MLB Trade Deadline and the SABR Echo Chamber

It’s just past 1pm in California, which means we’re just under 24 hours until the MLB (non-waiver) trade deadline, and in an uncharacteristic post I wanted to ask a couple questions more than drill down into the detailed numbers.   A few pieces have fallen – the Rangers supplemented their starting rotation by adding Matt Garza, while the Red Sox and Tigers have added bullpen help.  Over the next 24 hours, some of the bigger names are expected to move – Cliff Lee, Jake Peavy, perhaps even Elvis Andrus and one in a million shot that Giancarlo Stanton moves.  As smart baseball writers churn out reactions to the trades, evaluations of prospects moving, there are a couple of questions that I find myself asking over and over:

First, there are roughly 60 games left in the major league season, and as of now if we consult Baseball Prospectus’ playoff odds, 7 AL teams have a 25% or greater change to make the playoffs, while in the NL only 6 teams have more than a 1 in 5 shot.  Further, given that two of the playoff teams will be wild card teams in a one game playoff for the right to play a 5 game series (and then two 7 game series after that), the odds of any team that makes the playoffs winning the World Series is likely 10-12% when October begins.  Over 60 games, the impact one player may be expected to have on a playoff contender is likely 1-2 WAR at the ceiling (and likely much lower because on a playoff team, even a Cliff Lee is likely replacing a not-horrible player).  Of course, the impact 1 player may have on small sample size 5 or 7 game series may be considered either a random event or a rounding error, depending on your level of cynicism.   @DCameronFG makes this point in his blog post today regarding the price of Lee – and accurately points out that emptying the farm system for even elite level talent is unlikely to increase the odds of winning a World Series enough to justify the trade.  But doesn’t this sound like a straw man argument?  Of course we know that 6 years of team control of a blue-chip prospect (or prospects) will dwarf the value that a start contributes down the stretch in 2013, and barring a Koufax-level performance in the World Series, a teams’ championship or lack of championship is likely not going to be attributable to the acquired player.  From a saber perspective, shouldn’t we be doing better than knocking down straw man arguments?  To use Cameron’s example, what is 6 years of Xander Boegarts worth in terms of ML production?  He isn’t in the majors now and will be lucky to be there next year – there is also a learning curve and developmental issues associated with young players.  Can we say what the expected value of Boegarts’ first 6 major league seasons are?  If I set it at 13, would Cameron bet over or under that number? If you aren’t betting way over that number, shouldn’t we wonder whether Lee is better despite age and price tag?  Lee is under control for 2 years plus 60 games at roughly $70M counting buyouts etc.  What is the over under for Lee’s next 2.5 seasons? Further, in most circumstances we pay for certainty over uncertainty (even though in most situations, “certainty” is less illusory than in MLB)  Again, if I set it at 13 would you bet over or under?  Or perhaps the question is whether you think from this point through the end of 2019, which player is expected to produce more ML value?  This isn’t a leading question, it is an honest one – it is easy to say 6 years of Xander Boegarts will be worth more, but averaging 3 WAR per season over 6 seasons is challenging even for great players.  In 2008, Elvis Andrus was in AA, he made the jump immediately next season to the big leagues, was runner up in the Rookie of the Year voting, has made 2 all-star teams, and currently sits around 14 WAR through 5 seasons – so over our 13 (barely, though with a season left).  He doesn’t profile as anywhere near the hitter of Boegarts, but excels defensively and on the bases and has been completely healthy.   Evan Longoria is the poster boy for success – making the jump to AA in 2006, he spent 2007 in the minors, but still posted 30 WAR from 2008-2012.   This isn’t really intended to re-ignite the “prospects don’t pan out” debate, but to ask if SABR-inclined folks aren’t too willing to value the years of team control without applying a critical eye to the expected major league production of those prospects during their early years and compare that EV to that of the established stars under (fewer) years of control.

Second, and this is something I have written about before, but we will again look at Xander Boegarts as an example.  The Boston Red Sox have struggled mightily this year at 3B, and recent reports indicate that Boegarts is now playing 3B in anticipation of a potential late-season callup to Boston, much like the Orioles did with Manny Machado last season – despite the fact that Boegarts is at 20 the youngest player in the International League.  Under different circumstances, the Mariners promoted Mike Zunino earlier this season faced with a gaping hole at catcher.  In both questions, many observers are asking the question “Is [prospect] ready?” and following that with a quick “He isn’t ready, and we’re really going to stunt his growth” (for Zunino examples, we can look here and here and here, while @Marc_Normandin has a nice and open discussion about Boegarts here) .  In fact, I can without question believe that premature elevation to the big leagues would lead to a bevy of developmental problems – overmatched against superior breaking pitches and off-speed stuff may ruin hitters approaches and confidence, and/or may lead to the development and repetition of bad habits, while a smoother path of promotion after mastering each level of the minors translates into more predictable success at the big league level.  All this make sense” – except that as a community, haven’t we sabermetrically inclined fans learned to demand evidence and test assumptions?  Is there any data that suggests that heralded prospects rushed to the majors flame out disproportionately?  The recent anecdotal evidence (Bryce Harper, Manny Machado) says no.  I have no idea – maybe there is a mountain of data of which I am unaware, but it seems odd to me that empirical based observers are so quick to echo the “we’re going to stunt his development” meme.  While we rightly bash those that ignore new lenses through which to view baseball, we ought to be careful to avoid similar intellectual (or perhaps anti-intellectual) traps.

/End Rant.  I can now go back to refreshing to see whether the White Sox restocked their farm system or the SF Giants gave up on Brandon Belt.


About Bill Porter

Bill is an aspiring sportswriter (attorney by day) born in Washington DC, raised in New York, and currently living in San Francisco with his wife Kirsten and two spazzy labs, Fletch and Bear. Follow me on Twitter at @wfporter1972
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