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MLB trade rumors feeling dull? We need a new way of thinking about the drama of baseball's deadline deals

I have a friend who is a Texas Rangers fan. He doesn’t nerd out on advanced stats or read prospect rankings or follow them religiously. He just checks the score and keeps tabs on whether they are good or not so good. When they swung through New York, we decided to go catch a game. In deciding which tickets to buy, he had only one question: When is Martin Perez pitching?

Perez, a 31-year-old lefty in his second stint with Texas, has been the best pitcher on the team this year. He has been one of the best pitchers on any team this year. After a decade of serviceable starts and nothing more, Perez has ripped off a 2.72 ERA across 106 innings, a top-15 mark among qualified starters. The one-year, $4 million deal that brought him back to the Rangers has been an uproarious, surprise success even as the team has slipped out of the playoff picture.

It would also seem to make him an intriguing trade deadline name. Certainly no one above him on that ERA leaderboard is more likely to move.

But where one question from a casual Rangers fan — when does Perez pitch? — has a quick, concrete answer, the follow-ups do not.

Should the Rangers trade him? Could they get someone good in the return?

I love baseball, love talking about baseball. But I hate the way I answer these questions.

“Well,” I start with a sigh, “It’s complicated.” You know about defensive shifts, bullpen usage and home runs, the obvious ways statistical and technological advancements have reshaped baseball. The most seismic changes, however, may be the ones that have shaken and fractured the conversation around the game.

There is a chasm between what a fan absorbs watching games and the logic that underpins actual decisions. For ardent observers, those mounting layers of sophistication can add complexity and new avenues to explore. For most fans, though, they have simply piled up as barriers to entry.

The intrigue and anticipation of mid-July, in particular, gets bogged down by the reality that MLB front offices are making deals in a language few understand.

Like the Grand Canyon, this divide isn’t one that can be bridged so much as it can be traversed. There are new concepts, considerations and caveats in play — there’s no way around that. But with a little guidance, it’s possible to find the drama in baseball’s new landscape. Let’s take it step by step.

Will Martin Perez still be on the Rangers after the trade deadline? It's a hard question to answer. (Photo by Tim Heitman/Getty Images)
Will Martin Perez still be on the Rangers after the MLB trade deadline? It's a hard question to answer. (Photo by Tim Heitman/Getty Images)

Should he stay or should he go?

If the trade deadline were a flowchart, it would start by asking the same question of every team: “Buy or sell?”

Understanding a team’s motivations is crucial to understanding moves, or non-moves. As MLB front offices have become more rigorous — and more homogenous — in assessing their teams’ chances, those motivations have often become harder to ascertain.

A July surge or swoon can absolutely swing entire deadlines, but it’s more about probabilities and long-term planning than gut feel. Take those Rangers. When they ran headlong into a burgeoning Baltimore Orioles team last week, the resulting sweep felt like a season-altering reversal of fortunes for both teams. Suddenly, the Rangers are looking up at an Orioles team that had been stewing in the cellar for years, and the young O’s are within spitting distance of a playoff spot.

How much did it change the plan for the next three weeks? Probably not as much as you’d think. Even with the expanded postseason creating a 12-team field, the Rangers and Orioles have slim chances of playing in October. FanGraphs placed the Rangers’ odds at 3.8% entering Tuesday, while the Orioles are at 1.4%.

The era of tanking has helped most fans grasp this part of the equation. Teams are working on timelines that involve more than one season, and a great many of them aren’t prioritizing the current one. So when players like Perez or Orioles slugger Trey Mancini have contracts that don’t guarantee their presence for 2023, the question is less about whether they can help this year and more about how much sense they make for next year.

Finding out what teams think of themselves becomes the interesting part. The Rangers committed more than half a billion dollars to free agents this winter — including Corey Seager, Marcus Semien and Jon Gray. Do they have enough confidence in a disappointing roster to stay the course? The Orioles, meanwhile, weren’t expected to be remotely competitive this year. If they wind up with the same upshot — gear up for 2023 — it will have very different connotations.

What teams care about is a window of contention, packing the maximum number of playoff appearances into a certain span. If chasing 2022 success jeopardizes the bigger picture, they’ll back down, but if it dovetails with the window, they might go for it. Some teams might make seemingly conflicting decisions in one day. They can buy and sell, a path The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal suggested for the Orioles, with eyes on a more distant prize.

What the moves provide is less a thumbs up or thumbs down on 2022 and more an updated set of expectations that they won’t say out loud.

How MLB teams value players isn't always easy to decipher

As you’ll hear roughly a thousand times between now and the Aug. 2 trade deadline, there’s no Max Scherzer on the block this year. But even huge names aren’t the guiding light in baseball trade drama. A key to understanding trade deadline drama is being realistic about what actually drives deals. Because a single player’s impact on any baseball team is limited — and because teams are so aware of that — there is less overlap than you’d think between success, acclaim and value.

Success: The very impression of a player’s season can diverge wildly from the reality depicted on your TV screen. Lots of players, like Perez, have stretches that look successful on the surface but wither under more advanced scrutiny. Many ubiquitous mainstream stats like ERA are too fluky, too luck-dependent or too simple to accurately assess players when there is so much more detailed data at teams’ disposal. Ideally, a trade target will have a reassuring multi-year track record of above-average performance, like Cincinnati Reds starter Luis Castillo. Beyond that, front offices are going to define success on their own terms. That could mean placing trust in underlying numbers — or “peripherals” — like strikeout rate, which tends to be a more reliable indicator of strong pitchers than ERA.

Acclaim: Elite players gain fame and buzz from those track records, but ascribing value to something like All-Star status is misleading. When Chicago Cubs trade chip Willson Contreras was named the starting catcher for the NL All-Star team last week, ESPN talking heads said it increased his trade value, which is not how it works. There are zero MLB general managers who adjusted their assessment of Contreras because he got voted into the All-Star lineup.

Value: Castillo is not just a more trustworthy pitcher than Perez, he’s a more sought after one because he remains under contract for 2023. Years of control, particularly when they come with the relatively suppressed salaries of younger players’ arbitration years, are treated like a value multiplier in a video game.

So no, there’s no Scherzer on the trade market this month. Perhaps just as important, there’s no Trea Turner. The all-around shortstop who came to the Dodgers alongside Scherzer was probably more responsible for the immediately notable prospect package that went back to the Washington Nationals. He had a year-and-a-half left on his deal, which gave the Dodgers' front office a surefire star at a premium position and the flexibility to let Corey Seager walk in free agency. It widened their competitive window. Blockbuster prospect returns increasingly require this sort of player and this sort of contract situation.

Contreras, even though he’s a well-known name, an All-Star starter AND in the midst of a stellar season with 13 homers, may not net the Cubs a return that’s easy to get excited about.

The best deal of the 2021 MLB trade deadline? It might have been the Yankees' move to acquire relief pitcher Clay Holmes, even though he was a middling Pirates arm at the time. (Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images)
The best deal of the 2021 MLB trade deadline? It might have been the Yankees' move to acquire relief pitcher Clay Holmes, even though he was a middling Pirates arm at the time. (Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images)

The projection problem

Adding to the confusion? The best player your team acquires may not appear to be good at all.

While data advancements have taken many key competitive moments off the field and hidden them behind the curtain of front office secrecy, they have also given us some revelations. Some of the most interesting stories of 2020s baseball are episodes of Extreme Makeover: Player Edition. Digging deeper than those peripherals, teams are seeking players with qualities that aren’t yet being leveraged into numbers on the field. The ability to hit the ball at elite exit velocities. The ability to make a ball move in extreme ways.

That’s what the New York Yankees saw in Clay Holmes, who now closes games for them and has a 0.46 ERA this season. But to be appropriately excited about that trade in the moment — which sent infield prospects Diego Castillo and Hoy Park to the Pittsburgh Pirates — you would have needed either a time machine or a drinking buddy who worked in the Yankees’ analytics department. Holmes had a 5.57 ERA and no cache to speak of at the time.

It’s a bit of a trick mirror. Holmes — a player few fans had heard of and even fewer could get pumped about — is the dream, while an exciting looking player whose star fades after the deal is the nightmare. It’s the outcome teams are most wary of.

“We just don’t want to buy the dip,” a Dodgers executive once told The Athletic’s Andy McCullough, explaining why they want to steer clear of splashy but perilous players who could turn into pumpkins, or regress back to their usual, less special selves.

On the question of whether the Rangers should trade Martin Perez, a lot depends on whether they believe in his improved statistics this year, and whether other teams believe in it more or less than them. If that seems unwieldy for fans to gauge, it’s because it is. Statcast data has been a gift for quantifying all sorts of athletic feats and individual plays, but it has also given us a glimpse into how complex the conditions of play are. Specifically, it has shown us the baseball’s inconsistencies have huge ramifications for how the game looks — including who is good and who is bad.

And well, a lot of teams may see a dip coming for Perez, whose specialty has been avoiding home runs. His terrific season exists in the world of a deadened ball that has suppressed homers around the league, and sparked confusion as to how it is interacting with Humidors now used in every park. Teams all use complex, proprietary internal projection systems to forecast player performance. And if they are anything like the public projection systems, they probably foresee a return to higher home run rates and more middle-of-the-road results.

Still, one of them might see a useful No. 4 starter for a playoff team. Maybe they have a group of unheralded prospects they would give up for him. And maybe the Rangers see a player in that group they think they could turn into a star.

In 2022’s version of MLB, this is how a surprise deal gets done. It just does very little for the Rangers fan who liked watching Perez pitch, and usually win.

The fun of baseball is in questions, not rumors

Perplexing does not have to be the enemy of entertaining. In fact, if we accept the deal as a starting point instead of the endpoint of the conversation, it might be the best thing a trade could be.

Call it the Windhorst Corollary.

That NBA trade, a relatively minor piece of business, turned at least one brain to mush on live TV because the motivations behind it were so unclear. The fun was in decoding the rationale, or at least attempting to decode it.

In that case, the drama was ratcheted up by the specter of influencing Kevin Durant’s future. In baseball there’s rarely a domino as monumental as Durant switching teams, which would instantly change NBA title odds. But there are a litany of inscrutable deals with ripple effects that could eventually swing the World Series … or a World Series,

MLB teams have learned that the difference-makers are often on the margins, and we need to be honest about that. The juggernauts of the league sign the very best players, but they also assemble and manipulate 40-man rosters in widescreen strategic moves. You never know when they just snagged a contributor for a championship level team, but you can be certain they’re trying almost every time they move a muscle.

If there is hope for MLB trade deadline intrigue in the era of highly financialized front offices, that’s it. Yes, every deal could be about as exciting as a blip on the graph of your 401K earnings. Or it could be a mystery, a prompt to figure out what each team saw in the players they went after.

I have no idea what’s going on in Utah, but I know almost every MLB trade has a lot of interesting reasoning under the surface, waiting to be discussed, if we can make the possibilities accessible enough for fans to consider.