Monday, May 28, 2007


I received an email from the LA Weekly telling me I should check out their recent feature on Scott Boras, "The Boras Factor" by Jeff Anderson. The general argument behind this piece, in my view, is that Boras is effective at his job not because he is an extraordinary businessperson but on the contrary because his knowledge of baseball outshines not only the competition but also that of most or all front offices. While I wouldn't necessarily argue that Boras' knowledge of baseball is flawed, it is my suspicion that the author is merely conflating and confusing Boras' ability to collect, hone, rehearse, and repeat data with Boras' allegedly keen baseball wisdom; essentially all of the examples used in the article seem to indicate only that Boras knows many baseball fact(oid)s and not that Boras has a profound understanding of baseball and/or market dynamics and how players ought to be valued.

For instance, the author, Jeff Anderson makes his case most explicitly
When San Francisco reliever Kevin Correia faces Dodger pinch hitter Olmedo Saenz with a runner on third and two out, Giants catcher Bengie Molina has Correia pitch around Saenz — who gets hit by a pitch. Boras notes that now there’s a possible force out at second. “Molina is a smart catcher. He knows that was a bad matchup. Saenz is hitting .400 off this pitcher.”

That Boras knows these sorts of things off the top of his head tells you just about everything you need to know about him ...

... One of the keys to his success has to be that players know his understanding of the game is as high as it can be. At the same time, many general managers and owners who understand the business side of baseball must be keenly aware that they have a fraction of Boras’ baseball knowledge. (emphasis added)
That's a large claim to stake, and I don't feel that the article can really justify it, although I would obviously entertain evidence for that argument - I certainly would suspect that Boras would have a better understanding of baseball than a few GM's and several owners. But this feature simply does not substantiate that claim. The Correia-Saenz matchup example certainly doesn't. Boras likely hasn't read chapter 3 of The Book, nor would I necessarily expect even someone with a great deal of baseball acumen to have done so, but I'm unaware of any study that confirms the general usefulness of batter-pitcher matchup numbers, much less whether 'pitching around' Saenz in that instance could be called a 'smart' move on the basis of his previous average against Correia. So to start with, it's clear to me that this instance of his 'baseball knowledge' would have much more to do with reciting data than 'understanding the game,' though it is my sense that Anderson is at least conflating data access and recitation with comprehension in speaking of Boras' "baseball knowledge." You would certainly hope that someone against whose baseball knowledge towers over many GM's would grasp that you'd want to actually project the matchup rather than use past data exclusively. However, there is one more obvious flaw here: prior to that plate appearance, Saenz had only faced Correia in one regulation game, getting a groundball single off Correia on the last day of the 2006 season. Given that, as far as I know, Saenz never would have faced Correia elsewhere (never in the minor leagues or, since LA and SF are in the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues, respectively, in spring training), either Boras was pulling a complete lie out of his nether regions or the quotation is errantly introduced by the author. I would be quite surprised if it was the latter, especially since the Saenz-Correia PA did indeed result in a Saenz HBP with Molina behind the plate.

This points to the more-likely reality of Boras: he knows enough about baseball to have enough factoids to drown out reasonable argumentation. Here's Boras on Jason Varitek:
“It says here Varitek is hitting .129 when the pitch count is no balls and two strikes,” he says, moving over to a conference table in his glass-enclosed office. In pre-Boras times, before statistics dominated the lexicon of baseball and became central to player deals, an agent or general manager would simply say, “Varitek struggles when he’s behind in the pitch count.” Here’s what Boras says: “With one ball and two strikes he’s hitting a little better, about .138. But then, with two balls and no strikes, or two balls and one strike, he’s up around .315. So even with health issues last year, he’s still a better than average hitter.”
It's certainly conceivable that there are GM's or other front office personnel who listen to this and think Boras is conveying something meaningful, but that would be evidence only of front office incompetence and not Boras supremacy. And perhaps Boras is able to deploy arguments along these lines in arbitration hearings, but that would only be a credit to his ability to manipulate the baseball knowledge of others, not evidence of his own baseball knowledge. It is laughable that Boras would actually consider any of the numbers above significant. All hitters 'struggle' when behind in the count, and of course when you compare their batting average on two-strike counts with their BA on counts with zero or one strike you will end up with very different numbers, both because it's more difficult to hit the ball well with two strikes and, much more crucially, because only batters with two strikes can strikeout. To establish that Varitek is "better than average," you'd need to do a lot better than point to his pedestrian 11-for-33 hitting on 2-0 and 2-1 counts. While indeed Varitek may still be an above average hitter, Boras is presenting no actual evidence to that effect. Boras doesn't consider the league averages in his argumentation here, nor does he discuss how often Varitek falls behind in the count. Amazingly, Boras doesn't even focus on Varitek's most obvious assets, namely that his past performance is much better than 2006 and he'd statistically be projected to rebound in '07, and that his hitting skills beyond batting average are still very good. If indeed Boras thinks his clients' contributions can be best understood through very small samples of obscure hitting splits, then his success is clearly in spite of a lack of a baseball understanding, rather than because of it.

Moreover, some of Boras' told-ya-so's ring pretty hollow. While he is right to call the Dodgers to task for choosing Juan Pierre over J.D. Drew, the issue is brought up not when he points to the shoddy hitting or throwing of the former but rather the inability to track down a flyball; if there's any talent where I would choose Pierre over Drew, it would certainly have to be centerfield range. When Boras rips into the Cardinals for not offering more for Jeff Weaver, its downright laughable:
Last year, another longtime Boras client, Jeff Weaver, was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals after a poor start with the Angels in Anaheim. Weaver was dominant in the postseason, and the Cardinals won the World Series, but St. Louis offered Weaver only a one-year, $5 million contract — which Boras found insulting. “That’s what you’d offer a relief pitcher,” he says.

Weaver eventually signed with the Seattle Mariners for $8.3 million. “You have to respect that teams have a right to make their own decisions,” Boras says, before turning around and passing judgment on Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty. “Here’s a GM who never played the game saying, ‘We’re going to go with our young guys,’ and I go, ‘You can’t.’”

The Cardinals simply blew it, Boras concludes. “The Cardinals not signing Jeff Weaver is how you don’t win divisions, and my prediction is the St. Louis Cardinals won’t win their division this year.” (At press time, the Cardinals were at the bottom of the National League Central.)
If Weaver were dominating with Seattle, I would certainly object to the argument that that means the Cardinals should have offered more for him - Weaver really did not merit to be paid as much as the Mariners gave him - but given that he's been one of the worst pitchers in baseball this season, Boras comes across as plainly idiotic. More problematic, in reality, is the author inserting the note that the Cardinals are in the cellar; while the BS from Boras is to be expected, the Cardinals' lousy record has nothing to do with passing up Jeff Weaver. While the "young guys" in their rotation have had bad results thus far - that is, Reyes and Wainwright - both are great bets to rebound and have strong peripheral numbers. Moreover, the rotation spot that would have gone to Weaver, if I'm not mistaken, is the one now allocated to Looper, who was converted from relief and has had the best results of any St. Louis pitcher thus far. And more obviously, the Cardinals' ills have a lot more to do with scoring only 3.7 runs a game, losing their ace to injury, and having pretty bad defense in the outfield.

Indeed, "The Boras Factor" reads less as a contrarian "Hey, maybe Boras ain't so bad" piece and more as a rote recitation of his company-line. The author doesn't bother to evaluate Boras' claims on Johnny Damon but rather simply states that Damon's presence in New York "would haunt the Sox at the end of last season." Moreover, Anderson offers no criticism of this Boras howler:
Boras insists he honors the game even when his deals go sour. He points to former Dodgers pitcher Chan Ho Park, for whom he got a five-year, $65 million contract with the Texas Rangers in 2002, but who was injured five weeks into the 2003 season and couldn’t pitch for the next two and a half years. Boras’ response: “I invested millions of dollars of my company’s money and developed a sports-fitness institute, with five full-time trainers, so this never happens again.”
Of course, Boras could use a number of methods to prevent clubs from being on the hook for large contracts that go wrong due to injury. Hiring five trainers for his extensive list of clientele will do next to nothing to effect the likelihood and frequency of injury, and it certainly doesn't do anything about the financial impact that injuries have on teams. Now, I don't think Boras has any real obligation to the teams to stop his players from being injured, so it's no big deal, but what Boras has done has nothing to do with 'honoring the game' and everything to do with his investment - the healthier his players are, the better paid they will be.

This article certainly touches on some issues of interest. I enjoyed the details on the Boras complex and his relationship with former clientele like Stillwell. Moreover, the part about Boras' initial influence on the amateur market was compelling; I'd be interested in a feature that focused on his early days and actually evaluated and substantiated the claims about his influence. But while the dynamics of paying recently drafted talent is something worthy of investigation, this piece instead takes Boras' influence almost for granted, and seemingly inflates and distorts it: "As baseball revenues grow, so do salaries, thanks in large part to him," Anderson writes. Are we really to believe that Boras is the prime force behind the expansion of salaries and the belief that players should earn a large(r) proportion of MLB revenue? This claim is at best overblown, and more likely is simply wrong.


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