Dec 21, 2021 - Sports

MLB salaries stagnate despite league's revenue success

Data: AP; Sportico; Spotrac; Chart: Jared Whalen/Axios
Data: AP; Sportico; Spotrac; Chart: Jared Whalen/Axios

MLB players in their age-29 season or younger made a huge impact in 2021, generating 63% of league-wide wins above replacement.

Why it matters: They also made just 38% of the salary — a discrepancy that illustrates what, exactly, the players' union is fighting for as the MLB lockout heads toward the New Year with no end in sight.

By the numbers: Even as MLB revenues break records annually, average salaries have largely stagnated despite what the splashy, headline-grabbing deals might suggest.

  • Take last month's free-agency frenzy: 46 players signed for $1.9 billion total, but the 10 biggest deals made up $1.3 billion of that haul.
  • That's part of a larger trend that has seen superstars make an increasingly bigger piece of the pie. In 2017, the 100 highest-paid players made 42.5% of MLB salaries; last season, they made 52.4%.
  • MLB's average salary has increased by just 21% in the past decade while the NBA and NFL's have both nearly doubled.
  • Wild stat: The number of players making at least $26 million has increased from three to 17 since 2015. Yet during that time, median salary has plummeted 30%.

Between the lines: These numbers stem from an economic system that sees players enter free agency near the end of their primes. And that's preceded by arbitration, which keeps salaries lower than they'd be on the open market.

  • That's why the union wants free agency to begin sooner, either by imposing an age limit or by decreasing the arbitration period.
  • Tanking is also an issue. Unlike other leagues, MLB has no salary floor, and thanks to lucrative media deals and revenue sharing, owners have little incentive to cut checks to field winning teams.

The bottom line: Moments after the lockout began, commissioner Rob Manfred wrote about the record money being spent on free agents. Though factual, Manfred's argument is a logical fallacy that clouds the real issue behind why players are demanding change.

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