Mike Trout, Mickey Mantle, and the Reserve System

If only the Mick had a chance to get paid in today’s environment.

The Angels didn’t show Mike Trout and his agent Craig Landis the money. Not yet, at least. They won’t have to for a couple more seasons. Trout received a $20,000 pay raise from the Angels, who renewed his contract Saturday. To his credit, Trout was humble. However, Landis was not pleased. Sure, his $510,000 salary is a mere pittance compared to the value he’s likely to contribute this season. But at least Trout will have the opportunity to get paid full market value in the not so distant future.

The way the current reserve system works in baseball is that a team can renew a player’s contract for the first three years of service time. The next three seasons are arbitration years (unimportant to this article, but some players can hit arbitration earlier), and after six total years of service time comes free agency. Trout’s raise (or lack there of) is simply a product of Major League Baseball’s Collective Bargaining Agreement. Barring anything unforeseen, Trout and Landis will have their day. Of course I understand the fact that an agent wants the best for his player, especially coming off an MVP-caliber season. But this is the landscape of the league as it presently stands.

Let’s put it this way: things could be worse for Trout. Substantially worse, in fact. This story should be a reminder of baseball’s old reserve system, prior to the institution of free agency in 1975. Prior to that date, a team had rights to its players for essentially as long as they wished. There was no free market for the players to obtain their true value, and thus no negotiating leverage with their clubs. One of the best examples of this relates to one of the all-time great Yankees, Mickey Mantle.

In 1960, Mantle took a $7,000 pay cut after a “bad year” in 1959, nearly a 10% reduction from his $72,000 salary in 1959. By bad year, I mean 7.3 WAR, 31 home runs, and a .285/.390/.514 slash line (152 wRC+). It was a relatively substantial drop from his 1958 season (9.2 WAR, 187 wRC+), but still a monster performance. Plus, it was essentially the prime of his career: he still was 246 home runs short of his 536 carer total. This system would have some uses now (looking at you, Alex Rodriguez), but I digress.

Mantle played for $65,000 in 1960, equivalent to a $505,682.43 today. The most he ever made, per his Baseball-Reference page, was $100,000 beginning in 1963. His salary was renewed for the same amount for the remainder of his career, making his largest single season earnings, adjusted for inflation to 2013, $661,724.14. Mantle, among many other players prior to the free agency era, wish they could have been in the league now with the players’ union’s strength at its peak.

Hang in there, Craig Landis. It must be really tough to represent a guy as good as Mike Trout.

By Bowman Gum [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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3 Responses to Mike Trout, Mickey Mantle, and the Reserve System

  1. Steve Albin says:

    Things could be worse for Mike Trout. He could be working for an NCAA school. Now THERE is some real exploitation!

    • Adam Christian says:

      Steve: You do realize that most of those kids get a free education right? That is the trade off. If they don’t like it then they don’t have to go there do they? It is a free country after all. And, remember that most of the kids who get scholarships to these schools do not end up going pro, or getting signed to significant contracts. So, for the majority of these kids getting a free education while playing a game they love is a great deal. And, for someone that worked their butt of to attend a premium university, I know how valuable a proper education is. People who say these kids are getting cheated do not understand what it means to sacrifice for your future.

      • Steve Albin says:

        No one is saying that the NCAA doesn’t have some upside for the kids, but it is clear they are being exploited. First of all, the education is not free. They have to adhere to the constraints the NCAA puts on them to get it. In general, it is a good deal and I don’t deny that, but it is not FREE. Secondly, the NCAA, schools, and administrators are making millions off the work of these kids. Their interest is in continuing the gravy train and, in general, the welfare of the students is secondary.

        Don’t take my word for it. Read this interesting article by Joe Nocera. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/01/magazine/lets-start-paying-college-athletes.html?ref=joenocera

        I don’t pretend that this is a black and white issue. The NCAA is neither all bad or all good, but they are definitely in need of some policing.

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