15 Jul 19
Editor’s note: This is the Monday, July 15 edition of the Inside the Dodgers newsletter. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.
Think of your favorite musical album.
Got it? OK.
Imagine you’re at a party, talking to a group of people, and you mention how this is your favorite album. Some Schmo in the group tells you that he hates the album and questions your hearing skills. Soon you’re engaged in a friendly debate over the lead single, the B-side, that one overlooked instrumental track, how the band “totally sold out” after this album, and how the preceding experimental phase went a little too far. Then, out of nowhere, a man walks over to join your group. He “couldn’t help but overhear” your conversation and – in the ultimate endorsement of the shrinking-universe theory – casually mentions that he assisted the producer during the recording sessions on your favorite album. Over the next half-hour, you are treated to a dissertation on the process of producing the record, how it compared to its contemporaries in the genre, sound glitches, technical limitations, and so on. By the time the producer is done explaining his work, your attention span is exhausted. It’s getting late. You liked how this particular sausage tasted, Some Schmo didn’t, and you were content to stick up for your tastes in a casual setting without learning how the sausage was made and, oh man, would you look at what time it is? Gotta run.
I don’t want to ruin every debate over who “won” or “lost” a particular trade for eternity. Being the buzzkill in the room isn’t the purpose of this newsletter. But I wanted to scratch the itch of a burning topic – the Josh Fields/Yordan Alvarez trade – and why I have a hard time evaluating it in a straightforward manner.
To do that, I have to get into a little sausage-making talk. If you want that, keep reading. If you merely need justification for your belief that Fields is a) an unemployed 33-year-old relief pitcher who struggled in Triple-A, b) not the owner of a World Series champions’ ring, and c) less likely to win a championship in the future than Alvarez, stop reading now. All of those things are true. And if that’s enough to conclude that the Dodgers lost a trade, that’s fine. This isn’t a rebuttal to that opinion.
Rather, I want to step back and propose a better method of evaluating trades. I’ll focus on this trade, but the 10-point rubric I’m about to propose works with any trade. Now is a good time to dive in. There’s a deadline coming up. This thought process is more true to how front offices do these things. It’s more fair. It’s more accurate.
Begin by removing the benefit of hindsight. Imagine it is July 2016. If you’re the Dodgers, you’re going for a championship this October. If you are the Astros, you are not; you’re hoping 2017 might be the year. Their two front offices are talking, each with a different window of contention in mind. The Dodgers have an interest in Fields, among several right-handed relievers who have been made available via trade. They must make an evaluation on who Fields is now, and who he can be for the next year-plus. The Astros surely have interest in several players in the Dodgers’ organization. Alvarez is one. The only way an organization can do its homework on a 19-year-old who’s never played a professional game is to scout him as an amateur. So let’s say the Astros had someone in Cuba who really liked what they saw in Alvarez. It’s the only safe assumption. How does each side ultimately reach the conclusion that this could be a beneficial trade for their organization?
Here’s where it gets complicated. It’s why the Astros employed a former NASA researcher as their director of “decision sciences,” and why they developed a proprietary analytical model (“Ground Control”) to make high-level calculations on mere baseball trades. It’s why the Dodgers’ research and development department team is nearly as large as their active roster. Here are some, though certainly not all, of the factors that came into play on Aug. 1, 2016:
1. Fields’ projected performance after each season before he’s eligible for free agency (2016-19)2. Fields’ projected salary in arbitration in each of those seasons3. Alvarez’s projected pre-free agency performance, including which year he projects to reach the major leagues4. Who Alvarez would compete with for playing time upon his (projected) arrival5. Which players in the organization project to be eligible for the Rule 5 draft the same winter as Alvarez, and what adding Alvarez would mean for each team’s 40-man roster6. The current health of each player7. The potential for each player to get injured in the future, also reflected in their projections8. The projections for the pitcher(s) that would pitch Fields’ innings in his absence from 2016-19 (viz. the opportunity cost for the Astros of not trading Fields, and the opportunity cost for the Dodgers of not acquiring Fields)9. Which position(s) Alvarez projected to occupy in each organization, and who would fill said position(s) in his absence (viz. the opportunity cost for the Astros of not acquiring Alvarez, the opportunity cost for the Dodgers of not trading Alvarez)10. How each player’s personality, work ethic, and other unquantifiable attributes will affect his teammates
Got all that?
I rather like the Fields/Alvarez trade for this model because it’s a useful example within its simplicity. It’s a 1-for-1, 2-team swap. One player is a prospect, the other a veteran. Each team is in a slightly different stage of its window for contention. Run through this 10-point checklist for each team, and you can see how much their interests differ. Hopefully you can see how quickly a multi-player, multi-team trade becomes complicated: throw in another player and/or another team and these variables don’t add complexity to the trade. They multiply its complexity. And certainly I, a lowly writer who’s never worked a day in a major league front office, am underestimating the size of the actual rubric a front office (and its quantitative model) uses to evaluate each potential deal. For example, we don’t know how many offers the Dodgers were weighing for Alvarez, and how many offers the Astros were weighing for Fields. And then there are the unknown unknowns.
My buzzkill point is this: it’s really easy to look at this trade with three years’ hindsight and call it a bad trade for the Dodgers, but any evaluation made with the benefit of hindsight only counts for so much. We don’t get to pat ourselves on the back today for being smarter than the front office on the wrong end of any trade made three years ago. That’s not how this works.
I think the 10-point rubric above offers a way for those of us sitting at home to judge a trade with some degree of intellectual honesty. It requires a little more work, more time, and fewer absolutes in which to couch our opinions. I don’t think three years of hindsight is enough. (That’s my hand-to-the-sky honest opinion on the Alvarez/Fields trade: It’s too soon to judge.)
What does this rubric tell us when we analyze an older, more lopsided trade? Let’s flash back to the Pedro Martinez-for-Delino DeShields deal on Nov. 19, 1993. For a quarter-century it’s carried the mantle of Worst Trade In Dodgers History, holding off each challenger faster than you can google the proper pronunciation of “Yordan.” The Alvarez-Fields deal shares some critical similarities. Martinez-DeShields was a 1-for-1 swap. The Expos were selling off, the Dodgers loading up. It was a baseball trade, not a business deal.
Now cover up the post-1993 portion of Martinez’s and DeShields’ careers with your hands and ask yourself: does Martinez look like a future Hall of Famer to you? Does DeShields look like a decent on-base guy with no power and safe bet to swipe 38 bases a year? (Remember, no peeking!) Congrats. You’ve crossed off 2 of the 10 points. We can cross of a few more with certainty: Pedro’s arbitration salary, each player’s visits to the disabled list, who else in each organization was impacted by the trade. We don’t know everything contained in each player’s physical at the time. We don’t know all the other offers the Expos were getting for DeShields, or the Dodgers for Pedro. There’s some guesswork involved, but not as much as there would have been in, say, 1996.
When you get to the end of this thought exercise, you can honestly say the Dodgers made a bad evaluation on Pedro. Like, a really bad evaluation. Their evaluation on DeShields (as a hitter, at least) wasn’t much better. Neither was their evaluation on Butler, whom DeShields displaced atop the batting order in 1994. He was a better hitter than DeShields over the next three seasons in L.A. There are error bars around every player projection, but this trade was so lopsided, no accurate forecast would have justified the Dodgers making this trade. And that’s what makes this a bad trade. Pedro played 16 more (mostly healthy) seasons and amassed 82 Wins Above Replacement. DeShields played nine more (mostly healthy) seasons, collecting 14 WAR. Each man held that possibility within him on Nov. 19, 1993. Pedro would have brought the Dodgers closer to the World Series than DeShields, yet they traded him anyway. You probably knew that already.
To his credit, Fields brought the Dodgers closer to a World Series in 2016-18 than Alvarez could have. Fields pitched 120 ⅔ innings in a Dodgers uniform and allowed only 36 earned runs (including the postseason), good for a 2.69 ERA. Alvarez made his major league debut last month. To claim it was Fields who cost the Dodgers any of the last three championships isn’t the smartest take. To claim Alvarez would be one of the Dodgers’ three best outfielders in 2019 is only slightly smarter. We don’t yet know who Yordan Alvarez will become, only that he held that potential to become that guy on Aug. 1, 2016, and it was the Dodgers’ job to know this better than any other major league team. It’s up to that guy to make you forget the name Delino DeShields.
-J.P.Editor’s note: Thanks for reading the Monday, July 15 edition of the Inside the Dodgers newsletter. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.
Hidden in the lines, written on the pages
It takes 12 – The Dodgers needed 12 innings to beat the Red Sox last night.
And these 12 – Prospects 365 lists 12 Dodgers among its midseason Top 200.
Left behind – A.J. Pollock’s return to the active roster is not a straight path to center field.
One man down – The Dodgers’ 2015 second-round pick announced his retirement from baseball.
Next men up – Two Dodgers minor leaguers made a jump in FanGraphs’ prospect grades.
Mo money, mo patches – NBA-style advertising patches are reportedly coming to MLB uniforms.