A CANDID EXAMINATION OF THE MONEY SIDE OF THE MAJOR LEAGUES
Asa Beal: Jerry Maguire came out in 1996. You formed your agency just a few years later. Coincidence? Was Chipper your Cuba Gooding, Jr.?
BB Abbott: [Laughs.]
Asa Beal: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
BB Abbott: I went to college to play baseball at a small Division II school, Rollins College, in Winter Park, Florida. I saw the writing on the wall soon thereafter, and I knew that my future wasn’t going to be on the field so I decided I needed to look for a path that allowed me to stay in baseball in some way, shape or form off the field. I transferred to Florida State and then went to law school at Stetson University.
I was at Florida State when Chipper was drafted number one overall by the Braves in 1990 and in law school when Chipper was in the minors. We always talked about doing business together, me representing him and being involved with his career. He was married at the time, and had an agent.
So after law school I went to work with a firm that represents Major League Baseball, Foley & Lardner, and I started doing litigation, arbitration and mediation work, knowing that I wanted to [represent Chipper] one day.
Asa Beal: So you got experience with some key agent skills. Then what happened?
BB Abbott: Back in 1998, Chipper’s marketing agents from Leader Enterprises, Payne Stewart, [Robert Fraley and Van Arden] went down in a plane accident that tragically took their lives.
Chipper was going through his divorce at the time and said, “Hey I need someone to come handle this stuff.”
Which I did. I left my firm, and came on and started to represent him on the marketing side. The following year I took over all of his contract work in addition to marketing.
Asa Beal: When you began representing Chipper you had very little experience with big contracts and free agency. You were a bit of an outsider to the game. What was it like walking into a room with Braves general manager John Schuerholz? How did you have the confidence to negotiate what at the time was the biggest contract in baseball history? (Chipper’s $120 million deal set the standard for 9-figure pacts).
BB Abbott: The first negotiation that I had was obviously with Schuerholz. We finally got to the room, were getting very close and it was [Stan] Kasten and Schuerholz. Stan was the president of the Braves at the time. They ran the good cop, bad cop routine as well as anyone. They did a tremendous job. Stan was the energetic president and John was the good-guy GM. They both had a great track record. Quite frankly, you had to respect and admire them, but you had to put that aside to a larger degree, because you knew you were trying to get your client the best deal.
Chipper got the deal he wanted. We ultimately were able to cross the Ts and dot the Is. A lot of it was trial by error. I had done some things in a young-professional attorney arena, but there I was in very deep water. We ended up doing a good job.
Asa Beal: Allow me to briefly indulge in the pleasure of statistics. Chipper Jones career numbers (and counting): 2,646 hits, 459 home runs, 1,585 RBI, .304/.402/.532 avg/obp/slg, 88.6 WAR and one each of World Series (1995), Batting Title (.364 in 2008) and MVP (45 and 110 with a .319/.441/.633 line in 1999).
What was it like for your first client to be a future Hall-of-Famer (permit me one) who was in the midst of a simply torrid stretch of his career? (Chipper garnered MVP votes in each of his first nine seasons in the bigs.)
BB Abbott: At that time he was going through his MVP season, and it ended up being a great time for both him and me. It allowed me to start Jet Sports Management in 1999, and I slowly but surely tried to get new guys through the draft.
Helping negotiate his deal with the Braves right after his MVP season, which was a very large deal – $120 million – allowed me the platform to go recruit players in the draft. It was backwards how I went about it. I got the biggest client that I’ll ever represent and negotiated a very large contract, and then had to go back to high school and college kids and say, “Hey I can do this too.”
Slowly but surely I started to get one, two, three guys in the draft every year. 2001 was a breakthrough year; I had two first round picks and a fourth rounder.
Asa Beal: Have you considered getting involved with international free agents? You said you focused on draft eligible guys, especially prospects coming out of high school but have you ever considered getting involved with Latin America or anywhere else?
BB Abbott: To not consider it would be silly. International players make up 25 to 30 percent of MLB rosters, so to not consider it would be short-sighted.
It’s just never been a focus for us, we have always gone with the approach that there are a lot of really good players in the Southeast and up the Eastern Seaboard, and if we can really do a good job of recruiting and evaluating there, we can have a successful business. So we’ve really focused on the draft.
The international market is a much different animal. You truly need to have a person with a great deal of experience, somebody that you trust, and somebody that has the connections in Latin America. We haven’t found that right fit, and maybe we never will
Asa Beal: So you represent high school and college athletes who get drafted. What do you do for them once that initial deal is signed?
BB Abbott: One of the biggest things we do as an agency is to make sure that they have money coming out of the game. We have a financial meeting once a month with all of our agents and financial people. We talk constantly with our clients about finances. We see whether they are investing with somebody that we trust and would recommend. It’s probably one of the biggest things we talk about with players. That’s something that I’ve always thought is very important.
Asa Beal: That is good to hear. There is a public voice questioning the motives behind how quickly kids are rushed to the big leagues in any sport. There have been counter-reactions: the NFL and NBA have increased the age of draft eligibility. It’s different in baseball, but it is good to hear that you are taking that two-thirds agent, one-third life coach approach to educate these guys, many of whom are forgoing college for this great opportunity. I would have had no idea what to do with a couple million dollar signing bonus coming out of high school had I that lucky (read: talented).
BB Abbott: From a financial standpoint, we treat these kids as if they are 65 years old. We treat it as “You might never see another dime, ever.“ What happens is you have an 18-year-old kid, say he signs for $1 million. That should be substantial, life changing money, especially at 18 years old. If you don’t handle it the right way though, it could blow up in your face. These kids and their families have to treat this as if this is the only sum of money they will ever get. This is not football, this is not basketball: 97 percent of kids who are drafted do not play a day in the big leagues, 97 percent.
So you’d better take care of the money you have.
Minor league baseball players start off making about $1,100 a month, for five months. That’s what their salary is for the entire year. And what are they doing in the offseason? Going to work? Probably not. Usually they’re going to use money from their signing bonus. They have training costs, living costs, and all of those things require money.
Asa Beal: Give us some experienced agent insight about the arbitration process.
BB Abbott: When I did [Jeff] Mathis’ arbitration a couple years ago, I knew I was doing something I had never done before. I looked for counsel from veteran agents, I went to the Major League Baseball Players Association and they were extremely helpful, having the knowledge I was doing this for the first time.
When you step in the room … you had the GM of the Angels and their counsel, six or seven people from MLB, and the whole contingency of MLBPA lawyers. There were probably 25 people there. Everyone is watching you, including your client. You know that he is going to hear some [negative] things the other side is going to say about him. You take a deep breath and you get after it.
Was I anxious? Yes. Was I nervous? Of course. But was I confident? Yes. And was I prepared? Absolutely. The amount of preparation for that case was in the hundreds of hours. It all came together and we were pleased with the result.
Asa Beal: Some fans of the game might criticize players for what feels like quibbling over amounts of money outside the realm of the average person’s recognition. But with Mathis case, the difference between $1.3 million and $700 thousand is a big deal. He was a first rounder, a talented guy, but the chance to get one of those contracts doesn’t come along too often.
BB Abbott: In Jeff’s scenario, there was a fundamental difference of opinion about what he was. The Angels were making the argument that Jeff was a backup catcher. We were making the argument that he was a starting catcher, or at the very least, a co-starting catcher.
Plus as you go thru the arbitration process, the second year salary is largely based on the first year arbitration salary. In Jeff’s case, his win in arbitration made his base $1.3 million instead of $700,000. When teams make the “raise argument” in subsequent arbitration cases (which they invariably do), they work off the base salary from the year before. When you’re talking about a raise from $700,000 versus a raise from $1.3 million, you get the benefit of that arbitration win every single year.
Asa Beal: A new Collective Bargaining Agreement was announced in December. There were some significant changes related to how teams can allocate their money and different spending limitations. I wanted to ask you specifically about draft bonuses, because your agency tries to sign on with players pre-draft and work them up through the minors, how do you feel about the new rules for draft bonuses? Do they help balance the power in baseball?
BB Abbott: I have never been of the opinion that money that is or is not spent in the draft affects free agency signings. Those are different budgets, different considerations. A team that is committed to winning and committed to developing its players is going to spend the money.
The second thing I’d say, and I have strong opinions about this, if you look at the teams that have spent money in the draft, they have typically been small market teams that are trying to build their teams through player development.
You look at what Tampa Bay and Kansas City have been trying to do. The Pirates have been extremely committed to building their team through scouting, drafting and player development.
They have stopped teams like the Pirates from maximizing their draft in later rounds. They’ve stopped them from going out and getting that Josh Bell in the second round for $5 million or that Clay Holmes in the ninth for $1.2 million. That’s an investment in the draft and in their future. For the $5 million they spend on Josh Bell, they might be getting a superstar. If they spend that $5 million at the free agent level they will not get a superstar. I don’t care how many times they try.
There were a couple of owners on a crusade – and Mr. Selig as well – to change the draft, and I think it was a mistake. I’m not opposed to some of the ramifications like kids going to school and getting an education, we advise them to do that too. But baseball will now miss out on some two sport players to football or basketball. And small market teams will now have their legs chopped off in free agency and in the draft.
There were [draft spending] records broken by the Nationals and Pirates the last couple years to the tune of $15, $18 million – that’s one good player [on the open market]. You might potentially get five good players out of the draft for that money. And that’s just one year. You get them under control for six years in the big leagues for that investment.
They might have driven a bigger wedge between the large and small market teams.
Asa Beal: Another rule change with the CBA that intrigued me was the shift in Type A and Type B free agents. How do you see that changing things for players that you represent, like Jonny Venters, a non-closer reliever, if he makes it to free agency?
BB Abbott: I don’t think anyone would disagree that this was a good rule change. The characterization of Type B free agents was having a chilling effect on signing those types of guys. With the new rule requiring a qualifying offer of $12.5 million to a player, those players are just going to be few and far between.
The compensation route as we know it will be over this year. It was a big win for free agents to get that removed and teams were on board as well. It’s a better method.
Asa Beal: Player contracts, whether negotiated through free agency or arbitration are largely based on playing time and a few traditional statistics like home runs, RBI, wins and saves. Certain players contribute to the team in other ways, like a speedy, defensive-minded outfielder, or a non-closer reliever who is used in high-leverage situations. How do you focus on making sure teams understand how much such players are worth and getting a fair deal for them?
BB Abbott: You have to know who you’re talking to. In an arbitration case, most of the men and women on the panel listen to common labor disputes. For 48 weeks out of the year, those are the cases they are listening to. For a month each year, they get to come in and listen to grown men fighting over millions of dollars, that’s probably pretty cool for them. But they are not by any stretch of the imagination – for the most part – statistically-minded baseball people. They won’t exactly understand hitting behind a runner or range factor.
I try to focus on the meat and potatoes of baseball statistics; the biggest things about a player you can sink your teeth into. With the new age of statistical data, [sabermetrics] is becoming more important – Wins Above Replacement, Leverage Index and things of that nature. Still, the things that will win arbitration cases are the things that everybody knows. That might ultimately change. You already have seen some more in-depth analysis creeping into cases. Bill James is quoted in a lot of different arbitration cases. At the end of the day, the meat and potatoes are going to win or lose a case.
Having said all of that, we tried Jeff Mathis’ case on a completely different format. It was a challenge. Other than pitchers, Jeff had the lowest batting average ever in the history of an arbitration case. One of the club’s exhibits was, “What is the career batting average of Jeff Mathis over the last 3 years as compared to other players with at least 500 at bats?” They started flipping pages and on about the seventh page they got to Jeff’s name. They made quite a theatrical point of that. They focused on batting average, on base percentage, on base plus slugging, home runs, RBI … he was one of the worst in these categories. That was the heart of their case.
We tried to take the wind out of their sails a little bit in our case in chief by saying, Listen, you’re going to hear a lot about home runs and RBIs and how bad he is. And he is. He’s bad. He is not going to be someone who will typically make an impact on the game with his bat. But let us show you the impact that he does have on the game. More importantly, let us show the emphasis that his manager and GM place on his contributions.
It was important that we were comparing catcher’s ERAs of Mathis and Mike Napoli, catching the same guys and examining the differences. I think the arbitrators were able to sink their teeth into that. Our entire case revolved around the fact that Jeff Mathis was a starting catcher and therefore he had to get paid more than every backup catcher in baseball.
Finally, it was important that Scioscia focused on defense first. We had 20 quotes from Scioscia in our case saying things that were true, but things that people never say because we live in a society of slam dunks and home runs. As someone on their side said to us “wood gets paid, not leather.” We were lucky to have a panel that saw the importance of what Jeff did behind the plate.
Asa Beal: That’s fascinating. You won a case for all of the “Moneyball” players out there. What about future cases? Do you anticipate trying any others that may set precedent?
BB Abbott: I have a case that I’m going to be handling in the very short term, where I think we can move the market if a guy keeps performing like he’s been performing. You saw it with the closer market. You saw guys like Papelbon move the market. I think the next market to move is going to be setup guys. Setup guys are lagging behind. Depending on if the union wants to use this case to move the market. I think setup guys aren’t valued at the level they should be valued at in the arbitration process.
Asa Beal: I think that’s right. One thing that might help is that there is a small movement in baseball right now by certain managers to get away from the one-closer format. The truth is you have many high-leverage relievers coming in in the eighth inning with one out and two runners on, which is maybe a harder and more important situation that coming in in the ninth and getting a clean slate.
BB Abbott: This game has become so specialized, that now the eighth inning guy has such an important role, sometimes they’re the ones who are facing the guys in the middle of the lineup. For instance, Jonny Venters has lead all of MLB in appearances the last two years and he’s doing it in very high leverage situations.
The leverage index is something that I will use with relievers. I think it’s very important to figure out the types of situations that a player is coming into the game, and Jonny’s LI is off the charts.
Asa Beal: When teams and players agree to avoid arbitration and settle in for a more lasting relationship, we use the term extension. Teams lock up talented youngsters to extensions to gain cost certainty for productive years. What are some considerations from the player side about extensions?
BB Abbott: Nick Masset was a super-two who we signed to a very good two-year deal that ended up being a great deal for both him and the team, because he was healthy and he pitched a lot and he made a lot of money.
He just signed a deal where he took as much as $800 or $900 thousand short to get to a two-year guaranteed that took him up to his free agency, two years $5.5 million. I think he could have maxed out at $6.3, 6.4 milliom. But he hasn’t thrown a pitch this year, and he has $5.5 million if he doesn’t pitch at all. For a reliever, getting guaranteed money is extremely attractive. You look at how many relief pitchers have gone on the disabled list per season and it’s mind-boggling: 60% every year go on the DL. There are only so many bullets in an arm. If you can get guaranteed money, versus the risk of your career ending, then sometimes you might make those concessions.
Players fought so hard for free agency, the union fought so hard to get away from the reserve clause, to bring in arbitration, to get free agency right, why would you delay that longer?
Asa Beal: You represent Chris Sale of the White Sox, a converted reliever who began starting this season. He’s been battling injuries and there were rumors he was being moved back to closer role when there was some musical chairs at the back of Ventura’s bullpen but now he is back starting. How involved are you in that process? Are you able to step in and speak for the player? Obviously playing time is ultimately up to management, but how are you involved?
BB Abbott: I can speak to you generally. Teams’ relationships with agents really depend on the team. Some teams and GMs keep agents involved in the process and some do not. In Chris’ situation, you have a unique player who was drafted and rushed to the big leagues by design to help the team in the bullpen, but with the mindset that he would be developed as a starting pitcher. He was kept in the relief role last year, but this year he was given the opportunity to start.
After experiencing some tightness in his elbow, it was suggested that he might be better suited to pitch out of the pen to preserve his arm. Chris has remained true in his commitment and desire to start and the club is allowing him to do that now. They have good people that will certainly look out for Chris. And Chris will do what is best for his team and teammates, while at the same time making sure he is happy. That can be a fine line to walk for any player.
(Sale made his last two turns in the rotation, getting 2 wins and hurling 12.1 innings while allowing just 7 hits and 3 walks and striking out 13. Looks like things are working out.)
Asa Beal: What has taught you the most in your time as an agent? What has gotten you where you are today, running a mid-sized firm with 50 clients?
BB Abbott: The advice that I got from Chipper is something that we really try to live by. He told me, “The agent works for the player, not the other way around.” I also go to every union meeting that I can get to. I have a tremendous amount of respect for what the union has done for players since its beginning. I enjoy being an extension of that union-player relationship and we make sure that each of our players has a true understanding and respect for what the union has done for them.
If you ask me who I respect, it’s the Don Fehrs and the Marvin Millers and the Michael Weiners – those are the guys who I respect.