Stephen Strasburg is living the American Dream. Most fans know something about his backstory: lightly recruited out of high school, accepts his only scholarship offer, works hard, becomes the number one overall draft pick, signs a nine-figure extension. This season, his $38,333,334 salary plus prorated signing bonus is the highest in baseball. Good for him; he’s earned every cent.
We, the baseball-consuming public, tend to think of all players as Stephen Strasburg. There is far more attention given to players with huge contracts than those without. Naturally, the Manny Machado’s and Bryce Harper’s tend to draw more water than most rookies and sophomores, but it’s important not to conflate their circumstances.
The time for MLB and the MLBPA to renegotiate is coming. It’s going to get nasty, and fans will take sides. As the salaries of all major leaguers are on public display, we’ll hear the refrains, “Those millionaire players should just be happy with what they get!” (Never mind the billionaire owners who charge fans so much money to attend a game; more on them later.) Even the commonly used defense of the players, “I choose millionaires over billionaires!” implies that most players reside in Strasburg’s financial stratosphere.
This simply isn’t true.
Regardless where you fall on the subject of baseball labor relations, it’s important to use apt terminology. If we’re going to use the word “millionaires” as a synonym for “players,” we should investigate the veracity of that statement. How many players really are millionaires?
How Many Players?
Before we can determine how many players are millionaires, we need to estimate how many players there are in total. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Including the minor leagues, rosters change daily. Players are cut and signed, injured and reinstated all the time. The best we can do is take a snapshot of how many players there are on any given day, which in this case was this past Sunday, July 21st.
For most of the season (including right now), there are 25 players on each MLB roster. With 30 teams, that means there are 750 active major leaguers. On the day in question, there were a further 92 players on the 10-day injured list (as per Roster Resource) for a total of 842 major league players. (We’ll get to the 60-day IL in a moment).
Since we’re talking about the MLBPA, we have to include the full 40-man roster. While most minor leaguers are not eligible to join the MLBPA, all players on the 40-man are part of the union. Multiply by 30, and we have 1,200 players. However, the guys on the 60-day IL are not part of the 40-man roster, but retain union membership. There were 67 such players on Sunday, giving us a total potential MLBPA membership of 1,267. (While there may be a player or two who has declined to join the MLBPA, this is exceptionally rare. We’ll assume all eligible union members have indeed joined.)
We have our number of MLBPA members, but the colloquial “millionaires” doesn’t always apply just to them. Lots of people think of all players are rich. While we can— and will— calculate the percentage of millionaires in the MLBPA, we also need to address the notion that everyone in affiliated baseball gets seven figures. As such, we need to figure out how many people are part of all 30 organizations.
All 30 franchises have an affiliate and Triple-A, Double-A, High-A, and Single-A. Each of these rosters are capped at 25. Each organization also has three, four, or five Rookie and Short Season affiliates, with 35-man rosters. There are 125 of these low-level teams altogether.
These roster sizes don’t account for injuries, though. Given that there are 159 players on both major league ILs, or roughly five players per team, we can estimate that there is one injured player for every five roster spots at the minor league level as well. Hence, we’ll assume 30 players for each Single-A or higher team and 42 for each Rookie/Short Season team.
Excluding the 40-man roster, we have an estimated total of 8,492 minor league, non-union players. Combined with their 40-man roster, major league, and injured counterparts, there are roughly 9,752 players receiving a paycheck from the 30 MLB organizations. Now we can investigate how big those paychecks are!
Calling All Millionaires
Let’s talk about the major leaguers first. Essentially, there are three types of contracts, depending on service time. First, there are veterans who have surpassed six years of service time, qualifying for MLB free agency. Some players sign extensions foregoing free agency, but those extensions account for how much the player would have made on the open market. Ranging in age from 26-year-old Bryce Harper to 42-year-old Fernando Rodney, these are generally the highest paid players in baseball. There are 237 of them in total, and 219 will earn at least one million dollars this season.
Basic info on MLB veterans’ salaries (all data from Spotrac.com):
- Minimum Salary: $555,000
- Maximum Salary: $38,333,334 (Strasburg)
- Total Salaries: $2,391,666,150
- Average Salary: $10,134,179
- Median Salary: $8,200,000
Next, there’s arbitration. Players who have accrued almost three years of service time (Super Two) but less than six are eligible for arbitration in the offseason, which determines their salary for the coming year. Just as with veterans, extensions can supersede arbitration, but again these salaries account for what they would have earned through the arbitration process. Based on data from MLB Trade Rumors, which was compiled for a previous article, There were 201 arbitration eligible players this season. 179 of them earned at least a million dollars.
Basic info on MLB arbitration salaries:
- Minimum Salary: $640,000
- Maximum Salary: $26,000,000 (Nolan Arenado)
- Total Salaries: $816,680,000
- Average Salary: $4,063,085
- Median Salary: $2,880,000
Finally, there are pre-arbitration players. From the moment they arrive in the big leagues until they reach arbitration, MLB teams get to determine their salary. Most of them will earn the league minimum: $555,000. Others will get small raises before arbitration, but very few will surpass $600,000. Cody Bellinger, the National League’s best player through the first half, is making $605,000. There were 465 of these players on Sunday. We’ll estimate $565,000 for each since there is relatively little variation.
In the minors, we have 358 MLBPA members on 40-man rosters. There’s not a lot of information available on what they earn, but as per this Boston.com article from March, 2018, they receive $44,500 for their first 40-man roster contract.
In summation, 398 of the 1,267 MLBPA members earn $1 million dollars or more this season, or 31.4 percent. Here’s a chart of every one of their salaries:
The 40-man roster salaries aren’t even visible on the left side of the graph. Even if you’re talking about just the MLBPA bargaining unit, it’s factually incorrect to refer to them as millionaires. Less than a third of them fit that description.
Obviously, no one in the minor leagues comes anywhere near one million dollars. They don’t even earn $20,000. The Athletic’s Emily Waldon described the impoverished conditions in which minor leaguers have to survive (highly recommended). In her article, she detailed the following estimated salaries:
- Triple-A: $11,825-$14,850 per year
- Double-A: $9,350 per year
- Single-A: $6,380-$8,400 per year
Yes, there are signing bonuses, but with the exception of elite talent, these are usually pretty small. As The Athletic’s Levi Weaver explained, the top 64 players in the draft receive $1 million or more in bonuses, but 40 percent get less than $10,000.
If these salaries look minuscule, Rookie and Short Season players are really suffering. Despite reporting for Spring Training in February and March, minor leaguers are only paid for the regular season. For these leagues, that’s just three months: June, July, and August. Even at a rate of $1,200 per month (though it’s likely less), they would earn just $3,600 per year. According to Weaver’s article, Dominican Summer League players make just $900 per year!
Assuming all 40-man roster minor leaguers are in Triple-A (they aren’t, but it makes the math easier), here’s what our estimate of minor league salaries looks like:
- Triple-A (non 40-man): 542 players, ~$12,000
- Double-A: 900 players, ~$9,350
- Single-A: 1,800 players, ~$7,000
- Rookie/Short Season: 5,250 players, ~$3,600
At least one franchise has given their minor leaguers significant raises: the Toronto Blue Jays. Be that as it may, this estimate of 5,250 low level players earning $3,600 per year gives them a total price tag of just under $19 million. If their salaries were doubled, they would still earn less combined than one Stephen Strasburg.
Out of all 9,752 estimated baseball players at all levels of the majors and minors, just 4.1 percent are millionaires. According to this article, nearly six percent of all Americans are millionaires. It’s not totally analogous because the article refers to savings not salary, and a large portion of ballplayers aren’t Americans at all, but you could actually say that baseball players are less likely to be millionaires than everyone else!
Here’s one more graph: every estimated salary of all 9,752 affiliated players. Minor leaguers aren’t even visible.
As For the Owners...
If we’re debunking the “millionaires versus billionaires” trope, we have to look at both sides. Unsurprisingly, information about MLB team balance sheets, owners’ net worth, and individual team revenue is considerably harder to find than player salary data.
In my personal life, I’m a public school teacher. My salary is publicly available on the Board of Education website (forgive me for not providing a link). Yet there is no public record of how much dividend each owner takes from their team annually, despite nearly all of them getting public stadium funding and tax incentives. Seems rather unfair, doesn’t it?
Regardless, Forbes compiles a list of franchise values annually. All 30 hit one billion dollars or more. Even the Marlins just barely cleared the billion dollar bar! This being established, it seems fair to refer to the owners as “billionaires” after all.
Keep that in mind when you choose a side in the labor debate to come.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. Tweets @depstein1983