As data-savvy teams increasingly keep emotion from their decision-making, turning instead to formulaic offers based on cold data, agents have found it harder to appeal to owners’ personal drive. The frenzy of old — with multiple teams bidding aggressively on free agents — has evolved to a painstaking process that often bleeds deep into spring training.
So an owner like Middleton stands out to Boras, who also paired starter Jake Arrieta with the Phillies last March on a three year, $75 million contract. In his conversations with Harper, Middleton mentioned the time he lost a high school wrestling championship on a referee’s bad call.
“He basically personalized his competitiveness,” Boras said. “What’s funny is that when owners have this dynamic, people inside the game are concerned about it. But what it does is, it actually increases winning and it also increases business.
“Look at what Bryce Harper’s done for Philadelphia.”
He has indeed had an effect before even playing a game. The Phillies, who started this decade ranked first in the National League in attendance, dropped to 12th of 15 teams last season, at 2.1 million total fans. In the eight days after the Harper news broke, they sold 340,000 tickets. The apparel company Fanatics said Harper set a record — for any sport — for first-day jersey sales. PlayStation quickly applied an image of Harper in a Phillies jersey to the cover of the video game MLB The Show 19.
“He’s like a rock-star baseball player,” Schmidt said. “From Middleton’s standpoint — or his marketing people’s standpoint — this kid has an aura about him that Mike Trout doesn’t. Now, Mike Trout’s numbers may dwarf his, but this kid sells stuff. He’s had a pretty good career, and age-wise, experience-wise, he’s coming into his heyday right now. I think that’s what the Phillies are banking on.”
A Priceless Goal: Winning
As significant as the off-field benefits may be, Middleton insists he signed Harper solely to win; as long as that happens, he said, the fans will respond. Middleton had declared his intentions in November, when he told USA Today he was prepared to spend money in free agency, “and maybe even be a little stupid about it.” The comment was calculated, Middleton said, to put public pressure on Klentak and his staff.