The Trade Deadline Matters Less Than Ever

Among MLB’s calendar of so-called Important Events, one finds a fast-approaching date — namely, the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline.

Historically, it is a deadline that facilitates action, that forces teams to declare whether they’re contenders or rebuilders, that compels sellers and buyers to stop negotiating and come to terms on a deal. Deadlines often force actors to make “yes” or “no” calls. This date is one of the last periods for teams with postseason aspirations to improve, for rebuilding clubs to retool. The date creates interest in the sport. This very Web site experiences increased traffic during the days leading up to to the deadline.

But the trade deadline wasn’t so packed with action a year ago, and it might be even slower this season.

The trade deadline just might not matter that much anymore.

Teams knew early last year whether they were buyers or sellers. They’ve known earlier still this season. They also know the deadline doesn’t typically provide much impact.

Over the last five summers, only seven players acquired in the middle of the summer produced two or more wins for their new teams in the second half. That’s not to say no moves have made recent major impacts: two of those aforementioned players, J.D. Martinez and Justin Verlander, were important acquisitions last summer (even if Verlander was acquired through a waiver deal).

This season, however, there is little uncertainty about which clubs are buyers and which are sellers. As a consequence, there is less reason to wait and hope a club’s outlook improves. And, in some cases, the incentive to buy has been diminished.

In the American League, both the Astros and Red Sox have a 100% chance of making the postseason, according to this Web site. The Yankees are at 99.9% odds, the Indians at 98.7% entering play Wednesday. The only division race that figures to contain September drama is the AL East race between the Yankees and Red Sox, but both teams will almost certainly qualify for the postseason.

The Mariners are in the second Wild Card spot at the moment and have an 80.3% probability. Only a recent hot streak by the A’s, who possess a 14.7% postseason figure, coupled with a hypothetical second-half collapse by Seattle, offers the potential for a true race for a postseason berth.

So five AL clubs have an 80% or better chance of reaching the postseason; four of those are essentially certainties. Nine clubs have odds of 3% or less, including seven with a figure that sits at less than 1%. In the AL, the contenders and sellers know who they are much earlier in the summer this year. Perhaps more importantly, there are few teams in the middle, fewer clubs trying to figure out if they ought to buy and sell. Really, the A’s are the only team that fits that criteria, and teams haven’t really invested much in chasing the second Wild Card. This isn’t helping the prospect of an action-packed trade deadline.

Moreover, teams like the Astros and Indians can run away with their divisions without adding anything (although the Indians’ bullpen appears to need significant help to navigate through October). It’s going to be difficult for a trade to really impact the postseason field in the AL, with the East division perhaps representing the lone exception.

In the NL, the situation is more fluid.

In the NL, all three division races remain muddled and up for grabs. That’s true. Even in that case, however, the contenders and non-contenders are pretty clear. No club among the Marlins, Mets, Padres, Pirates, and Reds has a postseason chance of 2% or greater. The Rockies are hanging in there, barely, with 6.2% odds. The Braves, Brewers, Cardinals, Cubs, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Nationals, and Phillies, on the other hand, are all contenders with some level of interest in buying.

Consider that, overall, major-league teams placing last or second-to-last in divisions in 2017 finished, on average, 27.1 games back of their respective division leaders. Five years prior to that, it was 24.4 games. Five years before that? Just 18.3 games.

This season, last place and second-to-last place teams are a combined 205 games behind the division leaders entering play Tuesday — or, on average, 20.5 games back. So that average is on pace to exceed 30 games this season.

What this means is the game doesn’t need July 31st to spur action and decisions between buying and selling status. More and more, the contenders and sellers know their status earlier in the season and sometimes even before the season. Moreover, in a game loaded with rebuilding clubs, non-contenders are perhaps more incentivized to beat the market. There is incentive for activity to begin — if it is to begin — earlier. That makes for a less dramatic deadline.

The Mariners have already made a trade. (Of course they have.) The Orioles might be nearing readiness to deal the summer’s top trade rental, Manny Machado. Maybe the Orioles can coax more out of contenders as the deadline approaches. At the same time, though, every day the Orioles wait — and they’ve already waited too long — Machado loses a day of benefit to a contender.

Another reason the deadline is likely to be less meaningful in the near future is that teams tend to operate less emotionally than they have in the past. They know the impact of deadline acquisitions is often limited and almost always requires the surrender of future, cost-controlled wins. Rather than overpay for Machado, contenders like the Dodgers might simply move down their preference list to a cheaper alternative like Scooter Gennett.

This author suspects that the influence of reason and emotion-less operators was a factor in the ice-cold offseason. It’s more difficult to get teams, buyers, to overbid as the clock nears expiration. Teams have become more rational. They execute plans, value young talent, and typically avoid pricey, aging veterans. There’s less reason to wait and believe an amazing deal will emerge. There’s also less willingness to part with controllable talent. For instance, with the value of relievers at an all-time high last summer, no contender met the Padres’ high asking price for Brad Hand.

There are other factors, too, specific to this deadline period.

Starting pitchers are typically the most sought-after assets at the deadline, and there appears to be a dearth available this summer. There is no Yu Darvish. J.A. Happ is very good and should be moved, but there are not a lot of difference-makers available. They are the type of assets that can most likely create a bidding war up to the last minute.

The outfield market is weak. Shin-Soo Choo is enjoying an outstanding bounce-back season, but he’s owed $40 million. Teams aren’t placing much value in bat-only corner players. Moreover, the CBA has incentivized teams to remain under the tax floor, complicating the ability to add salary for some contenders.

What does it all mean? The trade deadline, and the days leading up to it, probably matters less than ever before.

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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mike sixelmember
3 years ago

Sure, the Dodgers are more rational, and it MIGHT have been more efficient not to trade for Dozier last year….but how different is last year, and all of this year, if they did trade for him, instead of a guy that isn’t good but was cheaper to acquire? Is it really better to get a deal, than to get a great player (like Machado this year)?

3 years ago
Reply to  mike sixel

That would depend entirely on prospectcost no?