It's time for MLB to revise its antiquated rules on performance/incentive bonuses. Only a minor change is needed to allow teams to offer contracts that encourage hard-nosed, fundamentally sound baseball, the kind played by the Yankees of the late 1990s. The change is simple: allow bonuses based on where a team finishes in the standings.
Bonuses are governed by Major League Rule 3(b)(5), which provides:
No Major League Uniform Player's Contract or Minor League Uniform Player Contract shall be approved if it contains a bonus for playing, pitching or batting skill or if it provides for the payment of a bonus contingent on the standing of the signing Club at the end of the championship season.
The danger of bonuses based on individual achievement is apparent. For example, a bonus based on hits or home runs may discourage a batter from taking a base on balls or hitting behind a runner in a pivotal game. As another example, a pitcher with a strikeout bonus might try to blow the ball by a batter in a crucial spot when his team really needs a sinker down and away to get a double play.
Determining what is permitted requires a nuanced analysis. For example, it's proper to base a bonus on plate appearances, but not on at-bats. A plate-appearance bonus allows a team to protect itself when it signs an injury-prone player. An at-bats bonus, however, might discourage a player from taking a base on balls or sacrificing because they do not count as at-bats. As another example, it is proper to base a bonus on awards, such as the MVP, Cy Young or Silver Slugger, because those awards are based more on overall excellence than on individual statistics. (Starting this year, however, the Baseball Writers of America, who pick the MVP, Rookie of the Year and Cy Young winners, will make a player ineligible for an award if his contract pays him a bonus for winning or getting votes for that award).
Milestone bonuses are a delicate matter. They're banned but have been allowed with a wink and a nod. For example, MLB approved Alex Rodriguez's contract, which provides $6 million bonuses for tying Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds on the all-time HR list and for passing Bonds. As a matter of common sense, those bonuses are based on batting skill. The Yankees, however, sold these bonuses as marketing bonuses, not milestone bonuses. Upon achieving these milestones, Rodriguez would make additional personal appearances and conduct additional media interviews and the Yankees would sell lots of overpriced trinkets to gullible fans to cash in. MLB bought this explanation, probably because it, too, wanted to cash in on Rodriguez as the clean HR king. Last year, MLB and the Players Association agreed to end the charade and outlaw all milestone bonuses, although such bonuses in existing contracts will be honored. (There is no official word on how milestone bonuses count for luxury-tax purposes).
Banning milestone bonuses makes sense because they give a player an incentive to chase the milestone rather than play team ball. However, why not go all the way and allow teams to offer bonuses based "on the standing of the signing Club at the end of the championship season"? It makes sense.
A standings bonus would encourage winning baseball. If a player will earn a substantial bonus based on where his team finishes, he has a strong incentive to hustle, play team ball and do the little things that win games. Players will have an incentive to police the clubhouse and encourage teammates to play the game right.
This is how things worked on the Yankee teams of the 1940s and 1950s. Those players counted on their World Series shares. If a player loafed or made a bonehead mistake, he would be confronted by angry players, usually tough guys like Tommy Henrich, Allie Reynolds or Hank Bauer. "Hey, you're f-cking with my money," they'd yell. Their meaning was clear: loafing and bonehead plays jeopardized earning a World Series share.
World Series shares have been allowed for years and are really standings bonuses because the winners get a larger share than the losers. However, they're no longer an adequate substitute for standings bonuses. Last year, a World Series winner's share was $377,003 and a loser's share was $284,275. An ALCS share for the Yankees was $115,065. That sounds like good money but it's almost pocket change to players today. Teams could negotiate larger standings bonuses to give players a greater incentive to win.
Would the players go for it? Some would and some wouldn't, but that may be an added benefit. A standings bonus would be most attractive to the ultra-competitive player who really does want to win. That type of player may prefer a contract with, for example, a $4 million base salary and a $2 million standings bonus over a straight $5 million contract. Maybe that's the kind of player a winning team wants. The player who doesn't want a standings bonus can sign with a team that doesn't insist on one.
Would the teams go for it? That's hard to say. The perennial also-rans might object because they might think that standings bonuses would give an advantage to free-spending teams that are always playoff contenders like the Yankees. However, other teams may like the idea that they can save money in off-years when they do not reach the playoffs. In years when teams reach the playoffs and especially in years when they reach the World Series, their added post-season revenues should be more than enough to cover standings bonuses.
The only catch is the danger for mischief that probably caused standings bonuses to be banned in the first place. Around the time of World War I, players got a bonus if their team finished first, second or third. In 1926, an ex-Tiger pitcher claimed that Detroit's Ty Cobb and Cleveland's Tris Speaker fixed a late-season game in 1919 to help Detroit finish third. Commissioner Landis eventually cleared Cobb and Speaker, but many feel that he was less concerned with the evidence and more with the fall-out from a scandal involving marquee players so soon after the Black Sox scandal. With the scrutiny that is directed at all aspects of major-league baseball today, it is unlikely that game-fixing would occur.