by the likes of Dr. Meredith Wills via The Athletic.
The committee that issued the reports made recommendations such as:
(1) a system to track the dates on which balls are manufactured and shipped to clubs
(2) the installation of atmospheric tracking systems at field level in all 30 ballparks
(3) a codification of the current procedures used to monitor drag on the ball
(4) study the viability of employing humidors in all 30 parks to reduce the variability in storage conditions
(5) an additional study on the mud applied to balls.
Morgan Sword, MLB’s senior vice president of league economics and operations, said at the Winter Meetings that he thought the league “was going to accept all of the recommendations in the report.” Just don’t expect the issue to go away.
Skeptics have pointed out that the league has oscillated between approaches to this topic. Not to mention, MLB has said nothing about actually measuring the balls during production as part of the quality control process. An added complexity: there was a significant decrease in drag in the postseason, which was reported by Baseball Prospectus, but Rawlings reported that the balls were from a regular season batch, which should have meant a continued high rate of home runs.
All this is to say that in the next decade, the Statcast data available will continue to find variance in how the ball travels. Given MLB was slow to react, those looking at the data are bound to continue to report on the ball. The commissioner has said he wants to see “a more consistent baseball.” Over the next decade the question is: Will we see that?
5. The contraction of the minor leagues and MLB buying remaining clubs
One of the nastiest battles around baseball doesn’t center on the players’ union versus the owners, but rather MLB versus Minor League Baseball as negotiations for the next Professional Baseball Agreement heat up. With the current PBA set to expire Sept. 15, talk of MLB contracting 42 minor league affiliates has created a war between the sides, as well as the markets that host clubs on the chopping block.
But whether some or all minor league affiliates get contracted in the next PBA, or over the course of the next two, one thing to watch will the price of the remaining franchises. It’s possible that club values could drop and with it, the idea that MLB could take a page from the NBA’s playbook. In the NBA, clubs began buying up independently-owned G-League teams—the NBA’s minor league system. If MLB is already footing the bill for player salaries and coaching staff, at what point do they look to get a return on the action by owning affiliates outright? It’s a topic worth watching over the 2020s.
6. Sponsor patches on uniforms
The 2019 season marked the final year of Majestic serving as the on-field uniform provider for MLB. A failed deal with Under Armour opened the door for Nike to take over starting in 2020.
When uniforms were first unveiled, baseball purists immediately cried foul when they noticed the Nike swoosh logo would be prominently displayed on the jersey’s right front. If that caused palpitations, when MLB follows the NBA’s lead and begins putting sponsor patches on jerseys, it might cause heart attacks.
Of all the predictions for the 2020s, this one is a near given. “We’re examining the patch, but clearly we have things to work through first,” said Noah Garden, MLB executive vice president of business and sales, earlier in 2019. “I’d say it’s inevitable down the road, but certainly not immediate. This is something that requires a fairly long runway. There are lots of things to take into consideration, but I think we will get there.” It will be hard for MLB to not chase the sponsor patches. The NBA has seen approximately $150 million in new revenues since the sponsor patch program was implemented.
Commissioner Manfred has said repeatedly that he sees MLB as a growth industry, and with it the desire to move to 32 teams through expansion. In the 2020s, both the Athletics and Rays will have either reached new ballpark arrangements in their current markets of Oakland and St. Petersburg—or relocate elsewhere.
If the Rays get out of their lease on Tropicana Field before 2027, expansion is likely to occur before 2030. When it happens, it will see the biggest transformation to MLB since the American and National leagues merged in 1903. Only this time, it would see radical realignment.
While he has backed off the idea publicly, Manfred has said it’s possible that a league with eight divisions of four teams could happen. Where the two expansion teams might be located is anyone’s guess this far out. While Montreal and Portland have made noise, there’s a long time before any real action could take place. Other markets could easily jump in the mix. But if there is expansion, one thing that will come with it is . . .
8. The DH in the National League
The Players Association has talked of getting the designated hitter in the National League for some time. With the DH extending the career of hitters and keeping pitchers out of the batter’s box, the notion that the DH would be dissolved in the AL is an exceptionally long shot.
Adding the DH in the NL would likely come with the aforementioned expansion and realignment. In doing so, the odd daily interleague game the league now sees would end. The National and American leagues would become more like the two conferences in the NFL: separate leagues in name only, in a league that is fully homogenized.