Photo: John Minchillo (AP)

An agent mentioned The Belt to me once, and I thought he was joking. This is not me doing that thing where reporters try to downplay someone else’s scoop by letting you know they already knew a thing, even though they didn’t report it, which makes them completely useless. This is me trying to convey just how wild this is—I was told about it, and assumed it was too dumb and insane to possibly be a real thing.

But, oh yes, it’s a real thing, an urban legend dragged out into the light by Marc Carig of The Athletic, who has a must-read piece on MLB salary arbitration. Within we learn that at the end of every season, MLB gives out a $20 pro wrestling–style championship belt to the team that did the most to “achieve the goals set by the industry.”

MLB confirms The Belt’s existence, saying it’s “an informal recognition of those club’s salary arbitration departments that did the best.” The most striking but also maybe the least surprising thing about all of this is that no one in baseball, at any point, said to themselves, maybe we shouldn’t do this.

Arbitration is a weird beast. A team completely controls a player for the first few years of his MLB career, and a player has full free agency after a few more, but in between comes arbitration, where a player and his team each make their cases to an independent arbitrator for how much that player should be paid. It can occasionally be toxic; players must attend their arbitration hearings in person and so must watch their employers argue that they’re not that good or valuable a player, harping on their flaws and trying to justify a lower salary.

There’s another weird bit about arbitration: Collusion is allowed here. Front offices don’t merely swap informal information, they’ve set up an entire department to help every team keep its arbitration offers as low as possible, and to help them win their hearings. Carig:

The labor relations department positioned itself as a central resource. It made data available for teams to more easily find comps to be used in negotiations. It staged mock arbitration sessions.

[...]

Eventually, the league began using its internal information to promote its own valuations for all players eligible for arbitration. These are still, technically, recommendations. But according to several people familiar with the process, they have increasingly been treated as hard guidelines. It is understood that teams are to settle at or below the league’s recs.

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The legal collusion appears to be working. Nearly two-thirds of settlements have come in at or below the labor relations department’s “recommendations,” up from less than half a few years ago.

From an angle that completely discounts the value of good labor-management relations, this is sound business—why pay more than the other guy, when you can get together and agree to both pay less? From the angle out here in the real world, there’s a human cost to treating your employees like a foe to be defeated, and presenting a damn trophy for it. “I’d be ready to strike tomorrow,” one unnamed player told The Athletic.

Which brings us back to The Belt. The Astros, Braves, Cubs, Indians, Rays, and Twins are the finalists this season for having most completely crushed their players in arbitration. The champion will be named and The Belt presented at MLB’s Winter Meetings in San Diego.

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[The Athletic]