Archive for October 2016

Major League Players’ Pension Benefits

October 26, 2016

Early in my career as a lawyer, I represented employee benefit plans, both health care and pension plans.  As such, I’ve long been interested in the specifics of what kind of pension benefits major league players earn and the terms of those benefits.  It has been a surprisingly difficult question to get a clear answer on.

First, there are two key issues in any union-employer pension plan: (1) accrual of benefit; and (2) vesting of benefit.  A pension benefit accrues based on the amount of money you earn over a period of time.  Vesting of the benefit occurs after the completion of a designated period of work service, most often but not always in years, that entitles the worker to actually receive the pension benefits he has accrued.

For most union-employer pension plans, benefits accrue each year that the worker earns a certain minimum amount of money, and the specific amount of the pension benefit at retirement age is typically determined by the amount of money the worker has earned in his peak earning years and his or her number of years of service under the pension plan.  However, a pension benefit typically does not vest until either (1) after five full years of service, at which time the accrued benefit becomes 100% vested, which is called cliff vesting; 0r (2) vests at a rate of 20% per year over three to seven years of service, which is called graduated vesting.  In other words, for a graduated vesting plan, the worker vests in his benefit 20% after three full years of service, 40% after four years, 60% after five years until 100% vested after seven years of service.

At the time that the MLB players elected to form a truly independent labor union in 1966, the players had a pre-existing pension plan which vested after five full years of major league service.  While that does not sound like a lot of service, many, many major league players did not meet this requirement, because if they were not stars, they often spent part of every season in the minor leagues where they did not earn any MLB service time.

Bobby Tiefenauer, who pitched in parts of ten different major league seasons through 1968, is an example of a player with an extensive major league career who still had not reached five full years of major league service as of his last major league game.  However, before the 1969 season, the players’ association negotiated eligibility down to four full seasons retroactive for all major players back to 1947.

The four full-year service requirement lasted in the MLB players pension plan until 1980.  As of April 1, 1980, a major league player vests in his pension plan after only one day of major league service, i.e., one day on a major league team’s 25-man active roster.  However, that leaves open the question of when a major league player begins to accrue a benefit, such that he actually receives a pension benefit when he reaches earliest retirement age, which I understand is 45 years of age for former MLB players.

This is a question I have been trying for years to get a clear answer on without great success.  Many websites purport to state the requirements, but they frequently contain obvious errors which conflate or confuse the difference between vesting of benefit and accrual of benefit that have left me less than convinced of the accuracy of their representations.  I have even written a couple of emails to the MLB Players Association to get an answer, but they’ve never responded to my emails.

The most likely answer is as follows.  Players accrue MLB pension benefits for each quarter of a major league season they are on a 25-man roster or on the major league disabled list.  A quarter of a major league season is 43 days.  Therefore, in order to accrue a benefit, a player must earn at least 43 days of service time in order to earn their first quarter-season of accrued service time.  According to a couple of on-line sources, including this article from in 2011, as of 2010, a player who accrued the 43-day minimum service time would earn a $34,000 annual pension starting at the full retirement age of 62.

After ten years of major league service, a player can earn the maximum annual benefit under a defined benefit pension plan (the MLB players’ plan is a defined benefit plan, as opposed to a defined contribution plan), which under federal law is $210,000 in 2016, increasing to $215,000 in 2017.  Whether many current MLB player retirees age 62 or older earn this amount is an open question, since salaries were obviously a lot lower for former players now in their 60’s.  I would guess that Dave Winfield, who is now 65 and made a lot of money in his major league career, is earning the maximum permissible benefit under federal law, but how many others are I could not say.

A 43-day service requirement still means that a large number of players who have brief major league careers do not receive a major league pension.  There is a pension plan for minor league players.  However, for most minor league players who don’t manage enough major league service for a major league pension, the minor league plan at best provides only a few hundred dollars a month or less of benefits at retirement age.  Better than a sharp stick in the eye, but hardly enough to retire on by itself.

However, even one day of major league service brings with it certain long-term benefits.  According to this article from Business Insider, one day of major league service brings some level of lifetime health care benefits.  Also, once a player has earned one day of major league service time, he cannot be paid less than about $83,000 currently for minor league service.

For 4-A players with long careers at the AAA level, this could mean fairly substantial minor league pensions, even if they never earn enough major league service time for a major league pension.  For most such players, however, by the time they reach their early 30’s MLB teams cut them loose because it can find younger players with no major league service time for less than half the price.

Here’s a more recent publication from MLB stating what benefits are and how they are calculated as of 2015.

The Current Pitcher Most Likely to Win 300 Games

October 25, 2016

In June of 2009, I wrote a blog piece entitled Of Course, Someone Else Will Win 300 Games.  After the 2012 season, I wrote a post which looked at the issue more deeply, and I concluded that it was more likely not that a pitcher pitching in 2012 would win 300 games.

In two updates to the 2012 piece, I reversed course and concluded that it was less likely than not that a current pitcher would win 300 games.  My most recent post from after the 2015 season is here.

While I am still of my revised opinion that it is less likely than not that a current pitcher will win 300 games, I think the odds are better today than they were a year or two ago, mainly because of the huge come-back season Justin Verlander had in 2016, about whom I will talk about more below.

In my original post, I listed the average number of career wins the last four 300 game winners (Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Randy Johnson) had at the end of their age 30 through age 40 seasons:

Average: 137 (30); 152 (31); 165 (32); 181 (33); 201 (34); 219 (35); 235 (36); 250 (37); 268 (38); 279 (39); 295 (40).

This is the age of the last four 300-game winners in the season in which each won their 300th game: Maddux 38, Clemens 40, Glavine 41 and Johnson 45.  In short,  and as you probably already knew, you have to be really good for a really long time to win 300 games.

Here are the current pitchers  I think are most likely to win 300 based on their current ages (during the 2016 season) and career win totals:

CC Sabathia (35) 223

Justin Verlander (33) 173

Zack Greinke (32) 155

Felix Hernandez (30) 154

John Lester (32) 146

Clayton Kershaw (28) 126

Max Scherzer (31) 125

David Price (30) 121

Rick Porcello (27) 107

Madison Bumgarner (26) 100

What you look for in projecting a pitcher to have a long career is that he throws really hard, he strikes out a lot of batters, and he doesn’t throw a whole lot of innings before his age 25 season.  That said, Greg Maddux didn’t strike out batters at an extremely high rate, even as a young pitcher, and he threw a lot of major league innings before his age 25 season.  Still, these factors remain relatively good corollaries for predicting longevity in a major league pitcher.

For these reasons, I like Justin Verlander’s chances of winning 300 the best.  His 2016 season, in which he struck out 10 batters per nine innings pitched and led his league in Ks, suggests he’s all the way back from whatever was holding him down in 2014 and 2015 and can be expected to pitch many years into the future, provided he isn’t worked as hard as he was from 2009-2012.

Add to this the fact that Verlander is pretty close to the average of the last four 300-game winners (the “Last Four”) through his age 33 season, and I, at least, have to conclude he’s still got a reasonably good shot at winning 300.

For pretty much the same reasons, I like Max Scherzer’s odds going forward as well.  In his age 31 season, he recorded a career-high 11.2 K/IP rate, he didn’t pitch a whole lot of innings at a young age and he’s really racked up the wins the last four seasons.  There’s no reason to think at this moment that he cannot continue to throw the 215-230 innings he’s consistently pitched the last four seasons for many more seasons to come.

CC Sabathia, Felix Hernandez and Clayton Kershaw are all ahead of the Last Four.  However, their ability to last long enough to win 300 is very much in question for each of them.  Sabathia had a come-back season in 2016, but he’s won only 18 games the last three years, and I don’t see him at his age, his size and his recent injury history winning another 77 major league games.

Felix Hernandez is well ahead of the Last Four at the same age, but he looks to be on the verge of the arm injury many have been predicting for the last several years.  In 2016, Hernandez strikeout rate was the lowest of his career, his walks rate was the highest, and he threw fewer innings than in any season since he was an 18 year old minor leaguer.

Clayton Kershaw is undeniably great, but he missed 12 starts this season to a herniated disk in his back.  Herniated disks aren’t something that typically heal fully and never return for someone who is as active as a professional athlete, unless they are very, very lucky.

There have always been a lot of questions about whether Zack Greinke can consistently pitch 210-220 innings is a season, and 2016 did nothing to dispel that concern.  David Price has likely been overworked his last three seasons.  Jon Lester has settled into a very nice groove of pitching between 200 and 220 innings a year, and quite likely for that reason has had only one less than successful season since 2008.

Rick Porcello and Madison Bumgarner are really too young and too far from 300 wins to merit much consideration at this point.  Young pitchers who rack up the wins can fade as fast as Tim Lincecum or Matt Cain.

Even so, there was no way a year ago that I could have imagined Rick Porcello would make a list of the ten pitchers I thought had the best chance to win 300 games.  He threw a lot of professional innings before his age 25 season (although never 200 in a season), and he didn’t strike anyone out.  Starters who can pitch but don’t strike anyone out tend to go the way of Mark Fidrych and Dave Rozema.

However, something strange happened.  Porcello has started striking people out, with his 2015 and 2016 rates the highest of his career, while also improving his command.  It’s rare for a pitcher to improve his strikeout rate significantly this late in his major league career without adding or perfecting another pitch or dramatically improving his command, but the information I was able to find on line suggests that Porcello credits making better in-game and between-game adjustments and that he’s getting better coaching in terms of correcting minor mechanical flaws sooner based on video tape analysis.  On the other hand, Porcello came up so young that he may just still be learning as a pitcher and has become better at pitching to each American League hitter’s weakness.

One thing that would help the current generation of pitchers greatly in the quest for 300 career wins is another round of major league expansion.   There’s nothing like a watering down of the talent pool to elevate the best players’ performances.  The Last Four’s generation benefited from expansion in 1993 and 1998, but it doesn’t look like there will be another round of expansion any time soon.

Excited about a Cubs-Indians World Series

October 24, 2016

Well, I am certainly excited about the prospect of a Cubs-Indians World Series.  I will be routing for the Cubs, even though they beat my Giants, because I have family in Chicago who are Cubs fans.  However, I won’t be particularly disappointed if the Tribe wins, since in either event a team that hasn’t won a World Series in more than 65 years will be the winner.

The Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians are among the oldest teams in baseball never to have played each other in the World Series, and there is something appealing to me about a all-Midwest World Series since they don’t happen very often.  One party that is probably not very happy about this match-up, though, is Fox Sports, since they typically prefer having at least one of the teams from one of the coasts due to better ratings.

We will see what the ratings turn out to be.  Chicago is a big market, and there is a lot of drama in this match-up giving that one of two long-time losers has to win at last.  The Cubs are reportedly heavy favorites, but as I’ve said and written many times, anything can happen in a short series.  It very often comes down to which team gets lucky enough to have more of its players get hot at the right time.

My Favorite Baseball Trivia Question

October 16, 2016

Years ago, before the internet, there was something called sports trivia, where the cognoscenti of each particular sport showed off the depth of their obscure knowledge by asking questions that where nearly impossible to answer because of the passage of time.  Today, Javier Baez stole home plate for the first time by a Cubs player in the World Series since Jimmy Slagle did it in the 4th game of the 1907 World Series.

Anyway, that reminds me of my all-time favorite baseball trivia question back in the day when you could utterly stump someone with a really good one:  Whose passed ball on a strikeout pitch with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning allowed the Cubs to tie the score at 3-3 in the first game of the 1907 World Series?  The game ended in a draw on account of darkness.  The Cubs went on to sweep the series in the next four games.

The Answer:  Charles “Boss” Schmidt.  (There isn’t much point in holding back a response to build up the attention, since you could go to baseball reference or wikipedia and find the answer in less time than would take to read a few hundred more words.)

Schmidt was one of the great goats of the early years of the World Series, but he his almost entirely forgotten today.  Schmidt played in all three Detroit Tigers’ World Series appearances from 1907-1909, but unfortunately the Tigers lost all three.  He had a long career in baseball, though, playing until his age 43 season.

For what it’s worth, Schmidt’s misplay was treated as an error in 1907, but would be considered a passed ball today.

Joe Biagini Was Great for the Toronto Blue Jays, or Mark Melancon on My Mind

October 16, 2016

Joe Biagini pitched two shutout innings in a losing cause to the Tribe today, and it finally made me take full notice of just what a great rookie season he’s had for the Blue Jays after they claimed him in the Rule 5 draft from the San Francisco Giants.

I had written up Biagini before about his great start at AA Richmond in late May of last year.  I remember noting in my own mind, at least, that the Jays had claimed him in the Rule 5 draft, but apparently didn’t think it was worth writing about.  I also seem to recall noting that he had made the team out of Spring Training and that he was off to a good start.

Then I forgot about him.  As I had written in May 2015, Biagini’s final numbers in AA that year essentially matched his numbers at the time I wrote about him.  Biagini finished the year with a 2.42 ERA in 130.1 innings pitched.  However, he struck out only 84 batters, a sharp drop down from previous years to a 5.8 strikeout rate.

Figuring out that Biagini might be much better in relief was either a based on scouting or an educated guess.  He struck out 62 in 67.2 IP major league innings, an 8.4 rate, which is fine for a top set-up reliever.

One thing I hadn’t taken into account from his numbers is his very low home run rate, which at 0.5 is terrific.  His ability to keep from giving up the long-ball really helped him this year.

I certainly wish the best for Biagini going forward, particularly since he didn’t necessarily have a role in the Giants’ pen this year, which already had lots of relievers as good Biagini.  What killed them was not having someone who could consistently pitch the 9th inning.

So, the Giants are reported to be interested in Mark Melancon as the least expensive of the big three free agent relievers available this Winter.  Well, the Giants can certainly afford him.  I could see him getting five years and $50+ million, given how bad management probably wants a top closer.

They Died as They Lived

October 12, 2016

I would feel a lot worse about the San Francisco Giants blowing tonight’s game, if I hadn’t seen this coming since at least some time in early or mid-August.  In fact, I thought I would be writing this post last night, as the bullpen nearly blew that game as well.

It seems clear the Giants will be looking for a closer this off-season, and my guess is that they over-pay big time to get someone.  Most general managers are trying to fix the problem that destroyed last season, rather than having both eyes firmly fixed on the future, and I don’t think Brian Sabean is any different.

I feel worse for Matt Moore than anyone else on the team.  He did everything he possibly could to help the team win tonight, and it’s a bitter pill to have the bullpen give up four runs in the ninth inning.  That said, I can’t see a more fitting end to the 2016 Giants’ season — they died as they lived.

Attendance Up in Japan’s NPB in 2016

October 11, 2016

Overall attendance in Japan’s NPB was up a substantial 3.1% in 2016, and even better, the attendance growth was driven almost entirely by the smaller revenue clubs.  Both leagues set new single-season attendance records, as did six of the twelve teams.

While neither of the most poorly attended teams in each league, the Chiba Lotte Marines and the Yakult Swallows, set new attendance records, each had the largest percentage increase of any team in their respective leagues.  The only teams to have attendance declines compared to 2015 were the Yomiuri Giants and the SoftBank Hawks, two of NPB’s three rich teams, and even then the declines were modest.

Here are the 2016 attendance figures in millions:

Central League

Yomiuri Giants                3.004

Hanshin Tigers                2.911

Hiroshima Carp               2.157  New Franchise Record

Chunichi Dragons           2.058

Yokohama BayStars        1.939  New Franchise Record

Yakult Swallows               1.779

Pacific League

SoftBank Hawks              2.493

Nippon Ham Fighters    2.079  New Franchise Record

Orix Buffaloes                  1.794   New Franchise Record

Rakuten Golden Eagles  1.621   New Franchise Record

Seibu Lions                       1.618   New Franchise Record

Chiba Lotte Marines       1.527

It is quite possible that NPB will have seven teams drawing more than 2 million fans next season, creating a new “middle class” of teams that, except for the Chunichi Dragons, did not exist even 10 or 15 years ago.

The biggest driver of the attendance increase, at least in the long term, is the movement of teams out of the Greater Toyko and Osaka metropolitan areas into other smaller, but still large, metropolitan areas, such as Fukuoka (1988), Sapporo (2002) and Sendai (2005).  That process is more or less complete in terms of franchise moves, because Japan doesn’t have any other uninhabited metro areas large enough to support a major league NPB team.  However, the process of teams building up local fan bases supporting the local teams is still ongoing, and the thinning out of teams in Greater Tokyo and Greater Osaka, which are totally dominated by the Yomiuri Giants and the Hanshin Tigers respectively, has allowed the five remaining second banana teams in these massive metro areas to develop larger fan bases of their own.

Also, the Golden Eagles are currently playing in a stadium in Sendai that seats only about 23,500 fans, by far the smallest in NPB.  Presumably, the team will eventually move into a larger stadium and draw many more fans than it can now.

If the attendance growth of the last couple of seasons continues for several more years, with the bottom dwellers enjoying the largest attendance increases, it will make NPB much more competitive than it has ever been.

More revenue and more competition mean a better product on the field and will hopefully mean loosening of the caps on roster spaces for foreign players.  The recent attendance gains by NPB have already started a trend of most NPB teams signing far more foreign players than the four roster spaces per team would allow.   Teams are stashing foreign players on their minor league rosters so that the moment one or more of the four foreigners on the major league squad gets hurt or loses effectiveness, they can quickly fill that roster space with a new foreign player.

Aside from creating more high paying NPB jobs for players from the Americas, Australia, South Korea and Taiwan, a higher quality of play in NPB would also mean more former NPB players coming over to MLB as the gap in play between NPB and MLB narrows.  These players could potentially provide the additional talent needed for another round of MLB expansion.

However, MLB expansion generally has far more to do with the amount of expansion fees to be paid by the new owners relative to further splitting of short-term television revenues and giving up potential vacant metro areas to which existing MLB teams can threaten to move if local public entities refuse to pony up money for new stadia, than it does to the amount of major league talent available to fill the new expansion teams.