It’s a bold move with one obvious advantage — you’re not paying a commission to someone else — but it’s not something we see very often from established big leaguers. Much like when people choose to sell their house or represent themselves in court, there’s always going to be a debate about whether it would have been a wiser choice to use a professional.
As it were, Robertson agreed to a two-year deal with the Phillies on Thursday that will guarantee him $23 million. He’ll make $10 million in 2019 and $11 million in 2020. There’s a $12 million club option for 2021 that will pay Robertson $2 million if the Phillies don’t decide to pick it up.
An average agent commission in MLB is 5 percent, so Robertson saved about $1.15 million by representing himself. On the surface that seems like a wise move. If you can do something yourself that you’d pay someone else more than $1 million, you’d probably do it, right?
Negotiating a pro sports contract isn’t handling your own bathroom renovation, though. There’s a reason the DIY approach isn’t common. Because the average MLB front office has a lot more intel at its disposal than your average baseball player. If you’re a player, having an agency behind you levels the playing field. It’s why someone like superagent Scott Boras stumps for his clients the way he does and is known to present binders full of data on their attractive attributes.
Despite the savings, even Robertson admitted this would probably be a one-time thing.
“It was a great experience,” he told reporters on a conference call after his contract was official. “I don’t know if I would do it again, but I enjoyed the process.”
Jon Heyman of Fancred Sports condemned Robertson’s choice, saying his “savings” might only be short term:
“Very likely cost himself much more than that,” Heyman tweeted. “He is a smart guy but not a trained agent. And he probably understands this isn’t a do-it-yourself project. Last time, with a qualifying offer (and an agent), he got exactly twice as much.”
So let’s look at Robertson’s past contracts and some comparables from this year to see just how Robertson did:
In 2014, during the first free agency of his career, Robertson signed a four-year, $46 million deal with the Chicago White Sox. He was younger and coming off a slightly better season — his fWAR was 1.6 in 2014 compared to 1.5 in 2018. He also was getting closer money at that point, because he saved 39 games for the New York Yankees in his walk year.
That contract ended up being similar to his Phillies deal, just shorter. Robertson got $10 million the first year, $11 million the next, $12 million the third year and $13 million in the final year. If the Phillies pick up the third-year option for Robertson — who would be 36 by then — it would essentially be the same as the first three years of his White Sox deal.
On the surface that also seems fine. Robertson is older now, and the price doesn’t generally go up for a player in his 30s. Robertson is a quality relief pitcher, but not an elite one. He carried a 3.23 ERA last season with the Yankees (where he was traded in 2017).
A point to consider, however: Relief pitchers as a whole make a lot more than they did four years ago. As teams have put more value into the bullpens, that’s shot up the paychecks for closers and set-up men. Elite closers like Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen signed five-year, $80 million-plus deals when they were free agents.
Looking at this year’s crop of free-agent relief pitchers might bring more clarity to whether Robertson did a good job. Here are the three main comparable players to Robertson who have signed this offseason:
• Andrew Miller: Age 33. Signed two-year contract with St. Louis Cardinals worth $27.5 million guaranteed. It’s two years at $25 million, then a $12 million vesting option for a third year. Option kicks in with 110 appearances in 2019 and 2020. There’s a $2.5 million buyout on the option. 2018 fWAR: 0.4.
• Joe Kelly: Age 30. Signed three-year deal worth $25 million with the Los Angeles Dodgers. 2018 fWAR: 0.7.
• Jeurys Familia: Age 29. Signed three-year deal worth $30 million with the New York Mets. 2018 fWAR: 1.8.
The criticism on Robertson’s deal might be that it doesn’t get him three guaranteed seasons, which Familia and Kelly got in theirs. They are, however, younger than Robertson, who will turn 34 in April.
The difference between Miller’s contract and Robertson’s is Miller has control over the third year based on his performance. In Robertson’s case, the team has complete control of the option. But otherwise, they’re not terribly different. Miller has more upside than Robertson, but Robertson has been more consistent.
Miller is still getting more guaranteed money ($27.5M vs. $23M), but that goes down a little bit when you consider that Miller is paying an agent.
Here’s one last part of Robertson’s new deal with the Phillies worth mentioning: he agreed to give 1 percent of his contract to a Phillies charity. It makes sense for Robertson, who is actively involved in his own High Socks for Hope charity, which helps natural disaster survivors and homeless, disabled or destitute veterans. He even mentioned the Phillies had “a special focus on charity” when saying why he picked to sign there.
Whether you think Robertson should have hired an agent or did fine representing himself, his dedication to helping others is an admirable move.
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