Should the Cardinals fear Boras in arbitration?

Recently, I reported on the pending arbitration cases of a pair of St. Louis Cardinals outfielders, Rick Ankiel and Ryan Ludwick. In reply, a reader asked if I feared the prospect of the Cardinals having to face Scott Boras, Ankiel’s agent. After all, the ex-Cardinals minor leaguer carries the reputation as the game’s most powerful agent and a tenacious negotiator.

I took answering the question from the perspective of the club. My somewhat curt reply was that I am not concerned about Boras in arbitration, but do fear him in an even more important role – the one he will be playing for Ankiel after the 2009 season – as the representative of a free agent.

In that act, Boras can play clubs off against each other by inflating the value of offers and the number of suitors pursuing his client and if necessary, even burn some bridges to get the best possible deal. While there are rules governing the free agent process, the freedom is there to decide where to go, how much to ask and how many years to demand.

And if the situation warrants, the criteria can change at a moment’s notice. Just ask Boston owner John Henry how he feels about the recent Mark Teixeira negotiations. From the Boston Herald last month:

“The Sox, meanwhile, are, at least for now, done with Boras. One well-placed source said the club will never deal with him again unless it can be guaranteed that talks are being conducted honestly. We would take that threat a little more seriously if Boras’ clientele list were to shrink dramatically, but since that is not realistic, we will take it as a sign of just how badly the club felt it got stung by lies from Boras. They are in a “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me” mode right now, with the Teixeira talks feeling like the last straw to them.”

On the other hand, the original question asked me was not about free agency, where Boras’ force is unquestioned. After all, like it or not, barely one month later, these same Red Sox are reportedly close to a two-year deal for their captain, Jason Varitek. Guess who represents the catcher?

Back to the point. The thinking behind my original reply was that the arbitration process has a very defined set of rules that limit the amount of “creativity” possible, even for an agent as notorious as Boras. The two salary amounts for the arbiters to consider – player and club – have already been set. The one-year term is also fixed.

All that remains are the cases the respective agent and club can make in support of their position at the hearing. Boras can come into the room with his famous binders stuffed full of persuasive information, but many clubs are skilled in presenting arbitration cases, too.

As an aside, remember that player and club can come to terms on any deal of any duration before the February arbitration hearing. In fact, that is what usually happens.

Only 12% of all filed cases actually make it to a hearing and many more situations are resolved prior to the filing date. For example, just eight of 110 players who filed last year went to a hearing, while all the other eligible players came to terms ahead of time. The Cardinals haven’t participated in a hearing in ten years.

On Monday morning, I read this article about Tal Smith Enterprises, where the owner, also a long-time Houston Astros executive, discussed his role representing clubs in arbitration hearings. Smith said with an apparent straight face that he doesn’t keep score (yeah, right!), but knows that over the years he is batting over .500.

That renewed my interest in this article. As such, I decided I should analyze the data and determine if my original knee-jerk answer in not fearing Boras in arbitration is supportable. With hearing results from The Biz of Baseball website coupled with player-agent information already in hand, I looked at the last six years of arbitration hearings in terms of winners and losers.

2003-08 Total cases Club win Player win Player %
38 25 13 34.2%

Over the most recent six years, players have won just over one third, 34%, of the hearings. I guess, just like a good hitter, an average of .333 has to be considered pretty respectable.

I then split out the non-Scott Boras clients from the Boras ones. Over the six years, Boras had eight of the 38 hearings. First, here are the year-to-year results for the non-Boras clients.

Excluding Boras Cases Club win Player win Player %
2008 6 5 1 17%
2007 7 4 3 43%
2006 4 3 1 25%
2005 2 2 0 0%
2004 6 3 3 50%
2003 5 3 2 40%
Total 30 20 10 33.3%

The players won exactly one-third of the time, 10 of the 30 hearings held from 2003 through 2008.

Now, looking at the Boras subset, we see that his record is slightly better on behalf of his clients compared to the other agents at 37.5 percent, but remember that we are talking about a population of just eight cases. Just more one win turned to loss or vice-versa would swing the result wildly, from 25% to 50%.

Boras Cases Club win Player win Player %
2008 2 1 Felipe Lopez 1 Oliver Perez 50%
2007 0 0 0 0%
2006 2 1 Sunny Kim 1 Kyle Lohse 50%
2005 1 0 1 Kyle Lohse 100%
2004 1 1 Eric Gagne 0 0%
2003 2 2 Carlos Beltran 0 0%
Bruce Chen
Total 8 5 3 37.5%

In summary

Based on the data from the last six years at least, the arbitration success rate of Scott Boras compared to other agents is negligible.

To gauge whether Ankiel and Boras can beat the odds and defeat the Cardinals in a hearing, a better assessment could be made on the basis of analyzing the two salary amounts submitted.

In my earlier work, I took an approach similar to the arbitration process, looking at players with comparable experience and statistics – as best as possible considering the true uniqueness of Ankiel’s late-blooming career change in becoming an outfielder.

Subsequent to that, here is how the submissions fell, with the two sides coming in almost a million dollars apart:

Ankiel: $3.3 million

Cardinals: $2.35 million

Midpoint: $2.825 million
My earlier estimate: $3.25 million (which will almost certainly end up too high if they settle pre-hearing)

At least based on this work, Boras would seem to be in a strong position. Though not relevant to Ankiel’s case in an actual hearing, the comparable salaries were set in a different economic environment, a factor that could be the slogan of this already-stormy Cardinals’ off-season.