Analysis: Matt Wieters to the Nationals – Scott Boras and the Lerners do it again

“When I met the Lerners their franchise was worth $400 million. Now it’s worth $2 billion.” -Scott Boras

Last week on the Jonah Keri podcast, Scott Boras sat down for a wide-ranging hour-long conversation on his business and the future of baseball. It was a rare illuminating glimpse into one of baseball’s most influential people. 

Among other topics, Boras discussed his philosophy when he’s selling a client to an MLB team. The above quote best demonstrates his strategy. Boras doesn’t sell the player, he sells his vision of the team with his client on the roster. To Boras, a free agent contract isn’t a simple exchange of services for money. Boras doesn’t advertise the free agent, he paints a mosaic for the owner/GM, where his client is the missing piece to something far greater. Boras isn’t selling a player, he’s giving the team something it doesn’t already otherwise have–a pennant, a playoff appearance, a higher franchise value.

Boras’ strategy has been enormously successful over his career. This approach is how Boras convinced Rangers owner Tom Hicks to give Alex Rodriguez $80 million more than the next highest bidder. Three years after that record-shattering $250 million dollar contract, Hicks couldn’t wait to get rid of it, and he eventually paid the Yankees to take it. Despite this, Boras’ worldview compelled him to say on Keri’s podcast last week, “the Rangers made money on the Alex Rodriguez contract.” And he might be right. 

Boras has taken this approach to the Nationals ownership group with great success. The Lerners, as real estate developers, are probably the perfect target. And since 2011, no agent and team have been more closely aligned than Boras and the Nats. Jayson Werth signed perhaps the the most shocking free agency contract since the above-mentioned A-Rod deal. Boras used his above sales pitch, and Rizzo and the Lerners bought it. To Boras, Werth wasn’t just a good outfielder with decent power and above-average defense.* He was a franchise cornerstone player–the kind of player the Nats needed to transition from non-descript quasi-expansion team to flagship National League franchise.  More Boras clients followed–Edwin Jackson in 2012 as the missing piece to an otherwise contending rotation, Rafael Soriano as the missing door closer on a team who couldn’t quite close the door the previous season, and of course Stephen Strasburg as the ace willing to forego free agency for the right price. 

*seriously, this used to be true 

And today, Matt Wieters. 8 years ago, Boras probably imagined Wieters first free agent contract to be a lot bigger than 2 years and $21 million. Wieters was a first round pick and consensus number one prospect in baseball back in 2008-09. His first game in Baltimore received a taste of the fanfare Nats fans would later see with Stephen Strasburg’s and Bryce Harper’s MLB debuts. Wieters was supposed to be a switch-hitting Mike Piazza with elite defense. Orioles fans passed around Chuck Norris-style “Matt Wieters facts.” He was a folk hero before he swung a bat in an MLB game. 

Well, Superman never put on his Matt Wieters pajamas. His first seven seasons on Baseball Reference don’t look like the first half of a Hall of Fame career. Despite that, Wieters actual production has outrun his probably undeserved reputation as a bust. He’s made four All Star teams. He hit more than 20 home runs three consecutive seasons. He even received MVP votes in 2012, winning a gold glove and leading the Orioles to the first of three playoff appearances in five seasons. 

Still, Wieters saw a slow decline as he approached free agency. His last four seasons look a lot like a league average catcher. Serviceable, but not worth forfeiting a first round pick. Wieters signed his qualifying offer last year after and injury-shortened 2015 season. His .243/.302/.409 2016 didn’t set him up for the payday he was hoping for. 

On the Keri podcast, Boras discussed the value of a catcher to a contending team. Since Boras is a salesman, assume he’s always selling. And his message was clear: a pennant winner needs a catcher. The subtext was even more clear: I have a free agent catcher for the team who needs one. 

The Nationals wisely let Wilson Ramos sign with Tampa Bay, who have time to let him fully heal his knee injury. Even if they brought back Ramos, there was no way the Nats could reproduce the production they received at catcher last year. 

Still, before today, it looked like the Nats had settled on the best of their bad options: a reclaimed Derek Norris or perhaps an ascendant Pedro Severino. A slugging catcher is a luxury. It looked like the Nats were prepared to make do. The foremost question arising from the Wieters signing is this one: did the Nats need to do this?

During the podcast, Keri asked Boras a question he couldn’t dodge. If he’s not getting traction from a front office, does he ever go above their heads, straight to ownership? Boras, in as many words, said yes. He goes to the people with the money–a different, perhaps less skeptical audience with the ability to sign the check. 

Think about the above quote. It’s absurd. There are a variety of factors that have driven franchise values into the atmosphere–cable tv, publicly funded stadiums, MLB advanced media. Even if Scott Boras is on that list, he’s way down there. Boras is simply riding a wave, trying to take credit for the tide’s gravitational pull. 

But perception is reality. And Boras successfully sold an alternate reality to the Lerners what their team would look like with Matt Wieters at catcher. 

Thanks to another Boras client, this team will look a lot different in 2019. The above quote is absurd, but it’s not inaccurate. Since meeting Boras, the Lerners have increased the value of their team five fold. I have no doubt Boras called them up told them exactly how much farther Matt Wieters will take it. 

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Proposed rule changes for Major League Baseball

Yesterday, MLB floated the idea of starting extra innings with a runner on second base. This (radical) idea would be very effective. Extra innings would be more exciting and games would be shorter.

It’s also a remarkably stupid idea. I applaud the commissioner for thinking outside the box. I’d rather have a commissioner with too much imagination than one who is committed to outdated customs for all the wrong reasons. I congratulate Rob Manfred for being creative, but this idea falls on the wrong side of the creativity/stupidity scale. There are ways to improve baseball without fundamentally changing it. Putting a runner on second base to start an inning is a gimmick, not an improvement. It’s like a shootout in hockey or college football’s bizarre overtime system. It’s not necessary. 

Occasionally, I use this space to float my own ideas to improve baseball. The last time I did it, I proposed three rule changes to speed up games, which I think is necessary. I incorporate those changes by reference. They were:

1. Limit replay to 30 seconds. This is a no-brainer. If an umpire’s call isn’t obvious after 30 seconds, it’s not a big enough error to worry about. Keep the game moving. 

2. Eliminate warmup pitches for mid-inning pitching changes. Another no-brainer. The reliever has been warming up for 10 minutes. He doesn’t need more warmup pitches. If he’s too big of a snowflake to be thrown off by the new mound, let him start the inning. 

3. Make every reliever record one out.  I’m less wedded to this idea because there are probably unintended consequences I’m not considering.  It’s probably too radical of a change. Intriguing idea though. 

Now, here are my new ideas. I still think baseball games are too long. I know some people don’t consider longer baseball games to be a problem and it’s just “more of a good thing.” 

I disagree. 4 hour games don’t give you more baseball. They give you more dead time between the baseball. Yes, the pace of baseball builds tension and gives the game it’s unique atmosphere. But there has to be a limit. Baseball was just as charming and relaxing 50 years ago when the games were 30 minutes shorter. We’re moving in the wrong direction. 

In particular, innings 7-9 of MLB games are when things start to drag. Most of this is due to Tony LaRusa overmanaging and pitching changes. In addition to limiting the time it takes to change pitchers, I want to disincentivize managers from doing it. 

First, bring back the bullpen car. Bullpen cars disappeared a long time ago and I’m not sure why. Maybe groundskeepers had something to do with it. But eliminating the (sometimes slow) walk to the mound immediately takes minutes off of each game. Couple that with the elimination of warmup pitches, networks might not even need to go to commercial. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Second, MLB should limit the number of relievers a team can use a game by making teams designate one or two “inactive” players each game (the NFL does this). Fewer players available means fewer substitutions. Relievers may need to pitch full innings. This might increase offense since it might eliminate a few pitcher friendly hitting matchups, but I’m ok with that. Another side effect to this rule: fewer appearances will be healthier for the relievers, who struggle with an alarming high injury rate. Even the players union should be in favor of this rule. 

Finally–and this rule change has nothing to do with length of games–MLB needs to barnstorm. Last year, MLB played a regular season game on a military base. It was great. We need more of this. Baseball is a great game and this is a large country. Let’s get MLB games to ordinarily unreachable locations. They should make it a goal to play a game in all 50 states. Imagine a game at the Field of Dreams site in Iowa or a game at a pop-up field with the Grand Canyon as a backdrop. With a 162 game schedule, there is more than enough flexibility to do this.