A Holistic Approach To Trade Evaluation
As the bard Dave Barry once wrote “The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion, economic status, or ethnic background, is that, deep down inside, we all believe that we are above-average drivers.” The same goes for all fantasy baseball players’ belief that we are above-average trade negotiators. Each of us may not think we’re the best at trading in our particular leagues, but none of us thinks we’re the worst or even the median. How can you tell, then, if you’re an above-average trader? And once you realize you’re NOT above average, how do you improve?
The best description of trading I’ve ever read was by Mike Newman, of the dearly-departed website and newsletter RotoScouting. “A fair trade is one in which both owners are hesitant to pull the trigger,” he once wrote, and while the sentiment is by no means unique to him, he articulated it perfectly. You can test this perspective in the polls of the Trader’s Corner pieces Nick Doran writes here at TDG– many trades have a clear winner or loser, but the best trades may be the ones where neither side is fleeced.
This theory is easy enough to test in trades with one or two players moving from Team A to Team B. Occasionally you’ll have a trade that feels even in the heat of the moment but will leave one side waking up full of regret the next day– maybe your Carlos Correa for his Kris Bryant felt good at the time, but when you share email that trade to TDG and find nearly 90% of readers take the Correa side, it’s hard to feel like maybe you should have asked for a little more.
When one evaluates any trade, the most common measure is to look at who got the best player and declare them the winner. If there’s some doubt about who the best player is, the next measures are to go with your gut, and MAYBE look at the context that led Team A to deal the best player to Team B (or, maybe, there is no clear ‘best player’ involved). Carlos Correa for Kris Bryant seems like an easy one to evaluate because Correa clearly has so much going for him: he plays at the premium position, has a slightly higher pedigree, and performed just as well if not better to date as Bryant. One could dig deeper into that trade and find reasons why the Correa side might sell for Bryant: maybe the economy of that particular league is such that trades just don’t happen frequently and the team acquiring Bryant REALLY needed a third baseman. If, indeed, both teams were hesitant to pull the trigger for this trade, perhaps it really was fair despite public perception of it being lopsided.
And that’s a simple trade to evaluate. A more complex example, also from the most recent Trader’s Corner, can be found in the trade of Nolan Arenado and Aaron Judge for Todd Frazier, Dee Gordon, and Brad Ziegler. TDG readers voted three to one in favor of the Arenado side: Arenado is no doubt the best player moving in the trade. Looking a little bit deeper, though, it’s easy to imagine Todd Frazier and Dee Gordon combining to provide more value, especially this year, than Arenado. Ziegler and Judge are not difference makers in a trade like this, but getting an extra player for either side never hurts. Again, it’s easy to imagine both sides being hesitant to pull the trigger here.
These examples underline one of my personal belief that while it’s easy to declare a winner or loser in a vacuum, no trade actually occurs in a vacuum. Indeed, declaring a trade good or bad is much easier than declaring a trade negotiator as good or bad, and the latter is far more important.
The surest sign of a bad trade, then, is when one side is willing to accept the trade immediately after it is proposed, no question asked, no negotiation needed. If you find yourself always having trades accepted as soon as you propose them, or always accepting trades proposed to you, then either you’re getting very lucky or you’re doing something wrong.
This isn’t to say that you should always low-ball in your offers or demand more; indeed the second surest sign of a bad trade negotiator is lack of trades. If your league is unwilling to trade with you, that’s perhaps an even stronger sign that you’re doing something wrong.
There is no magic number of trades to make in order to be good at trading, or “active.” Much of this is league-dependent: first year startup leagues will likely not see very much trade activity as teams wait to see how their luck shakes out, and shallow leagues or leagues with very deep benches may not see much activity either as teams fill holes from their own reserves or from waivers. But the only way to become better at trading is to practice in an environment that will challenge you, and I firmly believe there is no team that could not be improved via trade.
The mark of an above-average trade negotiator, then, is not in the fruits of his or her individual trades, but in the ability for his or her team to stay competitive. A good trade negotiator will constantly be tinkering with his or her roster in order to improve it, constantly be offering and discussing trades, and churning pennies into nickles into dimes into quarters into dollars.
One piece of advice fellow TDG author Frank Sides provided recently was to always make an offer to any team once they update their trade block. If you see what they’re offering or what they need, start a conversation with them. It may not lead to a trade, but it will keep the conversation moving.
I add to this the advice that one should never be afraid to shop a player around, especially a star, for the best offer. If you are close to accepting a trade that involves a stud who isn’t on your trade block, drop a line to other teams or email your league and announce that you’re entertaining offers for this player. Trade negotiations don’t come with exclusivity clauses, and your goal when discussing any trade should be to return the most value you can to your team.
When you’re trying to evaluate how much value you’re returning to your team, it’s important to look beyond an individual trade and consider your recent history of acquisitions and roster construction. You may end up losing an individual trade (and if it feels close when you pull the trigger, chances are it won’t feel as close a few months later when one player slumps or breaks out), but if you’re winning more than you’re losing then the individual loss is cushioned.
Finally, to become a better trade negotiator you have to know the way your league values players, and be willing to hold when the league isn’t valuing properly. Examples of this were discussed in the most recent TINO episode, where the example was given of dynasty leagues giving unreasonable offers for veterans like Jose Bautista and Robinson Cano. If you’re trying to trade away a player and no one is coming near your asking price, you should certainly evaluate your asking price but you should also consider whether your league is operating rationally. Just because your league values draft picks or prospects more highly than you doesn’t mean you’re wrong or that you need to change. You do need to understand what your league values, though, so that you can plan and respond to trades appropriately. If the Jose Bautista’s of the world go for pennies on the dollar in your league, you may want to trade for them but you may never be able to trade them away.
Becoming a better trade negotiator is a constant process of learning and evaluating. Always be actively discussing trades with your league mates, keep appraised of how players are valued both in and outside of your league, and above all always push trades to the point that both sides are hesitant to accept.