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THE MATH IS simple enough, but Scott Boras likes to remind general managers of it. Three percent of their time together is spent negotiating a contract. The rest is spent, in the words of baseball's most powerful agent, "working together to grow this player." Keeping him healthy, keeping him happy, making him stronger, making him better. Executives don't always appreciate the reminder.
"When you draft a pitcher represented by Scott Boras," a GM tells me, "you know what you are signing up for. I wouldn't say it's a deal with the devil per se, but he's going to be involved from the start, he's going to have his medical people putting hands on the pitcher, and he's likely going to take him to free agency."
Five years ago, the Marlins avoided that scenario. Jose Fernandez, represented by a small Tampa-based agency, was a big-bodied 18-year-old Cuban immigrant. He had so dominated a travel-ball showcase the previous fall that some of the hundreds of scouts in attendance wondered whether he could pitch in the majors right then. The Marlins drafted him 14th overall in June 2011 and negotiated a $2 million signing bonus.
Less than two years later, Fernandez was in the majors, having skipped the top two levels of the minors entirely. At age 20, he was the best rookie pitcher since Dwight Gooden. At 21, he had elbow surgery, forcing him to spend most of his age-22 season rehabbing. All that makes his age-23 season this year matter not just to the Marlins' chances of contending in the NL East, not just to Fernandez's push to get life-changing money as a free agent three years from now, and not just to the 29 other teams that will covet him when the Marlins inevitably offer him in a trade. It also matters because this season lands yet another flamethrowing young pitcher squarely in the middle of the defining controversy of this era: balancing a player's well-being with a team's best interests.
Watching over it all will be the agent whom Fernandez switched to just before his big league debut, the devil per se, Scott Boras.
BASEBALL, AS A sport, is uncaring. It breaks its pitchers. What separates a successful draft pick from an unsuccessful one -- what allows a pitcher to cash in when he hits free agency -- is, overwhelmingly, health. MLB pitchers lost more than 18,000 days to injury in 2015, 33 percent more than in 2005, according to Jeff Zimmerman of Baseball Heat Maps. Last year 101 professional pitchers had Tommy John surgery, compared with 43 a decade earlier, according to records kept by the Hardball Times' Jon Roegele.
Jose Fernandez, 65 innings removed from his own surgery, isn't safe from another. Measuring seven variables that correlate to elbow injuries -- including age, variations in release point, injury history and how often a pitcher throws with high velocity -- sabermetrics writer Bradley Woodrum concluded that Fernandez is the ninth-most-likely pitcher to face Tommy John surgery this year, with a risk factor nearly triple that of an average pitcher. That's a scary prospect: Initial Tommy John surgeries are inconvenient career road bumps with relatively high recovery rates; second ones are career-threatening.
Baseball, as an industry, is also uncaring. From the beginning of the National League more than a century ago, the conflict between labor (players) and capital (owners) has spread to the field, to the degree that decisions ranging from the shape of the plate to the date of Kris Bryant's major league debut have been made with the economics of player salaries in mind. Everything in this sport is negotiated -- even the way the Home Run Derby rosters are chosen, or the matter of who will pay to translate team paperwork into Spanish for Latin players -- because the players and management have such divergent interests. And yet the league's collective bargaining agreement is mostly devoid of language regarding pitcher health and usage; there are no rules governing how often or for how long a team can deploy a starter or reliever, other than he can't be used in the same game twice. "There is one group of people out there that feels that pitchers are a commodity, and you use them until they're used up, then you bring the next person in," says a member of an MLB team's medical staff.
The Marlins, to most fans, are the most extreme modern example of cold calculation. Each of their two championships was followed swiftly by a fire sale, but over the past decade the club hasn't even waited to win before purging its roster. After the 2012 season, the Marlins dumped almost $200 million in salary less than a year after opening a $600 million stadium. Miami's mayor complained to commissioner Bud Selig; the players' union announced plans to monitor the franchise.
This is now the team that will decide unilaterally whether Fernandez, the ninth-riskiest pitcher in baseball and one of the sport's brightest, most marketable stars, will throw 150 innings this season or 180, 210, 240.
Well, the Marlins would decide unilaterally if not for the counterweight of Boras.
"I DON'T EVER expect to be a fan favorite," Boras says, both hands hugging a large teacup in his uncluttered office in Newport Beach, California. "Unless it's the player or a family member, I fully expect that a fan base is not going to welcome that the player has chosen me."
Boras has been bucking baseball culture since the 1980s, when he began representing draftees who were seen as having no negotiating leverage. He uses loopholes (he maneuvered some draftees to free agency in the 1990s); he ignores chain of command (he routinely skips a team's GM to lobby its owners directly); he uses public theatrics to embarrass officials (he flew a banner over a game in 1986 directing Toronto manager Jimy Williams to "Give [Bill] Caudill the Ball"); and he leverages every tool to ensure player mobility, pioneering the mid-contract opt-out clause that premium free agents now demand.
The common thread is that Boras has power and uses it, which makes him a threat not just to teams but to fan bases. (At least that's how fans perceive it.) When there's no obvious source of power in a negotiation, he finds it, finagles it, finesses it, flies it over the stadium. He's been called "the 31st franchise" by ESPN's Jerry Crasnick and "the real commissioner of baseball" by the New York Daily News. "Scott Boras is the union," a rival agent told The New Yorker in 2007.
Over the past half decade, Boras has represented two other young aces who, like Fernandez, had Tommy John surgery and returned to uncertain futures: the Nationals' Stephen Strasburg in 2012 and the Mets' Matt Harvey last year. On behalf of those players, Boras waged campaigns to protect the pitchers' health and interests. He did so even though teams consider this an intrusion onto their turf; even though fans have at best mixed feelings about his involvement; and even though Harvey offered resistance verging on refusal to follow his lead. He did so because, he says, the sport's ability to protect its young "just keeps going backward. These are quality people, quality performers, and we want them in the game for 20 years, not eight."
Strasburg and Harvey had much in common. Both were pitching for first-place teams. Both had been elite prospects and instant aces in the majors. Both were years from the big payday of free agency. Both had undergone Tommy John surgery and both were in their first full seasons back. Both were healthy, and both were pitching well as September's stretch run neared. There were also differences: Harvey was a little older (26 to Strasburg's 24), a little more established, and Harvey had followed a more conservative recovery schedule.
Both phenoms put Boras in a position to have a profound impact on how at-risk pitchers are treated, requiring him to navigate a question that is as much philosophical as it is analytical, legal, economic or physical: To what degree does a player balance his own interests with the competitive integrity of a team sport? For Boras, there was another critical question: To what degree does the agent get a say?
In the case of Strasburg, Boras laid the groundwork early, even before the right-hander was hurt. In 2009, when the Nationals drafted Strasburg -- perhaps the best pitching prospect ever -- Boras required assurances from GM Mike Rizzo that he would be handled cautiously. With Strasburg's repertoire and arm speed, the pitcher would have been able to step immediately into the front of a big league rotation, but Boras' studies show that few pitchers who bear a full major league workload in their early 20s make it to age 35 on the mound. Clubs don't like to wait -- "It's like having antlers and your neck's not ready," Boras says -- but Rizzo convinced Boras he was serious about the pitcher's longevity and assured him Strasburg would be used cautiously.
After 12 big league starts in 2010, Strasburg's ulnar collateral ligament tore anyway, and he missed a year. In anticipation of the pitcher's first full season back, in 2012, Boras went to Nats owner Ted Lerner and persuaded him to sign veteran Edwin Jackson to pick up the workload that Strasburg wouldn't be able to carry past his recommended limit of 160 innings. Boras then made sure the pitcher's surgeon, Lewis Yocum, was involved in team conversations about Strasburg's recovery. As the 2012 season progressed and the first-place Nationals considered how much longer to let Strasburg pitch, Boras went public with both the carrot -- suggesting that the team's roster was filled with Boras clients because it treated players right -- and the stick, hinting that the Nationals could face legal recourse (from their insurance companies, at least) if they ignored medical advice by pushing Strasburg past 160 innings. Rizzo listened to the doctors and shut Strasburg down in early September, at precisely 159 1⁄3 innings.
The choice was genetically modified sports-talk-radio chum, especially after Jackson was hit hard in the playoffs and the Nationals were eliminated early. Strasburg has been mostly healthy since, but unless he wins a World Series with the Nationals -- he'll be a free agent this winter -- it will go down as a failed decision among Nationals fans. The Strasburg case set an almost unimaginable precedent: that a club would do something so contrary to its short-term interests because a surgeon told them that to do otherwise would go against the player's long-term gain. "The Nationals did something that all teams now have to look at as a standard," Boras says. "There's merit to the fact that the expert in the room -- the only expert in the room -- we all listened to."
Harvey's case played out differently. Boras said he and the Mets were "philosophically" in agreement before the 2015 season about his usage. But as Harvey kept pitching, and pitching well, he soon approached the 180-inning threshold recommended by his surgeon, James Andrews. Boras went public with Andrews' advice, the Mets bristled at Boras' involvement and things looked ugly for a week. But ultimately, Boras says, the Mets were willing to comply.
Harvey wasn't. The pitcher chose to keep pitching -- he did skip a couple of starts in August and September -- and, in Game 5 of the World Series, he threw his 216th inning of the year. He had resisted the Mets' attempts to space out his starts earlier in the season. Boras' own trainers couldn't persuade Harvey to ease off his between-starts throwing schedule, which might have saved some bullets without costing starts.
As with Strasburg, there are successes and regrets. Harvey threw in the postseason; he went 2 -- 0 with a 3.04 ERA and nearly helped the Mets to their first World Series title in three decades. But in September, Boras warned, "This is the thing the doctors are most scared about: Matt Harvey threw zero innings in 2014. He will be the only player in history to go from 0 to 200 innings [having never thrown 200 before]."
So if Strasburg set one important precedent, Harvey set a different one: that the player, not the GM -- and not even the agent -- gets to decide how much risk his arm takes on. Those precedents are powerful, Boras believes: "This is not an authority-driven exercise. It's an educational exercise. If we can educate fans, the media, do the studies, then the ethic of the game and the integrity of the game go higher. People are going to come in and say, 'Are you that GM or that team that just grinds people up, chews them up, spits them out?'"
The Marlins, for one, appear to have gotten the message. Over the winter, GM Michael Hill reached out to Boras to discuss Fernandez's 2016 workload. Boras says he has discussed it with the Marlins' owner, Jeffrey Loria, and that Fernandez's doctor has been in touch with the Marlins' team doctor. "We've got a very good bridge built," Boras says. "The information is flowing." Adds Hill: "We feel that we have a good working relationship with Scott ... In regards to Jose, we would never jeopardize any player's health." In February, the team announced that Fernandez would have an innings limit, details to be determined later in spring training.
BORAS IS NOT naive. "I don't expect teams to operate in any way other than their best interest, because that's how baseball works," he says. But he also knows that the public's premise, that he's the all-powerful agent who can flap his wings and give all 30 GMs chills, is wrong. Boras has almost no real power when it comes to how his pitchers are used. The Marlins don't, in fact, have to listen to him; Fernandez is under contract, so Boras "can just be ignored," a rival GM says.
Fernandez doesn't have to listen to him either. "You don't get to where these guys are unless you're a competitive animal," Boras says. The only tool he has to persuade his clients is information: the studies his staff puts together; the phone numbers of former Boras clients like Steve Avery and Alex Fernandez, whose promising careers were deformed by injuries that followed heavy early workloads; the grave recommendations of surgeons. But ultimately, he says, "our job is to help the athletes make an informed decision. Our job is not to make the decision."
Finally, there's nothing Boras can do to stop you, the fan, from demanding that Fernandez throw every inning possible -- it's difficult to ask fans to privilege a player's interests over the team's. That's particularly true in a sport that prizes pitching records of endurance and longevity. Three hundred career wins is a big deal; a sub-3 career ERA, not so much.
So with no real power over the labor, the capital or the consumers, Boras uses what he does have -- access, influence, resources, reputation, a knack for sticky analogies, a soapbox -- to help establish a historical precedent (one ace sitting out the postseason for his own good) and expand players' rights (another ace making his own medically informed choice about how he would be used).
"I hired him to look out for my career," Fernandez says. "He's proven to be the best."
The stark reality is, Jose Fernandez will not be a Marlin in three years. He will probably not be a Marlin in two years, given the team's track record of trading players before free agency. (Of the team's all-time WAR leaders, 16 of 20 left via trade; Fernandez, for now, is one of the four exceptions.) It's not out of the question that he'll be traded to a contender by the end of July. In which case, his new team will want him to pitch in the postseason, regardless of how much it puts his new UCL at risk, regardless of whether it means baseball breaks another star pitcher. His new fans will want him to pitch. So too will he.
And only Scott Boras, with a stack of studies and advice from the sport's top surgeons, will be trying to stop it. Pretty much everybody will hate him for it.
Says Boras: "Dr. Yocum called me once when we were going through the Strasburg thing and he goes, 'I love this. I make the decision and you wear it. Thought I'd call and remind you of that.' Click.
"Bring it on. That's my job."