For the haves and have nots

Earlier this week, Ben Pritchett dispensed some fantasy trade deadline advice and inspired me to offer some up as well. Perhaps the single piece of advice that I give most frequently is to make sure you don’t get left at the altar because you made the good the enemy of the perfect.

Often times, fantasy owners conflate “value” with production, wins, or points. If you are in a position where you need to make a trade, then, well, you need to… make a trade. You certainly shouldn’t make an unreasonable or unfair deal. But you should understand that it is not always prudent to prolong your pursuit of a transaction to extract every last drop of value you may be able to squeeze from your trade bait. With each passing day, the very deficiencies compelling you to trade in the first place get further entrenched; the window of opportunity through which you can emerge victorious closes ever so slightly tighter. Getting 90 cents on the dollar today may, in fact, actually be a better move for you than getting 97 cents on the dollar 10 days from now.

Indulge me for a paragraph while I make a drawn-out analogy. Say you are parked at a meter that just expired and you don’t want to move your car. You see the meter maid a 100 feet from you, walking toward your car ticketbook in hand. The problem? You have no quarters. But, you do have a dollar. If somebody offered you three quarters for that dollar, wouldn’t it be in your interest to take it? By steadfastly refusing to concede value in a transaction, you risk paying the greatest price of all, the large fine you’ll be given if you do nothing at all. At such a point, those quarters are just a better “fit” for you than your dollar, even if they are “worth” less.

The parking meter will expire on every team in your league but one. If you’re not in first place in your league, you need to be conscious of the ticking meter and understand that in the vast majority of cases, the status quo is not going to save you from expiry.

By no means do I encourage taking a deal that isn’t reasonable, or trading just for the sake of doing so. I’m telling you to be proactive. Understand that value is relative and that a one-to-one exchange of “value” is not always possible. Do not cut off your nose to spite your face; be active, reasonable, and address your needs. Hoping the wiles of randomness also work out in your favor never hurts either.

As a matter of practicing what I preach, not long ago a co-owner and I engaged in a deal like those discussed here. We traded Clayton Kershaw straight-up for Hunter Pence. We were both a bit surprised at how low the market for Kershaw was and agreed that he was “worth” more than Pence, but we’re running away with Ks in the league and needed some upgraded across-the-board offensive punch. Pence was more valuable to our team than Kershaw. We had been shopping Kershaw for a little while, targeting players like Matt Holliday and Andrew McCutchen but didn’t seem to be making much progress, so when this offer came our way, we decided it was in our best interest to take it, check it off the list, and move on to the one or two other deals we’re planning to try to get done before the deadline.

Remember, the fantasy baseball trading market is imperfect and inefficient. Positioning the good as the enemy of the perfect is a recipe for complacency, which is to say a recipe for the bad.

Since most of the advice given around this time is aimed at those not currently in first place, let me also throw a bone to the haves and help them out a bit, too. As I mentioned in my previous column, one of the fist things a leading team’s owner must do is to assess his team honestly and determine whether the team’s performance is sustainable, and whether its leads in categories are “real.” Assuming an owner performs that exercise and is still confident in his team’s superiority, his mantra going forward should be risk-aversion. The teams behind the first place team are most likely going to attempt to alter their strategies either subtly or profoundly to challenge the leader. Once the team behind you makes the first move, the first place team is presented with three options: stand pat, follow suit, or zig when your opponent zags.

When you’re leading the league, it is important to remember this self-evident, but critical, truism—since you can’t really improve your standing (other than the relative strength of your standing), a bold move or change of course is generally more likely to hurt you than help.

In some rare cases, for example this one, as described by one of my favorite fantasy writers, Patrick DiCaprio on THT a few years ago, you may even be able to exercise a “dominant strategy.” However, the number of externalities, variables, and workings of the game imply that pure dominant strategies aren’t always available to an owner.

If your rival gets fires the first salvo, you’re left to make one of three choices—stand pat, follow suit, or zig to his zag. Responding to another team’s move with one of your own isn’t technically a “dominant” strategy, but the underlying philosophy can be similar.

Holding steady, following suit, or zigging in response to a zag can all be reasonable moves for a first place team. Regardless of coursed of action, my approach in these scenarios is like my approach in the first rounds of a draft; I consider downside more strongly than upside. The shared premise in these scenarios of pseudo-dominant strategy and actual dominant strategy is that protection is key—you’re not playing for the big inning, but for the one insurance run.

Upon the passing of the trade deadline, your opponents will largely lose the opportunity to alter the standings through swaps of player personnel, so in many ways this is one of the last strategic battles a first place team has to fight until the very end of the season. From the deadline on, there’s still plenty of opportunity for strategy to influence outcomes, but on more of a micromanaging level. The post-deadline season is when everybody’s got their money in and the dealer starts flipping over cards. A bad bet is an acceptable reason to lose—reckless betting isn’t.

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