Kris Bryant, Ethics, and Unwritten Rules

Opening Day is upon us, and the last pre-season controversy (well, competing with the Josh Hamilton story and, wouldn’t you know it, Pete Rose again) has been over the treatment of Kris Bryant, a rookie third baseman for the Chicago Cubs widely thought to be the best prospect in baseball. Bryant seems likely to be better than any of the third basemen currently on the Cubs, especially since they traded their regular third baseman in what could only have been a deck-clearing move to make way for Bryant.

Yet Bryant will not be starting the season with the Cubs; he’ll be starting it in Des Moines, Iowa, with the Cubs’ minor league affiliate. As weird as that may seem, even weirder is that we know with reasonable certainty when he’ll be called up to the big-league club: on or about April 18, against the Padres, the Cubs’ tenth game of the season. It’s got to be ten, because of service time—the collective bargaining agreement’s determination of when a player hits free agency. Players start their major-league careers under team control, unable to sign with other teams (but able to increase their earnings through arbitration hearings or contract extensions). They become free agents after six years of service time. And because of how that six years is defined—in terms of days, with 172 days constituting a “year” of service—it’s in the team’s advantage to keep minor leaguers out of the major league roster long enough so that they don’t get to 172 days in a given year but have to wait until the next year. That extra few days in the minors means a whole ‘nother year until the team has to compete with others for the player’s services. Hence, Kris Bryant goes to Iowa.

Let’s start from the premise that this is dumb; I think everyone agrees with that. We would all prefer to see this exciting prospect on our TVs sooner rather than later, and whether this happens now or in two weeks should not make a year’s difference in when he hits free agency. So clearly the system needs to change. But a question a lot of people are asking is, given that the rules are what they are, is what the Cubs are doing with Bryant wrong? Or is it (regrettably, perhaps) acceptable, since the rules say that they can do it?

Jason Wojciechowski, a baseball writer and labor lawyer, argues the former, in terms that I think few of my readers would disagree with: “A notion of ethics or even morals is something I think we ought to promote in business rather than celebrating the pure concept of moneymaking above all else.” However, Bill James (whose website is behind a dumb paywall, so here’s him quoted by Rob Neyer) argues that, provided that the parties involved are treated decently—and I think most of us would agree with him that two weeks playing minor league baseball is in itself not indecent—the rules define the scope of ethical behavior:

If the player uses the rules negotiated between the union and MLB to maximize his income, is that unethical? Of course it is not. Why, then, would it be unethical for the team to use those rules so as to maximize their return? It would raise an ethical issue if the young player was being exploited in some way, not given value for his contribution. But a player who has a STARTING salary of $500,000 a year cannot reasonably be seen to be exploited.

Here’s what’s cool about blogging: I changed my view on this 180° in the course of writing this post. Because while I agreed from the beginning that holding Bryant down was a bad result, my initial feelings about the ethical question pretty clearly mirrored James’s: I thought it a fool’s errand to determine which applications of the rules are “ethical” and which are “unethical.” It’s an argument that seemingly cuts both ways, the mirror image of the argument that players and their agents are unethical for seeking such high salaries when they know they don’t need that much to get by. If we expect teams to turn down a legal chance to save money, what’s to stop people from expecting players who are hurt or ineffective, but still under contract, to voluntarily take less money (a position that some fans actually take)? Someone like Gil Meche, or Stan Musial (who took a voluntary pay cut in 1960 due to diminished play the previous year), can turn down money they’ve got coming to them if they feel it’s right, and we can celebrate them for their selflessness, but we shouldn’t take it as an ethical imperative for players to cut themselves off from money they can get under the rules. It’s reasonable to think the same should apply on the team side of things.

Notice that the implicit premise of this line of thinking (which, again, I bought into) is that all ways of saving money are equal. I said as much in a tweet that I thought clever at the time, disputing the idea that service time manipulation is unethical:

But the more I think about it, the more i think this analogy is wrong, and there is a key difference with service time manipulation: agency. Salary negotiation is a negotiation: the player is free to accept or reject the team’s offer, to make counteroffers, etc. Arbitration also gives the player an active role: he gets to lay out his case, which is decided by a neutral arbitrator. But service time manipulation is entirely a one-way leverage tactic on the part of the teams, since the player doesn’t have the option to decline to begin the season in the minors, or to jump to a team which is willing to play him right away. So it is unethical, not because it reduces the player’s pay, but because it does so in a way that leaves the player no recourse.

It’s weird that I was blind to the wrongness of this, because I’ve lived this kind of exploitation. Until recently, I was a part-time college instructor, of the kind called “freeway flyers”: teachers who have to work part-time at multiple campuses because they can’t get full-time work at any of them. These colleges will go to great lengths to keep anyone from teaching a heavy enough courseload to require the college to pay benefits; some colleges are also known to manipulate the work of their full-time non-tenure-track faculty, attempting to prevent them from gaining enough teaching time to qualify for security of employment. All of this is within the rules but clearly outside of the spirit of those rules, to say nothing of the spirit of higher education. Why should I rankle at that kind of treatment for me and my colleagues, but dismiss it for young talents like Bryant? Yes, Bryant gets paid much more than a college instructor does—and unlike some I don’t dismiss that as a factor—but then he’s also producing much more monetary value. (I console myself with all of the less tangible value I produce, for which I am compensated with less tangible benefits.) Plus his day-to-day stakes are higher; there’s no such thing as a career-ending injury for English instructors, but with enough bad luck even a short delay in getting to the majors could be catastrophic.

Beyond which, even if this were an ethical way of paying a player less—and I suppose some would still maintain that it is—it would still interfere with two of the team’s other obligations. The first is to the minor league players under its control, the players who are trying their best to improve to the point that they can play in the majors. Those players are not entitled to actually play in the majors—they know they’re battling incredible odds—but they are entitled to expect that if they prove that they deserve that chance, they will get it. That’s the premise of the minor leagues, the thing that makes minor leaguers put up with often abysmal treatment and pay. Kris Bryant paid his dues, and he wasn’t just doing it for money; he was doing it for a shot in the majors, which he’s earned.

The second of the team’s obligations that this practice is to its fans. I agree that, over the course of a year, two weeks without Kris Bryant is unlikely to cost the Cubs very much, and that has led some to see objectors to the Bryant situation as woolly-headed and sentimental—as though only a team’s final win-loss record matters. Rob Neyer, for one, dismissed fans who are upset about having to wait to see Bryant, basically calling them impatient and petulant: “Of course I want to see Bryant on Day 1 … But if I have to wait a couple of weeks, that’s okay too. I’m a big boy now,” he said, a comment that managed to appeal to his own maturity while simultaneously torpedoing it. But we should never forget that sports is not about being mature and wanting what makes sense.  Is there anything less rational than excitement over Opening Day? We can never know less about how the season is going than we do at game 1 out of 162. But we’re excited for Opening Day for what it represents: a new beginning, with new possibilities born out of a new team and, yes, new, young, exciting players. Interfering with that out of a desire to save money down the road may be purely rational, but those who want pure rationality should find a new hobby.

All of that said, I do think that the argument around the ethics of the Cubs’ behavior is a bit of a distraction, because it focuses on defining good behavior rather than ensuring good results. It’s a bit too reminiscent of the “unwritten rules” trope—the idea that there are standards baseball players expect each other to follow (not admiring a home run too long, especially if you’re losing the game; not working the count or stealing bases in a blowout, etc.) even though they’re not against the rules. Savvy commentators on baseball tend to observe that relying on unwritten rules inevitably leads to situations where no one can agree on what the rules are. The same goes, I think, with basing our standards on soft categories like “ethics” instead of hard and fast rules that make it as hard as possible to game the system in this way.

So I agree with Sam Miller: shaming teams for this kind of action is appropriate, but a poor substitute for changing the policy that makes the action possible. What I said about player gambling in my last Pete Rose post applies on the team level too: any time the incentives point in a direction other than trying to win games, the sport has a problem. This is the case with, for instance, player drafts that reward the teams that finish worse in the standings, and it’s the case with this service time issue.

Simply put, we should want a system that doesn’t encourage teams to stagnate or get worse; they will then follow the natural incentives to get better. “Getting better” includes long-term improvement; I’m not saying a losing team shouldn’t trade its star players for prospects in order to rebuild into a winning team. But “saving money in 2021” is not part of a reasonable definition of “getting better,” especially not with baseball enjoying record profits. Whether by changing the definition of a “year of service” (as Mike Petriello proposes) or by simply making it easier for the players treated this way to win union grievances, baseball should get this one right.

Update: I missed that Wojciechowski posted a longer explanation of the issues involved with Bryant, including how a grievance would be argued and what sort of chance it might have. He also expands on his argument for business ethics in baseball—check it out!

Image credit: Chicago Cubs by Kevin Dooley is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

One thought on “Kris Bryant, Ethics, and Unwritten Rules

  1. Pingback: Opening Day Mini Link Dump | The Spiel

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