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MLB wants to own everything, and they’re succeeding

Their recent decisions are a mission statement for control.

Chicago Cubs v Miami Marlins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Major League Baseball and private investors recently joined together to buy Rawlings for close to $400 million. You know Rawlings, probably quite well. MLB is now a key investor in the ownership group of the company that makes the gloves you grew up working into malleability, running over with your car to get them into game shape, smelling when they’re new and trying to keep tied together when they’re old.

They are now a key investor in the company that manufactures the official baseballs the league uses, the same balls that many leagues and families also use in their day-to-day enjoyment of the game.

It’s a big move, although if you asked many casual fans whether they knew about it, it wouldn’t be surprising if many answered in the negative. It’s indicative of MLB’s emerging strategy to not just build the game of baseball around the world and continue to nourish relationships with fans but also to have a hand in all pieces of the game. MLB just bought one of the major symbols of baseball, a business acquisition that also doubles as a mission statement — the continuation of a recent trend.

The league spent years denying a difference in their baseballs was a factor in the sustained home run spike we’re currently in the midst of, only to finally admit something had indeed changed. Although they didn’t know what ... or how to fix it. On-site humidors? Further analysis and a change in production conditions? Better dirt on the ball?

Now, they own even more of the assembly line and can figure it out at their own pace while monitoring the front lines of production. Chris Manarik, MLB’s executive vice president for strategy, said of the deal,

“We are particularly interested in providing even more input and direction on the production of the official ball of Major League Baseball, one of the most important on-field products to the play of our great game.”

During the 2017 season, MLB’s Advanced Media arm brought pitch tracking technology in house after many years using an outside contractor (launched as PITHCHf/x in 2006), and is now calling it PITCHCast. The fact that they are currently being sued over this transition hasn’t stopped their longterm plans for it or limited the way they talk about the technology in public.

Bringing pitch tracking technology in house doesn’t only lessen MLB’s reliance on other people for their short-term tech needs but allows them to be completely independent of outside influences moving forward. Should they, say, use this technology as part of an automatic umpire effort five years down the road, the league won’t be reined in by previous contractual obligations or interference by an outside party. (Again, pending ongoing litigation.)

Furthermore, the league has also been cracking down on players violating MLB’s uniform regulations over the last few weeks in a way it wasn’t before. Multiple players spoke out after receiving letters for cleats or personalized sleeves. Players expressing their personalities, love for their home countries, or a special occasion doesn’t harm the league in any real way. In fact, theoretically players wearing custom cleats or workout sleeves is only helping baseball grow. The more the merrier should, reasonably, be the order of the day. And yet.

These players (especially those who aren’t at the top of the star-wattage power rankings like Ben Zobrist or Mike Clevinger) are marketing themselves with their own voices, and in some ways doing it better than the league has been able to, outside of the half dozen or so major stars in its ranks. It would be better for MLB to let these “transgressions” pass, but if the league can control something it looks as if we are reaching a time when their first instinct is to do so regardless of the sensibility.

Zobrist’s black cleats aren’t hurting the league’s bottom line, and in fact if the league hadn’t sent him that letter many people probably would have never known he wears them. Yet for whatever internal logic, MLB wanted to stop that individuality, and because they wanted to, they did so.

In one light the players could seem like an outlier, but the phrase “more input and direction” above could be applied as easily to the attempted uniformity of the players as it is to the oversight of baseball production. It’s part of an entirely petty crackdown and outside of some guesses — a pre-emptive show of power in advance of the next CBA negotiations, for one — there’s no apparent reason for the sudden change.

But we can speculate, and it certainly looks like all of these things can be tied together by one overarching theme: MLB wants to own or control everything in their path, and if they can’t right off the bat they will figure out a way how.

In some of these cases the reasoning is obvious. After all, a business directly owning the resources they require to properly run things leads to lower overhead costs and an easier path to growth. This is as true in car sales or sandwich making as it is in professional sports.

They wanted to own the means of production of baseballs or have free reign to adapt pitch tracking technology as they choose in the years to come, so they made it happen.

On the one hand, this is indeed smart for MLB and they deserve credit for having the foresight to unite as many pieces of baseball under their roof as possible. But how much control is too much control? At what point will the unification of the disparate parts of baseball lead to a homogenization rather than just a more efficient organization?

The concrete negatives are apparent. MLB can use technology they own in arbitration or with future business deals (as has been rumored with their ownership of the Statcast data). Other sports or companies won’t have the opportunity to exert their influence, positively or negatively, which could lead to a stagnation of the technology or products themselves.

What it all comes down to is how far MLB is about to go in their pursuit of the baseball umbrella they’re crafting here. Outside of a rich sport getting even richer by bringing major assets in house, the power complex this could lead to will either be incredibly annoying or actively bad for the players and smaller support parts of the league.

How much longer will it be before the scales tip from smart business decisions to an overarching control that eats away at baseball’s freedom to grow, change, and iterate outside of MLB’s reach? The lines between the sport and the league should be clear, and with these latest developments they’re blurring.