Texas Hold ‘Em is a game filled with odds, but the numbers are pretty simple. If you have a 35% chance to hit your flush on the turn when someone raises you 45% of your stack, you don’t have the odds to call. However, odds become finicky when you get more and more productive on the margins. For example, if I’m 35% to hit my flush, but I also know my opponent is holding a straight, I can reasonably expect a big payday if I make my hand. However, if I believe my opponent is holding a pair of deuces, then it’s not worth it, as my expected earnings are drastically less. Basically, when my future earnings increase I don’t have to stick to the odds as conservatively. The relatively small gamble I take could earn me a huge outcome.
This is why I was baffled when I saw some of the comments from Giants fans over at one of my favorite blogs, McCovey Chronicles. Anger, rage, and shock were expressed as if the Giants had just dealt Nathan, Liriano, and Bonser for Pierzynski all over again. Now, I won’t hold an intelligent fan base to their gut reaction to a deal that involves one of their better prospects, but many fans are still acting as if Neal Huntington simply pulled one over on Sabean. That just didn’t happen. Thus far in 2009, the Giants have allocated about 600 plate appearances to Emmanuel Burris and Edgar Renteria to respectively play second base and shortstop. Burris has been awful with an OPS+ of 49. Renteria isn’t much better at 66. However, Giants fans would be quick to point out that Juan Uribe has been solid at second base. This is true, but his .339 BABIP will not last, and Fangraphs has him sitting on an extremely generous .315 wOBA the rest of the way. If Uribe were to do that, it would be his best season since 2004, so it is pretty unlikely. On the other hand, Freddy Sanchez is off to a torrid start with his new club, and has been worth about 3.1 WAR per season over the past four years, a number severely lowered by his outlier 2008 campaign. In fact, the Giants would improve themselves even more if they took Keith Law’s advice and moved Uribe over to shortstop (his UZR at short has been bad this season, but it’s a tiny sample size and he’s been solid there historically).
Tim Alderson is not Tim Lincecum. One the day of the trade, BP’s Kevin Goldstein tweeted (@kingclip) that Alderson has been “continuously overrated throughout his career.” After the deal, other reports had come out that Alderson’s velocity has been down recently, and Goldstein even wrote about a scout describing Alderson as a big league pitcher, but “strictly back of the rotation.” While that’s still pretty good for a prospect, there has to be some diminishing returns for the Giants. They have a rotation that will include Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Jonathan Sanchez, and Zito/someone else in the near future. At some point, the Giants were going to have to deal from their strength (young pitching) to bolster their weakness (quality hitting). And that’s exactly what they did.
Now, back to poker. So far we’ve dealt with this deal in a semi-vacuum, disregarding most of the context. But let’s not forget that the Giants are currently leading the NL Wild Card race. Since making the deal their odds of making the playoffs, according to PECOTA, have increased by about 10 percent. In analyzing this trade, we’re going to assume that the Giants lost in a strict value sense, just like a poker player would if he paid 45% to hit 35% of the time. The player would be making an unwise move if he were simply playing for some measly blinds, just like Sabean would be at a loss if he was making this deal in December rather than near the trade deadline. But just as the flop has come and the player has seen a big opportunity available, Sabean has seen the first four months of the season go by and knows the hand he is playing. The playoffs are a big deal for any team; they are exciting, lucrative, and strengthen/grow the fan base, and entering the playoffs with Lincecum and Cain makes you a good bet to bring home the hardware. So with every percentage point the Giants come closer to making the playoffs, Sabean is closer to hitting his flush and watching as a drunk European kid in a Full Tilt visor and shades turns over his busted straight in fury. The bottom line is that the Giants did slightly overpay for Freddy Sanchez, but context truly matters, and sometimes you take a risk if it means the possibility of huge earnings in the near future. Brian Sabean has taken his risk, and now we’ll wait for the cards to play out and see if the Giants can cash in.