The Best and Worst Teams of the Trade

Editor’s Note: This table in this article has been corrected with new data. Please refer to the “Revisited” article for an up-to-date version of the trading Balance Sheet.

Remember when trades were the centerpiece of the player-transaction world? Remember when players went in both directions, not just one? Remember when GM’s made their reputations from their trading records, and not the size of their player contracts? Remember when we didn’t have to worry about free agents, non-tendering arbitration-eligible players or other mumbo-jumbo?

No? I must be showing my age again. To me, the trade is almost the essence of being a baseball fan, right behind the actual playing of the game. Debating the merits of a trade is pure baseball glory. Was Frankie Frisch worth a Rogers Hornsby? How about that Alomar/Carter for Fernandez/McGriff deal? Trevor Hoffman for Gary Sheffield? Trades are fascinating to debate at the time, and even more fascinating to contemplate in retrospect.

Well, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that, contrary to some impressions, there are still plenty of trades to discuss these days. In fact, trades occur more often now than at any point in baseball history. Here is a graph of the number of trades per team per year, from 1961 to 2000:

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From 1961 through 1965, each team traded players an average of 2.2 times a year. From 1996 through 2000, that figure was 63% higher at 3.6 times a year. If you’re a baseball fan who loves trades, it would seem that there’s no time like the present.

Today’s trades are different, however. These days, more trades are based on issues other than each player’s inherent talent. Issues like free agency, payroll, long-term contracts and pennant races play a much larger role than they used to. As one example, here is a graph of the percent of trades that have occurred during the season, when teams are jockeying for the postseason:

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More trades occur during the season these days, as the leaders add players to push for the postseason, and the lagging teams dump potential free agents. Plainly, free agency and other well-deserved player freedoms have changed the nature of the trade. But it seems to me that the goal of a trade is still the same: to get more talent than you give up. Some teams are better at it than others, as are some GM’s. So the question of the day is: which teams have been the best and the worst at the art of the baseball trade? It’s a big question, but we’ve decided to tackle it.

When I say “we,” I mean myself and Mike Carminati, of Mike’s Baseball Rants. Mike and I have been “Internet baseball friends” for over a year, and we share a love of researching baseball’s past. So, when it’s time to talk about the entire history of baseball trades, there is no better partner than Mike.

Mike and I have looked at every trade in baseball history and calculated the number of Win Shares involved in each trade. Not the number of Win Shares each player had at the time of the trade, but the number of Win Shares each player would go on to amass during the remainder of his career. In other words, we quantified how much every team gave up in future productivity, and how much every team got. And we’ve got a lot of stories to tell.

For this article, I’d like to focus on the post-expansion era — 1961 forward. The Los Angeles Angels (yes, they had the city name in the right order once) and Washington Senators (the last version of a D.C. team) were the first expansion teams, added to the American League roster of teams in 1961, and twelve more teams have been added since. As a result, 1961 is a nice dividing line for this sort of thing. The number of teams started to expand, and the number of players as well. So let’s look at trading trends over the past forty years.

Following is a table of each major league team’s trading record from 1961 through 2002. The first column is the number of trades each team made during that time. The next two columns are the number of Win Shares Above Baseline (or WSAB. See below for an explanation) that each team gave up in trades and received in return. The last column is the difference between the two, and it’s the basis for the ranking of the teams.

This is really a “balance sheet” of each team’s trading prowess, with its WSAB debits and credits lined up next to each other, and a total “Net WSAB”. As you can see, there is a huge discrepancy between the best and worst teams of the post-expansion era. Interestingly, the best and worst trading teams of the past forty years were two of the expansion teams.

Franchise Trades WSAB To WSAB From Diff
KCR 238 1500 880 620
CHW 391 2298 1722 576
SDP 355 2211 1866 345
TEX 392 2401 2137 264
NYY 458 2302 2050 252
BAL 311 1913 1676 237
PHI 339 2263 2095 168
MIL 280 1361 1213 148
MON 315 1979 1836 143
MIN 235 1101 981 120
DET 307 1153 1046 107
ARI 51 229 143 86
STL 463 2796 2714 82
TOR 201 1113 1055 58
CLE 435 3011 2965 46
COL 103 266 274 -8
PIT 283 1901 1931 -30
CHC 407 2476 2511 -35
ANA 321 1479 1527 -48
CIN 367 2152 2264 -112
HOU 323 1885 2020 -135
TBD 26 33 178 -145
OAK 342 1734 1880 -146
FLA 106 653 847 -194
LAD 304 2087 2311 -224
SEA 211 1002 1265 -263
SFG 293 1694 2038 -344
BOS 286 1289 1669 -380
ATL 312 1289 1680 -391
NYM 511 1911 2591 -680

There are a thousand stories behind this table (actually, 3,140 stories, or trades). Several of them have been told very well by our own Steve Treder, most notably the story of Cedric Tallis and the Kansas City Royals. As Steve wrote,

The expansion draft and the sequence of trades Cedric Tallis pulled off for the Royals in 1968-72, gambling away known performance for unproven potential time after time, and coming out way ahead in the exchange time after time, was simply amazing.

The deal that really made Sir Cedric’s record was the pickup of Amos Otis and Bob Johnson from the Mets for Joey Foy. Otis went on to accumulate 285 Win Shares in his career (or 146 WSAB) and Johnson garnered 34 (and 11) himself. For his part, Foy only created 14 Win Shares over the rest of his career, none above baseline.

Which brings us to the Mets. The Mets were the team that actually motivated me to create this table. Several months ago, Michael Humphreys (a fellow Met fan and the creator of the fabulous DRA stat, to be reintroduced soon) commented to me that he thought the Mets had squandered more good talent than any other team in baseball. I thought, “Well, maybe we can figure that out.” Hence, the article you’re reading today.

When it comes to trading players, the Mets have been the ultimate in suckitude. Even in a mathematical sense, they are beyond awful, more than two standard deviations below the average. To show you how bad they have been, here is a graph of the Net Trading WSAB of all teams, highlighting the median, and upper and lower quartiles, and outliers:

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See, the Mets have been so bad at trading players that they are not only at the bottom, they need their own space on the graph. Truly terrible. And to top it off, they made more trades than any other team during this time. They were not only the worst, they were the most prolific. Volume over quality.

You probably know some of the deals:

I’ll have more to say about Mets’ trades in a future article, and I hope to go other places the data takes me. In the meantime, check out Mike’s review of the most lopsided trades in major league history. And stay tuned to both of our sites for future reviews of baseball’s trading history.

References & Resources
WSAB (or Win Shares Above Baseline) is a measure of how much a player contributed beyond a typical bench player. There is a big difference between a player who contributes 20 Win Shares a year for two years and one who contributes 10 Win Shares a year for ten. The first player is more valuable because bench players are easier to find.

WSAB is a makeshift metric, based loosely on some research I’ve been conducting at my baseballgraphs site. For position players, WSAB is each Win Share above ten in a year; for starting pitchers, it’s each Win Share above six, and for relief pitchers it’s each Win Share above five.

For those of you who like the raw numbers, here is a table of the numbers behind those first two graphs, courtesy of Retrosheet:

Decade           Number   Teams   #/Team  In-Season  Percent
1961-1965          217      98     2.21        106      49%
1966-1970          276     108     2.56        132      48%
1971-1975          397     120     3.31        159      40%
1976-1980          355     128     2.77        143      40%
1981-1985          382     130     2.94        161      42%
1986-1990          421     130     3.24        225      53%
1991-1995          371     136     2.73        203      55%
1996-2000          523     146     3.58        280      54%

In fact, all the transaction data is courtesy of Retrosheet, for which we say a daily word of thanks.

Test your knowledge of historical trades with this quiz, for the fun of it.

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