Manny Machado and Bryce Harper

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Murti: Machado, Harper Prove Emotional Buying Is Going, Going, Gone

Front-Office Analytics Hitting Top Free Agents In The Wallet

Sweeny Murti
February 02, 2019 - 8:00 am
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Emotional buying is a thing of the past.

This is why the calendar hit February before either of the two big free agent stars -- Bryce Harper or Manny Machado -- signed a contract. 

There are many reasons, but here is one big one: Teams have figured out how to take the emotion out of acquiring players and be more objective in their analysis.

Ironic, isn’t it, that a sport that sells its product to its fans by playing off their emotions has decided the best way to run its business is by taking the emotion out of it?

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On Dec. 14, 1994, the Phillies signed Gregg Jefferies to a four-year, $20 million contract. It was a pretty lucrative deal considering just two years earlier the Giants had signed the best player in the sport, Barry Bonds, to a seven-year, $43 million contract.

Jefferies was coming off a pair of All-Star seasons in St. Louis, beginning to fulfill the potential he showed as a Mets prospect a few years earlier. But the sales pitch to Phillies owner Bill Giles was all about emotion, not numbers.

Well, actually it was about numbers, but of a different kind. The free agent presentation from ACES, Inc. agents Sam and Seth Levinson included a comparison to Pete Rose and how Jefferies had similar or better numbers in many categories -- including more hits -- compared to Rose at the same age (26).

Phillies executives were kicking around the idea of signing Larry Walker, then a free agent from Montreal. But once the Rose comparison was brought up, everyone in the organization knew Giles was in love.

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Giles was the one who brought Rose to Philadelphia as a free agent 16 years earlier and watched him deliver a championship in 1980. When those numbers jumped off the page comparing Jefferies to Rose, it was like that scene in Jerry Maguire.

You had me at "hello."

The craziest part of all? The day this happened, baseball was still in the middle of a work stoppage! And as negotiations with a federal mediator had broken down, owners were considering the possibility of unilaterally implementing a salary cap the next day. Meanwhile, one of the owners had just broken ranks. While the Phillies had been among those teams crying poor, Giles just handed out $20 million -- with no idea when the sport would continue -- because he thought he had the next Pete Rose.

Emotional buying like this used to happen all the time. George Steinbrenner made his name making decisions on emotion. 

Steinbrenner went after the biggest stars because they were the biggest stars, like Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield. 

When his baseball operations department preferred Vladimir Guerrero over Gary Sheffield in the free agent market, Steinbrenner ignored them and did his own deal with Sheffield because he was from Tampa. 

And The Boss once negotiated a contract with David Wells over a plate of sliders at a burger joint in Tampa, no data analysis required whatsoever.

Agents have for years played the numbers to show a team the value of their client -- the famous Scott Boras binders come to mind.  But now teams have their own computer models and analytic departments to break down not who a player has been the last few years, but who he will be in the next few years. 

Scouts used to call it putting a “dollar sign on the muscle,” a phrase that became the title of a wonderful book from the 1980s on scouting. Now teams are putting their dollar signs on that muscle using formulas that can’t be influenced by tugging at the heartstrings.

Gone are the days of Winter Meetings trades made at 3 a.m. on cocktail napkins. One general manager scribbled down some names, the other said OK, and they shook hands --deal over. Sometimes they weren’t even sure who they were trading. In a 1973 deal with the Phillies, the Braves assumed they were acquiring 19-year-old left-hander Randy Lerch, but instead had agreed to acquire 29-year-old right-hander Barry Lersch. Think a mistake like that happens today?

Now every potential trade has to be vetted using years of service time, projected WAR, payroll analysis and more.

Bunting and stealing have slowly disappeared from the game. Lineups are no longer built around the clean-up hitting slugger. Starting pitchers are no longer expected to ride to the finish line with whatever gas they have left in the tank. 

All of this is true because data-driven front offices have figured out that it’s not productive. So should we be surprised that the off-the-field strategy is following the same dispassionate approach?

One agent told me the free agent marketplace has gotten very Wall Street-like in approach.

“It is so similar to the evaluation process for stocks and bonds,” the agent said. “There are variations with each entity doing the valuations, but overall they are very similar.”

With each team using its own proprietary information to calculate a WAR-like number, the value is placed on a free agent. And since most teams are using similar, if not identical, formulas then the numbers end up in the same range.

“For so long, the market for baseball players was driven by widely varying evaluation tools -- the eye test, perceived talent, marketing opportunities, the baseball card stats, etc.,” the agent said. “Not anymore.”

One former general manager told me it was “groupthink,” not collusion, an ugly word which gets thrown around carelessly. So how did teams come to this way of business if they didn’t conspire with each other to get there?

The agent that I spoke with believes that the skill of those working on behalf of the players has been surpassed by those now working in management.

“I truly believe (20 years ago) the smartest guys in the room were on the players’ side of the table,” the agent said. “Now the table has been flipped. More agents who are great recruiters but not necessarily skilled negotiators are going head-to-head with very smart, analytically driven executives.”

Teams no longer hire former major leaguers to be their GMs. They hire Ivy League graduates, who then hire other Ivy League graduates to work with them.

And the free agent limbo of the past two offseasons is the result. Teams are simply waiting until the players and their agents realize that the market isn’t going to rise to the numbers that used to be the norm. Meanwhile, owners are miraculously showing more restraint than most people in the game thought they were capable. 

And it would be a mistake to think this will change anytime soon, until new measures are taken via collective bargaining.

This is where the players will look to gain back some of the advantages they have lost in recent years. Higher minimum salaries, earlier arbitration and earlier free agency will all be on the table. 

And if you’re looking for an avenue to get the emotion back into the game, just listen to what each side will be saying leading up to negotiating time after the 2021 season.

Follow Sweeny on Twitter at @YankeesWFAN