In any other year, Gerrit Cole would have entered spring training one Cy Young Award richer. The 25-year-old Pirates ace had a dominant season in 2015, finishing with a 2.60 ERA and 5.4 WAR. Yet because 2015 saw a trio of historic seasons by Jake Arrieta, Zack Greinke, and Clayton Kershaw, he only placed fourth in Cy voting. Tough luck there, but what really rankled Cole was that, for all his efforts and success in 2015, he wasn't even one dollar richer: his $541,000 salary for 2016 is exactly the same as he made last year.
Cole is making no secret about his displeasure. "When you perform at a level that draws the praise of management, teammates, coaches and fans, you expect appropriate compensation," he told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review last month, a sentiment to which all gainfully employed fans can relate. The Pirates' answer was, essentially, "You'll take what we give you, and take it gladly." The team's initial contract proposal even represented a pay cut, and, according to Cole, management threatened to reduce his salary to the major-league minimum if he didn't go along.
It seems strange to hear a baseball player complaining about his salary after an offseason when seven free agents signed nine-figure deals and during a spring training whose biggest story so far has been Yoenis Céspedes's (who only signed an eight-figure deal) never-ending menagerie of luxury vehicles. But there are haves and have-nots in baseball, too, and Cole is one of the have-nots: a pre-arbitration player.
Under the terms of baseball's Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), teams are given unilateral control over the salaries they pay to players with less than three years of major-league service time. (After three years, players can begin negotiating their salaries through the arbitration process, while MLB veterans of at least six years are allowed to hit the open market as free agents.) This means that, for all of Cole's objections, the Pirates were completely within their rights to set his salary wherever they liked.
That doesn't mean they acted charitably, but that may have been beside the point. The Mets voluntarily gave a nine-percent raise to their own pre-arbitration pitching phenom, Jacob deGrom (who finished seventh in Cy Young voting), but deGrom made a public show of refusing to sign the $607,000 contract. Rather than being upset with the Mets, the hirsute hurler emphasized that he was merely protesting the unfairness of pre-arbitration.
After decades of little attention being paid to the disparities of the arbitration system, two marketable young stars making a stink about tenderfoot salaries could be a coincidence. But five is a trend. Earlier this month, closer Brad Boxberger, starter Jake Odorizzi, and center-fielding wizard Kevin Kiermaier all refused to sign their team-dictated contracts with the Rays as well. Suddenly, this looks less like a couple disgruntled players and more like a coordinated public-relations campaign.
Because a pre-arbitration player's consent isn't needed to set his salary, refusing to sign a contract is a purely symbolic act. There is no reason to do it other than for show. And the timing of this show is noteworthy: team owners and the MLB Players' Association (MLBPA) will presently sit down to renegotiate the terms of the offending CBA, which expires at the end of the year. The recent protestations smell like an effort by the players' union to elevate the issue of pre-arbitration salaries ahead of those talks. (Lending credence to this theory: Cole, who fired the first volley, is the Pirates' union representative.) Perhaps the MLBPA is hoping to use public pressure as a tool to gain leverage at the bargaining table and actually effect a change in how pre-arbitration players are paid.
Taking your case to the people isn't a new idea; it's a common negotiating tactic in that other realm of deep-pocketed smooth talkers wrangling over legal provisos—politics. But political scientists have turned up little evidence that the strategy of "going public" actually works. Ronald Reagan—the Great Communicator—couldn't adequately communicate the need for America to support the rebels in Nicaragua. When the Clintons went public with a plan to reform health care in the 1990s, the proposal actually got less popular in the harsh glare of sunlight. Most recently, Barack Obama's public pleas for the Senate to confirm Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court have so far done little to budge Republican senators who refuse to act until a new president is elected.
Presidents possess the loudest microphone in the history of the world, and yet even they have trouble changing minds. So there's not much reason to think a PR push by the MLBPA will change minds, least of all those of their unelected negotiating opponents. The union doesn't need to look to politics to see this; there are examples from baseball's own recent history.
While the 1994–95 strike was an ugly chapter for the entire sport of baseball, it was especially so for labor relations. The owners and players mistrusted each other so much that many of the "negotiations"—perhaps better termed "grandstanding"—were conducted through the media. In December 1994, the MLBPA presented its compromise plan to end the strike—not behind closed doors, but in the pages of the Sports section. It didn't take; in fact, the owners took offense at the MLBPA's attempt to go public, and negotiations broke down shortly thereafter. Of course, that didn't stop someone on the teams' side of the table from leaking the owners' favored proposal in February 1995. That plan contained several team-friendly provisions that the two sides hadn't even discussed in actual negotiations; unsurprisingly it, too, failed to make progress toward an actual agreement.
The strike didn't end until a federal court issued an injunction against the owners and the players returned to work in spring 1995. Both sides emerged bloodied and beaten, and fans voiced their displeasure by staying away from games once they restarted. Going public had only made each side more contemptible and unpopular. To their credit, the owners and players realized this, and the three CBA negotiations since have largely taken place behind closed doors. The latest CBA, agreed upon on 2011, was remarkable for its lack of drama against the backdrop of messy, public rifts in the NFL, NBA, and NHL around the same time. Today, baseball enjoys the best labor relations of any major sport—and probably the best in baseball's own history.
The 2016 negotiations are the first go-around for new MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark, who will surely try to make his mark for the players on issues from the qualifying offer, performance-enhancing drugs, and an international draft. If the recent dissent is any indication, perhaps pre-arbitration salaries will be part of negotiations as well. But Clark, who has already taken some seemingly counterproductive negotiating positions in public, shouldn't forget the lesson that his predecessors learned about the perils of going public.
Even as team owners pocket more and more dough and players' share of revenues reaches new lows, the average fan still conflates rooting for a team with siding with its front office on financial issues. A 1994 poll showed that fans sided with the owners in the strike 47 percent to 26 percent, a ratio that still feels accurate given the common attitude that free-agent salaries have spiraled out of control. And even though Cole, deGrom, and other pre-arbitration players make only a fraction of those megacontracts, MLB's $507,500 minimum salary is still more than most fans can ever hope to earn. The union won't find much sympathy among the public on this point, however deserved it may be. Lacking the power to persuade, if the players fight their labor battles in public, they are destined to lose.