How baseball agents are negotiating the gap in information and analytics in MLB
Teams are getting more and more information, but what about the agents?
In the 14 years since the publication of Moneyball, baseball's fascination with numbers has become a well-known condition. Teams are using complex mechanisms to evaluate players, and. You can't dust a general manager's shelf without numbers flying all over the place.
The ongoing data revolution has obscured a simple fact. With teams receiving improved information, their greatest competitive advantage is perhaps no longer over one another. Rather, the information gulf now resides between the teams and the players -- or, precisely, the players' agents..
The agents know it, too.
"The intelligence level on that side has grown, and that's the difference," Octagon Baseball statistical analyst Rod Blunck told CBS Sports. "The effort that teams are making to know more about the sport is on a different level than the agents' side."
One way agencies are handicapped is manpower. Teams have increasingly beefy staffs whose raison d'être is figuring out how baseball works. Agencies, by and large, do not. Blunck is the only baseball analyst at Octagon, yet he's also tasked with overseeing the basketball department. To think, Octagon is one of the larger agencies -- its corporate website boasts 50 locations and 800 employees across 22 countries, and its baseball department counts Randy Johnson, Wade Boggs and Joe Maddon as clients as well as current players like Felix Hernandez, Carlos Martinez and Jose Bautista. Smaller enterprises don't have the privilege of employing someone (let alone someones) to mind and/or mine the data.
The agents interviewed for this piece seemed content with that reality. They, after all, are primarily concerned with keeping their clients and recruiting new ones, tasks that seldom require knowing the differences between Wins Above Replacement measures. Besides, they say, an agent's job is to read and react to the market -- not to create one using analytical voodoo.
"It seems highly unlikely that any agent, including Scott Boras, has discovered something statistically that most teams don't have already," agent-turned-consultant Joe Kehoskie said. "Most outlier deals -- of which there seem to be fewer and fewer -- are due to team needs and limited supply and not because an agent pulled off a statistical miracle."
None of this reasoning means agents have given up the ghost on staying current with analytics. There are agencies who employ analytical staffers; there are agencies who retain consultants; others look to third-party data vendors; and a few even employ talent scouts, much the way teams do. Another similarity between the teams and agents is that both scour public analysis for a leg up. As such, wonk hubs like Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs can help close the info gap by highlighting trends or showcasing new discoveries.
"[Keeping up with analytical developments is] extremely important," Wasserman vice president of baseball Rafa Nieves said. Both Nieves and Blunck confirmed they had used catcher framing metrics in contract talks. Nieves' side brought it up while negotiating Francisco Cervelli's extension with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Blunck, meanwhile, used it in his sales pitch to land Chris Iannetta a contract. Agents can't out-calculate teams, but that doesn't stop them from conforming to the new day.
"Ten or 15 years ago, the main strategy with a player who lagged statistically would be to target teams that emphasized scouting and upside over stats, but those days are long over since there are no non-believer front offices these days," Kehoskie wrote. "Because stats now allow teams to rank each player in dozens if not hundreds of different ways, it seems like there's far less salesmanship on the part of agents than there used to be in the free-agent market."
Indeed, free agency is viewed as a sales game. Teams have only so many options to choose from when filling out their rosters, meaning basic supply-and-demand rules govern the land. On top of that, players who qualify for free agency have put in at least six years in the majors -- most of the mystery has been solved by that point in a player's career. Even so, don't confuse baseball's free-agent market for an efficient one.
"Efficient markets, to behave properly, need perfect information. Perfect information has to be symmetrical," said Andrew Zimbalist, a former union consultant who teaches economics at Smith College. "Even with all the sabermetric sophistication you can muster, there's a great deal of uncertainty about how players perform. Because of emotional factors, because of team factors, because of relationships with the manager and the ownership, because of health. I don't think there's perfect information by a long stretch."
If there are two areas where agents conceded the information gap is a problem, it's on the margins and in arbitration.
Take players like Jeff Mathis and Jose Molina as examples. Each were all-glove backstops who were among the worst hitters in baseball during their careers. In a world where framing numbers weren't widely available on multiple sites, both players probably settle for minor-league contracts time and again. Yet because any and everyone with an internet connection could dial up their framing numbers, Mathis and Molina have been rewarded with more lucrative deals -- Mathis netted a two-year deal worth $4 million during the winter from the Arizona Diamondbacks, while Molina earned more than $7 million over two multiyear deals with the Tampa Bay Rays. All together, both are proof that marginal talents can be enriched by data.
In those cases, the agents could draft off public analysis if they needed or wanted to. But if the agency needed to derive its own analysis, the question -- particularly for smaller agencies without spare coin -- is whether the reward justifies the cost. Is getting someone like Mathis or Molina an extra million worth it when those same resources can be poured into retaining a higher-profile client? It's a tricky calculus with an answer that varies by agent.
Comparatively, the risk of allowing unchecked data into arbitration hearings is straightforward. Union sources told CBS Sports earlier in the season that Statcast data is not admissible in arbitration hearings under the new collective bargaining agreement. Both sides are certain to revisit that clause in the future.
There's a slew of reasons to be leery about Statcast making its way into the arbitration market, beginning with accessibility. Agents have to go through Baseball Savant, just like the general public. Teams, on the other hand, are provided additional tools by MLB Advanced Media. Add in the conflict of interest -- MLBAM, with Statcast and Statcast data, is a league-owned property -- and agencies are left in an awkward and undesirable position.
"My greatest hope is that Daren Willman, and Mike Petriello, and the rest of them will throw it all out there for us," Blunck said about the MLBAM employees who serve as the faces of Statcast. "While, at the same time, having the intelligence to explain it all."
Predictably, agents want the union to become more involved on this front. One person identified Greg Dreyfuss, an MLBPA staff counsel, as a potential difference maker -- someone who understands baseball's new era and who could secure a level playing field. But whether it's Dreyfuss or someone else making the case, it'll behoove union chief Tony Clark to fight -- lest the information gap become a larger pitfall.
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