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Talkin' about trades, winners and losers with Bill James

We are back with the continuing evolution of an experiment that last appeared three weeks ago: a combination column with Boston Red Sox senior advisor and baseball writer extraordinaire Bill James...

Today's topic is a winding conversation about baseball trades. The trade deadline has just passed, and as usual it looks like some teams really helped themselves, and as usual it looks like some teams did not exactly help themselves. It happens every year. But mostly we talk about the whole concept of trading players, what Yuniesky Betancourt really means, the history of the trade deadline and, yes, school teachers.

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Bill: Do you know how the trade deadline came about? It came about because of some rather unusual trades in 1922. That year, IN BOTH LEAGUES New York was one of the strongest teams -- the defending champion, and the eventual champion again -- while in both leagues the Boston team was down and out, eventually finishing last. In both leagues St. Louis was contending with New York (and there were other teams in contention).

The 1922 Braves had a decent pitcher named Hugh McQuillan. Boston traded/sold McQuillan to the New York Giants on July 30, which greatly irritated Branch Rickey (then running the St. Louis Cardinals). Rickey argued (very publicly) "How can we compete with New York when they can just go to Boston and buy a player when they need one?" He fanned the flames of outrage about this among the St. Louis fans, which spread also to the fans of the other contending teams -- Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and the Cubs.

A week before that happened, the same thing had occurred in the other league. New York (the Yankees) had a problem at third base, so they went to Boston (the Red Sox) and bought/traded for Joe Dugan, the Red Sox third baseman. The AMERICAN LEAGUE fans in St. Louis were equally outraged, which spread to the fans of the other American League contenders -- Detroit and Cleveland and the White Sox.

So you had the fans in about eight cities angry at New York and Boston for finagling these in-season trades to help New York win. Commissioner Landis agreed, and issued a rule prohibiting trades from being made after June 15.

The reason for the trade deadline was kind of forgotten over the years, but the trade deadline itself remained, and remained June 15, I think ... into the '80s? '90s? I don't know when it changed. It doesn't seem like it was that long ago.

Joe: If you think about it, trading players is a funny concept. There really isn't a comp in real life. Yes, you might get transferred inside your company. You might end up, after a series of coincidences, switching places with someone else.

But in general, real life doesn't allow a school principal to say, "Mr. Johnson, pack your chalk and teacher's guides, you are going to a high school in Muskogee. We found a young 10th grade history teacher there we really like."

Bill: Would school districts be better if the school district administrators could trade teachers? Let's say district 331 desperately needs a grade school Principal. District 247 has a veteran Principal who's OK, but they also have a younger guy who just got his PhD in School Administration, so District 247 trades District 331 a school principal for a Science teacher, an elementary teacher's assistant and a school psychologist who is going to be a free agent at the end of the term anyway. Does this make school districts work better?

The teachers union probably would have conniptions about it, but in a strange way it might not. If you're going to trade for a 7th grade teacher, you probably want to have the best information you possibly can have about that teacher that you're trading for. What's his attendance rate? How many of his kids clear the state AEA (Annual Educational Assessment) standards? How does he get along with the other teachers? The mere fact that you MIGHT trade for him would probably push you to maintain better and better stats about his performance.

Joe: In many ways, this would make life a lot more interesting. Imagine showing up at your family doctor only to find out that he/she had been traded to a practice in Tallahassee for two nurses and a proctologist.

But, of course, we fully accept the idea of trades in baseball. We don't just accept the idea, we LOVE trades. Or we HATE trades. We can spend countless hours thinking up trades that will never happen, discussing rumors that may or may not have any basis in reality, arguing about deals that will not become clear for years and years.

Bill: I vividly remember, when I was 14 years old, hearing Harry Caray announce, during a Cardinals broadcast, that the Cardinals had traded Ernie Broglio to the Cubs for Lou Brock. He re-counted the statistics of the two players and then said "So, on paper, at least, the Cubs got the better end of the deal." Which, of course, proved to be famously untrue.

I think there's a syndrome there, that when you make a trade, the team which the public THINKS has lost the trade, most of the time, has probably won the trade in the long run. You're either looking forward or looking back. Looking backward, Broglio was 21-9 and 18-8; Brock was a .260 hitter. But looking forward, it was all different.

Joe: Instant analysis on trades, while fun, is often pointless. Right now it looks like Philadelphia made a fabulous deadline trade by getting Cliff Lee. Here is the comparison between Lee and Toronto's Roy Halladay since the beginning of the 2008 season:

Lee: 30-12, 2.74 ERA, 384 innings, 283 K's, 69 walks, 3 shutouts.Halladay: 31-15, 2.74 ERA, 394 innings, 335 K's, 59 walks, 3 shutouts.

Now consider that Lee will make about half the money of Halladay ... it seems like one heck of a deal, for this year and for next year. But, hey, you don't really know how Lee will pitch in Philadelphia (though that first-game shutout does seem to offer a hint). And you don't really know what kind of pitcher Carlos Carrasco or what kind of catcher Lou Marson will be for Cleveland.

Bill: Is this the third straight year, or the fourth, that the Phillies have made a trade like this? A year ago they traded for Joe Blanton in late July. Blanton made 13 starts for them and didn't lose -- he was 4-0 -- and they won the World Series. They gave up Adrian Cardenas and Matt Spencer, who are better known as Adrian Cardenas? and Matt Spencer? Which doesn't mean that they're not good; it just means that they're not good YET.

Two years ago they traded for Kyle Lohse on July 30. Lohse made 11 starts for Philadelphia, and he didn't lose, either; he was 3-0. In 2006 they made a post-deadline (Aug. 19) deal for Jamie Moyer; Moyer made eight starts down the stretch and was 5-2.

Joe: Bill can't say it since he works for the club, but I think the Red Sox were big winners at the deadline too by picking up Victor Martinez and Casey Kotchman without giving up the players who seem to be their biggest prospects. And there's a lot to like about the Tigers getting Jarrod Washburn and the White Sox getting Jake Peavy. But, again, it's all speculation. You never really know about trades until the smoke clears.

One thing that IS clear already is that the Kansas City Royals did not help themselves by picking up shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt in a trade from Seattle. Not only is Betancourt hitting .113 in his first 16 games, but on Sunday the Royals had him bunt with two strikes (he bunted foul for the strikeout) and also pulled him for a pinch-hitter in the eighth even though the Royals were leading at the time and you would presume that they would want to keep him out there for defensive purposes (the Royals' stance is that he's an above-average defensive shortstop even though the advanced defensive stats suggest that he might be the worst in the major leagues).

Bill: I think in some way that trades are more central to the UNIQUE appeal of baseball (among sports) than we often realize. A friend of mine who was an excellent chess player once told me that a chess game is like an argument without words -- an argument about how chess should be played, about what is important and what is overrated.

I think this is true of trades as well, and that this adds a "debate" argument to baseball. The Royals trading for Yuniesky Betancourt is fascinating because it makes a statement about what the Royals value, and what they merely PRETEND to value.

Joe: This is exactly right. The Royals CLAIM to value on-base percentage -- but Betancourt does not get on base (.298 career OBP). The Royals CLAIM to value baseball character -- but Betancourt was often maligned in Seattle for going through the motions.

One of the things that fascinates me about sports is that obsessive fans love their teams (and hate them at various times) and follow them closely and have IDEAS about what makes the team go. But, inevitably, we cannot be entirely sure. What does my team value? What does my team not value? What is the overriding vision -- if the general manager of my team had an unlimited amount of money and unlimited access to players, what kind of team would he build? A fast team with great defense and speed and pitchers who throw strikes? A team of sluggers and power pitchers? A team or gamers ... players who will coax more than most out of their own talents? Or would the GM build a blend of everything?

In the end, we don't know. Because pretty much every GM says the same thing. They all publicly value whatever it is that they all publicly value. Sure, we want players who get on base. We also want aggressive hitters. Yes, we want a hitter with discipline. We also want players who play outstanding defense. And players with power. And speed. But they have to be smart. And fundamentally sound. And don't get me started on pitchers.

But trades tell you what the general manager REALLY wants. I think that's why they're so emotional for fans. A good trade tells you that your team wants the same things you want. A bad trade tells you that you are rooting for the wrong team.

Close

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