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MLB trades: Everything you wanted to know but were too nervous to ask

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Answering imaginary questions about trades made before the non-waiver deadline and during the offseason.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Last week I looked at the time of the year MLB teams made trades most often as well as the total fWAR that changed hands each season. This data showed that the majority of trades took place either in July, the month before the non-waiver trade deadline (which I will refer to as the trade deadline for the balance of this post), and the offseason, which I defined as November through March.Today, I’ll answer the trade questions that you were too shy to ask by revisiting those same 2010-2014 seasons and take a deeper look at the trades that occurred during those two most active trade periods. Note that for these questions, I've only considered players that appeared in a major league game that season.

The first two questions deal with the differences between the type of player traded for by teams at the top and bottom of the standings. To look at this effect I used the position in the standings of team acquiring the player at the end of the day the deal was consummated to place that team into one of four groups.

  • Leading: These teams had at least a share of either the division or a Wild Card position (includes both Wild Card teams for 2012-2014) at the time of the trade
  • Close: These teams were between 0.5 and 5 games behind the division/Wild Card leader(s).
  • Hopeful: These teams were between 5.5 and 10 games behind the division/Wild Card leader(s).
  • Out: These teams were more than 10 games behind the division/Wild Card leader(s).

Question 1: Are teams more likely to acquire hitters or pitchers at the deadline based on their position in the standings?

At the deadline, pitchers make up more than fifty percent of MLB players acquired by all teams, despite typically making up forty-eight percent of a 25-man roster; however, this mirrors the pattern of trades made on the season as a whole. Pitchers made up a slightly higher percentage of players acquired by teams that are close to either the division lead or a Wild Card (fifty-eight percent), but this is hardly a dramatic difference.

Question 2: Between teams that are leading, close, and hopeful, who gets the most productive players at the deadline?

This question can be considered from two different perspectives: The contribution that the players acquired made before they were traded (status), or, how these players performed for their new club (value).

We'll look at status first, using  fWAR accumulated before the trade was made. You can see that, although pitchers made up just over half of the total number players who had played in The Show before being traded at the deadline, the average fWAR per pitcher traded was fifty percent higher than it for hitters.

Hitters Pitchers
MLB players 114 124
fWAR before trade 43.0 71.3
fWAR before trade /player 0.4 0.6

So the pitchers were more valuable, but the players traded at the deadline aren’t looking too impressive, with fWAR values that would prorate out to approximately one win over replacement each season which puts them somewhere between a scrub and a role player.  To look at the effect of position in the standings, let's split group these players by the type of team that acquired them.

Teams leading their division or who held a wildcard at the time of their trade dealt for the greatest number of players who had already appeared in the major leagues that season (93). The players these teams traded for also accumulated the most fWAR prior to their trade (average 0.9 fWAR per player traded). Teams that were close (again, 0.5 to 5 games back) dealt for the second most players but they had earned fewer fWAR (0.5 per player). Players acquired by teams that were hopeful or out of the playoff hunt were replacement level.

Leading Close Hopeful Out
MLB players 93 60 29 56
fWAR before trade 81.7 30.4 3.2 5
fWAR before trade /player 0.9 0.5 0.1 0.1

Now let’s consider the value that players acquired at the deadline provided their new clubs. The first thing that you’ll notice is that more hitters and more pitchers appeared in the MLB for their new team that appeared for the team that traded them away. This makes sense, and for a variety of reasons. Teams may be trading to fill a position of weakness so a player buried in the minors with one club may fill a need at the major league level for another. Teams may also want to get a look at a what a new player can do at the big league level, and end-of-season roster expansion is the perfect time for a call-up. From the value perspective, pitchers acquired at the deadline put up twice the WAR/player of their position playing counterparts.

Hitters Pitchers
MLB players 116 132
fWAR after trade 25.5 58.1
fWAR after trade/player 0.2 0.4

Once again, let’s break down the fWAR contributions players made for their new team, based on the team's position in the standings. Again, fWAR accumulated by players acquired by teams in the lead exceeded those obtained by other teams on a per player basis but the gap in performance between players acquired by teams in the lead and those who were close is not as large as it was when we looked at it based on status. This is due in part to the greater period of time to accumulate WAR before the trade deadline than after it. However, even when you account for this difference, players that were acquired by leading teams didn’t perform as well for their new team as they did before they were traded. Even still, the trend remained. Leading teams acquired better players than those that were close, hopeful, or out of playoff contention.

Leading Close Hopeful Out
MLB players 93 57 32 66
fWAR after trade 44.3 23.1 8.2 8
fWAR after trade /player 0.5 0.4 0.3 0.1

To put a bow on it, based on the last five trade deadlines, just over half of the players traded were pitchers, even though they make up less than half of each 25-man roster, and the average pitcher traded at the deadline performed better than the average hitter, both before and after the trade was made. Also, teams leading their division or holding a Wild Card spot tend to acquired better players than the teams below them in the standings.

Question 3: Are MLB players acquired at the deadline different from those acquired during the offseason?

The short answer to this question is yes, but if you’ve made it this far, you’re probably not looking for the short answer. First off, the offseason, as I’ve defined it, is five months long. During this period, GMs shape their roster and make nearly half of the trades that will be made all season. Before we look at the characteristics of the players that they acquired, a couple of notes on what follows. When I report the fWAR accumulated, I’m referring to the season after the player was traded (i.e., the 2010 season for players traded in November 2009).  Also, I’ve double counted players that were traded more than once. Ken Rosenthal tweeted out each of the 2011 Mike Napoli offseason trades, so he’s counts twice here as well.

During the offseason, the trend of pitchers being slightly overrepresented in the pool of players traded continues. However, the fWAR/player accumulated by MLB hitters the next season is greater than for pitchers, which is the opposite of what we saw for players exchanged in trade deadline swaps.

Hitters Pitchers
MLB players 191 199
fWAR 155.8 121.6
fWAR/Player 0.8 0.6

Question 4: Which general managers traded for the most MLB players at the trade deadline? What about during the offseason?

You can answer this question yourself, using a data viz that I put together based on trade data for the 2010-2014 seasons. The first tab shows the number of trades each GM made at the trade deadline and and the second groups trades made during the offseason. I’ve also included the fWAR that each GM acquired and calculated the average fWAR/player.

Again, this data come with caveats. Some GMs, like Josh Byrnes, have worked for multiple teams during the years I sampled. I’ve grouped all their trades together. Also, as I did for the offseason trade question, a GM gets credit for the fWAR of a player he acquired, even if he traded that player away before the season started. To use the Mike Napoli example again, he  was acquired in 2011 by Toronto in the deal that freed Alex Anthopoulos of the Moby Dick of all albatross contracts (well, at the time). AA then flipped him to Texas for… less valuable assets. But, for having acquired Napoli, even if just for the briefest of moments, Anthopoulos is rewarded. At least here he is.

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Still here? You've earned yourself a few closing fun facts!

  • From 2010-2014, Alex Anthopoulos and Ned Colletti acquired the most MLB players at the deadline (14).
  • Dave Dombroski (8.4) and Brian Cashman (8.0) accumulated the most fWAR through trade deadline swaps .
  • On a per player basis, Ruben Amaro Jr. and Tony Reagins each got the best returns at 1.0 fWAR/player they brought in at the deadline, though they were near the bottom for total trades made. Amaro Jr can thank Hunter Pence and to a lesser extent, Roy Oswalt, while Tony Reagins traded for Dan Haren and Alberto Callaspo
  • During the offseason Anthopoulos and Billy Beane top the charts each having aquired 32 MLB players.
  • Although Brian Sabean only made three offseason trades they accumulated a total of 8.9 fWAR the next season. In 2011 both Melkey Cabrera and Angel Pagan produced 4.5 fWAR. David Huff produced -0.1 in 2014.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphsMLB Trade Rumors and MLB.com .

Matt Jackson is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. You can also read his work at Banished to the Pen. Follow him on Twitter at @jacksontaigu.