NEW YORK -- The average Major League Baseball salary dropped for an unprecedented third straight year, even before the shortened season caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The Major League Baseball Players Association said Thursday the 2020 average would have been $3.89 million if a full season had been played. That was down 4.2% from the 2019 average of $4.05 million and represented a 5.2% decrease from the record average of just under $4.1 million in 2017. The average started to slip in 2018, falling by $1,436.
Because the pandemic caused players to receive roughly 37% of their pay last year, the actual average plunged to $1.59 million, its lowest since 1998.
"We have been consistent in our position that the current trends in our game need to be addressed regarding the lack of incentive to compete and the need for the system to better reflect the value created by players throughout the service time spectrum," union head Tony Clark said in an email to The Associated Press. "While there are other forces at play, and concerns that we have in addition to the above, we look forward to discussing each of the issues I just highlighted as a way to move our industry forward."
Before 2018 and 2019, the average had not dropped in consecutive years since the union started tracking it at $19,000 in 1967. Before the last three years, the only decreases had been in 1987, when clubs were found guilty by an arbitrator of collusion against free agents; in 1995, after the end of a 7½-month strike; and in 2004.
Last year's drop showed the widening imbalance between top stars and other players. The average fell despite Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, Anthony Rendon and Christian Yelich all starting long-term contracts guaranteeing $215 million or more.
The union's annual survey included 1,087 players, up from 988 in 2019. Active rosters were scheduled to expand from 25 to 26 for the 2020 season and went up to 28 because of the pandemic, which likely is responsible for part of the decrease. More players were in the major leagues with salaries closer to the minimum, which rose to $563,500 from $555,000.
Without adjusting for the pandemic, the average of players with five to six years of major league service -- the group one year from free agency -- dropped from $7.57 million in 2019 to $6.51 million in 2020.
Among players eligible for salary arbitration, the 5-6-year group fell to $6.51 million from $7.57 million; the 4-5-year group rose to $4.49 million from $4.43 million; the 3-4-year group dropped to $2.8 million from $2.92 million; and the 2 years, 115 days to 3-year group dropped to $2.05 million from $2.15 million. Players needed 2 years, 115 days to be eligible for arbitration.
Among players not yet eligible for arbitration, the 2 years to 2 years, 114 days group fell to $673,000 from $935,000; the 1-2 year group rose to $787,000 from $653,000; and the 0-1 group rose to $640,000 from $617,000.
Major League Baseball's final 2020 report last month showed payrolls plunged to $1.75 billion during the pandemic-shortened season from $4.22 billion. That included a drop in base wages to $1.54 billion from $3.99 billion, excluding prorated shares of signing bonuses, earned bonuses and option buyouts.
MLB estimated that if full salaries had been paid and a complete schedule played with the usual average of call-ups from the minors, payrolls likely would have increased by 4% from 2019.
Players have been angered by club behavior in recent years, raising the chance of a work stoppage when the five-year collective bargaining agreement expires Dec. 1.
The current labor deal included steep luxury tax surtaxes, and only two teams, World Series champion Washington and Boston, exceeded the lowest tax threshold of $197 million in 2018, followed by the New York Yankees, Boston and the Chicago Cubs going over the $206 million threshold in 2019. Collection of the tax was suspended last year because of the pandemic.
Players lost a grievance last year claiming the Chicago Cubs improperly delayed star Kris Bryant's debut at the start of the 2015 season in an effort to delay the third baseman's eligibility for free agency. The union also filed a grievance in February 2018 against Miami, Oakland, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay Rays that accused them of improperly spending revenue-sharing money, a case that is still pending.
The union has repeatedly said that teams cutting major league payroll in rebuilding, which players call tanking, is detrimental to the industry. Commissioner Rob Manfred said clubs have the right to retool and direct resources to farm systems and amateur spending to achieve long-term success.
Players and teams were unable to negotiate an agreement to start last year's pandemic-shortened season, although they did agree to a one-year expansion of the playoffs, and they were unable to agree this week on delaying the 2021 season, which remains set to start on schedule.