|The art of the fantasy baseball trade|
|Theory and Strategy - Platinum|
|Written by Todd Zola|
|Thursday, 31 May 2012 12:49|
Imagine this: One fine day you sit down at your computer, open your inbox and click on the email with the subject line "Trade Offer." And the email reads, "Any interest in Emilio Bonifacio for Troy Tulowitzki or Miguel Cabrera?"
Unbelievable, right? I mean, not only is Bonifacio not even in the same stratosphere as M-Cab or Tulo in terms of fantasy value, but he's also out 4-6 weeks following thumb surgery! Sigh. So you consider your options. Perhaps just taking the high road and ignoring this fool is the right thing to do. But that's no fun. Maybe countering with your Luke Hochevar for their Clayton Kershaw will get the message across. The heck with that! This bozo just insulted you with a ridiculous low-ball offer; time to paste this nonsense on the league message board.
Slow your roll, my friend. Given some specific circumstances, that offer isn't as ridiculous as it sounds. Really. You don't believe me? Grab your safety goggles and let's head into the laboratory.
The Internet is packed with essays talking about trading in fantasy baseball. The theme is usually tactical, the human element, referring to the psychology and gamesmanship involved with negotiation. More often than not, the piece is alliteratively titled something like "Top 10 tricks of the trade." While there's nothing wrong with this approach -- I've offered similar renditions in years past -- there is a dearth of information focusing on proper evaluation of trades. Today I discuss the means to determine if a trade will benefit your team.
Forget value; it's about impact
Tools like the ESPN Player Rater, rankings lists, dollar values and the like are useful in the right context. But context is the key, because nothing is absolute. Perhaps the most efficient use of your favorite value measurement is to determine relative value of one player to the next, in the proverbial vacuum. The trick is taking the player out of the vacuum and evaluating their worth to your team.
Let's say you need speed. If you go to the ESPN Player Rater and sort by stolen bases, Michael Bourn and Jordan Schafer are projected to help your team about equally in that category. Overall, due to a superior batting average and more runs scored, Bourn is the higher-ranked player, but what if your team had a large cushion in average and was doing exceptionally well in runs scored, a scenario that is logical since getting on base leads to scoring? In the context of your team, Schafer and Bourn are of equal value.
Now let's say you have an excess of starting pitching and were offered Bourn for Cole Hamels. So you go to the Player Rater and see that Bourn and Hamels are ranked very close, so you accept. But what if the offer was Schafer and not Bourn, would you be so quick to accept? I didn't think so, but under the right circumstances, you should.
Admittedly, we are still a little early in the season for this to be applied verbatim; too much can still happen. But the right circumstances involve the same net gain of Roto points with Schafer or Bourn. That is, Schafer's lower average and fewer runs scored will not cost your squad any points. If the Schafer-for-Hamels offer is the best deal you can get -- as in, you couldn't sub in a pitcher closer to Schafer's rank, such as R.A. Dickey -- and your team benefits, then the deal is a good one, regardless of what the Player Rater (or your league mates) might contend.
It's not just impact, but net impact
The above example was devoid of an integral consideration that is obligatory for complete trade analysis: Does the acquisition of a base stealer such as Schafer or Bourn truly net more points than the loss of Hamels may cost in pitching? This is perhaps the biggest mistake made by those evaluating if a swap is helpful, and is absolutely the most egregious error usually made by third parties, most often other league members when the rules call for owner approval of all deals.
What matters is overall impact on your squad. Who does Schafer or Bourn replace, and who replaces Hamels? It's not just the production of the players that matter, but rather the upgrade or downgrade the players offer and how that influences the standings.
To illustrate this, let's say Starlin Castro is the player being offered for Hamels. On the surface, Castro is nearly identical to Bourn in terms of bottom-line Roto production, so he should influence your team in the same manner, right? Not necessarily. It depends on the player being replaced. What if Bourn or Schafer would take the spot of Austin Kearns, who in turn was taking the spot of Bonifacio, explaining your need for speed, while Castro can replace only your shortstop, Jimmy Rollins, since you have a second baseman in your middle infield spot? The relative difference between Bourn and another replacement-level outfielder far exceeds the difference between Castro and Rollins. So while in a vacuum, Bourn and Castro are similar in terms of production, in context to your roster, Bourn has much more intrinsic value to you. On the flip side, if your outfield is stacked and Castro bumps Alexei Ramirez from your lineup, then Castro has more intrinsic value to your team than Bourn.
The part of the equation that has been omitted from the analysis is how Hamels' loss impacts the pitching side of the ledger. Thus far it has been inherently assumed the points gained from steals exceed those lost from replacing Hamels. The complete analysis entails doing the math on both sides of the fence to verify there is a net gain in your favor.
Sometimes the best thing to do, especially if there are multiple players involved, is to jot down your roster before and after the deal, stripping out the players overlapping on either side. Now look at it objectively, considering the roster spot and not just the players.
This is especially relevant if the deal involves an exchange of an uneven number of players. Trading away a pair of players worth $40 for a trio worth $40 is, on paper, dead even. However, if the player you replace by acquiring the third player in the deal is worth as little as $1, from a pure value viewpoint, you lose since you are replacing $41 worth of talent with $40. Of course, the categorical impact is what really counts, but using numbers in this manner serves to emphasize the need to look at the big picture. Basically, it's "roster before" versus "roster after."
Taking it to the next level
You also must incorporate some forward thinking. Let's flip things around and look at things from the point of view of the party acquiring Hamels. The determination has been made that the acquisition of a front-line starter such as Hamels compensates for the loss of speed. Perhaps Hamels takes the place of a quickly regressing Derek Lowe. On paper, this makes sense. But what if you have Brandon McCarthy on your disabled list and Trevor Bauer on your farm roster? Or perhaps your league has a few impatient owners and the likes of Clay Buchholz or Phil Hughes are available on waivers? The point being, trading for Hamels is not your only means of replacing Lowe, or if you do make the trade, the impact Hamels may have is lessened since you are due an improvement in pitching soon enough anyway and will only need to make another move. Maybe replacing Lowe with a solid middle reliever until the reinforcements are ready would be a better course of action than sacrificing Bourn for Hamels. Obviously it depends on the intrinsic value Bourn supplies to your roster.
As implied above, with so much of the season remaining, it may be too early to rely strictly on categorical analysis as the final determinant. It is fine to address a perceived weakness, but an injury to, say, Josh Hamilton could see your cushion in homers and RBIs dissolve quickly. Your ERA and WHIP may be leading the league, but as soon as regression corrects James McDonald's and Lance Lynn's hit rates, your ratios suffer. We're still at the juncture where accumulating value is a viable strategy. You have plenty of time to deal from strength to improve your weaknesses. However, whether your trade currency is player value or standings impact, the key is still to do the math by looking at the big picture, "roster before" versus "roster after," with some forward thinking involved with respect to alternative means of strengthening your squad.
We'll spend the second half of this discussion addressing some common trade evaluation mistakes made by fantasy owners.
Myth: In a multiple-player trade, always make sure you are acquiring the best player in the deal.
First off, any advice prefaced with absolutes is always suspect. Everything is contextual. If after dissecting a deal, you come out ahead by dealing a superstar for a few lesser pieces, the deal is a good one. Just make sure you consider all the forward-thinking alternatives. Anyone less than the best player at a position is a candidate to be upgraded. This is purposely hyperbolic, but if the ultimate goal is to have the best player at each position on your roster, you cannot accomplish this by dealing away one of the top players. However, if you dial this down to something practical, forfeiting a superstar to maximize your overall potential is fine if there is no alternative means to reach this same goal.
Myth: Never trade hitting for pitching.
There's one of those catch words: never. This notion has evolved from the belief that there is always pitching to be had on the waiver wire or from free agency. And in many leagues, this is indeed the case. But in others, the pickings are rather slim. The more widespread understanding of some advanced pitching metrics has resulted in better identification of hurlers whose skills are not representative of their surface stats. Pitchers such as Jonathon Niese and Chris Capuano used to be available as free agents, to be picked up after a good start or two. Now astute owners studied their peripherals, recognized their potential and drafted them. This is not to say there isn't any help from the free-agent ranks, just that the inventory is not nearly as plush. Plus, you may not be the only league member who understands xFIP, inflated HR/FB and BABIP, so you may have competition for the jewels that do emerge.
If you are in a league that has impatient owners who routinely drop guys like Max Scherzer, perhaps you should rely on the waiver wire and resist dealing sticks for arms. But if you are in a league in which five guys cursed when Bud Norris was picked, the emerging pitching inventory may not be so helpful.
Myth: Trade from strength to improve your weaknesses.
We have already touched on one problem with this, and that is a strength in June may no longer be a strength in September. Right now, an offer of Emilio Bonifacio for Miguel Cabrera or Troy Tulowitzki is laughable. It does not matter how far ahead in homers, average and RBIs you are, and how far behind in steals you may be. Even if healthy, there are more efficient means of addressing your steals deficiency at this point in the season than dealing Cabrera or Tulowitzki for Bonifacio. That said, the situation changes if this offer is made the day of your trade deadline, and barring a scenario involving one of your players being hit by a bus, you can gain more points with Bonifacio than you lose by dealing away Cabrera or Tulowitzki. Now it's all about the points; throw "value" out the window.
Instead of the above phrase (in italics), the axiom should really be to deal from an area where you can lose fewer points to improve in an area you can gain more points. Strength connotes you are situated near the top of a category. But what if the competitors below you are tightly bunched? It is all about the distribution within each category. You could be third to last in a category, a team weakness. But what if this category is saves, and two other teams completely eschewed closers, and the person above you was ahead by 15 saves? Maybe you can deal your Jose Valverde to a team at the bottom of a tightly bunched cluster in saves for help elsewhere. Here it's all about the net gain in categorical points, not how you are faring in the categories.
The final issue with the above general statement is specific to points leagues. Points are points, regardless of where they come from. In the Rotisserie format, robbing from Peter to pay Paul is a viable strategy, as has been discussed. However, in points leagues, your goal is to maximize the number of points you total. The key here is to construct your team to best take advantage of the "free" means of upgrading your team, namely waivers and free agents. Trading a solid middle infielder to upgrade a weak outfield does not make sense unless net points gained from that outfield spot exceeds net loss in the middle, keeping in mind that using net points entails utilizing the "roster before" versus "roster after" analysis. In addition, forward thinking is necessary here as well. Which is easier to upgrade via waivers, a weak outfield spot or a weak middle infield spot? More often than not, outfielders are more readily available than middle infielders, so you may be able to gain more points by just dropping the weak outfielder and not dealing for a replacement.
The same principle holds true for pitching. It makes no sense to deal a starting pitcher just because you have a strong staff because the points from a pitcher count the same as the points from a position player. However, if you observe some quality free-agent pitching, maybe trading Justin Verlander and Adam LaRoche for Joey Votto and Bartolo Colon makes sense if you can drop Colon and pick up Brandon Morrow, who was dropped after his recent debacle in Texas, or Jeff Samardzija, if your league is slow on the uptake and doesn't believe his improved control is for real. The take-home lesson is not to just shift points around, but cleverly construct your roster to take advantage of upgrades from sources other than trades.
Myth: It's possible to trade for the future while still competing for the title this season.
Well, I suppose it is possible, especially in shallow leagues. More often than not, however, playing both sides of the fences results in coming up short in both. By trading away some future chips, but holding back some as well, you often finish in third with a subpar keeper list. Either trade all future assets for help this season or deal your non-keepers for a future foundation. Simple as that.
The exception is dynasty leagues, but this is a different discussion for a different time. The Cliffs Notes version is keeper leagues have player turnover that replenishes the player pool with top talent as contracts expire or become cost-prohibitive to keep. In dynasty leagues, there is minimal player turnover, so the rebuilding process takes multiple seasons. Therefore, not dealing away everything in dynasty leagues is the wiser avenue. Unless, of course, you are virtually assured of winning since, after all, flags fly forever.
Myth: It's impossible to gain points in the rate categories later in the season.
We're again about to tangent into a topic worthy of its own treatment, but the party line is it's a waste of time to make a deal to improve your batting average or your ERA and WHIP past a certain point in the season. The fact of the matter is it's actually easier to gain or lose points in the ratio categories, up to and including the last day of the season. This will be discussed in future columns, but the fact that the top-to-bottom distribution of stats within the rate categories are tighter than the counting ones, along with the fact that you and your competitors can both improve and worsen rate stats allow for more movement in these categories.
Myth: By dealing for "X," I can make up "Y" points.
A very common error made is forgetting to prorate the distance one needs to make up points in a particular category. We'll oversimplify this, but let's say it's exactly halfway through the season and you are in the middle of the pack on homers, scoring five points in the category. However, with a mere 10 more bombs, you would have nine points. Ignoring the fact that even if this was done properly, there is no guarantee what happened in the first half will repeat. Too many owners target 10 more homers as what they need to capture those four dangling points. The real target is 20 homers, not 10. If the first half did in fact repeat, the gap doubles.
And finally … proper evaluation can facilitate negotiation
We'll end today's discussion by bringing things back to the bevy of "tricks of the trade" pieces. In addition to the psychology and gamesmanship, understanding how to properly evaluate a potential deal can significantly aid in the process by which an offer is generated. The ability to explain to your dance partner how a particular offer helps them can often grease the skids and get the deal consummated.