The United States economy is remarkably different than it was even 10 years ago. It was only a matter of time before it trickled into professional sports. As more of the labor force continues to become engaged in more short-term work, Major League Baseball is taking notice. So are players’ bank accounts.
More people around the country are involved in work as independent contractors than ever before. Your Uber driver, for example, works as an independent contractor. Delivery drivers and freelancers engage in short-term work either as a main source of income or, for some, a secondary means of making money. Baseball is following suit.
The Los Angeles Dodgers are the best example of a franchise that has fully grasped this new “gig economy,” where labor is employed in the short term. Forty years ago, the Dodgers won the National West Division and the NL pennant with an infield that played almost every day. All four infielders – Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell, and Ron Cey – played at least 143 games at their respective position.
Fast forward and the modern-economy Dodgers won the NL West (for a sixth straight time) and the NL pennant without a single player starting more than 110 games at any one position. Los Angeles used at least 52 players – that’s a lot in case you didn’t know – for the fourth straight season. It’s a great model for the Dodgers and team president Andrew Friedman. Los Angeles has shaved over $100 million from its payroll all the while continuing to win games and lead the majors in attendance.
Therein lays the problem for the player. The “gig economy” depresses wages. Why pay someone several million dollars over a few years for the same job you can get done for millions less? The Dodgers have found that paying younger talented players over older talented ones can save them money without sacrificing wins. In addition to the division titles and leading MLB in attendance, only the Cubs have more wins than the Dodgers over the past four seasons.
It’s really no surprise that baseball is moving in this direction. It comes down to simple economics. There is an increased supply of quality labor thanks to improvements in training at both the amateur and professional levels. Teams also use all sorts of analytics now to help them seek any possible advantage. One of those advantages is in pitching. The number of pitching changes per game has risen from 4.9 in 1998 to 6.7 last season. Some teams – Tampa Bay and Milwaukee, for example – have even used an “opener,” a relief pitcher to start a game.
This new approach to the game creates an interesting dilemma for older players. Players in their 30s that have had solid careers in the league are expensive. Why pay more when you can get a younger model for less? Take second basemen Brian Dozier and Jed Lowrie as examples. In 2013 Omar Infante, a career .271 hitter, was 31 years and earned $32.3 million over two seasons. Dozier is a career .250 hitter who won a Gold Glove in 2017. Last season, he was one of the part-time workers hired by the Dodgers to play a number of positions. His contract was worth $9 million and he played in only 47 games.
Lowrie has bounced around MLB but has had a solid career hitting .262. He was good enough last year (.288, 16 HR, 62 RBI) to earn his first trip to the All-Star game, but he became a casualty of this new “gig economy.” Lowrie signed a two-year, $20 million contract this offseason with the New York Mets.
Look for this to continue until the league’s next collective bargaining agreement (2021). Manny Machado just signed with the San Diego Padres on Feb. 19 and Bryce Harper (age 26) still remains unsigned. Teams will be hesitant to give Harper a long-term deal worth hundreds of millions knowing that he will be 30 in just four years and that they can find labor (albeit not as talented) for much cheaper.