Scott Boras’s Increasingly Popular Play Call: The End-Around

The Scott Boras influence on the Nationals’ roster is “inescapable” wrote Washington Post scribe Barry Svrluga on Monday.

Svrluga calculates that, after the Matt Wieters signing, nine players on the Nationals’ projected Opening Day roster will almost certainly be Boras clients, their contracts totaling $551.4 million.

When Dave Cameron examined the curious signing of Wieters by the Nationals earlier this month the FanGraphs editor wrote:

The lesson, as always; if you’re not sure where a Scott Boras client is going to sign, Washington is always a safe guess.

At the plate, Wieters isn’t clearly better than Norris, even with the latter’s miserable 2016 as our most recent data point. …. Statcorner has Norris at +22.5 runs from framing in his career, while Wieters is at -20.9. Prorated to 10,000 pitches, that’s roughly +6.5 per season for Norris and -3.2 for Wieters, so about a 10 run swing between them per year.

The Nationals needed help. They needed to bolster their bench, they required bullpen help, and reportedly added Joe Blanton Tuesday. What they didn’t need was Wieters, a poor receiver with a middling bat. With Wieters, Boras appears to have sold ice to an arctic village. It was a surprising fit, only it wasn’t, as Boras and Nationals owner Ted Lerner have developed something of a deal-making relationship.

Industry speculation suggests Boras and Lerner hammered out the Rafael Soriano deal several years back without input from baseball operations. Boras described the Max Scherzer courtship as an “ownership decision.” According to the Washington Post, the curious signing of Jayson Werth “took place with Rizzo, Lerner and Boras in the agent’s Southern California offices.”

Writes Svrluga:

“The (Boras-Lerner) relationship bears watching going forward. …. because Boras and Lerner have an affinity for each other personally — it’s worth asking who was involved in each negotiation, just as it was last year, when Lerner and Boras were the primary architects of Strasburg’s seven-year, $175-million extension that kicks in this season.”

Boras seems to have found if not a new game plan, an increasingly common play call: the end-around.

There’s no doubting Boras has been one of the game’s premier agents, and if you need convincing of his past ability to add value to contracts, Vince Gennaro once quantified just that for Baseball Prospectus. Boras’ new strategy seems to be a jet sweep around savvy, information-rich front offices — which understand better than ever the current and future value of players — and to appeal directly to the owners who are either emotionally invested and/or willing to act irrationally.

While the Nationals have become his favorite deal-marking partner, Boras directly appealed to late Tigers owner Mike Ilitch and bypassed then-GM Dave Dombrowski, as Jonah Keri noted for Grantland back in 2012:

In short, Dave Dombrowski knows his stuff. Which is exactly why Scott Boras wanted no part of him.

Mike Ilitch’s role in the nine-year, $214 million contract the Tigers gave to Prince Fielder has been well documented. Ilitch has his Stanley Cup. He wants a World Series ring, he’s 82 years old, and he was willing to break the bank to make his dream come true. Boras knew this, reached out to Ilitch, and the deal was done.

After Ilitch’s passing earlier this month, Boras told the Detroit Free Press what made Ilitch “a winner” was his “passion.” Said Boras: “These weren’t business decisions. This was something that was very close to his heart.”

It is an increasingly difficult time to be an agent because so much more is known about player performance, from Statcast to WAR-per-dollar valuations and aging models. While Boras might have once had an advantage due to his proprietary database and army of assistants, he cannot match the computing power or knowledge base of a modern front office.

So where do agents add value in this analytical age? Back in early January, I explored that very question.

I was interested then in a New York Times piece in which James Wagner documents how the agents of Yoenis Cespedes tried to increase the perceived value of their client.

“With the help of an analytics firm in Chicago, (Cespedes’ agents) came up with a dollar figure for the impact Cespedes had on the field, social media, team television revenues, and ticket and merchandise sale. … They even put a figure, $3.2 million, on the value of the approximately 50 tabloid back pages that had featured Cespedes over the course of 2016. Cespedes playing with flair, Cespedes hitting game-changing home runs, Cespedes driving exotic cars in spring training, Cespedes arriving for a workout on horseback.”

In a game where emotion is more and more stripped from — or attempted to be stripped from — decision making, agents can perhaps better play on emotion in negotiating directly with owners.

According to the Orange County Register, Angels owner Arte Moreno asked then-GM Jerry Dipoto to reach out to Albert Pujols’ agent back in November of 2011. Moreno then played a significant role in negations.

“I’m not as young as I used to be, but I’m a marketing guy,” Moreno said. “I just thought, ‘What does it mean to our fans to bring a player of this caliber here?’

“That’s when, all of a sudden, all of your objectivity and budgets and everything go out the window. And you start saying, ‘Can you really get this player?'”

Now, it’s not that today’s analytically minded front offices are immune from operating emotionally. Said Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman at the winter meetings: “If you’re always rational about every free agent, you will finish third on every free agent.”

Good old fashioned bidding wars will always be possible. But if there’s not a market for a player, if an agent has to try and create one, an agent like Boras stands a much better chance of selling his talking points directly to ownership than through the filter of 21st-century front offices. As the game moves forward, will the end-around be an increasingly common practice? Or will front offices be more mindful of trying to ensure they are always the last voice in an owner’s ear?

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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6 years ago

I heard Scott Boras has a picture of Mike Rizzo dressed in women’s underwear….

explains a lot

6 years ago

Just joking, guys. Maybe you should’ve said something about a ‘golden shower’ instead, Juice.

6 years ago
Reply to  Richie