Scott Boras has been called a lot of names before in his career as a sports agent. Most of them are not printable, but the most common is “the anti-Christ”. So, when I saw him on the docket to speak to SABR this week I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, it would definitely be interesting. On the other hand, he is not one of my favorite people in the game.
Yet, the process of listening to him for an hour and a half humanized him in a way. He got his start as an All-American collegian player at Pacific University in California. He played four years in the Cardinals' and Cubs' chain as an outfielder and infielder. He sported a career .288 average, but in his words could not run well, hit for power or field. He eventually studied pharmaceuticals and law. His original intention was to work for a drug company in their legal department.
That changed when former teammate Mike Fischlin needed someone to help him with his contract. Boras negotiated that on the side while he continued to work for a Chicago law firm. Later, former closer Bill Caudill asked him to help him with his arbitration case. Caudill ended up signing a five-year, $8 million contract (then making him the sixth highest paid player in the AL) with the Toronto Blue Jays.
That experience convinced him to get into the business full time. The baseball world hasn’t been the same since.
Now, to be perfectly fair, Boras glossed over the rest of Caudill’s career. He said the deal worked out well for everyone, but it is hard to argue that given that he had only one effective season in Toronto. Still, no agent is going to give you the whole truth in anything. It is their job to buttress their client’s performance as much as possible. Sometimes, that might mean stretching the truth or creating a new truth.
There are countless examples of him doing this. He compared Carlos Beltran to Willie Mays and Oliver Perez to Sandy Koufax. Talk about creating a new truth. However, the best example was the one he gave in the presentation. Kevin Brown was coming off of a 9-12 campaign with a 4.40 ERA in 1991. He introduced a then ridiculous sounding stat called “quality starts.” He won his arbitration case and a new statistic was born.
The defense of Scott Boras is fought on two fronts. First, there is the revenue argument. When he entered the agency business in the early 1980s, baseball was a 500 million a year business (in terms of revenue). It grew to a billion by 1990, three billion in 2000 and then seven billion in 2010. He estimated that it is around eight billion currently.
He is simply fighting for the players to get their fair share. On a certain level this is perfectly understandable. Rick Monday signed a $100,000 contract (signing bonus) when he was the first overall pick in the draft in 1965. Shawon Dunston did the same in 1982 when he was the first overall pick. Boras saw this and wanted to represent players in the draft.
Kurt Stillwell and Tim Belcher were his first amateur clients. They ended up going No. 1 and No. 2 in the draft. This is where the second defense of Boras comes to the forefront. He said that only thirty percent of his business revolves around negotiating contracts (although this is obviously where he gets revenue). The other percentage comes in helping his clients have all of the up to date information in terms of the business of baseball, proper conditioning and the psychological aspects of the game as well. He is one of the few agents that employs a full-time psychologist as well as a fitness institute.
His main goal in representing amateur clients was to make sure they had enough information to make a good decision. Less than five percent of first-round draft picks play as many as six years in the big leagues. The number drops to less than one percent in subsequent rounds. So, if a high school kid is giving up his college experience he has to know what he is getting himself into and plan accordingly.
Since SABR is a data driven organization, Boras focused a great deal on the role that data plays in his field. It has helped with contracts, but they use it more as a tool to help players perform optimally. They use statistical data, medical data and financial data in an effort to get them to perform their best. Of course, being a former player helps him relate to the athletes on that level.
It also helps him be more selective in picking clients. If Boras is known for anything it is focusing on the best. He has gotten a great deal of criticism for this over the years, but he addressed that by saying that he did not want to mislead kids that won’t make the cut.
I was hoping to hear some of his views on the draft and economics of the game. One of the things I have always thought is that he has a very good handle on the economics of the game. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot of time to address, but he did answer a couple of questions. On the draft, he simply noted that the slotting system limited teams' creativity.
He referenced two different contracts he negotiated with the Royals in the 2009 and 2010 draft. Both players were selected third overall, but the latter signed for three million versus Eric Hosmer’s 6.5 million. The signings were based on talent and not on slot.
In general, he felt competitive balance could be better achieved by loosening up the rules. That would give small market teams more wiggle room to use intellectual ingenuity to build teams. He believed MLB could do that by allowing teams to trade draft picks. For instance, he said the 2014 draft would be stronger than the 2012 draft, so a team could conceivably add picks in 2014 to take advantage of the additional talent.
His last proposal was in altering the rules on the 40-man roster to allow teams to take more players from the halves. He even suggested a reserve system where those teams could buy back the player for two million dollars. Therefore, a small market team would either get a better player or more capital to improve their team.
Overall, Boras came off as very dynamic and engaging. He made several cracks about Dodgers ownership, milking cows as a youngster and his own difficulties as a player. I certainly came away thinking differently about him than I came in. I still wouldn’t want to see him walking through the door if I was a general manager or team owner, but at least I’d have an understanding of where he was coming from.