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February 1, 2012

Between The Numbers

Fact-Checking Scott Boras

by Ben Lindbergh

Combing through Scott Boras' statements for inaccuracies is a little like tilting at windmills (or so I assume—it's been years since I've seen a windmill, let alone tilted at one). That’s because Boras' greatest ambition isn't impeccable candor; it's getting the most money for his clients (and by extension, of course, himself). Telling the truth is often a good way to get paid, since no general manager likes to be lied to. Sometimes, though, the best way for an agent to stretch his wallet is to stretch the truth. That’s why every offseason, each team can expect to receive a hefty booklet about the latest big Boras free agent, explaining why Oliver Perez is the second coming of Randy Johnson or how Prince Fielder isn't fat, he's just big-boned. There's nothing wrong with these tall tales, so put down your pitchforks. Boras is just doing his job, and he’s doing it better than anyone else. (Just ask Fielder.)

Still, it doesn't hurt to hold him accountable for some of his more glaring leaps of logic. That’s why alarm bells went off in my head when I read a quote of his from a couple weeks ago:

As many as eight major league teams have taken great risk in the closer role. The game has shown many times that teams need closers with the efficiency to (convert) 85 percent of their save opportunities and the durability to make 60 appearances. Numerous teams didn't follow those metrics as a criteria for a closer this offseason. They turned their back on the closer role.

Conditioned as I am to believe that the importance of closers is generally overemphasized, this stat struck me as unlikely. Boras was still steaming about Ruben Amaro’s version of the events that led to Ryan Madson being deprived of a four-year, $44 million deal from the Phillies and settling for a one-year, $8.5 million “pillow contract” from the Reds instead. It occurred to me that he might've gotten a little hot-headed and twisted the truth, so I investigated. And as it turns out, Boras was completely right. Well, maybe not completely—teams don’t need to have a closer at all, let alone one meeting Boras’ specifications. But the ones with a player who met his criteria were much more successful. From 2001-2011, teams that had a pitcher who earned at least 20 saves*, converted at least 85 percent of his save opportunities, and made at least 60 appearances won at a .530 clip. The others collectively finished .479.

*I made up the “20 saves” part myself, based on the fact that it was hard for me to imagine a modern reliever earning a reputation as a “closer” with fewer saves in a season than that. A bit arbitrary, I admit, but no more so than that 85 percent conversion rate and those 60 appearances.

He almost got me. For a minute, I questioned everything I’ve learned about how much closers matter. I wondered whether they were worth those much-maligned multi-year deals. But only for a minute. Then it dawned on me: when you really boil it down, what Boras is saying is that teams with a good player at a particular position tend to be better than teams without a good player at that position. Well, yeah. This is a lot like one of those meaningless stats we tend to hear every now and then on baseball broadcasts: “in games when so-and-so hit a home run, so-and-so’s team went 23-7.” The stat seems to imply that so-and-so’s homers have some magical ability to propel his team to victory, but the team’s success in those games doesn’t have much to do with the fact that so-and-so hit the homers. All that matters is that someone did. All else being equal—which it is, as far as we know—it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a team does better when a player hits a home run than it does when he doesn’t, regardless of which player it is.

Boras’ stat makes it sound like having a good closer is particularly vital, but theoretically, a team with a good player at any position should possess the same edge. To test that, we just have to pick a position and come up with a suitably arbitrary statistical baseline to go with it. I picked second base, since no one ever thinks about how important it is that a team have a good second baseman (or whether a successful second baseman needs a short memory or a “second baseman mentality”). There were 137 teams from 2001-2011 with a Boras-approved closer, so I played around with the statistical cutoffs for second basemen until I came up with a group of similar size. Over the same span, 128 teams had a second baseman with at least eight home runs, an OBP of at least .315, and at least 500 plate appearances. You know, the famous 8-.315-500 club. And guess what? Teams with a second baseman meeting that description went .522. All others went .483.

That looks a lot like the gap we found between teams with and without a Boras-brand closer. But that's not our only clue that Boras' stat might be suspect. There’s another reason why those closers with high success rates tended to play for good teams: closers on good teams enjoy easier save opportunities. The correlation between a team’s winning percentage and its average lead when its leading save-getter enters the game in a save opportunity is 0.2. That’s a weak correlation, but not a nonexistent one, and what it tells us is that as winning percentages climb, leads get larger and save opportunities get easier. Naturally, as save opportunities get easier, conversion rates rise. Good teams aren’t necessarily good because their closers have high conversion rates. But their closers have high conversion rates in part because they play for good teams.

So what have we learned? First, never try to catch Scott Boras in a lie, since you’re probably wasting your time. Boras’ facts check out. I doubt Scott sat down and ran the numbers himself; more likely, some flunky buried deep within the bowels of the Boras Corporation tinkered with the parameters until they spit out something that seemed compelling. Regardless, Boras deserves plenty of credit for having persuasive facts at his disposal. But that doesn’t mean we should always subscribe to his interpretation of what those facts mean. That way lies overpaying for free agents.


Thanks to Andrew Chong and Rob McQuown for research assistance.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  Scott Boras,  Closers,  Surprise Teams

21 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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mikebuetow

Up until the point you wrote "He almost got me," you had almost got me, Ben. Good column.

Just for kicks, how many of those teams that met the 2010-11 closer criteria (aka the Boras Postulate) also met your new BL2B metric?

Feb 01, 2012 05:37 AM
rating: 3
 
Hoff

Great Column! One of the most fun pieces i've ever read here.

Can we re run one of those old "how much extra money does Boras get his clients" stories or maybe put in the new data.

Also, who exactly is he poopooing for "turning their back on the closer"? There are by my count only 18 relievers, not even "closers" who fit his 60/85 criteria for last year. Even his client k-rod didn't make the cut. What a silly man. I guess he's going after the red sox specifically. I'm not a fan, but I really hope they win this year just to validate the concept that you shouldn't have 3 dh's and spend more than 20 million on relief pitchers.

Feb 01, 2012 06:21 AM
rating: 0
 
beerchaser42

Scott Boras stretches the truth?? I'm shocked, I tell you, just shocked....

Feb 01, 2012 06:32 AM
rating: 2
 
R.A.Wagman

(clapping my games vociferously)

Feb 01, 2012 08:04 AM
rating: 0
 
moehk21

Very good article Ben, and this just proves the continual awesomeness of Scott Boras, who I'd argue is one of the 10 most compelling figures in all of baseball right now.

Feb 01, 2012 08:09 AM
rating: 1
 
SamVan

BP has yet to come up with a statistic that rates figures in baseball on how compelling they are as compared to a replacement figure, so I can't say for sure, but my gut tells me that Boras is actually in the top five.

Feb 01, 2012 09:51 AM
rating: 2
 
okteds

We had a guy in our offense who would lie to get ahead. He would exaggerate any of his accomplishments, twist facts around and basically had no scruples.

No one found him compelling.

Feb 01, 2012 18:00 PM
rating: 1
 
saint09

8-.315-500 club... Excellent. The new 40/40 club.

Feb 01, 2012 12:17 PM
rating: 0
 
John Douglass

I kinda would like to see Boras repping placekickers with the logic that "a guy who kicks a 20-yard field goal in the last 5 seconds of an NFL game in which his team is tied or down by 2 or fewer points, with 85% accuracy, is vital."

Also, don't Win Expectation grids last year tell us a closer who converts 85% of save opportunities is a closer pacing behind the league average win % in the situations in which he appears?

Feb 01, 2012 16:16 PM
rating: 2
 
Richard Bergstrom

Technically, a team that gets its closer 60 appearances would have to be a "good team"/"winning team" in order to get that many appearances queued up for their closer. So I think there's a bit of selection bias there.

Feb 01, 2012 20:48 PM
rating: 0
 
Matt Kory

Maybe, but most every team wins 60 games over the course of the year, so it would stand to reason that almost all teams possess those opportunities.

Feb 02, 2012 00:01 AM
rating: 0
 
beerchaser42

Not necessarily. Not all of those 60 games are going to be of the type that qualify for a save, even for the crappier teams. Some of them are going to be of the 6-1, 10-2 score variety.

Feb 02, 2012 07:31 AM
rating: 1
 
Richard Bergstrom

Teams that win 90 games would have more chances for saves than teams that win 60 games.

Therefore, I would think good teams have a higher chance of getting their closer more appearances.

Feb 02, 2012 09:14 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

There could be something to this, but of the 26 pitchers with at least 20 saves last season, Brian Wilson was the only one with fewer than 60 appearances.

Feb 02, 2012 09:18 AM
 
Drungo

Terrible closer Kevin Gregg appeared 63 times for the terrible Orioles last year.

Feb 02, 2012 09:07 AM
rating: 0
 
Matt Kory

Great work, Ben.

I'd be interested in reading more articles like this, fact checking claims made by agents, broadcasters, front office officials, etc.

Feb 02, 2012 00:02 AM
rating: 1
 
Robotey

Way to take on the juggernaut that is Boras! As Mark Twain would have said:

There's lies, damned lies, and statistics. And then there's all that BS that comprises those damned big ass binders that Boras trots out every off season!

Feb 02, 2012 13:55 PM
rating: 0
 
eighteen

"...never try to catch Scott Boras in a lie..."

Lie: Something intended or serving to convey a false impression; imposture.

It's easy to catch Scott Boras lying - his mouth is moving.

Feb 03, 2012 10:51 AM
rating: -2
 
Robotey

But the question is: Is it a lie if the liar thinks he's telling the truth?

One of Boras's strengths is that he's able to state these absurd assertions with a straight face. He takes one odd angle and twists it to make a case for a great truth.

Oliver Perez pitched well against the Yankees, Phillies and Braves, and that's what he sold to the Mets.

Feb 03, 2012 11:08 AM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Apparently his assertion wasn't that absurd. Did he spin it for his client's benefit? Of course. But it's not like Boras faked information. If Boras was an outright liar, he'd be less likely to get clients and even less likely to have teams deal with him.

Feb 03, 2012 12:05 PM
rating: 1
 
frampton
(870)

+1

Let's not be naive here, the arbitration process encourages, if not requires, such presentations of facts in contexts that favor one's side. The team's representatives make similar arguments the other way. It's the agent's job to make the best presentation on behalf of his client.

Feb 04, 2012 12:32 PM
rating: 0
 
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