Is it cheating? A possible collusive trade and its aftermathby Patrick DiCaprio
August 28, 2007
In my high stakes league we had a series of transactions that were outright cheating. At least in my opinion. The involved owners vehemently disagree. What do you think?
This is an 11-team league, with seven hitting categories (BA and OBP are combined and counted double) and fve pitching categories (ERA and WHIP and saves are double). The maximum point total is 176 in each league, and 352 overall. I have never seen a team over 300; last year's champ was in the 260 range, and this is a pretty standard point total for the winner. At the time of this collusive trade I had 290 points, give or take (this was two months ago; right now I have 285).
Here is the deal. The numbers and letters after the salary are contract statuses with my explanation:
Team A trades: Derek Lowe $20s2 (can be kept for next year), Derrek Lee $26 s1 (cannot be kept next year without $10 increase), Willy Taveras $7s1 (cannot be kept without $10 salary increase), John Lackey $14L1 (can be kept next year at $10 increase), Victor Martinez $24 s3 (can be kept for two more years), Jose Lopez 4 s2 (can be kept for another year).
Team B trades: Chase Utley $13 L2 (is signed for next year at 13), Ryan Freel 18 s3 (can be kept for two years but won't be), Cha Baek 0L9 (rookie-once he loses rookie status he is $7 and can be kept for one year), Robinson Cano 19 s2 (can be kept for next year), Ross Gload 0 L9 (rookie), and Matt Garza 9s3.
When the trade was posted Team A announced that it would not accept counter offers for any smaller part of the deal, namely for any individual player or group of players. Given the tight trading restrictions we have it was not possible at the time for any other contending team to counter offer the entire deal. We have a tight salary cap and a salary minimum and because of earlier trades the other contenders couldn't do it. Nevertheless there was no lack of trying. The key to my opinion that the trade was collusive is that both owners were smart enough to know exactly what they were doing. They knew that no team could make a viable counteroffer for the entire deal.
Team A further announced that he had a "busy" work schedule and would have limited time to talk about counter offers.
Here is my prima facie case of cheating. Feel free to tell me if you think I am way off base:
1. Team A was out of it.
2. The two owners are co-owners together in another high stakes league.
3. Both owners are former champs of this league so they obviously know what they are doing.
4. Team B was in a tight race for third place at the time and four teams cash. There were four teams within 10 points of each other.
5. Because of contract status and salary, only Utley and Gload were keepers, and possibly Cano, for Team B. Cano was hitting .240 at the time and both owners agreed that he probably wasn't keepable. Happily Cano has at least hit since this trade, frustrating Team B's intent. Freel was hurt at the time of the trade and won't be kept. Baek is a “keeper” only because he can be kept but he has little value, especially once he loses rookie status and carries a $7 salary. Gload is no great shakes either but at least he is theoretically a keeper albeit of little to no value.
Of the players this “dumping” team was trading I thought Lowe, Victor Martinez and Jose Lopez were clearly keepers. Team A could also keep Lee or Lackey for one more year by increasing their salary by 10. Lackey is worth it and will likely be re-signed, but not Lee. So much for rebuilding. Team A is not making this trade to set himself up for next year, in my view.
6. On its face the talent going back and forth is not even.
7. Obviously better counter offers were made for individual players in the deal were rejected. For example I offered Tom Gorzelanny and James Shields or Sergio Mitre for Tavares and Lopez, where Gorzelanny, Mitre and Shields were all terrific keepers at less than $10 for the next two years. So, even if Utley and Cano were his targets, he STILL could have gotten them. All he had to do was trade me Tavares and Lopez, and obviously Team B isn't going to back out of this deal over Tavares.
8. Team A asked me only to email him with counter offers. I said that since he was allegedly in a time crunch I would post a few counter offers and he could just "accept" any that were sufficient for him according to our trade posting rule. He declined this offer. I took this to mean he didn't want the league to know what counter offers were out there.
Suffice it to say that I knew full well that my counter offers wouldn't be accepted. I purposely made inflated counter offers just to prove that collusion existed.
This trade set off an avalanche of counter moves by other owners that now seriously threaten the league's existence. After this collusive trade the following happened. I was not involved in any of these dealings, so I am somewhat unbiased in my allegations:
1. Multiple teams traded more than 20 players in two weeks to each other. This includes Teams A and B, not surprisingly. Virtually entire rosters changed hands in a two-week span among five teams.
2. Some teams made huge trades of multiple players with alleged "trade back" agreements after the season. This is outright bald cheating in my opinion. A trade back is simply a trade where Team X will trade players to Team Y and Team Y agrees to return those players to Team X after the season is over. As far as I am concerned these trades should be subject to the strictest scrutiny in the offseason.
No one will know for sure that a "trade back" deal is made unless it is inadvertently revealed, or if another owner blows the whistle (which is what happened here). All the commissioner can do is review the attempted offseason trade back with very strict scrutiny. If I trade player X for player Y with a hidden "trade back" agreement, they needn't be traded back for each other in the offseason. I can technically reacquire player X for player Z with none the wiser. The only protection is the commissioner.
3. A few owners conspired, in a deal for Hunter Pence, to prevent another owner (Team C) from meeting a time limit for posting counter offers. This was done on purpose and was explicitly addressed by the owners involved. It was a blatant attempt to hurt one owner for personal reasons.
4. Team C announced his intention to quit the league, as the victim of the conspiracy above.
5. Team A above announced his putative intent to quit. Good riddance as far as I am concerned, though I doubt it will come to pass.
One more data point on the collusion issue. In a deal the week before this collusive deal I was negotiating a deal with Team A. I had a long discussion with Team A about Felix Hernandez and we reached an agreement to make a deal for The King. Within five minutes of it being posted the owner of Team C called me and we posted a better offer, knocking Team A off the clock.
When I tried to counter just for Tavares and Lopez Team A essentially told me that he was unhappy about being knocked off the clock so quickly in the Felix Hernandez deal, and without mentioning names said that he and Team B were "upset" about some of the other trades that happened in the league. I understood this to mean that Team A and Team B were in a "we'll show them" mentality.
As far as the counter moves, which were at a minimum unethical, other owners saw what was happening and didn't want to be left at the altar. Who wants to stand by and watch two guys collude to win a high stakes league? By responding in this manner it made the situation much worse as far as the league's existence is concerned. There are many issues here including a failure to respond appropriately by the commissioner that will need to be addressed in the offseason.
Overall it was clear to me that the trade was collusive. Playing in high stakes leagues means that there are trades that raise ethical issues virtually every year. When relatively big money is at stake tempers can flare (the owners aren't rich guys, they are all guys who just "moved up" from typical leagues). This season has seen the most egregious examples I have ever seen of nefarious dealings in my 20 years of fantasy baseball. Is it worth it? I am not sure after this year. If you think this is bad, wait until next week...
Patrick is a member of SABR's Statistical Analysis and Science of Baseball Committees and writes about fantasy baseball at The Fantasy Baseball Generals blog. He has achieved the dream of all of his MIT classmates. No, not making millions in the tech markets, but writing about baseball for free. Feel free to send along all insults and comments here.
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