What History Can Tell Us About the Approaching Trade Deadline

Monday’s non-waiver trade deadline is a mere five days away. As it nears, we’ll be treated to all the rumors and hypothetical proposals the internet is capable of providing. Many of them will be nonsensical. Some won’t. In every case, though, we’re likely to evaluate the likelihood of a prospective deal based on the same sort of variables considered by Dave Cameron in his annual Trade Value series — variables like projected WAR, salary, team control, etc.

But those aren’t the only factors at play when real people from real front offices attempt to work out a trade. There are other questions to ask. Which teams link up often and which teams avoid each other? What’s the role of familiarity in trade deals? Does it matter if the teams belong to the same division?

With the help of crack data and visualizations man Sean Dolinar, I went to work trying to answer some of these questions. Below are five statements supported by the historical data.

The deadline matters.
It might be because selling teams are waiting to get the most out of their assets and because buying teams are waiting for them blink, but the trade deadline does goose the most out of the transaction wire. “There are so many dynamics involved in trades, chief among them timing and pressure,” Atlanta GM John Coppolella recently told me when I asked about the influence of the deadline.

July 31st is the biggest day of the year for transactions between teams, followed distantly by the non-waiver trade deadline at the end of August, the winter meetings in December, and then the days right before the seasons starts in the beginning of March.

Don’t get married on March 30th, July 31st, August 31st, or December 15th. Easy enough to remember.

The deadline doesn’t matter.
I know I just said the opposite, but stay with me. Something interesting has happened to August trades in the last 16 years. While July trades have oscillated fairly wildly, August trades have steadily crept become more frequent. If you make a ratio of July trades to August trades, you’ll find that it has decreased during that time period.

July & August Trades Comparison
Season July Trades August Trades Ratio Jul:Aug
2000 31 6 5.2
2001 32 6 5.3
2002 32 9 3.6
2003 37 19 1.9
2004 34 14 2.4
2005 29 9 3.2
2006 41 23 1.8
2007 30 17 1.8
2008 24 17 1.4
2009 40 23 1.7
2010 38 17 2.2
2011 36 14 2.6
2012 37 19 1.9
2013 31 20 1.6
2014 45 25 1.8
2015 61 27 2.3
2016 44 24 1.8
SOURCE: Pro Sports Transactions

The highlighted year is the one in which the second Wild Card was introduced. That doesn’t seem to be the driver here. Instead, it was probably the changes to the Collective Bargaining Agreement that were instituted after the 2006 season. Maybe it was the fact that Type C free agents were eliminated, or the fact that marginal tax rates and revenue-sharing numbers were updated. Direct compensation for free-agent signings was also eliminated.

One of these rules probably led teams to be willing to take on an expensive player on a short deal in August, when that player would clear waivers. So it’s not over for your team if they don’t do anything next Monday.

Oakland will probably make a trade.
Oakland has completed the most trades since 2000, which you might want to attribute to their particular spot in the win cycle, but then you remember that Billy Beane is always spinning things in different directions. “The Athletics made a trade” is a lock if you’re betting person. The Blue Jays and A’s have linked up the most but don’t seem primed for a deal this particular season.

San Diego and Boston show up second and third on the list, which underlines the point that it’s not always the quality of the team that determines how many trades they make. The Padres have been bad; the Red Sox have been bad and good. Maybe some teams just have a propensity to make trades.

Take a look at your favorite team below. Hover over any one of the 30 clubs and you’ll see a line for every trade connecting two teams. The size of the team boxes reflects the number of players that exchanged hands.

For fun, highlight Oakland. Then check out the crosstown Giants.

MLB Trades Between Teams
SOURCE: Pro Sports Transactions

Familiarity between teams matters.
Since 2000, Detroit and San Francisco have failed to make a single deal with each other. Boston and Tampa, same thing. Everyone else has successfully completed a transaction.

Is there a rhyme or a reason to this? Boston and Tampa are in the same division, but maybe the bigger reason is that there hasn’t been a lot of personnel movement between the front offices of these teams. “It’s easier to make trades with people you know better, either personally or professionally, because it provides better understanding,” said Coppolella.

Off the record, other front office members expounded on the role of familiarity. “Familiarity makes everything run more smoothly,” said one. “Sometimes that’s personal familiarity, and it’s often easier to start conversations or let something more open-ended develop casually if there’s enough of a relationship that there’s less formality. Sometimes that’s professional familiarity, and both sides just have a more clear sense of what to expect from each other after numerous dealings. It’s also not odd for clubs to engage, at least initially, along a channel that has some familiarity below the level of each side’s top decision-maker.”

“If there’s not a basic level of trust and an understanding about the other person/team operates, it’s often difficult to cut through the gamesmanship to get down to actual substantive conversations,” said another. “To put it simply, if you don’t think the person on the other side is trying to screw you, it’s a lot easier to come to a negotiated middle ground.”

It can only go so far, though. “I’m not going to give one GM a better deal than another just because I know him better,” laughed one member of a front office.

At least one fanbase will be disappointed by a lack of trades.
The three least likely teams to make a trade in this century are the Giants, Twins, and Cardinals. The Giants bucked the trend and sold their free-agent-to-be Eduardo Nunez last night, but a large-scale teardown may not be in the cards due to the park in which they play, their competitive streak, and their number of mid-career veterans on long deals.

The Twins and Cardinals are two and four games out of the playoffs, respectively, and could be considered buyers in previous years. But the second Wild Card has put a damper on certain trades, perhaps. With so many teams within four games of the playoffs — nine teams are currently out of the playoffs but within that range — everyone’s a buyer, and a seller, at the same time.


So there you have it. There will be lots of trades this year — at least 35 have been completed this July already, and there are only five Julys that were more rambunctious — but there will be more trades later. Unless you’re a fan of one of those teams that doesn’t make trades. That would be too bad, because July 31st is practically December 25th for the baseball fan.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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There are only two pairs of teams who have not completed a trade in your dataset.

The Red Sox have not traded with the Rays, and the Giants have not trade with the Tigers.


Since 2000, Detroit and San Francisco have failed to make a single deal with each other. Boston and Tampa, same thing. Everyone else has successfully completed a transaction. – Eno


Baltimore and Washington?


The timeframe predates the Expos move to DC, therefore the trade of Tim Raines to Baltimore in 2001 counts as a trade between the two franchises.