The Trade Deadline Isn’t As Important As We Think

My first year covering Major League Baseball was in 2013, when I reported on the Pirates for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. If you recall, that was also the year that the Pirates ended the longest consecutive stretch of losing seasons — 20 of them — in major North American professional sports history.

Immediately after the non-waiver trade deadline passed that season, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington arrived at a makeshift podium in a conference room in the depths of PNC Park. He was asked to explain why he had not executed a trade to strengthen a club trying to secure not only its first winning season since 1992, but also its first playoff appearance since that season.

While the Pirates were 65-43 on July 31, 2013 and likely to end their streak of consecutive losing seasons, they held a tenuous 1.5 game lead over the Cardinals in the National League Central.

General managers and club presidents are often charged with balancing the present and future on trade deadline day. But Huntington and the Pirates also had history weighing on them, and several opposing clubs reminded Huntington of that when trying to execute deals. (Huntington told the reporters gathered that such reminders irritated him and it would make the Pirates less likely to deal with those clubs in the future.)

I am relating this story for a few reasons, and one of those is that press conference produced one of the great quotes in deadline day history. With regards to his club’s inactivity at the non-waiver deadline:

“We were willing to do something stupid,” said Huntington. “We just weren’t willing to do anything insane.”

I suppose, prices — the asks — early in the summer are often at “insane” levels and they typically lower more toward even, or fair prices, as the deadline approaches. In this case, the Pirates — despite the drought-ending nature of the season — were not willing to overpay.

Buying can be irrational at the deadline. If a team is trading for an asset, it’s often one of limited control, and they are typically giving cheaper, cost-controlled talent back in return. While adding certainly helps, it in no way guarantees success, and often only modestly heightens the chances for success. But, hey, the trade deadline is a fun day often filled with drama so I don’t want to deprive you of that joy. I just want to curb your enthusiasm and remind you whatever happens today probably won’t have much impact.

I updated some research I conducted as a newspaper man last summer, in studying the recent impact of trade deadlines. From June 15 to the trade deadline over the last four combined summers, only five players acquired via trade — Chase Headley (2.1 WAR), Jarred Cosart (2.0), David Price (2.4), Yoenis Cespedes (2.3) and J.A. Happ (2.4) — produced at least two wins above replacement from the time they were acquired through the end of the season.

Last year, 59 major league players were traded between June 15 and the deadline. No player traded reached 2 WAR and only seven players — Andrew Miller (1.6 WAR), Ricky Nolasco (1.4), Ivan Nova (1.4), Rich Hill (1.3), Mark Melancon (1.2), Aroldis Chapman (1.1) and Brad Ziegler (1.0) — produced 1 WAR or better for their new club. Nineteen of the 59 players produced negative value.

If a team is at a crucial place on the win curve, 1 WAR can be meaningful, a WPA boost can provide impact. But of the 59 major league players traded prior to last year’s non-waiver trade deadline, they combined for just 11.3 WAR the rest of the season.

In 2013, the Pirates eventually made two waiver deals to acquire Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd. They gave up a significant prospect in Dilson Herrera, now with the Reds, to acquire Byrd. But the trade was ultimately a loss for the club as they would have advanced to the playoffs without Byrd, they finished second in the division, and did not advance beyond the NLDS.

While relievers have been prized leading up to the last two deadline periods, no position provides potential impact like a front-line pitcher. Does it make sense to pay a premium to land a top-of-the-rotation pitcher? History says it typically does not.

Back in 2015, Jeff Sullivan examined teams that had acquired aces at the deadline to see how much impact they had enjoyed from such big-ticket purchases. Sullivan examined a 20-year window from 1995 to 2015 and found no team that acquired an ace went on to win the World Series.

Wrote Jeff:

Of the 21 teams that added good starters, 17 advanced beyond the end of the regular season. Two were eliminated in single-game eliminations. Nine were eliminated in the division series. Four were eliminated in the championship series. Two lost the World Series. Which means that none of the teams actually won the World Series.

The following deadline the Royals acquired Johnny Cueto and went on to win the World Series. Hey, it happens. But the larger point is this: there is no bigger impact piece that a team can acquire than a front-line starter, which is why there has been so much focus on Yu Darvish and Sonny Gray leading up to the deadline. Those pitchers figured to be extremely pricey and they don’t even guarantee success in the postseason. It’s risky.

Johnny Cueto is the only ace traded at the deadline to help his team win it all. (Photo: Keith Allison)

In July 2014, the Oakland A’s traded their top prospect, Addison Russell for 10 combined regular-season months of control over pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. They A’s would like to have that deal back.

While most such trades turn out not to carry much rest-of-season significance, some times they matter a great deal.

The Indians’ acquisition of Miller helped propel a club without its No. 2 and No. 3 starting pitchers to the seventh game of the World Series. They lost to a Cubs team that had surrendered Gleyber Torres, now a consensus top 10 prospect, to increase their championship odds by five percentage points — according to this ESPN feature by Wright Thompson — in acquiring Aroldis Chapman.

The Cubs have the best chance of any team to win the World Series — even if those odds aren’t great. Theo had his people run statistical models on their chances, and the answer was less than 1 in 5. …. But [Chapman], according to outside simulations, raises the Cubs’ chance of a title to slightly less than 1 in 4. Epstein is faced with a difficult decision.

Over the course of days, he collects information, weighs it, then makes a call. He sends a pitcher and three prospects to the Yankees and acquires Chapman. Giving up those players will absolutely make the Cubs weaker in the future, which Epstein knows, but the team needs a closer like Chapman to make a real October run.

The trading deadline, he laments over and over, is a “mindfuck.” But his rationale is cold: The sign in his office still says Find Pitching.

Even though the Cubs might have won a World Series without Chapman — he blew three save opportunities in 13 chances in the postseason, including a blown save in Game 7 -— the World Series title helps make the price surrendered seem more palatable. After all, there are no guarantees of future success (See: 2017 Cubs). While the Cubs were unlikely to win the World Series last year we still understand why they bet heavily on themselves. They were chasing history and they were the best team in the majors.

Still, with just hours left prior to the deadline history tells us this: buyers would do well to beware.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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I don’t disagree with anything in this post. But whenever I hear some old broadcaster lament how “analytics are ruining the game,” I think about the trade deadline.

For fans of the sport, this is one of the most fun times of the season. Most of us at this point realize that deadline deals don’t matter that much. But imagine a July where all of the GMs realize this as well and strictly, coldly opt to do nothing because, well… what’s the point? Complacency is boring.