Pushing Back the Clock

Yesterday, every Braves fan on earth had a I-know-where-I-was-when-that-happened moment, when Jason Heyward destroyed a Carlos Zambrano fastball in his first major league at-bat. For anyone who even casually enjoys the game, it was a great moment. The crowd going insane, his parents jumping around and hugging everyone they can find, and Heyward rounding the bases on Opening Day in Atlanta – it was just a lot of fun to watch.

Meanwhile, up in the capital city, the Nationals got pounded 11-1 at home, as John Lannan and Miguel Batista made the first Washington game of the season a thoroughly miserable affair. Stephen Strasburg was nowhere to be seen.

This is a problem for Major League Baseball. The rules of the game currently incentivize teams to take the Nationals path. Washington is going to retain Strasburg’s services for 2016 by keeping him out of the big leagues in April, and everyone understands why they’re doing it. But, realistically, is it in the best interests of baseball to make their product worse every April by setting up a system that encourages teams to start the season with inferior rosters? Does MLB want to really continue a system where most organizations willingly choose to give up the moment that Heyward had yesterday? Does anyone want less of those?

Baseball needs to be in the business of promoting goosebumps and memories that will live forever. They need to fix the service time issue so that teams like Washington have no reason to send their best pitcher to the minor leagues for a month.

In yesterday’s chat, when this came up, I suggested one possible alternative; reduce the amount of days needed to count as a full year of service towards free agency. Right now, the number is 172, which means that a player has to be on the active roster or the disabled list for about 95 percent of the season in order to accumulate enough days for one full year. A player who is on the roster for 90 percent of the season will not get enough days of service to count it as a full season, which makes no sense whatsoever.

If you lower that number to, say, 100 days of service, now you’re making teams hold players back until July if they want to get that extra year of club control. That is a much tougher sacrifice to make when you’re staring at a big league ready prospect at the end of March. Would the Nationals have been willing to keep Strasburg in the minors until July? I really doubt it. Given the shifted incentives, he would almost certainly have broken camp with their big league team, and Washington fans could have had a Heyward moment of their own to look forward to.

Lowering the days of service causes some other issues that would have to be addressed, and it’s not a perfect solution, but at least it addresses the point of MLB actively discouraging teams from giving their fans once-in-a-lifetime memories. If baseball wants kids to grow up loving the game, they need more moments like what happened in Atlanta yesterday. It’s time for the rules to change.

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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

47 Responses to “Pushing Back the Clock”

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  1. rmtx97 says:

    Hope this was one of the things brought up in the Selig Convention. Just maybe in the new CBA?
    Now I want to watch the vid of Heyward’s parents going crazy.

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  2. Trieu says:

    Playing devil’s advocate:

    Is there that big of a difference between the excitement of a phenom’s first start made in April versus a start made in May?

    And from the perspective of pleasure maximization and goosebump production, isn’t it actually in MLB’s best interest to distribute fan interest across the entire season, rather than loading it all up on Opening Day? In other words, from the perspective of MLB fan interest, as awesome as it’d have been to see Strasbourg yesterday, wouldn’t it have a larger marginal impact when there isn’t quite as much going on elsewhere in the league?

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    • Tom B says:

      The longer you wait, the longer the fans have to see the teams true colors and become disenchanted even with the prospect of seeing a good rookie.

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  3. Greg says:

    While I agree that service time manipulation harms the players and the game in general, your proposed solution will do nothing to fix the problem. It will simply change the players whose service time is being manipulated from those who are ready at the start of the season to those who are ready in June.

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  4. Trieu says:

    FWIW – My official position: I hate everything about MLB’s “rookie” system, between the draft and the fact that players are indentured servants for the first half dozen years of their careers.

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    • Workin' for the Man says:

      Indentured servants can make several hundred thousand a year?!? Crikey, I’m in the wrong line of work!!

      Does anyone need their furniture dusted? Flower beds weeded? Remote controls programmed?

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    • JH says:

      I don’t care how much your base salary is. 6 years is a really long time to be told you can only work for one employer and you can only earn a fraction of the market value of your skills. Especially when you only have a 10-15 year window (if you’re lucky) to make any kind of significant money whatsoever.

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      • byron says:

        Pretend to throw a baseball. Was there any way your career just ended? Because for these young guys, every time they do that, yeah, there’s a chance their career just ended.

        $500k a year isn’t great if you only make it once.

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      • JH says:

        Re-read what I wrote. I’m agreeing with you.

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      • Ryan says:

        6 years working for one employer at a fraction of the market value of your skills?

        Sounds like a medical residency.

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      • Still Workin' says:

        Yes, only baseball players making $500K a year can blow an arm out and lose a career. Injuries never occur to factory workers making $15/hour.

        (I’m not saying the overall point is totally stupid, just that the case is overstated a li’l calling it “indentured servitude”. Maybe college players getting paid $0.00 per hour while the schools and NCAA rake it in hand over fist would fit that bill more.)

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  5. RodeoJones says:

    This will hurt small market clubs like Washington as they will effectively have fewer days of control over a player. Why force them to start a rookie sooner and then lose him sooner? It’s a strategic decision by the club. Heyward is ready now and Atlanta is contending now. Strasburg looks ready now, but Washington isn’t. Let Washington do what is best for Washington.

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    • pm says:

      Washington is not a small market club or even close to it. They made the financial decision, but it did have other benefits like giving Strasburg some time to develop and adjust to the 5 man rotation.

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      • RodeoJones says:

        That’s why I said he ‘looks’ ready. He hasn’t played above college ball it a conference that is likely no better then high A ball, if that. The hardest part of the game is adjustments and with him being so far ahead of all the hitters he has faced he probably hasn’t learned that yet. Playing against some seasoned, professional ballplayers in the minor leagues will improve him.

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  6. Adam says:

    There is a difference between Heyward and Strasburg. Strasburg has no time in the minors. There is nothing wrong with the Nationals giving him some time in the minors to dominate before handing him a spot in their rotation.

    Also, do you think they would have made Strasburg their Opening Day starter if they did put him in the rotation? That would seem like a mistake.

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  7. Tim says:

    I don’t see why the Nationals wouldn’t wait the extra 72 days that you propose. They aren’t expecting to compete this year, what difference does it make to them?

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    • AlexPoterack says:

      Agreed. I think one of the big differences here is that the Braves have a real chance of contending this year, whereas the Nationals aren’t going to make the playoffs unless they have Strasburg start 162 games. If I were their GM, I would absolutely hold down Strasburg as long as I needed to to get another year out of him.

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    • Sal Paradise says:

      That’s exactly what I think would happen too. Instead of missing a month or two of Strasburg, we’d miss half a season.

      What I want to see is an incentive for the teams to do what’s best for the player’s development — I don’t want to see players demolishing AAA because of service time issues when it isn’t helping their development at all.

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  8. jackweiland says:

    Agreed with Trieu. The clock doesn’t stop those moments from happening, it stops them from happening ON OPENING DAY. I think you could easily argue that the date on which the so-called “once-in-a-lifetime” moments happens is just a detail.

    As a Cubs fan (did I just lose all cred?) I vividly remember callups for Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. They were big deals at the time, regardless of what date the games occurred on.

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    • aldimond says:

      I’m a Cubs fan, too. And I recognize that the opening day distinction is probably less for the Cubs than for other franchises. Unless the Cubs are really dead in the water Wrigley is a happenin’ place and there’s excitement around the franchise. The Cubs have a huge fan base and lots of die-hards. Many teams sell out opening day, quickly drop out of contention, and play for small crowds the rest of the year.

      Just yesterday Joe Posnanski wrote an opening-day piece that gives a good feel for the “opening day magic”. Fangraphs readers have much more grounded notions of their teams’ hopes, but there are lots of people that just read the local sports page and still have hope in the early games (hey, even I tend to hold out hope against reason for the Cubs). Their veterans are in the best shape of their lives and their rookies just mashed in Spring Training. Having a rookie do something great while all those fans are still paying attention could really build buzz around a team.

      I’m not totally convinced about a rule change, though — I’d probably address my appeal to the teams and not to the league.

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  9. Tim Dierkes says:

    Reducing service time for a year by 42%…seems like it could have some big consequences. Would that mean that 600 days, rather than 1,032, make you eligible for free agency? That’d be transferring a lot of cost to teams.

    What about the flip side, eliminating Super Two status? Certain players would lose money, but Strasburg would be up in April. You could raise the minimum salary to offset this and appease the union.

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  10. Matt says:

    I fully agree that a change is in order. We can debate how best to make that change, but I think we should all agree that the spirit of the rule is not being obeyed. Teams are deliberately exploiting these rules because…well because they have to or they’ll risk millions of dollars. I fully agree with the need for MLB to step in and protect the fans and players from the teams, and the teams from each other.

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  11. snapper says:

    Hell, Washington would have pushed back the first Strasburg start just to get the extra sellout.

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  12. wayne says:

    Maybe I’m missing something, but what about going the other way and INCREASING the number of days needed to count toward a full year’s service? If the number was, say, one greater than the number of days in a season, the Nationals would have no incentive to keep Strasburg down either.

    ‘Course, the players union might have juuuust a slight objection, unless there was some corresponding bargaining concession.

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    • DavidCEisen says:

      So you would need to play more than one season to get credit for one year of playing time? Not happening.

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      • wayne says:

        The net effect, I think, would be to push back FA by a year. Which is exactly what happens now, with manipulation of service time.

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    • regfairfield says:

      The more I think about this, the more I think it’s a great idea. Players are effectively going to be controlled for seven years going forward anyway, why not?

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  13. Jon says:

    If we don’t like the Rookie system, why not change the whole thing? Let’s do away with the Rule 4 draft. Let’s make everyone a free agent so they can sign for their actual worth.

    Wait, the player’s union won’t like that idea because it would make their salaries go down? Well, I imagine they won’t like your idea for the same reason. Keeping young players poor and in the minor leagues is what the MLBPA is all about. They won’t be ok with anything that allows Jason Heyward to more easily snatch a job from Eric Hinske–even if the baseball decision is obvious.

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  14. Fresh Hops says:

    It’s worth noting that many smart clubs may keep pitchers in the minors just to manage their play time while they’re young. AAA games don’t matter as much, so you can keep Strasburg on a strict 90 pitch count for the first half of the season and give him plenty of rest between starts. If I were a GM, there’s no way I would bring Strasburg up right now because I’d have to kill the manager that allowed him to throw 180 innings this season. If I’m the GM in charge of Strasburg, he throws 140-155 innings this season and never throws more than 105 pitches in a game. Next year, we’ll increase the total number by 15-20%, and he’ll be allowed to go 110 pitches in a game (but never more than 100 pitches in the start after a 105+ pitch outing.) I know fans will hate this and the media will blow the fuck up about it, and, if I’m that GM, I’m going to carry a poster sized picture of Mark Prior with me to every press conference and tell them that it’s not in the interest of the team, baseball or Stephen Strasburg for him suffer a career ending injury because we don’t take care of his arm.

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    • Choo says:

      What’s to stop the Nats from keeping Strasburg on a strict 90-pitch count at the major league level? Bullpen taxation? A 90+ pitch outing by any Nats starter is cause for celebration, so Strasburg would only be helping in that department.

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  15. Rob says:

    I’m trying to see the pressing problem here and I can’t. Does it suck for those handful of guys? Yes. It also sucks for those teams who have guys get hurt during spring training and bank service time on the DL even though they’d have been in the minors 2 weeks later.

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  16. Steve says:

    None of these solutions are all that practical. The solution Dave proposed is designed to get more rookies to free agency faster. Why would clubs ever go along with this without a major corresponding concession from the players in collective bargaining? It doesn’t behoove the clubs to turn a year of cheap control into a free agency year, just in the name of goosebumps.

    It’s unfortunate that Major League ready players get sent to the minors because of the rules, but now that we have these rules as a baseline, any suggestion to change them needs to be something that both the clubs and the union will go along with, or it’s a non-starter. Changes need to be viewed and debated through that lens.

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  17. Mike Green says:

    If Strasburg was ready for the big-time, the Nationals would have an interest in having him start opening day. You’ve got a big crowd. A great outing from Strasburg would probably help generate enthusiasm and ticket sales, even if the club has no chance of winning in 2010.

    As it stands, I am not sure that the Nationals would have started Strasburg on Opening Day even if the service time issue went away.

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  18. Choo says:

    Would it be possible for baseball to award a club the coveted extra year of control in exchange for the club paying a prorated amount that covers the overlap between a player’s minimum service time and his arb eligibility?

    For example, when Heyward becomes arb eligible, the Braves would have the option to extend club control by one year by paying a prorated share of arb-like salary and luxury tax that covers the overlap between minimum service time and actual service time. Meanwhile, the Nats would have that extra year of club control of Strasburg by default for adhering to the current minimum service time rule. In the end, both teams get the same number of club-controlled years for their future mega stars. Minimum service time would need to be more like Dave’s 100-day proposal to increase the penalty for stashing a guy in the minors and increase the amount a team would have to pay to profit from the player’s services on the major league club.

    Not sure if that would work, but baseball needs to implement some risk/reward incentive system for EVERY team to open the season with their best roster.

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  19. Steve says:

    Debate Mediator: George Bush if you could use one word to describe your presidential campaign what would it be?

    George Bush: Incentivize

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  20. Matt Harms says:

    Players get guaranteed contracts in exchange for allowing ownership some leeway in service time manipulation. Seems perfectly fair to me, honestly.

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  21. Adam Reynolds says:

    David Clyde approves of the current system where players get more seasoning in the minors…

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  22. Kranepool says:

    How about giving different weights to service time achieved at different points in the season? Early season days can count for less than a full day, late season days (crunch time when teams would be less likely to do without those talented rookies) count as more than one day each. It still balances to 172, but it would make it more likely that rookies go north with the big club.

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  23. philkid3 says:


    I’ve disagreed with you STRONGLY that holding back players is morally wrong or a devious practice. But I do agree with you that something can and should be done with the rules to make it less beneficial for teams to do so.

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  24. Adam Reynolds says:

    What’s laid out in this article has this in common with the sillier realignment plans: It’s a “solution” in need of a problem.

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    • Choo says:

      Yeah. It’s a shame for the Cavaliers, Vikings and Penguins, not to mention their respective leagues and millions of sports fans, that the highly anticipated debuts of LeBron James, Adrian Peterson and Sidney Crosby could not be justifiably delayed. A system that works is not necessarily the best system.

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      • Adam Reynolds says:

        Well, I admittedly don’t know much about other sports or those players, but I do know that baseball is more popular than LeBron James’ sport of basketball.

        I also know that baseball players take longer to develop, which is why there are so many levels of the minor leagues. You never hear about the NBA’s Triple A affiliates or the equivalent. From David Clyde to Alex Gordon skipping AAA, there have been plenty of rush jobs that have most likely harmed careers, so again I don’t see two months of development in most cases as a bad thing.

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  25. Lance W says:

    Not that this argument doesn’t have merit or anything, but since Strasburg is the prime example… Since when is it a bad idea for a team to send a player through the minor leagues as soon as he comes out of the draft? The Reds are ignoring the financial incentives with Mike Leake, whose talent seems closer to Strasburg’s than his hype, and somehow it doesn’t seem like the wisest strategy to me, short-term or long-term.

    Also, this is just my opinion, but if I were a Braves fan, Heyward turns out to be everything he’s supposed to, and he decides to go to the highest bidder after 2015… I may not have minded if that one home run didn’t come on Opening Day.

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  26. MarkInDallas says:

    While I agree in theory with some of the comments decrying the “indentured servant” nature of most sports leagues, taking away any more of the advantages small market teams can use will only hurt the game and by extension all players. If the service time that equals a year is changed, then there should be some other aspect of the competitive balance that is tipped in favor of low revenue teams.

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  27. Charles says:

    Never mind that the arbitration process increases a player’s salary at such a rate greater that of free agents (in relation to their value and statistical performance) that teams may be making a worse business move by pushing their prized prospects to arbitration after 3-3/4 years of service (and development and statistics and resentment and grumblings about being underpaid) rather than 3.

    The Strasberg case is an entirely new level of stupid given his first professional contract has set his base salary and starting point for the arbitration high to begin with. A couple of merely average seasons will result in a contract up towards $10 million dollars before he even hits free agency.

    Are the Nationals merely operating on the suspicion they can not resign him after 6 years or 6-3/4 years of service? I could see how such a strategy could work to the franchise’s benefit. They’re years off from competing. However, there’s a number of clubs that follow the same path. Including a great number that can and will likely re-sign these players.

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