The Frugal Gourmet

Growing up in a solidly working-class home, one of the earliest economic lessons I learned was the value of a well-made generic. Over the years, budget conscious folks experiment with store-brand versions of products from American cheese to cough syrup. As time passes and more trials are conducted, you learn things that help refine your preferences to form a fairly nuanced set of tastes. Store brand ketchup and cola doesn’t really approximate Heinz and Pepsi, but store brand mustard and ginger ale do a good job mimicking French’s and Schwepps.

I remember that having a cupboard speckled with store-brand goods sometimes created some social tension when a friend from a better-off family would come over to hang out. Some of my friends didn’t trust me when I told them that the difference between Frosted Mini-Wheats and Frosty Wheat Squares (or something) was more in their heads than in reality. Sometimes, we’d have to go to the store with my mom. When we were there and mom picked up the generic items, sometimes I even made a point of grabbing my friend and pointing out the overwhelming similarities in the ingredients. Some of my friends came around and others never did.

To this day, I know people who swear that Advil and ibuprofen are different products. Kudos to the work of brand managers, I guess. (Bonus points for those who turned their products into eponyms – products for which a specific brand name have risen to the point that the brand of product is commonly used to describe the underlying product itself– like Band Aid, White-Out, and Kleenex.

These memories came flooding back to me this week as a co-owner and I have been trying hyperactively to make deals to add a closer and/or upgrade one of our weaker outfielders. What do we have to offer? A whole lot of delicious tasting, well-made products with very little brand recognition.

My co-owner and I are in the position where the friend just refuses to accept the overwhelming inherent similarities between the ingredients on the two boxes. Check out our pitching staff in this 12-team mixed league.

Clayton Kershaw
James Shields
Francisco Liriano (claimed off waivers when somebody jumped ship early)
Anibal Sanchez
Jhoulys Chacin
Gio Gonzalez
Michael Pineda
(on DL – Brandon Beachy).

This is an absolutely filthy staff. We have five of the 20 top ranked starters, according to Yahoo. The problem is—only one of them could skip the line to a club by mentioning his name.

Originally, my co-owner and I sat down and said that we were going to be willing to trade any of our starters with the exception of Pineda or Kershaw for a stud closer. Shopped them around, no dice. So, we scaled back our plan and added about eight or 10 more closers to this list we’d accept. Still, no dice.

Really? We can’t land Huston Street, Francisco Cordero, or Sergio freaking Santos for Anibal Sanchez, Gio Gonzalez, or Jhoulyis Chacin?

I get it; brand recognition is comforting and familiar. Over time, people develop emotional relationships with products, through which people project properties, attributes, and powers onto these items beyond what their ingredients necessarily imply capable of these products.

But, here’s the other thing to remember, high-end brands rarely go on sale; they are very rarely bargains and often times actually cost more than they are worth. Store-brand goods, however, often present opportunities for big bargains—the trick, as in actual bargain shopping in the supermarket, is knowing which stores brand items are bargains (imitation Corn Flakes), and which are just poor substitutes for the real thing (imitation cream cheese).

I invite all potential trading partners over to Fangraphs to look at the ingredients in the Anibal Sanchez “Tussin” and tell me there’s 50 percent more active ingredient than in the Clayton Kershaw brand name expectorant?

James Shields has benefited from some luck this year, but his peripherals have shown us what kind of ingredients he has—and the caliber, or product, he’s capable of producing—for years now. Chacin may be getting the most luck of this group of overachievers, but acknowledging this is giving most of the league too much credit, as far as I’m concerned. Thus far, none of those who rejected our offers have come back with comments about Chacin’s LOB percentage looking unsustainable, and his BABIP reeking of good luck. They turned him down for the same reason they turned down Sanchez, who suffers from none of these problems, because they don’t recognize the crest on the chest pocket of the polo shirt.

So, what are my co-owner and I left to do, sitting atop this pile of no-frills gold bars, and needing to trade some for some textiles?

If it seems nobody believes in our guys, then we will double-down on our devotion. We’re going to have to hold on to our undervalued assets and sell the Birkin bag. (Did I just lose points for making a handbag reference in a fantasy baseball column?)

Store-brand goods are hard to trade. Other teams are uncomfortable granting them appropriate value if they haven’t owned the unfamiliar talent and grow their own appreciation for the worth of that asset. If you draft well, every year you will wind up with talent that you can’t trade for equal value because the market’s perception has yet to catch up to the immediate reality. A few weeks ago, I wrote about my own cognitive dissonance as I tried to shed my branding blindness in relation to Alex Avila.

If you own Alex Avila or Anibal Sanchez, chances are that, unless a potential trading partner owns that player in a another league, he’s going to be yours to keep. Keep your store-brand delicacies. Enjoy them. Lick your fingers.

Conversely, if you worship at the altar of ingredients labels, and not glossy print ads and celebrity endorsements, throw out some lowball offers for the store-brands that are the real deal. You never know when the owner of such a commodity is too spoiled and brand-conscious to respect it.

We tried to offer our league-mates deals that were actually in their favor in terms of overall value, but they were too cool and have heard of Anibal Sanchez-brand jeans. That’s alright by me, because at the end of the season, his initials will be stitched across the behind of girl they lust after and they’ll gawk while they walk into a pole.

We know you like designer goods, fellas, so line up; Clayton Kershaw sweaters are on sale… complete with the designer price tag to match.

Full disclosure – My co-owner and I also think that other teams may just be deciding to freeze us out of the closer market. We’ve been hopping between 1st and 3rd place for a while now without competing in saves. As long as we have this Achilles heel, our team has a points ceiling, but if we get back in the mix in that category, our upside spikes. So, it’s also possible teams have noticed we have one profound weakness only and have decided it’s not worth plugging that hole even if they gain a few points from it because they risk creating a juggernaut. But, again, if that’s the case, we’d prefer other teams just tell us this, as it would save time for both sides.

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  1. Andrew said...

    Excellent point.

    It’s always a cheaper route to trade for the players whose production outweights their name value (Adam Lind, James Shields, etc.).

  2. Joel said...

    I’m pretty sure Shields and Liriano can skip the line at any club in Tampa and Minneapolis respectively since they’ve both been there for 5+ years now.

  3. Jason B said...

    Great article Derek. I think fantasy owners have long memories, particularly when someone they have owned in the past disappointed them or failed to meet expectations.  It’s not unlike poker players – they tend to remember bad beats a lot longer than their fortunate ones.  Similarly, owners remember that ugly 5.18 ERA that James Shields sported last year and think, “Nah, he can’t keep this up.” 

    I’ve even done it myself- after owning Jimmy Rollins in four leagues last year and not getting any sort of return on that investment, there was zero chance I was bidding for his services this year in any league even though I knew deep down he’s one of the five best SS in the NL…or as the deep thinkers in Great White said, “once bitten, twice shy, babe.”

  4. Kevin Wilson said...

    It’s funny that you used the phrase “polo shirt” in passing. Aren’t these really “golf shirts” made famous by Polo by Ralph Lauren, becoming an eponym itself?

  5. bennythedog said...

    A couple of things…

    Directly related to the article’s topic… I;‘m finding that more teams just don’t want any more starting pitching.  Whether fact or fiction, the perception is that there’s a plethora of starting pitching out there, as evidenced by your store-brand gems.  This coupled with the fact that there is only one closer per team (or none as evidenced by the Dodgers and several others), they are a much hotter commodity than in year’s past.

    @Jason – Great white’s version is a cover of Ian Hunter’s original.

    @Kevin – well put, aren’t all short-sleeved, collared shirts called Polos?

  6. jd said...

    i share in the frustration of trying to get some value back on your generics. and it’s been my experience that the managers who turn their noses up at yours always seem to demand a premium for theirs.

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