By Stephanie Springer
Much has been made of the effects of the pandemic on the labor market. Many media outlets have stories on what has been termed The Great Resignation, the post-pandemic increase in employees quitting their jobs. There’s no reason to think that MLB is all that different from other employers in corporate America experiencing The Great Resignation. Indeed, last fall, R.J. Anderson reported a well-researched investigation into the brain drain in MLB front offices, citing a number of anonymous industry insiders. As one source noted, the pandemic was the catalyst, and not the sole cause, for employee departures amidst a shifting landscape during a shortened professional baseball season.
It’s worth revisiting front office staffing issues as MLB completes a full major league season and its first full season after minor league restructuring. There seem to be a number of open jobs on various sites, so it’s easy to think that the industry must be thriving. But it’s difficult to gauge the health of the MLB job market based on publicly posted job openings. We don’t know how many of these open roles seek to fill spots that were vacated in the brain drain. Is this actual growth? Further, as Russell Carleton notes, not all open jobs are posted on TeamWork or your favorite sabermetrically inclined baseball sites. The jobs that are posted tend to be entry-level positions or internships, which does not provide insight regarding employee retention.
It’s the roles between those entry-level positions and the publicly discussed, senior-level GM-type of roles that interest me. I am curious about employee attrition and retention at the mid-career and middle management levels. What happens once you land that dream job with an MLB team, and how does your career progress?
We have some inkling as to how your MLB career starts. Getting hired into an entry-level position or internship is fraught with many issues - Carleton and Kate Morrison thoroughly examined the role of MLB internships as a gatekeeping mechanism. One might think that once you get that proverbial foot in the door, everyone is on a level playing field, and sheer talent and hard work will propel a front office staffer up the career ladder. However, even after you land an entry-level role, there are additional layers of gatekeeping that can hinder a MLB front office career.
I have written previously about MLB hiring practices; in particular, it is challenging to move up the career ladder. An employee on a contract won’t be able to apply for other opportunities, and even an employee who is not on a contract may not be free to pursue opportunities with other clubs. In other words, you can’t just apply for a job that looks interesting - if you even know the job opening exists. These unposted, mid-level positions often rely upon word of mouth for hiring. Teams may fill open roles by only interviewing people they know or people who have been recommended to them through their network.
Not only does this present a challenge for diversity and inclusion in MLB front offices, but it is also a hindrance to employees who may benefit from a change of scenery - literally or figuratively. An employee who is truly an employee-at-will should have the freedom to apply for other jobs and explore outside opportunities. If you don’t have an extensive network singing your praises, and your current organization does not help you move up the ladder, career progression may require an employee to let their contract lapse and forgo a contract renewal, so that they may explore the job market as a free agent and hope that another organization picks them up.
Sound familiar? Yes, this is much the way job hunting for baseball players works. Players and lower-level employees may forgo a salary from October until they are picked up by another team. This looks very different for a player coming off of a multi-million dollar contract who is looking for another multi-million dollar contract, compared to your average front-office employee. Not everyone has the financial means to quit a job without having another source of income in place.
Attrition and retention have implications for MLB organizations as well. Employee turnover and attrition cost money. There is lost time when an employee quits, leaving a role unfilled, their work to be taken on by another employee; once a job opening is posted, other employees take time to review resumes and interview potential new employees; and once a new employee is hired, there is the time spent on training a new employee. Gallup notes, “The cost of replacing an individual employee can range from one-half to two times the employee's annual salary.” In many industries, particularly the industries competing for analytics talent, this comes at a significant cost. However, when MLB continues to use underpaid entry-level employees and interns, these costs may seem insignificant.
MLB continues to devalue labor, including the intellectual labor of their front office employees, and it’s time to discuss labor issues in the front office. These conversations won’t happen so long as front-office workers are viewed as interchangeable cogs in the sabermetric machine. When labor is cheap and plentiful - think underpaid internships colliding with a dream job for a baseball fanatic - it can be easy to view workers as interchangeable. A poor manager will assume that the next intern will be able to pick up exactly where the previous intern left off, with no training necessary.
Even if one assumes that the previous intern or employee left behind meticulously commented code, and detailed notes structured in a way that will immediately make sense to anyone else who picks up the project, the loss of tacit, institutional knowledge comes at a cost. With high employee turnover, that knowledge is lost. It could be the person who knew the ins and outs of eBIS or the particular quirks of a technology. Perhaps it’s someone who was well connected within the sabermetrics or local community.
Many quantitative analysts play a role in determining how to provide the best return on investment when it comes to baseball players. It’s time for front offices to also consider how to make the most of the talent in the front office itself. This is vital to retaining employees and keeping institutional knowledge in baseball.
Stephanie Springer is an organic chemist who left the lab for a desk job. Her writing has appeared in Baseball Prospectus and The Hardball Times. She can be reached on Twitter at @stephaniekays.