March 26, 2012 at 12:58 pm by Franklin Rabon under Atlanta Braves, Economic Analysis, Front Office, Injuries
A lot has been made about the Braves reluctance to deal with super agent Scott Boras when it comes to extensions. The first and foremost issue is that Boras loves to gamble on his players and almost always guides them to free agency. Famously, Andruw Jones went behind Boras’ back to negotiate an extension with the Braves, when Boras presumably wanted him to go to free agency.
Boras has a lot of clients, and thus, his main concern is maximizing his expected payout when the player hits free agency. He doesn’t care a whole lot about risk, because he has more than enough players to spread the risk around if one or two of them happen to take a pillow contract that substantially hurts them. Players, on the other hand, should be more concerned with risk, because they only have one client to earn their money with, themselves. If they take a risk and it blows up in their face, they don’t have 30 other clients to pull money from. In the business world, we call this a divergence of risk preference. It’s not quite a divergence in financial interests, because presumably both Boras and his clients want as much money as possible, however, his clients shouldn’t be willing to take as much risk as Boras does, something I think his clients all too often fail to appreciate.
However, that’s not the issue here. The issue here is might the Braves perhaps be glad that Boras is Jurrjens’ and Hanson’s agent? Why should they be? Well, primarily because it gives the front office a ready made excuse to not sign the two pitchers to long term, lucrative extensions. Fans and media harbor a certain disdain for Scott Boras, that while not totally unmerited (due to the risk issue outlined above) is certainly misguided (ie they’re more angry about guiding players to fair compensation for their talents). If a team isn’t making much headway in signing a beloved current player to an extension, two simple words often shift the ‘blame’ from the front office to the player, “Boras Client”.
So why wouldn’t the Braves want to sign Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens to long term contracts? They’ve both been successful young pitchers. Studies have shown that extensions are generally a better value for the team than free agent bidding wars.
The issues are injury concerns for Tommy Hanson and injury and uncertainty issues with Jair Jurrjens. Also, the Braves may be shifting to a ‘use, test, discard’ strategy with their pitchers. This is very similar to what the Rays have done with their young pitchers. They use them heavily, being maybe under-cautious with pitching mechanics, if the pitcher is successful and shows no injury concerns then you maybe re-sign him, if not, well, you let the pitcher walk as a free agent and become someone else’s injury concern.
Much has been belaboured with regards to Tommy Hanson’s pitching motions and whether or not it makes him injury prone. While he doesn’t have the dreaded ‘inverted W’, he does tend to have timing issues. For a particularly pessimistic view of Tommy’s mechanics see Chris O’Leary’s diagnosis. While I think O’Leary is maybe a little overzealous in his analysis, Tommy does certainly have biomechanical issues that are at least worrisome. His ‘new delivery’ may have addressed some of the pace issues, but most of the things that O’Leary worries most about with Hanson’s delivery are still present. He still has the timing/coordination issue and he still brings his elbow behind his shoulder. Well, why not just work with Tommy to change his mechanics? Two issues here: 1) Tommy is probably successful because of his mechanics. We have no idea if changing them would allow him to be the same pitcher he is. 2) Often times, for established Major Leaguers, changing mechanics only exacerbates injury issues. Pitching is a very specialized, and very unnatural motion. Changing a pitcher’s motion causes the pitcher to be less reliable in repeating it (since he hasn’t built the new motion into muscle memory) which can not only lead to inconsistency, but can lead to injury. One of the biggest issues that cause injuries in pitchers is not repeating your delivery consistently. When you don’t do so, you often end up having more developed muscles fight against less developed muscles, which puts strain on tendons and joints. SBNation mentioned this concern here.
Jair Jurrjens is a more controversial pitcher. His mechanics seem to be mostly fine from an arm standpoint. Though I do worry about his knees continuing to be a problem because he lands very hard on his heel, a problem that was shown in the recent spring training game against the Tigers, when he tore a huge divot in the mound. Ideally a pitcher would like to hit the mound with his whole foot relatively equally to better distribute the shock of the landing, and also to allow for more stability in the lower body. Jair seems to get less leg drive than he once did with his lower body, which is perhaps why his velocity has dropped. Knee injuries concern me, because they rarely go away, they tend to nag and routinely flare up (one needs only reference Chipper Jones and his recurring knee issues). I don’t know that Jair’s knees will ever be 100%, which could lead to further injuries or ineffectiveness.
What I worry about even more than injuries with Jurrjens is his inconsistency. While the popular narrative has been that Jair’s bad seasons were almost totally attributable to freakish injuries (because his supporters don’t want him to be considered injury prone either), in reality his bad and good seasons have mostly been a product of swings in luck. As most “pitch to contact” guys do, Jair lives and dies by luck. A pitcher can primarily control three things to varying degrees: 1) His strikeout rate 2) his walk rate and 3) his groundball rate. For all three of these, Jair has been remarkably consistent. He has routinely sat at 6 K/9, 3 BB/9 and a groundball rate of 40-45%. First, these aren’t really good. One commonly held belief is that Jair is a groundball pitcher, when in fact this number is actually below the league average. It’s in the neither groundball or flyball range, but Jair is certainly closer to being a fly ball pitcher. His K rates and walk rates are also neither very good. What has made Jair good when he’s been good and bad when he’s been bad are things that pitchers seem to have relatively little control over: 1) their strand rate 2) BABIP and 3) home run rate.
I’m not going to say that pitchers have no control over any of these, however, these rates tend to randomly fluctuate much more than the other rates. Looking at Jair’s bad seasons and good seasons, we can see that his strikeout, walk and groundball rates don’t deviate significantly, but he sees large swings in strand, babip and homerun rates. In Jair’s good seasons he’s had a strand rate near 80%, babips around .270 and HR/FB rates around 6-7%. In ‘bad Jair’ seasons, we’ve seen strand rates at 70% or under, babips around .300 and HR/FB rates around 9%.
The issue with Jair is that these swings make it hard to know for certain which Jair is real. Pitchers can, over large samples outpitch their FIP in some cases. Tim Hudson has shown an ability to do so, as did Tom Glavine. (Contrary to popular belief, Greg Maddux didn’t significantly do so, his FIP for his career was 3.26 and his ERA 3.16, lower but not significantly so, Maddux was just a good pitcher and almost all of his FIP/ERA deviation can be explained away by pitching in front of good defenses). With Jair, his data have varied so wildly that we just can’t know how good (or mediocre) he might be. He might be the average of those two pitchers, or he might be the good one with some bad luck or the bad one with some good luck. We just don’t have enough data to know for certain, which makes a long term contract worrisome.
So why does Boras matter? Why wouldn’t the front office merely let these two pitchers walk at free agency (or preferably be traded prior to hitting it) regardless of their agent? Well, they likely would, but it’s just more convenient to do so with a Boras client. Front office types are not only worried about putting together the best team for the money that they can, but they are also concerned with perception of how well they are doing their job. In letting Hanson and/or Jurrjens walk at free agency they are taking a risk. They’re taking a risk that these injury and inconsistency risks fade away and they turn out to be excellent pitchers. And while I certainly think the smart play would be letting them walk, regardless, it’s much easier to say “Boras Client” if Jurrjens and/or Hanson turn out to be solid workhorses for years to come. Having the two be Boras clients is a “win/draw” situation for front office perception. If one or both turns out to be ineffective, then the front office is portrayed as smart, and if they don’t it’s simply a matter of a shoulder shrug and saying “Boras Client” to the understanding nod of those following the team.
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