A Partial Defense of the Team That Traded Noah Syndergaard

It is abundantly clear which team won the R.A. Dickey trade. Acquiring Noah Syndergaard, Travis d’Arnaud, John Buck, and Wulimer Becerra from the Blue Jays for Dickey, Josh Thole, and Mike Nickeas in December 2012 has paid off for the New York Mets in a big way. This isn’t a particularly controversial opinion in need of detailed supporting evidence, but Spencer Bingol covered the particulars of the Mets’ heist several months ago, even before Noah Syndergaard turned into a starter who pitches like a lights-out closer.

Barring something unexpected, the Mets will have gotten more wins at a lower price from their part in the trade than the Blue Jays will have from their part in the trade by the time Dickey’s contract expires at the end of this season. Then the Mets will continue to reap the benefits for several more seasons while d’Arnaud, Syndergaard, and Becerra remain under team control. There’s no way, in an absolute sense, to spin this as anything but a win for Mets and a loss for the Blue Jays.

This kind of retrospective analysis is valuable, but it is a bit simplistic. The interesting question isn’t which set of players performed better; that’s obvious.  The interesting question is if the Blue Jays would have been better off not making the trade.

I want to be clear at the outset that this isn’t something we can prove one way or the other. We know what happened in the universe in which the trade occurred, but cannot observe a universe in which it did not. So while you will likely face a personal bias in favor of the universe for which we have actual data, try to look the question with clear eyes.

Let’s give the Blue Jays the benefit of the doubt and say Dickey will close his career with the team having provided about 11 wins from 2013 to -16. That’s a combination of his RA-9 WAR between 2013 and -15 plus his likely total from the 2016 season. That’s perhaps towards the low end of what the Toronto front office expected, it’s in the ballpark. Dickey offered the prospect of present value and delivered on it.

While the club didn’t make the postseason until 2015, let’s also assume that they had a reasonable expectation of contending in 2013 and 2014 when they agreed to the deal. In other words, they shouldn’t have been a team focusing heavily on 2017-2020 when the deal went down in 2012. If they were in a full rebuild like the Astros had been, making the trade would clearly have been a mistake even if Syndergaard turned out to be mediocre.

If the Blue Jays hadn’t made the deal and all of the players performed exactly as they did in real life, the Blue Jays would essentially have lost out on Dickey’s ~6 WAR in 2013-2014 while saving $40 million or so through 2016. These things aren’t terribly precise, but a team could have expected to get about that much in return by investing $40 million into the free-agent market in the 2012-2013 offseason, so in a context-neutral assessment of this deal, the Blue Jays are still in bad shape. They could have paid for the 2013-2014 wins with the money they gave to Dickey and still had Syndergaard and company for 2015 and beyond.

The preceding paragraph, however, makes a questionable assumption: it presumes that the players would have performed exactly as they did in the universe in which the trade occurred. And that probably isn’t a correct assumption for two very important reasons.

First, the players’ development paths were changed by the trade, putting them in contact with new coaches, teammates, trainers, and executives. The professional guidance they received changed as a result of the deal, and it seems likely that changing their development paths in this way changed the players they have become. This is particularly true of Syndergaard, who transformed from very good prospect to dominant starter in large part due to his implementation of the Warthen Slider. We saw signs of it last year (here and here), but its notoriety has exploded this April.

Syndergaard had a very promising future before meeting Dan Warthen, but learning the Warthen slider improved his outlook.

Dickey and d’Arnaud were also shaped by a changing environment to some extent. We haven’t observed dramatic changes like we have for Syndergaard, but even after controlling for obvious things like park effects and quality of competition, playing in a different organization probably shapes the way a player learns and performs. Essentially, the players would probably be different if they hadn’t been traded. It’s impossible to measure how different they would be, but it’s a conceptually valid idea.

The second reason the simple analysis is flawed is that life is somewhat random. Or — if you prefer a less psychologically upsetting description — life’s outcomes are interdependent in a complex way. Any single event is affected by lots of factors that are not directly related to the event in question. For example, I leave my house at 8:00 a.m. each morning in order to arrive at my office by 8:25 a.m. Even if I conduct myself in an identical manner each morning, sometimes I arrive at 8:19 a.m. and sometimes I arrive at 8:28 a.m. An individual’s actions are just one of the factors that influence outcomes.

Put another way, Syndergaard turning into an ace is one of many possible outcomes based on his actions and the actions of those directly responsible for his growth. Even if the Mets and Syndergaard behaved essentially the same way, his UCL could have torn last September or a few of those early sliders could have been crushed and his path might have changed simply due to happenstance.

Things have gone exceptionally well for Syndergaard and the Mets over the last couple of years, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t another version of history in which things don’t go quite as well or go much worse. This is highly theoretical, but if you could rewind history and start it over again starting the day after the trade, it’s very likely that the outcome for the Mets is different. The world is complicated and that complexity leads to a wide range of potential outcomes.

Perhaps Syndergaard evolving into an ace was a somewhat likely outcome, but it certainly wasn’t a guarantee even if you take meeting Warthen as a given. There are a lot of versions of the last three-plus years in which Syndergaard doesn’t turn into a dominant ace.

I won’t suggest that this was a good trade for the Blue Jays. At the time, I stated that the Mets got a great return and that the Jays were hoping for a big short-term boost, and nothing that has happened since the deal has done anything but move me toward the Mets’ side of the equation.

However, I think this is a really clear example of the follies of considering the outcome of an event as the sole factor used to judge the event itself. Just because the Mets wound up winning the deal doesn’t mean the Blue Jays screwed up. The trade changed everyone involved and even if you factor that into the analysis, you still have to fight all of the outside randomness that impacts baseball players.

If you liked the Mets’ side at the time of the deal, clearly your argument hasn’t gotten worse, but I would argue that it probably hasn’t gotten that much better. Certainly, Syndergaard’s success means that the people who were high on his prospect status were likely offering a more accurate assessment, but the Mets played a role in developing him into the star he has become. Had the trade not occurred, perhaps the transformation would not have occurred either.

Additionally, in a perfect world, we would only judge a trade based on the parties involved in the trade, but it’s possible the Mets would have handled Syndergaard much differently if the Nationals had run away with the division in 2015. Or, if the Red Sox hadn’t signed Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, would the AL East have played out differently? These are factors that have nothing to do with the Mets’ and Blue Jays’ 2012 trade but which nevertheless influenced our perception of it.

As I noted, this doesn’t mean the Blue Jays made the right decision; it’s just important to understand that the lopsided results overstate the magnitude of the folly.

Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.

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8 years ago

RIP Prince 🙁

Jason Bmember
8 years ago
Reply to  cornflake5000

If I could log in as someone else, then Shirtless Bartolo Colon would say “Mmmmm….raspberry beret.”

But I can’t. Frustrating. =/

Shirtless Bartolo Colon
8 years ago
Reply to  Jason B

Too soon. 🙁

And it looks like someone already logged in as Raspberry Beret.


Manute Bol sings better than this
8 years ago

So his boss was Mr. WILLIE McGee.