One of the neat things about the MLB trade deadline is that it involves everybody. Not every player, but every team, every executive. Some teams are out of the race come July. Some teams are practically out of the race by May. But in advance of the deadline, rumors and discussions leave no franchise untouched. For fans of teams who're out of contention, the deadline is a much-needed bump of excitement before a long, dreadful August come-down.
But the deadline is the most exciting for fans of teams in contention. These are fans who are already daydreaming about the playoffs, and about the World Series. The deadline allows them to imagine certain acquisitions that improve the team's odds of winning the World Series. Fans believe their teams are pretty good, except for one or two holes; fill those holes, and what's to stop the teams? Only one team can ever win the World Series, but fans have a funny way of not exactly realizing that.
Prospects are the name of the game for some, but immediate improvements are the name of the game for others, and that's what the deadline is really about. Decent, good, and great teams trying to improve on the fly, now that their weaknesses have been revealed. The idea is simple. Go out and get a talented player. You can then plug that talented player into your lineup, rotation, or bullpen. All of a sudden, you now have your lineup, rotation, or bullpen, plus that talented player.
But as should come as no surprise, since the trade deadline comes at the end of July, what's left of the regular season makes for a pretty small sample. Get a guy right at the deadline and you have him for about two months and the playoffs. Get a guy in advance of the deadline and you might have him for two and a half months. Do you know what can happen over a two-month sample? Baseball, with results other than those you might expect.
For the hell of it, I slapped together a really quick research project. In the table below, you'll see the names of most of the significant players exchanged before the 2011 trade deadline. These are the players who were intended to be immediate additions. Shown are their OPS+ or ERA+ figures before getting traded, their OPS+ or ERA+ figures after getting traded, and the difference between the two. This is to help prove a point that doesn't need proving.
Some of the differences are crazy, like Mike Adams "slipping" from a 315 ERA+ to a 212 ERA+. You can end up with ridiculous numbers when you're dealing with relief pitchers, for whom entire seasons are still small samples of data. So it is; that's something worth keeping in mind. Teams who are in the market for bullpen help are looking to get better in 20 or 30 innings.
Here's an odd twist: the average of all the numbers in the first column is 125. The average of all the numbers in the second column is 123. (We can combine OPS+ and ERA+, since they both bounce around a 100 average.) As a group, the players acquired at the deadline kept up their performances. But look at the individuals. Doug Fister took off down the stretch with the Tigers. Derrek Lee turned it up with the Pirates before getting hurt. At the other end, Michael Bourn was a disappointment for a Braves team that collapsed. Ubaldo Jimenez didn't help the Indians get over the top. David Pauley did nothing for the Tigers, and Jason Marquis made two and a half ineffective starts for the Diamondbacks before getting hurt.
When a team adds a player, the team has a pretty good idea of the player's talent. Talent levels don't really change, and the changes are gradual. What the team can't possibly predict is how the player is going to perform down the stretch in the regular season. They can set an average, which would just be a plain statistical projection, but the less time there is remaining in the season, the wider the range of potential outcomes. There's less time for players to regress to their averages, and more of an opportunity for players to be all freaky-like.
The point that didn't need to be made: there are no guarantees with trade-deadline trades. There are no guarantees with anything in baseball, but there's no predicting when a decent player will have a great two months, or when a great player will have a mediocre two months. Michael Bourn seemed like a great idea for a Braves team at 63-46. The Braves collapsed, and Bourn lost 92 points off his OPS. Bourn's still with the Braves in 2012, of course, but they didn't make that trade with an eye to the future. They thought they addressed an immediate need, and then Bourn didn't out-hit Nate McLouth.
Taken as a whole, the MLB regular season is a pretty big sample. But any big sample is but a collection of littler samples, and what's left now is a little sample. Some contending teams will make impact trades before the deadline, and some will not. The actual signals of the trades could end up lost in the random, uncontrollable noise. A trade made as late as the end of July is Skee-ball in the dark.