It’s that time of year again. That last week in July when we swear that teams lose all sense of things big and small and ship otherwise valuable prospects in exchange for late-inning relievers who will pitch a few dozen innings over the balance of the season. It’s a formula that the sabermetric community sometimes finds difficult to rationalize. Relievers pitch so few innings and are so volatile that their value is almost certainly lower than that of the prospects dealt for them.
It’s difficult to look at the trade returns for late-game specialists and understand the thought process. The Cubs seemingly traded a king’s ransom to acquire Aroldis Chapman, a pitcher whose performance is only marred by the domestic violence charges that hang over him. Let’s not mince words either; that marring very real and deserved. For the purposes of this article, though, we're be ignoring that component of this trade, not because it doesn’t matter—it matters immensely—but because it didn’t dramatically diminish his value in the baseball world, which is what this article is about.
The 2019 World Series might just hinge on what the Yankees do in the next 11 days.
The Yankees have won three games in a row, but they can’t fool us. They’re still no better than the third-best team in their division, and our Playoff Odds Report gives them a seven percent chance of reaching at least the Wild Card Game. There’s no question that this team needs to sell at the deadline, and the charade the team’s front office and ownership group are conducting through the tabloids in New York is just that. They’ll trade Carlos Beltran and Aroldis Chapman this month. It’s just a matter of time.
For my money, though, the team shouldn’t stop there. Andrew Miller is the hottest name on the trade market, but only because it’s so non-controversial to suggest that an elite relief pitcher on a bad team be traded. The Yankees should trade Miller, but they shouldn’t stop there, either. The next good Yankees team, at this moment, is three or four years away. The market is shaping up perfectly, though, to allow Brian Cashman to shorten that term of mediocrity, to push the pedal to the floor and speed his team back to the brink of contention—with an organization full of young talent, this time.
History tells us the story of two lopsided trades, but History ignores some nuance--and some lessons for this trade deadline.
There are lots of cautionary tales about trading prospects for pitchers in the heat of a pennant race. Some belong specifically to certain fan bases or regions; most also belong specifically to one or another generation. There’s the deal that sent Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek to the Red Sox in exchange for Heathcliff Slocumb, and the one that sent Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee, and Brandon Phillips to the Indians in exchange for Bartolo Colon. More recently, there was Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano, and more recently still, there was Wilson Ramos for Matt Capps. There are tons of these, and because of that possessiveness each fan base and generation feels toward its favorites, you’re probably wondering why your personal highlight wasn’t among the ones I just rattled off.
I want to talk, though, about two of the highest-profile versions of this fable in history. As it happened, they occurred just three years apart, and almost 30 years ago. They’re the ones you probably conjured quickest, when you read the first sentence, even if they’re not the ones with which you identify most closely. Here they are:
Money still buys success, but the league's payroll disparities appear to be shrinking. This is good.
Baseball fans are, I believe, somewhat self-conscious about the sport. Maybe that’s true of fans of every sport, but I don’t know about other sports, and I do know that when something monumental happens in one of those other sports, baseball fans are quick to use it to illustrate why baseball is (supposedly) supreme.
Something monumental happened in basketball last week, when Kevin Durant announced he was signing with the Golden State Warriors. This is a big deal, because the Golden State Warriors were extremely good this past year, winning the most regular season games ever and coming one game short of the championship, and because Kevin Durant is also extremely good, apparently one of the top three or so players in the game. This leads to a team that, on paper, is extremely, extremely good. (I don’t know anything about basketball.)
Basketball free agency is really different from baseball free agency, since basketball teams are limited in how much they can offer any single player. A number of teams made “max offers” to Durant, and tried to differentiate themselves from the others with various creative pitches. The Celtics crossed sports, and brought Tom Brady, a football player, to their meeting with Durant. He eventually chose the team that was staffed by tons of other incredibly talented players in the Warriors, whose pitch was probably something like “we win a lot already, and will win even more with you, and winning is super fun.” Good pitch!
We don’t have that kind of thing in baseball, with no caps on the salaries an individual player can make. Soft factors might still come into play sometimes—there were reports that some of the players the Cubs signed this offseason did so to play for Joe Maddon, and to try to break the Cubs’ championship drought—but teams can always offer more money, and that’s usually what drives the decision. So when Durant signed with the Warriors, in the baseball-centric milieu I reside in, I saw a lot of praising of baseball’s more egalitarian set-up. Players get paid, and while there’s a much larger gap between baseball’s rich and poor teams than basketball’s, the prevailing wisdom is that baseball is actually more fair. Poor teams can still win, and the elite players don’t flock together to form “super-teams” that might threaten the competitive integrity of the league.
That’s not exactly wrong, but it certainly leaves a lot out. Baseball might have a reputation for fairness, but its mostly due to the isolated successes of a few low-spending teams. It’s true, poor teams can succeed: from 2001 to 2015, about 25 percent of teams with the lowest, second-lowest, or third-lowest payroll in the league won 85 games or more, and about 15 percent won 90 games or more. The 2001 Athletics won 102 games, and had a payroll just slightly more than half of league average, the 29th lowest in the league that year. The 2008 Rays won 97 games with the 28th-lowest payroll, also about half of league average. Last year’s Pirates won 98 with the 24th-lowest payroll, at 72 percent of league average. It is clearly possible for poor teams to win. But I’d argue that for a league to be “fair,” it also has to be possible for the rich teams to lose, and that hasn’t really been the case in major-league baseball.
If an owner is willing to spend enough, he or she can basically guarantee a successful team. Over that same period, 2001–2015, there have been 14 teams with payrolls more than double the league average: the Yankees, every season from 2003–2013, and the Dodgers, from 2013–2015. They averaged a cool 95 wins each season, and broke the 100-win threshold three times. These super-rich teams win 100 games at nearly the same rate the teams with the three lowest salaries win 85 games. They never won fewer than 85 games, and only won less than 89 once.