Mailbag: We Get Questions. A Lot.
It’s been more than two years since we launched this site, and we’re happy to see that it’s growing and that people enjoy it.
We explain how we arrive at our trade value estimates in our About section, detailing the process for both major leaguers and minor leaguers. But we often find ourselves answering questions that probe a bit beyond that. Below are some we are asked fairly frequently.
“How can you reduce every player to one number?”
Sometimes, we get grumpy people saying stuff like “There are no absolutes.” “You can’t put a number on a player like that.”
And to that we say, yes, we mostly agree. That’s why we provide a range of low, median, and high for every player. Some players get traded on the low side, some on the high side, but in aggregate, it tends to work out. It follows a bell curve, where most are in the middle. But we find that most people just want the median-outcome number, perhaps because it’s easier to grasp. We also, of course, use the median number in our simulator because it makes trade proposals easier to calculate. But don’t forget that there’s a range.
“How do you account for market variance? One team might pay more than another.”
Absolutely. We trust our users to understand that some teams might overpay or underpay, often based on need or leverage. That’s what makes it fun, and why the comments threads can get interesting.
Essentially, the trade market is a barter system. In the old days, a farmer could go to a market and trade two pigs for a cow. There were probably negotiations. One guy might ask for three pigs. Another might ask for one pig, plus a chicken. Eventually, this evolved into a more sophisticated market, with real-time dynamic pricing, as you can now see on the Chicago Board of Trade. This is typical of barter markets — they eventually get more efficient.
The baseball trade market is no different — every team uses analytics now to value players, and most use similar models. Our model tries to mimic those, so fans can have some sense of how to play along.
Are we always right? No. This is a guide, not gospel. We’re proud of our 95% success rate. But we’re not perfect — no model ever is. And we admit mistakes if we’re too far off, and always try to learn from those.
We’re sort of like the linemakers at a horse race. If you ever go to Saratoga or Santa Anita, you’ll see that there’s a “morning line” — opening odds for each horse in each race. But then, as the public places bets, the odds move up and down in a range. The morning line, like our estimates, is a guide.
“Why is [X prospect]’s value so high?”
We get this question from time to time. The thought is that, since prospects have yet to be tested at the MLB level, they shouldn’t have much value. But of course, the prospect evaluation process is quite sophisticated, and while there is a range of outcomes, by and large the higher-rated prospects make more of an impact at the MLB level than the lower-rated ones. So that means the higher-rated ones should be valued more highly, as we do. It’s a theoretical valuation, yes, but nonetheless a well-established one.
“Why is [X former top prospect]’s value so low?”
Jo Adell, Nick Senzel, and Deivi Garcia are examples of former top prospects whose values may seem low here. This may contrast with the sense in many fans’ minds that there’s still a lot of upside to guys like this, and that we’re not accurately reflecting that.
It’s a fair point. We started with that assumption as well. When we first launched, we realized we needed to account for these types of post-prospects, if you will, who have graduated, yet haven’t quite yet established themselves as MLB regulars. We blend each of those estimates on a weighted scale, based on MLB playing time. At first, we set the scale at three years, figuring that that was a reasonable ramp-up period for the player to fully adjust. So if a player had completed one year of MLB time, we would give that a ⅓ weighting against a ⅔ prospect weighting.
But we soon realized that was off. Guys like Fernando Tatis Jr., Pete Alonzo, and Trent Grisham all established themselves sooner than expected, as did many pitchers. Further, we noticed former top prospects were being traded for less than what the weighting might have suggested.
So a year ago, we changed the scale to a two-year ramp. The good news is, it’s much more accurate. The bad news is, it means values change faster, and with more severity. But it’s been validated several times:
*At this year’s trade deadline, Jesus Luzardo was swapped for a rental. He had been struggling at the MLB level, but he was only a year or so removed from being a Top 10 national prospect.
*Hunter Harvey was a Top 50 national prospect not long ago. He was recently DFA’d by Baltimore.
In both cases, their stock had fallen at an accelerated rate, more in line with our two-year curve than our old three-year curve. So that’s why Adell and Deivi are lower than you might expect.
“How could that guy have lost that much value in a year?”
We get this, too. Couple things: 1) Sometimes prospect ratings drop dramatically. A guy who had some helium a year ago might have had a rough year. This was especially prevalent this year, because 2020 was a lost season for prospects, which means before that we were dealing with ratings from 2019 (with a few exceptions). A lot can change in one year, but in this case, it was really two years.
Further, prospect values run on a logarithmic scale, so if a player drops from, say, a 60 to a 50 (in prospect rating terms), he’ll lose about half his value. You might think that’s crazy, but that’s what the research shows. If he drops from a 50 to a 45, he’ll lose more than half his value again. Another reason is because of scarcity — a 45 is a very common, slightly-below-average major leaguer, of which there are a lot; a 50 is essentially a 2-WAR regular, of which there are less; and a 60 is an all-star.
“Why is that star player’s value low? How can it make sense that you could get him for only a minor prospect?”
Because the site is based on the concept of surplus value. (More on that here.) The important point is that salaries matter. And budgets matter.
Most of our users here understand that. But sometimes perception overrides that reality. When Nolan Arenado was in the trade rumor mill last year, analysts like John Smoltz on MLB Network said, “Whoa! He’s getting a haul! Back up the truck!” There was surprisingly little disagreement on that point.
Here, we crunched the numbers and saw a negative surplus number. Not only would Arenado NOT bring a haul, the Rockies would have to kick in money or player capital just to make a deal. Turns out we were right.
When a team trades for a player, the team takes on the contract, which means they inherit the obligation to pay the player what he’s owed. In Arenado’s case, that was a huge amount of money, through his decline years. Taking on a high salary can limit a team’s ability to sign or trade for other players, so it’s not usually a good thing.
Why is [oft-injured, but talented] player’s value so low?
Because injury risk matters. Teams don’t want to spend precious capital on a guy who’s going to spend half his time on the IL. Keep in mind that the best predictor of future injury is previous injury.
As an example, Byron Buxton is a popular trade target. Many fans salivate at his talent, and think he’s going to bring a haul.
We don’t. That’s because he hasn’t played anything close to a full season of baseball since 2017. We’re going on five years now of persistent injuries. Any rational GM would look at that and expect, at best, half a season of play. So he’s priced accordingly.
Why did X player (who I thought was good) get DFA’d, non-tendered, or had his contract option declined?
Usually because he wasn’t worth what his projected salary would be. Wade Miley is a decent pitcher, but no team wanted to give up anything more for him because he was set to make $10M. According to our model, he’s worth $9.2M.
We’ll likely see that happen with more well-known players for similar reasons.
Those are just a few examples of the types of questions we get. We’re always happy to answer them, so reach out to us if you have any.