How MLB’s Conflicting Stance on Mental Health Could Affect Cubs Arbitration Cases

Michael Hattery of FanGraphs has written several informative pieces about MLB’s arbitration method, the most recent of which highlights the mental health stigma applied during negotiations. The new CBA (in effect from 2017-21) denotes “special qualities of leadership and public appeal” and “mental defects” as a viable input for the determination of arbitration salary.

Hattery argues that using mental issues as a focal point during salary negotiations is inherently dangerous because it could encourage players to leave issues untreated.

“When mental health issues can be used as a tool for teams to suppress the cost of talent, this language becomes more concerning,” the FanGraphs writer explained. “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.”

Below is the specific language from the arbitration section of the CBA that Hattery is referencing [all emphasis mine]:

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.

Hattery’s post got me thinking about two Cubs players who are entering arbitration and have been scrutinized for off-the-field issues: Tommy La Stella and Addison Russell.

La Stella refused to report to AAA for several weeks after being demoted late in the 2016 season. He essentially went AWOL not because he was angry with the team, but because he simply didn’t know if he wanted to continue the arduous grind of professional baseball anymore.

“I’m a baseball player by profession,” La Stella shared with ESPN’s Jesse Rogers in his first public comments following his failure to report “My identity is not tied up in that.”

To their credit, members of organization expressed understanding for what their player was going through.

“He’s not angry,” Joe Maddon explained. “He’s not upset. He’s just at that point where he doesn’t know exactly what he wants to do. That’s it.”

Baseball players are objectified in cutthroat fashion by fans, media, and executives alike. Many forget the human element of baseball employees.

Baseball players are objectified and dehumanized in cutthroat fashion by fans, media, and executives alike. For example, Tribune’s Paul Sullivan wrote a column titled, Tommy La Stella needs to suck it up and report to Iowa — or call it quits. I could devote the rest of this post talking about just how wrong the that was, but I’ll merely point out that the way La Stella’s situation was handled by the Cubs led to the infielder’s personal growth and baseball value (0.8 WAR in 151 plate appearances in  2017).

But despite La Stella’s positive outcome, the discussion of his raise in his first year of arbitration eligibility may include the 2016 conflict. Should it? I’m not sure. While it’s an undeniable part of his history with the Cubs, these are the types of events that could encourage players to avoid divulging internal conflict. Better for the baseball player, worse for the human being.

Openly discussing an individual’s mental health in front of a panel of arbitrators is a risky form of human valuation, one that certainly could lead to deleterious health consequences.

Likewise, Addison Russell is eligible for arbitration for the first time this year and he too has dealt with a well-documented issue away from the diamond. I’m not one to discuss the moral or legal issues encompassing Russell’s marital vows, but the situation involved many Cubs executives and players having to answer questions relating to the shortstop’s problems.

Under the current CBA, specifically the “public appeal” portion, Russell’s circumstance is game for salary determination. Is that right (from a propriety standpoint, since I know it’s correct in terms of the rules)? Again, I don’t know. But if the underlying reason for Russell’s issues are at all psychological in nature, the CBA’s language potentially acts as a detractor for the infielder to speak up and get help.

I do want to make it clear that I’m not trying to excuse or explain away the domestic violence allegations that arose in Russell’s situation. Rather, it’s the tendency to keep things behind closed doors — that I’m seeking to address.

“The Major League Baseball Players Association would be wise to consider arguing for the removal of this language in the next collective bargaining agreement,” Hattery concluded in his post.

Openly discussing an individual’s psychological well-being in front of a panel of arbitrators is a risky form of human valuation, one that certainly could lead to deleterious consequences. If MLB is serious about creating awareness for society’s pressing mental health issues, the multi-billion-dollar organization’s contractual language stands in direct conflict with that goal.

There has to be a better way.

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