Is Scott Boras Really That Bad?

Is Scott Boras Really That Bad?
Boras, wearing a shirt that looks pretty ordinary but is probably made of an extremely comfortable material // Lenny Ignelzi, Associated Press

As a White Sox fan I have learned through enculturation to loathe Scott Boras, the sworn enemy of the “home town discount” that for so many pre-World Series years was seemingly critical to White Sox roster building.  And I despised the man for leading to greener pastures my beloved Magglio Ordonez, whose artful inside out swing I often still imagine repetitively as I lie in bed, waiting and wishing for sleep to overtake me (on the baseball nerd scale I’d say this activity rates an 8 out of 10).

“Boras has some grand ideas about what his players should be making,” said Jerry Reinsdorf said during Maggs’ free agency period in 2004, “he tries to squeeze the last dollar out, and that's fine.”  If you want to know what gritted teeth reads like, look no further than this declaration from the Chairman from the same Sun Times piece: “I have no problems with Scott Boras."

Similar statements had and have been made about Boras before then and since.  And for the most part, I believe Reinsdorf, who can appreciate the way Boras goes about his business, one last-dollar squeezer to another.  Nonetheless, no matter how respectable or worthy, make no mistake: trying to bleed MLB owners makes Boras an adversary in the Chairman’s mind.  And there is an old adage that goes something like, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

So there’s that, and more importantly my feelings about money in professional sports, which is: the players should get most of it.  Considering these things, maybe my feelings toward Boras have been long due for reevaluation, but admittedly, this was not a priority in my life.  Then, during a caffeine infused ‘net meandering session, I stumbled onto this statement made by Boras in November regarding the new CBA:

“The franchise values, I think, are going to be affected by this,” Boras said. “New franchise owners . . . can no longer rely on the draft to improve their franchise in a major way. The GMs now have less flexibility, less ability to do it. It’s going to take longer to improve your team in a meaningful way.

“It used to be, the owner could think, ‘I’ll hire the right people, I’ll have the scouting intellect.’ Now artificial behavior prevents that. I think the decrease in values of GMs and scouting is a loss.”

“If I’m a new franchise purchaser, if I’m the Lerner family and I’m buying the Nationals, and if you put limitations on Mike Rizzo, his value is worth a lot less to me. That limits the value of the principal employees.”

Interesting.  There is a lot of speculation swirling around the new CBA concerning its impacts but I hadn’t come across this argument: the limitations on draft and international spending effectively devalues the position of general manager in baseball, because it limits the GM’s (and scout’s) ability to act creatively in the interest of a smaller market franchise; front office folk who more typically overinvest (relatively) in projectable players at the beginning of their careers rather than at the end.  How prophetic Boras proves remains to be seen, though I will say that his singling out of Mike Rizzo as a model general manager is a bit problematic though understandable.

But this statement appeals to me in principle because it suggests: a.) a fundamental belief in the high value of employees to the worth of their respective franchises b.) that curbing originality, restraining expression, and confining employees to a system of operations has its costs c.) that greater profitability in the short term does not necessarily create greater value in the long.

This is an ideology I can get behind!  Who are you Scott Boras?  And where have you been all my life?

Scott Dean Boras, age 59, was born in Sacramento California, the son of a dairy farmer.  He starred as an outfielder at University of Pacific, where the team’s Most Improved Player award bears his name.  Boras played minor league baseball for the Cardinals in the mid-70s and ascended as high as Double-A.

Because Boras had a law degree, he was in a unique position during his own contract negotiations as a baseball professional.  Boras argued that he could be making more practicing law, and that he was giving up quite a bit of money to play baseball.  His raise in salary relative to other players was hardly as significant as ownership’s acquiescence.  "I made a grand total of like $100 a month more," said Boras in a 2009 St. Louis Post-Dispatch interview.  A negotiator was born.

Boras made a name for himself as a sports agent in 1985, when he represented reliever Bill Caudill in negotiations with the Blue Jays. (The story was revisited recently in this Baseball Prospectus piece by Sam Miller, which requires a subscription to view.)  The obscure player representative erroneously referred to in a number of news articles as "Steve Boras" requested from the Jays a whopping $1.3 million to avoid arbitration, matching the contract sought by four time All-Star Fernando Valenzuela.  That was more money than both (future Hall of Famer) Wade Boggs and (should-be Hall of Famer) Tim Raines were asking for from their respective clubs.  Boras worked tirelessly to build his case for Caudill, one of the game’s top closers, and eight minutes before the arb hearing the Blue Jays came in with an offer Boras' client accepted: five years, $8.7 million; roughly the same terms that Rickey Henderson (who was equal to two Hall of Famers, according to Bill James) had signed for that off season.

Shortly after these negotiations, Boras made the decision to split from the law firm for which he was working, and go off on his own to be a sports agent full time.  Boras recalled of the Caudill experience:

"One of the things was, when I went through the process I never, ever, ever felt anything but focused. I’d never been more passionate about what I was doing. Never felt more connected. I wasn’t representing brick buildings or major companies. I was representing people, who played baseball. That meant more to me.”

When Boras was a pro ballplayer, toiling away in the bushes for Busch, baseball salaries as a percentage of league revenues were hovering around 20-25% (see “Table 5” in this study after you enjoy the Bouton quote at the top).  At the turn of the twenty-first century, they were around 55%.  Baseball revenues in 2011 were a reported $6.14 billion while payroll was $2.75 billion (45%).

It would be hard to overestimate Boras’ impact on the rise of payroll over the last three decades, as is evidenced by the percentage in dollars of contracts he currently handles.  In 2012, Scott Boras holds nearly $280 million in total major league contracts, more than any other agent.  This is more than double the amount held by #2 on the list, Greg Genske, who is the only other agent over $100 million.  It’s estimated that Boras will make over $13 million in commission in 2012.

The financial numbers are staggering, and it’s hard to move beyond them and get behind the guy.  But from a certain perspective, Boras is not to blame for the pecuniary behemoth that baseball has become. He does not raise ticket prices, push the merchandise, expand luxury boxes, lobby for state funds and better tax deals, or demand bigger television contracts.  He did not create the “spectacle” of baseball that now generates mega cash flows; he just fights tooth and nail to direct as much of it as possible toward the players.

And Boras feels justified in doing so, partly because the role of the player is twofold:  "When you work for Ford, you produce a car, the car's the product and you're the employee," argues the agent. "But in this industry, you are the product. You are the reason people don't come or do come."

Many writers in St. Louis felt that Boras held the club over the coals for Matt Holliday, which resulted in the Cardinals crying poor when faced with the prospect of a market-value contract extension for Albert Pujols.  But Boras has a better idea of the kind of profits clubs are generating, and argues that, in many cases, teams can afford to pay players as long as they are willing to be just very profitable instead of very, very profitable.  As he explained to Dan O’Neill of the Post-Dispatch in 2009:

"The Cardinals don't have a budget, the Cardinals have a choice. No one ever writes the Cardinals choose to make $70 million or $50 million, as opposed to $25 or $30 million. But when you use that dynamic, then you can go to the owners and say, 'Isn't it all about the money? I mean, you're making $25 million, why do you need to make $50 million?' Isn't that the argument they use against the players?"

Yet, Boras is the figure vilified by fans and in the press.  The stigma is such that players often drop the agent in the interest of their public image.  A year ago Mark Teixeira dumped Boras after signing a $180 million contract in 2009.  “Now that the contract is over with,” Teixeira told the New York Times, “I don’t want to be a Scott Boras client. I want to be Mark Teixeira, a baseball player helping this team win championships.”

Because Boras is known for representing top players earning top contracts, it’s worth noting that his client roster includes 106 current professional baseball players according to mlbtraderumors.com.  Boras acts in behalf of sluggers like Prince Fielder and Robinson Cano, but also roster fillers like Alex Cora and the great (named) Jeff Manship.

Boras Corporation is also known for targeting touted amateurs, in line for big signing bonuses from MLB teams.  But it’s hardly exploitation when one considers that it is Scott Boras who was largely responsible for engineering MLBs current bonus system.  As a young lawyer, Boras focused his pro bono work on the partiality of baseball’s amateur draft, the contracts out of which, as Boras points out in the Post-Dispatch, hadn’t grown from the time number one overall pick Rick Monday signed for $105,000 in 1965 and number one pick Shawon Dunston signed for $100,000 in 1982.

Boras’ bonuses have helped pro prospects earn something closer to their market value at the time that they are drafted.  And since MLB players and salaries are controlled by teams for six years before players can file for free agency, these bonuses seem well warranted.  For example, considering his value to the Diamondback’s franchise, there is something not right about Ian Kennedy, the best pitcher on a playoff team, earning $423,000 in 2011.  This injustice is only partly offset by the $2.25 million signing bonus Boras negotiated for Kennedy as the Yankees’ top draft pick in 2006.

The agent has been so successful at negotiating signing bonuses for his clients in recent years that stodgy owners felt the need to legislate against them in the new CBA.  Generally, Boras has been such a pain in the collective rump of MLBs old guard that they seem to actively seek opportunities to publicly slander the man.

The New York Times published a story in late-2010 suggesting that Boras was funneling money to a Dominican prospect in an effort to gain the player’s favor, and in violation of MLBPA rules.  MLB demanded an explanation.  After an inquiry, Boras was officially exonerated by the player’s union.  And despite some kicking and screaming from the Commissioner, Boras’ name has been cleared.  Turns out, MLB has their own agenda in the DR, which involves making it appear lawless and corrupt and in need of more MLB oversight and control, and the owners’ frontman, Selig, probably figured that he could further the interests of the baseball trust by killing two birds (Boras being a former Cardinal) with one stone.

In his response to the spurious Times piece, Boras explained the nature of the loans he had made to shortstop prospect Edward Salcedo.  Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk paraphrased a portion of Boras’ retort in this post:

"[Boras said that] Salcedo was poor and in need, and that if it weren’t for the loans...Salcedo would have had to abandon his baseball career due to financial need."

Right on.  Using the money he has wriggled and reaped from baseball owners and lending it to poor Dominicans so that they can continue to play baseball?  If Boras wasn’t so likely to get paid on the back end, I’d say that this is downright Robin Hood-esque.  At any rate, I love it!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there are a lot of things Scott Boras and I don’t see eye to eye on.  But I like what I’ve been reading lately.  And who knows?  Perhaps this is the beginning of a long and meaningful one-sided relationship.  You know, one where I keep tabs on, think about, and appreciate Scott Boras, but he doesn’t know that I even exist.

Put that way, it sounds kind of creepy.   Maybe I’m overdue for a fresh self-evaluation.

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More Reading:

For more on Boras’ negotiating philosophy and approach, see “It's Always a Numbers Game for Boras” from the New York Times.

And here’s a piece from Baseball Prospectus (behind a paywall) that attempts to assess the value of Boras and his clients statistically, to some effect.

 

References (can be accessed through the Chicago Public Library website with a valid library card):

Reinsdorf: Sox will deal with Boras, if price is right; Chicago Sun-Times (IL) - Thursday, November 18, 2004; Author: Roman Modrowski

The man fans love to hate Super agent Scott Boras acknowledges his image but disputes its accuracy.; O'Neill, Dan. St. Louis Post - Dispatch [St. Louis, Mo] 06 Dec 2009: B.1.

Comments

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  • great article.

  • Thanks for sharing what I hope is not a minority opinion.

  • It's too bad your friend's sister is making lots of money the easy way and you are working this crumby job spamming blog comments. Is that awkward? When you see each other socially I mean? I can only imagine you're hugely envious.

  • In reply to Chris Lamberti:

    Well, this now seems like a pretty random comment to feel compelled to make public.

  • that's an outstanding post with outstanding links, and it reminds us not to judge someone from the general noise against him. better take a look at him yourself. make that two looks when the noise comes from a soul-less corporation.

    ps. I think the ian kennedy link is for diamondback players and not for all teams.

  • In reply to The Wizard:

    I'm glad you got so much out of it. That's really encouraging. But be careful, legally corporations are people, and you're going to hurt their feelings.

    I meant to link to the Dbacks because I intended to show that Kennedy was the "best pitcher" on that team, not all teams, which would be a much harder argument to make.

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