Scott Boras is looking for the Applyers this offseason. It might sound like the next superhero movie that will bomb, but it’s really the next step in how baseball is evolving.
In an October 26 radio interview with The Michael Kay Show, which is available to listen to in full here, the typically cagey Boras gave a candid response when asked if the rise of analytics has changed what constitutes a great player.
He went on to do as Boras often publicly does with resolve, providing an in-depth response that almost becomes easy to tune out because of how thorough it is. But after the fact, as we have the time to process his response in smaller bites that are easier to chew, we can glean a lot about how his strategy for his clients this offseason and beyond started to change for the current climate of free agent spending, which reached a nadir last winter when front offices spent record lows to acquire talent.
“I think that analytics are new to a lot of people…[but] they’re certainly not new to me,” Boras said. “But I came from the era of the feel for the player, the feel for the situation. And, you know, we can go back and look at — I tease Alex Cora [who] was a client of mine. I’ve known him since he was 12 years old. And I joke with him that we now have the synergy of ‘Cora-lytics.’ He understands the feel of players, he understands the situation for players, but he also understands analytics” (emphasis mine).
Cora is a man who, when hired, candidly asked “what’s the point?” if baseball operations, team analytics, and medical staff aren’t all on the same page. It’s no surprise that Boras echoed then what many have all year: Cora was critical to the Red Sox winning the World Series in 2018 because of the way he created a bridge between data and players. And if the last couple of years are any indication, having a person who can be that bridge is paramount to winning.
Sure, Boras and his agency have worked with advanced statistics for some time, and long before broadcasters were passive aggressive about exit velocity. But now teams are working with that data, too, and in seemingly incomprehensible depths. The go-getters, like Cora, don’t need someone to spoon feed it to them; they’re the ones seeking it out. That means Boras isn’t providing a sea of information so different from what teams already know as he has at times in the past. This isn’t exactly a new reality, but gives us a sense of the analytics arms race that consumes modern baseball.
It’s reached another standstill now, though, almost like a glitch in a video game where you try to move a character only to see them walk in place against an invisible wall. Teams know more than ever what they’re paying for, and that means that Boras clients could be left on the market well into the new year for a very different reason than usual.
Four Boras clients were still on the market in February last year: Eric Hosmer, Jake Arrieta, JD Martinez, and Greg Holland. They combined for just 8.1 fWAR last season after signing. Take away JD Martinez’s career year on a historic team and the other three combined for only 2.2 wins above replacement; or, more simply, about what one solid Major Leaguer does on his own per season. Waiting still might be an integral Boras tactic, but it might be more geared toward hammering out a true understanding between client and team as opposed to waiting for a GM or owner to flinch on a dollar amount.
As the game pivots harder and harder toward specialized players and moments, Boras iterated to Kay and company a steadfast belief: consistent, high end talent is still the best bet to win. He went on to say that “when you go back and look at the Houston Astros, who won last year, they played seven or eight players everyday in the playoffs. And the reason is, the psychology of the player is when he comes to the ballpark, he knows he’s going to play and he knows what he’s going to do.”
It’s true. The Astros played seven players in all 18 of their postseason games in 2017: Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, George Springer, Yuli Gurriel, Alex Bregman, Josh Reddick, and Marwin Gonzalez. They all registered at least 61 at-bats. Brian McCann played in 17 games and registered 57 at-bats. In the regular season, six of those eight played in at least 82% of the team’s games. The only exceptions were McCann, who played in 97, and Correa, who was hurt and played in 109.
Maybe, then, Boras will shift his approach for clients toward teams by being rather simple about it. Bryce Harper’s talent alone means he can play in at least 80% of a team’s games if healthy. For those less generational Boras clients, such a number may still be a hallmark based on recent winning teams. Compared to just a decade ago, the number of players who registered 600 plate appearances or more in a season is down by almost 20%.
But the really interesting part of this snippet of insight from Boras is on the benefit of the mental aspect of players knowing what they’ll be doing each day. You reap what you sow. You don’t just plant a seed, walk away, and come back to a thriving garden some weeks or months later. The care that goes into growing the healthiest, most vibrant, most useful plants takes daily interest, effort, and mindfulness.
That suggests even more change when it comes to how Boras might seek to anchor his talks with teams about his clients for this offseason and beyond. The modern landscape of baseball is dictating that he’ll need to look for a balance of the most willing and smartest teams interested in his clients. Odds are slimmer than ever we’ll see another situation like we did with Alex Rodriguez in 2001. The Rangers signed him as the team came off a 71-win season. A-Rod provided 27 fWAR over the next three years, yet Texas never won more than 73 games. If teams understand more than ever what they’re buying, they’re going to want to know exactly how it fits with the entire landscape of their franchise, and that may ring truer with every additional dollar negotiated.
That would also include how a team will be able to communicate to a player through the life of the contract to ensure the player’s skill is being applied most effectively, so everyone benefits as much and as long as possible. It could come down to which organizations have a manager and coaching staff in place that know both the feel of the player and understand analytics — teams who similarly ask “what does it matter?” if there isn’t 100% buy-in from every department about the how, what, and when of communicating.
Teams who fit that description right now and who have less financial constraints than the competition while they sit on the cusp of contention could be the Phillies, who have completely revamped their analytical approach in the last couple years; Atlanta, which has young, high-end talent that’s cost-controlled; or even the Padres, who have been quietly accruing bunches of high-upside prospects and with whom Boras already negotiated on Eric Hosmer’s contract.
In a couple years it could be the Giants, who just made Farhan Zaidi president of their baseball operations, who knows all about building a team without money from his time with the A’s and with it from his time with the Dodgers; or the Blue Jays, who have elite young talent like Atlanta does and are backed by a major corporation. After that it could be the Orioles, who just hired the man who headed all of the Astros’ scouting through the team’s massively successful rebuild, Mike Elias, as their GM.
Finding teams that adequately balance data-based and holistic approaches might be key for Boras as he finds his clients new homes in the coming years. But he still might have one card up his sleeve that helps him show teams his players are worth more because they’re the exception to the data, and not a contributor to its mean.
When speaking with Kay, Boras explicitly mentioned bat speed. You’ve heard of and seen guys who, as they age, simply can’t catch up to the fastball the way they used to. And as pitchers throw harder and harder each year, the hitters who can keep up are going to become equally distinguished. Swing speed data isn’t publicly available, but odds are teams and even Boras Corp has it. And what we do know about it is still extremely informative.
It’s maybe the most critical skill a hitter can develop and seek to maintain through their career. Pretty much every team in the league can bring in a guy who throws at least 95 mph in any given game now. If you can’t keep up, you’ll be passed by. For Harper, we can bet that having just turned 26 will be a focal point in negotiations. But his unprecedented youth compared to other notable free agents in the past could also mean he’s got a chance to maintain his bat speed through the majority of his next contract, if not its entirety, depending on its structure. It’s another instance of a single, seemingly basic point that Boras could make use of despite how we’re uncovering more and more nuance throughout baseball every day.
It’s not that analytics have changed what constitutes a great player. It’s that analytics have fundamentally changed how we understand what players do. More than ever, that means we need to understand who players are and how they do the truly crazy things we witness every day. This revelation through the game is forcing Scott Boras to adjust; to consider how rapidly the game is bonding players and the data they produce. And after a single down year, you can bet he knows his next move.
Feature photo from Bob Levey/Getty Images