I’m in the middle of a move this week, and almost to the half-dreaded, half-anticipated moment where I unbox all of my books and get them back on their shelves. Unlike a lot of the staff at BP, my background is less in baseball and more in literature, so while I have the requisite classics—Cobb, Moneyball—on my shelves, much of my collection is literature, philosophy, and weird ephemera. And it was during the sorting of a lot of the ephemera of the ancient Greeks that I started thinking about the upcoming trade deadline. How, I wondered aloud likely to the shock and dismay of my cats and anyone else awake at 1:30 a.m., would the ancient Greeks judge the value of MLB trades?
It sounds like a silly question until you remember that the Greeks judged most everything on whether or not it was edifying and appropriate. While Gorgias, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Patrick Dubuque would all be quick to remind us that the Greeks had their weird side as well, the staid evaluative practicality of Aristotle looms over their philosophical tradition, particularly over the aesthetic side of things. Aristotle’s Poetics, for instance, takes a typically Platonic view of art, arguing that art’s value lies primarily in its ability to imitate life honestly. To narrow down what could be a seminar on early aesthetic theory: Plato exiled the poets from the Republic because of their ability to convincingly lie; Aristotle argues that only bad poets would do such a thing in the first place. Both philosophers agree on what makes art good and bad, but Plato would legislate art while Aristotle is content in judging its quality.
In a way, Plato’s position must have been pretty similar to the writers who had to deal with the Wild West of early baseball. The deadline itself was instituted in 1923 as a response to teams’ attempts to game competition by buying and selling players up until the World Series. And one can imagine that watching the New York Yankees and Giants buying up talent before World Series runs would make anyone hostile to the very idea of player mobility, even if one could still imagine a “good” or “bad” trade. But after the implementation and finessing of the modern trade deadline, coupled with the modernization of player salaries and contracts, the balance of trade has shifted to the point where judgment trumps legislation. No one is trading anyone of any moment without giving up something more fungible than cash, namely talent. Now the question isn’t “how do we stop all of this?” but “how do we know if the trade was good or bad?”
Let’s get this out of the way here: All trades are kind of bad for the minor-league talent moving. The fact that minor leaguers are attractive to teams because they’re affordable for many years, regardless of their talent, is a bit of a kick in the pants to any young player. Teams know they don’t have to pay you fairly for six years, and you can be moved from city to city without much if any warning. But that’s another column (maybe next week’s column!). And true, the veterans traded are often happy to move on to a team in contention, but there are many who would rather not leave and who haven’t earned the five and 10 rights that would let them choose to stay. So there are trades that are bad for all involved, regardless of fairness or agreeability.
For anyone who isn’t a minor leaguer or a frustrated veteran, though, trades have complex criteria for their quality. Fans, as we know, are bad analysts of trades, as they are too attached to their team’s prospects or overvalue their veterans: Every fan thinks its front office sold too low on their future stars or didn’t get enough for its star players. But outside of fan circles, (relatively) dispassionate observers are seemingly more concerned with something close to what Aristotle was: the imitation of expected reality. No one likes, say, when a Shelby Miller nets a huge package after a decent-but-not-elite season; and similarly people are perplexed when top prospects are sold low, as in the Mark Appel deal of last winter. Not that the teams were wrong to make these trades or simply blinkered, but that the fans did not see the trades as pleasing. They were wrong, dissonant or confounding.
And why? Well, I’d suggest it’s because they don’t look like trades we as fans would propose ourselves hypothetically. They seem unfair one way or another, or they seem otherwise unsuited to the players involved, at least as we as fans understand them and their value. What we want to see are deals like the recent Drew Pomeranz-for-Anderson Espinoza deal. We see a high-performing young starter with question marks traded for a high-upside, risky pitching prospect and we all kind of nod and say “That’s probably what I’d have asked for/what I’d have offered.” We can go back and forth about whether or not one team overpaid or underasked, but we don’t find the concept of the trade dissonant. It makes sense within the genre of the form.
I suppose in a way this column was a long way of saying “Aristotle was right about how to judge media,” but understand that I really think Aristotle was deeply incorrect about art. Art does a lot more than imitate, and in fact when it is least reflective of the real world, it is often at its best. And I’d say the same thing about the hot stove: a lot of times the best conversations about player value, team construction, and front office strategy happen when a “nonsensical” trade happens, as it did during the aforementioned Shelby Miller trade. So, while I think sensible trades make sense to us, I don’t think they are the most enjoyable or the most edifying. But Aristotle certainly diagnosed something we still carry with us when he thought about imitation and agreeability. It may also be true that, while imitation is agreeable, the disagreeability of dissonant moments of art and non-art alike tell us much more about the world. We’ll have to see in these upcoming weeks.