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July 29, 2011

Manufactured Runs

How Often Do Deadline Deals Pay Off?

by Colin Wyers

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As the non-waiver trade deadline approaches, there’s been a flurry of activity. But how much of a difference do these deadline deals really make? Can a key acquisition make the difference between playing in October and staying home?

We can measure this by looking at a stat called Wins Above Replacement Player, which measures how well a player performs compared to a hypothetical backup. When evaluating in-season moves, this is a good, but not perfect, proxy for a team’s available assets. It’s a composite of the options available to a typical team, which can ignore some finer points of roster management. Most teams, after all, make deadline deals to shore up weaknesses, not strengths. So comparison to backups, rather than an average player, is a better model for the reality most GMs face.

Looking at deadline deals since the introduction of the Wild Card in 1995, we see a bevy of moves. By rough count, looking at the past-season WARP of the players acquired versus the players given away, we can see that 180 of those deals were ones where a team was buying talent (as opposed to selling or moves where little talent was moving in either direction). But how many of those deals had a significant impact on the division race? Reviewing the record, there are just 10 teams that made “impact” deals.

Probably the greatest acquisition in terms of sheer value on the field was the Brewers’ acquisition of C.C. Sabathia in 2008. Sabathia provided the Brewers with 4.2 WARP down the stretch , roughly twice what an average full-time position player can produce in a full season. Sabathia did this by being both good and a workhorse, pitching an incredible 17 games and seven complete games for the Brewers in less than half a season. Given the  Brewers won the wild card by a single game, that was definitely the difference between playoff success and an October spent at home.

Oddly enough the second-best deadline deal WARP came the same year, when the Dodgers acquired Manny Ramirez in a three-team deal. The Dodgers won their division by a scant two games, and Manny responded to the deal by slugging an incredible .743 down the stretch with 17 home runs. That same deal might have cost the Red Sox their division, as well—Manny produced 4.0 WARP for the Dodgers, compared to the 1.4 WARP Jason Bay produced as his replacement in Boston. The Red Sox finished two games back of the Rays, who would defeat the Red Sox later on in the ALCS. Of course, you can’t just assume that all things would have been equal had the trade not been made—the Red Sox had come to question Ramirez’s commitment, and there is no way of knowing what he would have produced had he remained in Beantown.

Not all trades have to be blockbusters to make a difference, and it may not be any one deal that pushes a team over the top. The 2007 Phillies picked up three players—Tadahito Iguchi, Kyle Lohse,  and Julio Mateo—in three separate deals. Those players combined to give the Phillies 1.4 WARP over what they dealt away,  and the Phillies made the playoffs that year by a single game.

So, deadline deals can make a big impact on a team’s chances of reaching the playoffs, but it’s important to remember that they typically don’t. Finding one or two players who can combine for a significant value is difficult, and getting those players to have a hot streak on cue is harder still. Most teams get into a position to acquire talent at the deadline by having a roster stocked with talented baseball players, and how those players perform down the stretch is generally far more important than the work of one or two players brought in to bolster a squad.

The 10 impact deals. “Games” represents the team’s margin of victory:
 

Year

Team

Players Acquired

WARP

Games

2009

Minnesota Twins

Orlando Cabrera

1.4

1

2008

Milwaukee Brewers

C.C. Sabathia, Ray Durham

4.2

1

2008

Los Angeles Dodgers

Manny Ramirez, Casey Blake

4.2

2

2007

Philadelphia Phillies

Tadahito Iguchi, Kyle Lohse, Julio Mateo

1.4

1

2006

San Diego Padres

Todd Walker, Scott Williamson, Mike Adams

0.6

0

2003

Chicago Cubs

Kenny Lofton, Aramis Ramirez, Doug Glanville

3.8

1

2001

Houston Astros

Pedro Astacio, Mike Williams

1.3

0

2000

Atlanta Braves

Andy Ashby, Gabe Molina, B.J. Surhoff

1.1

1

1999

New York Mets

Shawon Dunston, Chuck McElroy, Darryl Hamilton, Billy Taylor, Kenny Rogers

3.2

1

1997

San Francisco Giants

Brian Johnson, Cory Bailey, Danny Darwin, Pat Rapp, Roberto Hernandez, Wilson Alvarez

4.6

2

1995

Seattle Mariners

Bob Milacki, Warren Newson, Andy Benes

1.0

1

1995

Los Angeles Dodgers

Kevin Tapani, Mark Guthrie

2.1

1

Colin Wyers is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Colin's other articles. You can contact Colin by clicking here

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