This past December, the Texas Rangers and Boston Red Sox almost pulled off a swap of Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez, with assorted lesser players and suitcases of cash also reportedly involved. While this was going on, there were countless media references to this deal being “the biggest trade in baseball history.” This is a pretty bold statement, obviously, but these are some pretty big names so you didn’t hear a lot of protest or debate about the claim.
Teams have been trading baseball players for 140 years or so, and many of these trades have involved 10 or more players changing sides. Of course, that is not what makes the A-Rod/Manny trade “big”; its bigness rests with its star power, with both principles being among the best players in the game and somewhere near mid-career. Setting aside Ramirez for a moment, how often is a player of the caliber of Alex Rodriguez traded at all? Not bloody often, obviously, since there have not been very many players as good as Rodriguez, traded or not.
This article will attempt to identify these rare deals, where a team has a superstar talent and decides to trade it away. For our purposes a “trade” requires one or more players to move in each direction. Babe Ruth was not traded from the Red Sox to the Yankees, he was sold. Eddie Collins and Frank Baker were sold by the Athletics. What’s more, we are not interested in deals where money was an overriding component of the transaction. In 1935, Jimmie Foxx was dealt from the Athletics to the Red Sox in a two-for-two trade, but a check for $150,000 came the other way. The players the A’s received were of little import–Connie Mack wanted the 150 grand. This codicil similarly eliminates deals involving such superstars as Tris Speaker, Joe Jackson, Pete Alexander, Lefty Grove, and Johnny Mize.
The Angels go on a spending spree. The Dodgers frustrate their fans. The A’s wheel and deal. The Padres are bullish about 2004. Our tour of major league transactions continues with a visit out West.
Last year at this time, when we were first unveiling PECOTA, I was besieged with questions about the system’s accuracy. From the very start, the system has always had its believers and its skeptics; all of them wanted to know whether the damn thing worked. My evasive answers to these questions must surely have seemed like a transparent bit of spin doctoring. One of my readers suggested to me, quite seriously, that I had a future in PR or politics. But I was convinced–and remain convinced–that a forecasting system should not be judged by its results alone. The method, too, is important, and PECOTA’s methodology is sound. It presents information in a way that other systems don’t, explicitly providing an error range for each of its forecasts–which, importantly, can differ for different types of players (rookies, for example, have a larger forecast range than veterans). Its mechanism of using comparable players to generate its predictions is, I think, a highly intuitive way to go about forecasting. Besides, all of the BP guys seemed to appreciate the system, and getting the bunch of us to agree on much of anything is an accomplishment in and of itself. Now that it has a season under its belt, however, we can do the good and proper thing and compare PECOTA against its competition.