- After his MLB career ended, Michael Schwimer set out to solve the stiffing of minor leaguers by investing in them. Will his strategy fundamentally alter the game?
It was the top of the third inning of the MLB All-Star Game, with all eyes on Mike Trout’s at-bat against Jacob deGrom, but Michael Schwimer was still working the phones, trying to identify and invest in the next generation of Trouts and deGroms.
The 32-year-old former Phillies reliever runs Big League Advance, a two-year-old company that has raised over $150 million from private investors to fund its novel business model: the company offers baseball players lump-sum payments now in exchange for an agreed-upon share of any future MLB salary. Players pick the percentage of their MLB paychecks to sign away—the model spits out only a nonnegotiable price per percentage point. To date the company has signed 123 players with an average payment in the neighborhood of $350,000, and it plans to sign hundreds more.
BLA’s predictive model, which Schwimer built on his own before adding some heavyweights from the sports-statistics world, uses a number of data points to forecast minor leaguers’ big-league careers and salaries. At its best, the model spots prospects before the prospect pundits do; 75% of BLA’s signees were not ranked within baseball’s top 300 when they signed.
On the phone with Schwimer (whose surname is pronounced like that of Friends’ David) that July night was one such player, a 20-year-old pitcher in A-ball with an ordinary-seeming stat line and a ranking outside of his organization’s top 15. The model nonetheless loved him: He was young for his level, which counts for a lot, with two strong pitches. Schwimer foresaw a long big-league career for him, and after months of trying he connected with the player. Though Schwimer says “players come to us the vast majority of the time,” BLA will sometimes reach out to a friend or teammate of a player the firm wants to offer. (“We have such high standards about how we approach players. We don’t want to be a company that knocks on people’s doors.”) BLA had wanted this particular player bad enough that Schwimer had asked another BLA signee who had played against him in AAU had to connect the two of them.
He was calling to accept the offer: in would come a life-changing sum, out would go 10% of his big-league earnings. (Ten percent of future earnings is a common arrangement, though some players sign away less. The company has done only a small handful of deals larger than 10%, just by a point or two, when players have needed a specific sum of money larger than the payout generated by the 10% offer.)
“You’ve made my night,” Schwimer told him. “I’m curious, and there’s no right or wrong answer here: What are you going to do with the money?”
The player said, “Offseason training, finding the right gym, the right food, all that stuff. But also, mainly, being a pitcher, you never know when the injuries are going to find you. Obviously I just wanted a good foundation for myself if that comes into play.”
In recent years, thanks to a mix of litigation and player activism, the public has become more aware of the indignity of life in minor league baseball. Some players sleep two or three to a bedroom; some live in host families’ basements; some cadge leftovers from clubhouse spreads; Schwimer once saw a teammate dumpster-diving for food after a game.
Garrett Broshuis, an attorney representing a class of minor-league players in a wage lawsuit currently on appeal in the Ninth Circuit, was the Giants’ fifth-round pick out of Missouri in 2004. He played six minor-league seasons, and remembers spending the first of them in an apartment on the wrong side of Norwich, Conn., to save money. An upstairs neighbor’s toilet leaked into his unit, causing a mold outbreak. “Here we are trying to go to the ballpark and play our best, and every night we have to come home to an apartment full of mold with a hole in the ceiling,” he says.
Major League Baseball contends that minor-league baseball is not a long-term career, that players are engaged in a “seasonal apprenticeship” that will either end in a major-league career or the player pursuing other work. In March, with the passage of the Save America’s Pastime Act, baseball received federal statutory protection to pay minor leaguers based on a 40-hour work week, regardless of how much time players actually devote to baseball activities—which means that after taxes and clubhouse dues (what players chip in for team meals and payment to the clubhouse attendants), many players will continue to clear less than $1,000 a month, in-season only, while working 10-hour days in a $10 billion business.
One obvious consequence: Financial worries leave young athletes in no position to focus on their performance or invest in their future. Another consequence might be less obvious: any minor-leaguer with a shot at a big-league career assumes an extraordinary amount of financial risk while chasing his dreams. Health and luck can determine which prospects leave the game with great fortunes, and which leave with little or nothing. BLA’s deals reduce players’ risk by buying out their upside—an elegant solution to a broken system.
But if devising that business model was easy, and devising a clever player-valuation model was somewhat more challenging than that, Schwimer is finding that changing a decades-old status quo is a slightly tougher charge.
BLA made no effort to publicize itself when it launched. Until this year, the only public reference to the company, which is based in the D.C. suburbs, came in the SEC filings it submitted for its incorporation and its first two fundraising rounds. Schwimer says that he’s suited, temperamentally, to operating out of the spotlight. And the company’s lack of publicity hadn’t prevented it from signing players or raising money from investors. BLA’s board includes such luminaries as Paul DePodesta, the well-regarded longtime baseball executive who now works for the Cleveland Browns, and Marvin Bush, the son of the 41st President and the brother of the 43rd.
Earlier this year, though, the company received its first attention from the baseball press, and it wasn’t especially flattering. In February, Francisco Mejía, a 22-year-old catching prospect then in the Indians organization, brought suit against BLA in district court in Delaware. (Mejía, who entered 2018 ranked the No. 11 prospect in baseball by MLB.com, was traded to San Diego in July.) The parties agreed on this much: Mejía had signed three separate deals with BLA in 2016, long before he was a top prospect, paying him $360,000 for a 10% stake in his eventual big-league earnings. Mejía claimed, though, that BLA had preyed on his financial illiteracy and desperation. He sought to void the contract. BLA vehemently denied the allegation and countersued, claiming that Mejía had breached confidentiality in revealing the terms of his deal.
Mejía no longer stands behind his portrayal of the company. He announced on Thursday that he was dropping his suit and would pay a portion of BLA’s legal fees. He said in a statement: “I do not believe Big League Advance has ever deceived me. All of my interactions with Big League Advance and specifically Michael Schwimer have been very professional and respectful. I believe that Big League Advance offers a great option for all minor league players, and one that worked for me and helped me focus on baseball and fulfill my dream of reaching the major leagues … I apologize to BLA for filing the complaint.”
Schwimer says that he does worry about the possibility of the complaint doing lasting damage to the company’s reputation, and in retrospect he wishes he had done more early on to trumpet the merits of BLA’s approach.
“But I built this company for minor leaguers. That’s the reputation I care about. There’s a lot of people that have a really bad view of Big League Advance based off the false complaint that Francisco Mejía filed, and it’ll be really hard to change their minds, but I didn’t build the company for those people.”
If the company’s bad press scared any players off, Schwimer says that’s news to him. He says minor-leaguers reached out in droves to BLA after Mejía’s complaint made the news; some wanted offers, others just wanted to express their gratitude that BLA existed. He cites a June letter to a Delaware state senator written by Jared Ruxer, a minor-league pitcher who signed a deal with BLA before being released by Kansas City earlier this year, in support of pending legislation that would have provided statutory cover for deals like BLA’s. All of Ruxer’s then-teammates on the High-A Wilmington Blue Rocks signed the letter alongside him. (The bill didn’t come up for a vote before the legislative session ended; an MLBPA lobbying effort killed it. The union, which represents major-leaguers only, declined to comment on its motivations.)
“Minor leaguers have rallied around what we’re trying to do,” Schwimer says. It’s not hard to imagine why—he wants to put money in their pockets, and MLB doesn’t.
If an investment fund offered you a lump sum in your late teens or early 20s—when capital is hard to come by, and the cash could really go a long way—in exchange for a fixed share of your future earnings, would you consider it? Any of the 44 million Americans with student-loan debt reading this may wince.
BLA, though, doesn’t make loans. The model more closely resembles venture capital. Players who never make a big-league roster can keep their payments; they will never owe the company. The only players who ever pay BLA anything are those who do make the major leagues, where the minimum salary is $545,000, or nearly $3,000 per day in-season.
Similar models have long existed in golf and boxing and other non-team sports. Wealthy benefactors stake a young pro as he works his way up; in exchange, once he advances, the athlete kicks a predetermined share of his winnings back to his investors. If there are no winnings, the investor is out of luck. Baseball wouldn’t at first seem to need such a model: Boxers and golfers are independent contractors, responsible for all their own travel and training expenses, while baseball players are employees, who travel on team buses and receive instruction from the team’s coaches at the team’s own facility.
But that’s where the sorry state of minor-league pay comes into play. Players without large signing bonuses to spend simply aren’t able to afford healthy food and offseason training; with BLA’s cash they can.
The considerable disparity between top-end major-league and minor-league pay also may nudge players toward BLA. Only 10% of minor leaguers make the big leagues, and only a minority of that group reaches salary arbitration. While those who reach arbitration, and free agency after that, can do very well for themselves, the same can’t be said for players who might spend eight, nine, 10 seasons in baseball only to see parts of a season or two on the big-league roster.
Given that BLA won’t find itself in the black on the average signee unless that player makes it through multiple years of arbitration or signs an equivalent extension with his team, the company expects to lose money on 70 to 80% percent of the players it signs. The 20% or 30% who turn into profit centers for BLA—meaning that they have become wealthy in their own right—will pay for those who didn’t.
Schwimer says, “I’ve never shied away from the fact that I want to make money and be profitable on this. This is not a charity. But I believe that making money and being profitable is a win-win for all parties… People have a hard time believing, in business, that people do things for the right reasons.”
It is admittedly a challenge to picture Schwimer as some menace to baseball. At 6’ 8”, with a mop of curly hair and a goofy charm, he calls to mind Big Bird more than big business. Speaking of Sesame Street: in the course of reporting this story, I learned that Schwimer writes an original song for his wife each year. He outsources the singing and playing to professional musicians, since he can’t hold a tune. The tradition is similar to one his father started with him; Dan writes Michael a poem every year on his birthday. (He cries every time.)
Schwimer speaks with that familial passion when it comes to minor-leaguers’ predicament. “Minor leaguers deserve to make minimum wage. And I will do everything in my power to help make that a reality. If all I cared about was business and money, I would never want that, or fight for that.” He says he’s thankful, too, for new competition in the marketplace. “The more competition the better. It’s not good for BLA business-wise, but that’s a far secondary concern. The primary concern is helping minor leaguers.”
For instance, he says that Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. and Fernando Tatis, Jr. (a BLA signee) have, based on their minor-league stats, two of the five highest estimated valuations for their careers in the model’s history. Guerrero would be good enough right now to hit second, third, or fourth for any playoff team, Schwimer says. But Toronto, not wanting to call him up and send him to free agency a year sooner, has held him down in the minors all year. More evidence, Schwimer says, that minor leaguers need someone on their side. He says he’d like to make enough from BLA to fund a minor-league union drive one day.
Schwimer has been talking about a minor-league union for a decade now, since the days when he actually was a minor-leaguer. The Phillies had drafted him in the 14th round that June out of the University of Virginia. By that point he had finished senior year—most top college players are drafted as juniors—leaving him with less leverage in his contract negotiations than his classmates taking white-collar jobs had.
As a pitcher, he married average stuff with exceptional guile; he was captivated by the art of pitch sequencing. He’s fond of saying that his best pitch was whichever one the hitter didn’t want to see. Sometimes clever sequencing wasn’t enough. Erik Kratz, who caught Schwimer in Lehigh Valley and in the majors, says, “To give you an idea of how, uh, innovative he was, if he felt on a given day like he didn’t have enough fastball, he’d cover up the rubber with dirt and pitch from six inches in front of it. He called it Schwimlocity.” (Schwimer says he did this only once or twice in his career.)
Ah, Schwimlocity. Schwimer’s contention was that scouts and front offices pay too much attention to a pitcher’s raw velocity rather than the velocity hitters perceive. The longer a pitcher can hide the ball, and the closer his hand is to home plate when he releases, the harder it is for a batter to react; that matters more than the reading on the gun. He was far from the first to float this idea, but he may have been the first to blog about it while in A-ball. “Note: I do not want to give away my exact mathematical formula because it is still a work in progress and I would like to gain ownership of that stat … You have to admit, Schwimlocity has a nice ring to it,” he wrote on his PhuturePhillies.com blog in 2009.
A year later, after he had shared plenty of observations and opinions about minor-league life and the craft of pitching, the Phillies nudged him to shut the blog down. Schwimer’s apostasies, delivered not just on the blog but in the clubhouse and in the bullpen, could be extreme. He would wonder why pitchers had to shag fly balls in the afternoon sun hours before they were supposed to pitch, and why teams didn’t do more to tailor their scouting reports to pitchers’ strengths and weaknesses. “They’d say, ‘He struggles with the curveball and the cutter.’ I don’t have a curveball or a cutter!” Schwimer says. Kratz remembers one of Schwimer’s wackier convictions: that teams should devote one spot in the lineup to a “designated fouler,” whose responsibility would be to tire the starting pitcher out. Even now, Schwimer harbors some similarly out-there views; he’d like to see the rules changed so that pitches taken down the middle would count as two strikes against a hitter. This, he says, would rid the game of guess hitting. He’d thinks baseball should consider replacing extra innings with a home-run-derby format.
“His opinionatedness didn’t necessarily endear him to people,” Kratz says.
Schwimer debuted with the Phillies in D.C. in 2011 and remained up through the end of the regular season but finished with an ERA over 5; the team left him off the postseason roster. The following season, Schwimer pitched better, but he shuttled between Triple-A and the majors, twice running afoul of team brass—once because he tweeted out the Phillies’ call-ups before they were announced (he didn’t know he was breaking news) and once because the team demoted him when he said he was injured. (Demoting injured players is prohibited under the collective bargaining agreement.) Philadelphia dealt him to Toronto late in spring 2013, and he made just six Triple-A appearances before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery.
The first month Schwimer was out, he moped. “You have 14 hours to kill every day, since you can only rehab for two hours. I was wallowing in self-pity. I read all the Game of Thrones books.” But then, as he rehabbed, his thoughts turned to what might follow baseball, and his mood brightened. He thought about using his statistical skills to launch a career as a poker player. (He had majored in sociology at UVA but had always done well in math.)
Then he fixed on the idea that would become Big League Advance. He had long considered launching a company to invest in minor-league players, and he had always thought he understood baseball well enough to give him an edge. He had no idea of how he’d raise any money, or what would make up a player-forecasting model strong enough for others to invest in. But he had free time. He fired up Excel and got to work, plugging in any data he could get his hands on, and checking for statistical significance. For a year, he would do this 16 hours each day. Sometimes his eyes would glaze over, and the rehabbing reliever would call in Missy, his wife, to relieve him.
Several months in, after testing only a quarter of the data he had planned to test, he realized his model just might work. His central insight was that while aggregate minor-league statistics were essentially meaningless, more than he had expected, minor-league statistics that replicated a big-league environment mattered a great deal. An A-ball slugger could hit 15 home runs against pitchers who would never sniff a promotion; the player would feel accomplished, but the bombs would have no predictive value. But a player who could hold his own, even without home-run power, against arms that were bound for the show—well, he was going places.
So too was Michael Schwimer. By 2014, his labrum had healed, and his fastball velocity was up from two years before. A couple teams were interested, his agent told him. Even though he hadn’t yet raised a dollar for his business, he told his agent not to bother. He had a new baseball career to try out.
During the dozens of conversations I had with Schwimer from June to September, he was willing to talk on the record about nearly everything—everything but BLA’s model. What he would share could sound more like Zen koans than practicable baseball information. A young hitter with good plate discipline and no power, he said, would almost always turn out better than a young hitter with no plate discipline and good power. He preferred young players with no strengths and no weaknesses to young players with pronounced strengths and pronounced weaknesses. Players add skills much more often than they shake problems, he said.
But then BLA’s priorities shifted, and Schwimer wanted to share more about the model. Earlier this year, Schwimer had gotten the go-ahead from his board to hire a full-time analytics team—he made them partners in the business—led by Jason Rosenfeld, who had been the Los Angeles Lakers’ director of basketball analytics. One of the team’s responsibilities was to refine the baseball model, making it more orderly and efficient.
Schwimer’s model had never been able to get as strong a handle on pitchers’ valuations as it had on position players’. Major injuries were the culprit—they could shave two zeroes off a pitcher’s career earnings if the timing was bad enough. Two years ago, after dissecting video of 500 pitchers’ deliveries, he thought he had the matter solved. But when he analyzed thousands more videos, his conclusions didn’t get any stronger.
Midway through the summer, his analytics team had a breakthrough. The pitcher-injury model, he said, had gotten “unbelievably” good. He figured it had value not just to BLA but to major-league franchises, who invested millions in pitchers despite having only a guess at their long-term physical viability.
He decided to hit the road to sell BLA’s data. For one such sales call, late in August, he invited me to tag along, on the condition that I would not reveal which team that he was pitching. He sat on one side of a conference-room table; across from him sat the team’s general manager, farm director, and representatives from the analytics and performance-science departments.
“I’m still kind of shocked thinking about it,” Schwimer told the team officials. BLA’s research dispensed with the conventional wisdom that fireballers are more likely to get injured than soft-tossers—“we found there’s almost no correlation between fastball velocity and injury”—and with the belief that a “clean delivery” forestalls injury. “If a scout says, ‘Oh, I like his motion, it’s so smooth,’ that’s almost a red flag to me,” Schwimer said.
To demonstrate the model’s value to the front-office guys, Schwimer showed them the numbers it would have spat out had it been operational in 2012. Of the pitchers in its sample, which covered all active starters, more than a third registered a greater-than-75% chance of a major injury within the next three seasons. A little less than a third registered a lower-than-25% chance of such an injury within the time frame. 80% of the high-risk sample got hurt. 10% of the low-risk sample did.
He rattled off some of the model’s bold calls. Rangers lefty Matt Harrison stood at a 98% chance of injury; he wound up needing back surgery that would end his career. Matt Cain, who had not missed a start in six seasons before 2013, rated a 93% chance. He would lose most of his 2014 to elbow troubles and would never again be an above-average pitcher; the Giants had signed him to a six-year contract extension in 2012. In the other category, the model included Rick Porcello (2% chance of injury), Chris Sale (8%) and Justin Verlander (9%). Porcello remains a paragon of health; Verlander did miss extended time, but not until 2015, and now he’s back to full health; Sale, despite his unorthodox, violent motion, has remained healthy almost his entire career, though he is currently on the disabled list. (For the sake of intellectual honesty, Schwimer also included a number of pitchers on whom the model had misfired.)
Not on the slides was a pitcher whose value had cratered in recent years. Schwimer brought him up anyway. “We had him at an incredibly high risk of getting hurt, above 90 percent. Go back in time, I’m sure you could have traded him for Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez.” It might have been a sore subject, but no one from the team bothered to object.
Finally, the ask came: for a fee of $150,000, his firm would provide injury forecasts for 75 pitchers (50 professional, 25 amateur) of the organization’s choosing. He closed with a flourish. He told the executives he expected to sign up 20 to 25 teams, all told. “And this is the biggest thing about this, I’m putting my money where my mouth is here. We were offered $5 million by one team for an exclusive on this. And I said no. The reason I said no is that I’m offering this to teams knowing that teams aren’t going to believe it until they see it. But once they see it, we’re going to go to division exclusivity, and that’s going to be in the millions of dollars per one team per division. Why would I take $5 million when I know I could make $10 or $20 million two years from now?
“If I was doing this and I didn’t know if I really believed in it or not, I would have taken the $5 million like that. I’m risking it ’cause I know that once teams are able to see this working, then, you know, that’s gonna be it.”