Mental Health and the CBA

Dellin Betances was the victim of some harsh comments from a Yankees executive. (via Arturo Pardavila III)

From time to time, as a collective bargaining agreement approaches expiration, Major League Baseball and its players association come together to discuss the terms by which they will operate under the next agreement. As with most collective bargaining agreements governing a multi-billion dollar industry, it provides extensive terms with both significant complexity and vexing malleability. The current collective bargaining agreement is 157 pages long in the PDF version, not including 56 attachments and three appendices, which raise the page length to 373. The attachments address a broad sphere of issues including wearable technology, social media and Major League Baseball’s tobacco policy.

As a resident at FanGraphs I previously discussed the arbitration criteria in regard to the role of advanced statistics in the adjudicative process.  While many arbitration proceedings outside of baseball are designed to operate with bright line rule, baseballs system is inordinately malleable. An example of a bright line rule in baseball would be 1 WAR equals $7.2 million. Bright line rules simplify an adjudicative process, and ultimately, serve to create more predictability. However, MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association have agreedpon a flexible, multi-factor analysis which considers numerous inputs. The overarching criteria are outlined below; further description provided for player contribution comes later. The most striking, and potentially flexible, criteria are bolded below:

The criteria will be the quality of the Player’s contribution to his Club during the past season (including but not limited to his overall performance, special qualities of leadership and public appeal), the length and consistency of his career contribution, the record of the Player’s past compensation, comparative baseball salaries (see paragraph (11) below for confidential salary data), the existence of any physical or mental defects on the part of the Player, and the recent performance record of the Club including but not limited to its League standing and attendance as an indication of public acceptance (subject to the exclusion stated in subparagraph (b)(i) below). Except as set forth in subsections 10(b) and 10(c) below, any evidence may be submitted which is relevant to the above criteria, and the arbitration panel shall assign such weight to the evidence as shall appear appropriate under the circumstances.

While a specific piece of language in a contract or collective bargaining agreement is often written with a particular individual or eventuality in mind, the catch-all nature above does not suggest that. Indeed, perhaps the most contextually relevant would involve the arbitration case of someone like Bruce Maxwell (who “took a knee”) using the language “public appeal.” It is not difficult to envision an organization arguing one way or another regarding the financial impact or public appeal of protest. But  this is not another political dive into Major League Baseball’s payment structure. Rather, this language, which was in the previous CBA as well, allows us to contemplate the oddity, the enigmatic, the Piersalls.

Jimmy Piersall is a player lost in the archives of statistics but alive in archives of our hearts. While being an entirely suitable big league baseball player with two All Star Game appearances as well as two Gold Gloves, Piersall was as much an entertainer as a ballplayer. Piersall was a brilliant defender; Casey Stengel once called him the greatest defensive outfielder he ever saw.

Piersall ran backward around the bases upon hitting his 100th career home run and yet that was one of his smaller idiosyncratic moments. It is unfortunate that Piersall did not play in the Twitter era, when  Gifs would have immortalized the eminently unpredictable character.

The Piersall stories were wide-ranging and the mythos unbelievable. However, Piersall was documented to have done the following:

  • On one occasion he pulled a water pistol from his pocket and shot water into an umpire’s face. He also had to be rescued by teammates after he challenged fans in the Yankee Stadium bleachers to a fight.
  • In June 1960, Piersall threw a baseball and an orange at Comiskey Park’s exploding scoreboard. Later that month, he threw a bat at Jim Coates after the Yankees pitcher threw at him for supposedly timing his warm-up pitches.

Piersall was unpredictable, at times seemingly explosive, and certainly not the sort of star traditional culture valued the way it valued Leave it to Beaver. But for this intellectual exercise, Piersall is perfect because he pushes the boundaries of two broadly defined categories in MLB’s arbitration criteria. While the “public appeal” prong is certainly brought to mind, the more complex conversation regarding Piersall is the relationship to “mental defect.”

It is important that this be broached carefully. While we progress as society to better treat mental health issues, it is important that they not be stigmatized to encourage hiding or failing to treat mental health issues.

“Mental defects” is included in a sentence following “physical defects.” Physical defects immediately bring to mind two things: 1) pre-existing medical conditions that raise the risk of injury; or 2) physical injury that would impact performance value in the following season. In this context, it would appear that “mental defects” is used to include psychological issues in the arbitration process. Whether this was drafted to include addiction, intellectual capacity, or other concerns is unclear, but the breadth and the context imply that mental health issues are to be weighed.

Whether such conditions are actually considered by the arbitrators has not been demonstrated, but it remains pertinent because players have begun to discuss these issues publicly if not in a clinical sense. During the 2017 season, Roberto Osuna and Trevor Bauer discussed mental health issues publicly.

Piersall’s battles with mental health were a component of his legacy. In 1952, at the outset of his big league career, he was committed to a mental hospital, and following his career, he would be diagnosed with manic depression. It is reasonable to assume that Piersall’s mental health issues would create an impact on his career earnings. The larger question, however, is whether “mental defects” should have an impact on earnings in arbitration and whether it would apply to mental health issues.

Consider for a moment Piersall, a fine ballplayer with mental health issues, compared to, say, Matt Latos. Latos was known around baseball to be, at the very least unpleasant. His uncomfortable role in the clubhouse was documented at FanGraphs by August Fagerstrom:

Upon entering the league with the Padres, he had a reputation for being a “headache.” After leaving Cincinnati, he criticized the Reds organization for rushing him back from the disabled list, then went on to call the clubhouse a “circus” while seemingly taking a personal jab at Aroldis Chapman. Latos’ ex-teammates wasted no time firing back at him.

Latos would go on to lose his only significant arbitration battle, when he was with the Miami Marlins in 2015. Fortunately for both the players and the teams, the arbitration process is secret, prescribed so in Article VII Section E Subsection 7:

The hearings shall be conducted on a private and confidential basis.

Due to the confidential nature of the proceedings, there is no evidence as to whether the Marlins used the “mental defect” provision or any of the other more subjective criteria in the arbitration action. The danger of the breadth of the mental defect factor is that it is not winnowed enough to determine whether it would apply to Latos, Piersall or neither. While Latos may have been an ideal candidate for such an argument, it is also difficult to picture the organizational upside to ownership sullying an individual’s reputation to save a tenth of the player’s salary in the arbitration process.

Following Dellin Betances’ arbitration loss to the New York Yankees this year, Yankees president Randy Levine attacked Betances and his agent with scornful reproach for attempting to value non-closing relievers at the same price point as closers. Levine’s public shaming was enough to escalate an already contentious labor dispute and place the Yankees’ on-field staff in a difficult position. Perhaps more interesting is how Betances described the arbitration hearing itself: “They take me in a room, and they trash me for about an hour and a half.”

Concerning for the player’s union is teams’ willingness to “trash” players in the closed-door, confidential setting. This concern becomes increasingly important when the arbitration criteria are written broadly enough to let teams use various types of character, mental health and public appeal evidence.

It is easily reasoned that the language of “mental defect” is solely to protect the interests of organizations and their owners. “Defect” provides grounds only for a deduction in money owed to a player, not a basis for higher player salaries.

When mental health issues can be used as a tool for teams to suppress the cost of talent, this language becomes more concerning. In any career sector, when you create mental health issues as a potential value depressor for employees, they are incentivized to hide or cover up the problem, which rarely serves positively for the organization or player.

Perhaps this is throwaway language, perhaps it was drafted late at night by the power of espresso, perhaps it was well-intentioned. However, the intentions are unimportant. This small criterion inclusion creates the opportunity for this factor to be used in a ruthless manner, and to expect anything less from some organizations would be foolish. The Major League Baseball Players Association would be wise to consider arguing for the removal of this language in the next collective bargaining agreement.

Mike is a student at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. He has served as a Resident at FanGraphs, and writes at Waiting For Next Year. Follow him on Twitter @snarkyhatman.
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4 years ago

Thank you Mike for this thoughtful, nuanced piece. It was a great start to my Friday.

Fireball Fredmember
4 years ago

Obviously it’s important not to open doors to abuse, but “mental defects” are nevertheless legitimate factors in arbitration as they, like physical issues, may affect future performance. After Rogelio Moret went catatonic in his locker and Tony Horton attempted suicide, their value was down. Jim Eisenreich had a good career, but his condition did have an impact. Steve Blass? Chuck Knobloch? “The yips” may in fact have physical roots, but they’ve generally been considered mental. To my mind, the pairing of mental with physical in the CBA helps define the meaning – as “physical defects” don’t include (say) ugliness, mental defects presumably don’t include simple unpleasantness or flakiness.

4 years ago
Reply to  Fireball Fred

The main point is that mental defects should not rely on locker room hearsay with only the team (interested in lowering the salary) having a say. With better understanding of the conditions, access to resources and un-stigmatization, mental conditions (or defects) could be present, but also with its management and the efficacy of that management. Osuna is a prime example. Pitchers get hurt all the time, but his anxiety issues made the news. He was brave enough (and the Blue Jays supported him) to declare it. He had slumps in 2017, but he still put up a 3 WAR season as a reliever. That shows a “mental defect” with successful management, no worse than an annoying elbow or blisters.

4 years ago

I am wondering about this statement:
“Concerning for the player’s union is teams’ willingness to “trash” players in the closed-door, confidential setting.”

I don’t see why this should bother the union – this is the whole point of arbitration! The team says the most horrible things it can, and the player’s agent says the most glowing. Most are bullshit, on both sides, I’m sure. The arbitrator’s job is to figure out which bits are true.

In the end, since the whole thing is confidential, I don’t see the harm in all the hyperbole and outright lying that probably goes on.

The “bright line rule” stuff is interesting. I would think that would be in the union’s interest — use facts, instead of relying on arbitrators lack of current knowlege about advanced stats to decide player salaries.