The primary focus of MLB’s players union during its recent labor negotiation was funneling more money to younger players. The Players Association scored with a 23% bump to minimum salaries that will start at $700,000 in 2022 and rise from there. The stars? They were already cashing in at record levels.
The 10 highest-paid players will earn an estimated $379 million this season, including endorsements but before any incentive bonuses. The tally is up 10% from last year. New York Mets pitcher Max Scherzer leads the way at $59.3 million, including $1 million off the field. It is the highest one-year total ever for a baseball player.
MLB average salary growth has severely lagged compared with its fellow major U.S. sports leagues over the past decade, but it has not impacted the biggest stars. Mid-tier players are getting squeezed, and teams are increasingly turning to younger minimum salaried players. The Pirates and Orioles are both set to stock at least two-thirds of their rosters this season with players on minimum salary deals.
Twenty MLB players will earn at least $26 million this season for their on-field performance. (This includes Trevor Bauer at $32 million, but we left the pitcher out of the top 10, as he is currently on “administrative leave” while MLB investigates sexual assault allegations; he would rank No. 10 if he receives his entire 2022 salary). Not one player made $26 million as recently as 2014. Pitchers make up half the players with the 10 highest salaries, but only one of the next 10.
Scherzer, 37, signed a free-agent contract with the New York Mets just before the lockout started. The three-year, $130 million deal smashed the previous record for average salary—Gerrit Cole at $36 million—and the three-time Cy Young Award winner became the oldest player to sign a $100 million contract, with Kevin Brown the previous oldest at 33 in 1998. The deal includes a handful of six-figure incentive bonuses, and he can opt out of the agreement after the 2023 season.
The pitcher will supplement his player salary this year with an estimated $1 million in earnings from endorsements, memorabilia and licensing. His major partners include Nike, Rawlings, Indeed and ARIA Exchange. He will also pocket $15 million in deferred salary, as part of his previous contract with the Washington Nationals, pushing his total earnings to $59.3 million.
Mad Max served on the MLBPA executive subcommittee that represented the players in bargaining with the commissioner’s office. The eight members of the exec committee—six of whom made at least $12 million last season—voted unanimously against the final owners’ proposal. But the deal was ratified when player representatives voted 26-4 in favor of the pact, ending the 99-day lockout.
Scherzer and Cole (ranked No. 4, $37 million) are among seven clients of Scott Boras in the Top 10. The uber-agent also landed nine-figure free agent contracts this winter for Corey Seager (No. 2, $39.5 million) and Carlos Correa (No. 5, $36.6 million), as well as Kris Bryant, Marcus Semien and Nick Castellanos, who land outside the top 10. Owners committed $4.5 billion in free agent contracts and extensions this winter, according to Spotrac’s spending tracker.
While MLB stars are cashing huge on-field checks, their endorsement earnings are dwarfed by those in the NBA and NFL. Only $17 million, or 4.5%, of the earnings for baseball’s top 10 is off the field. Basketball’s top 10 earners will make roughly $300 million off the court this season and nearly half their total.
Marketing MLB players is not the same as the NBA. LeBron James will do something significant every single game, while Mike Trout can have a quiet 1-for-4 night and never get a chance to showcase his myriad skills. MLB also doesn’t have Nike and Adidas hyping the next round of stars, as the baseball cleat market and apparel market is limited. But teams and the league are also to blame.
“Major League Baseball just doesn't have the aggressive marketing strategy for the sport and for star players that the NBA and NFL have,” Henry Schafer, an executive at The Q Scores Company, said in a phone interview. “They are too localized and there is not enough national interest in teams, and national familiarity with star players is below average.”
Q Score measures the percentage of those familiar with a personality that rate them as one of their favorites. The marketing evaluation company recently tallied data on more than 300 athletes through its surveying. The highest Q Score was an MLB player, the Angels’ two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani, whose 33% was a tick ahead of NBA legend Michael Jordan. The problem is that only 13% of Americans over the age of 6 are familiar with Ohtani, versus 76% for MJ. Baseball’s biggest names—Trout, Mookie Betts, Bryce Harper, Albert Pujols, Aaron Judge—all have familiarity levels below 25%, according to Schafer.
Ohtani is a celebrity in the baseball community but has not yet crossed over into mainstream celebrity. Yet his unique story as a star pitcher and hitter, along with massive commercial appeal in his native Japan, has made him the biggest endorsement star in the sport. He has roughly 10 sponsorship deals between Japan and the U.S. with the likes of Asics, Japan Airlines (JAL), Seiko, Fanatics, Descente and Hugo Boss. He added a brand ambassador deal with crypto exchange FTX in November. His 2021 American League MVP Award provided a significant boost to his off-field earnings, which Sportico estimates at $9 million this year. The only other MLB player expected to make more than $5 million this season is Bryce Harper at $6.5 million, by our count.
Ohtani is the best bargain in the baseball. He will earn $5.5 million in salary this year and won’t be a free agent until after 2023 season.
Baseball's Highest-Paid Players 2022
1. Max Scherzer
Total earnings: $59.3 million
Salary: $58.3 million
Endorsements: $1 million
Partners: Nike, Rawlings, Indeed, ARIA Exchange, MLBPAA Alumni, Topps
Scherzer’s previous contract with the Nationals included $105 million in deferred money and will pay the pitcher $15 million every July 1 between 2022 and 2028.
2. Corey Seager
Total earnings: $39.5 million
Salary: $37.5 million
Endorsements: $2 million
Partners: Adidas, Rawlings, Fanatics, Travis Matthew, Modelo, Topps
His 10-year, $325 million contract signed with the Rangers in November is tied for the sixth largest in the history of the sport.
3. Mike Trout
Total earnings: $39 million
Salary: $35.5 million
Endorsements: $3.5 million
Partners: Nike, BodyArmor, Rawlings, J&J Snack Foods, MLB 9 Innings, Lizard Skins, Old Hickory, Topps, Anderson Authentics, MLBPAA
Trout and his teammate Ohtani are the betting favorites for the 2022 AL MVP Award. The centerfielder’s streak of nine straight top 5 finishes, including seven in the top 2, ended last year when injuries limited him to 36 games.
4. Gerrit Cole
Total earnings: $37 million
Salary: $36 million
Endorsements: $1 million
Partners: Nike, Rawlings, Fanatics
Cole has an opt-out after 2024 in the nine-year, $324 million free agent contract he signed with the Yankees in Dec. 2019. The Bronx Bombers can void his opt-out by adding a tenth year to the deal for an additional $36 million.
5. Carlos Correa
Total earnings: $36.6 million
Salary: $35.1 million
Endorsements: $1.5 million
Partners: New Balance, Adidas, Topps, Rawlings
Correa shocked many when he landed in Minnesota this month under a short-term deal. His $35.1 million average salary is fourth highest in the sport, behind Scherzer, Cole and Trout.
6. Anthony Rendon
Total earnings: $36.3 million
Salary: $36 million
Partners: Topps, Marucci
Like Trout, Rendon missed more than 100 games in 2022, triggering a sixth straight losing record for the Halos. His contract jumps to $38 million next year and each season through 2026.
7. Stephen Strasburg
Total earnings: $34.1 million
Salary: $33.6 million
Partners: New Balance, Topps, Zett, Fanatics
Strasburg is collecting $10 million in deferred salary this year as part of his previous contract with the Nationals. His current seven-year, $245 million includes $80 million in deferred money payable starting in 2027.
8. Miguel Cabrera
Total earnings: $32.8 million
Salary: $32 million
Partners: Adidas, Franklin, Wilson, Topps, Panini, DC Sports
Memorabilia demand jumped last year for the 2012 Triple Crown winner when he hit his 500th career home run. He has another milestone in sight this season, as he is just 13 hits shy of 3,000.
9. Bryce Harper
Total earnings: $32.5 million
Salary: $26 million
Endorsements: $6.5 million
Partners: Under Armour, Rawlings, Fanatics, Topps, Gatorade, Dairy Queen, EA Sports, Blind Barber
Harper is one of the biggest endorsement stars in baseball. His 13-year, $330 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies was the longest deal in MLB before Fernando Tatis signed his 14-year pact.
10. David Price
Total earnings: $32.2 million
Salary: $32 million
Partners: Rawlings, Topps, Panini, IMAC Regeneration
Price opted out of playing the 2020 season with the Dodgers, citing his and his family’s health during the pandemic. It cost him $11.9 million in salary while his team won the World Series. This season is the final one on Price’s seven-year, $215 million deal he originally signed with Boston.