Pitching Cespedes: How Agents Negotiate in an Analytical Age

There’s power in a great sales pitch.

The Ginsu knife ads included a blade slicing through a rubber hose and an aluminum can before carving a strip steak. Joy Mangano sold so well on QVC that Jennifer Lawrence played her in a film last year. At the TED Global 2009 conference, Michael Pritchard’s pitch for the Lifesaver water bottle, which uses nano-filtration technology to purify water, was named as one of the 15 best start-up pitches ever seen by the editors of Business Insider. Lifesaver was purchased by Icon Technology last year.

Sales pitches can be important in crowded, competitive industries, and perhaps the art of the sales pitch has never been more important for agents representing major-league players.

While various forms of Wins Above Replacement are imperfect and while it might be impossible to boil an athlete’s value down to one perfect number, such metrics are now widely accepted as useful tools to evaluate overall performance. Teams are generally operating with similar models and processes in regard to player valuation and projection. I suspect there are not many dramatic differences between club’s internal evaluations compared to public ones like fWAR or BWARP.

So if valuations are more accurate, and everyone has the same – or at least similar – data, then how does an agent beat the suggested values? How does an agent compel a club to pay for an age-33 season and older in an era when youth is king? How does an agent avoid this future: here is your client’s WAR/$ per year value, please sign on the dotted line.

Creating a market, an old-fashioned bidding war, is the preferable method. But while emotion will never be eliminated from the negotiation process so long as humans are involved, teams generally endeavor to act with more reason and less emotion.

I thought about the importance of the sales pitch after reading James Wagner’s fascinating article in The New York Times on Yoenis Cespedes and his contract negotiations.

Writes Wagner:

“With the help of an analytics firm in Chicago, (Cespedes’ agents) came up with a dollar figure for the impact Cespedes had on the field, social media, team television revenues, and ticket and merchandise sale. … They even put a figure, $3.2 million, on the value of the approximately 50 tabloid back pages that had featured Cespedes over the course of 2016. Cespedes playing with flair, Cespedes hitting game-changing home runs, Cespedes driving exotic cars in spring training, Cespedes arriving for a workout on horseback.”

Cespedes barbecuing?

Cespedes has always been entertaining, and lately, very productive.

The pitch, including a 100-page book, was creative. Cespedes’ agents Brodie Van Wagenen and Kyle Thousand told the Times they’re on to something. They created their own new metric “value above replacement,” to take into account on-field and off-field value. They estimated Cespedes was worth $34.7 million to the Mets last season.

Van Wagenen told Wagner he wanted to give teams “a different way to look at players.” As for whether teams are ready to embrace his vision, Van Wagenen says “time will tell.”

It’s not as if this was the first creative pitch by an agency ever presented to a team. It’s not as if other large agencies haven’t tried to create their own proprietary metrics.

According to Joe Lemire in a feature piece he wrote for Grantland, Scott Boras has a “$7 million computer system” operated by two dozen staffers. Lemire wrote about a 50-page binder, an analytical brochure, Boras used to sell interested suitors on his client Max Scherzer two years ago:

“One of the concoctions within was ‘The Pitching Odometer,’ a system that attempts to measure a pitcher’s wear and tear by monitoring workload rather than age; Boras’s team had conducted a study that showed that throwing at least 185 innings per season between the ages of 26 and 29, as Scherzer had, ‘seems to be a footprint for durability.’”

As teams and the public have gained more resources, agencies are creating their own analytical recipes.

So are the creative pitches and new measurement tools making a difference?

Maybe.

In a 2011, Vince Gennaro studied the Scott Boras factor for Baseball Prospectus, studying all free agents signed from 2003 to 2010. While Boras clients are typically stars and prospects with pedigree, his clients out-earned the field by $25.8 million on average per contract. Perhaps more interestingly, Gennaro credited Boras alone for being responsible for 39% of the value of his clients’ contracts.

There are, of course, many factors at play in The Boras Factor.

Cespedes ultimately signed a four-year, $110 million deal. Did it beat expectations? Dave Cameron ($24 million AAV, $122 million over five years) and the crowd ($24.5 million AAV, $118 million over five years) were really close. Cespedes did beat the crowd in annual average value ($27.5 million) but fell a year and a few million dollars short of the predicted FanGraphs totals.

Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said to the NYT that the “general concept” that players are worth more than their statistical production “is valid.”

Teams, however, should probably be skeptical of agents’ creativity and secret statistical sauces.

Cleveland faced a dilemma when Jim Thome entered free agency after the 2002 season. He was a fan favorite, a homegrown slugger who had been with the team through its 1990s glory years. Ultimately, Cleveland resisted matching the Phillies’ six-year offer, trusting its innovative proprietary database DiamondView, which found Barry Bonds had been the only hitter over the previous 22 seasons to perform at an elite level after age 35. Thome would be 37 at the end of the six-year deal. Thome recorded only one season of four or more wins during the contract.

If the Pirates had signed Andrew McCutchen to another contract extension prior to last season, as many in Pittsburgh wanted, it would have been in part tied to sentimental reasons: his Face-of-the-Franchise status, the posters on kids’ bedroom walls, etc. The club would have been ignoring aging curves, though few foresaw his age-29 season coming around the corner. A second contract extension after a club-friendly deal is almost always a poor investment. Small-market teams cannot afford big-contract mistakes.

It’s not that the off-the-field considerations have no value. While on the beat, I know the Pirates tried to quantify them. But the value pales in comparison to anything done on the field.

In this era when everyone has similar valuations and projections to examine, agents do well to think creatively. And teams are probably best served to listen, but to be skeptical, no matter how compelling the pitch.

We hoped you liked reading Pitching Cespedes: How Agents Negotiate in an Analytical Age by Travis Sawchik!

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Cheezits, Travis! Two excellent and original articles and an excellent chat in one morning!