On Poker, Randy Quaid and Evaluating Baseball Trades

December 17, 2012

I doubt I’m breaking the news to many of you: the Kansas City Royals traded Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, Michael Montgomery and Patrick Leonard to the Tampa Bay Rays for James Shields and Wade Davis.

The Reds, Indians and Diamondbacks consummated a ménage a trade involving Trevor Bauer, Shin Soo Choo and, I imagine, roofies slipped to Arizona’s front office.

R.A. Dickey could be traded between the time I write this and click the “publish” button on my fancy internet machine.* 

*Editor's note: That happened.

If you are the type of person who reads this website (i.e. intelligent, prone to flattery) you have probably already read several articles related to these trades. Splashy moves tend to lead to a glut of critiques on the same subject. Nearly all of the game’s best writers: Joe Posnanski, Rob Neyer, Keith Law, Dave Cameron and Jay Jaffe, among others, wrote pieces worth reading.

However, every piece I’ve come across on the Rays-Royals megatrade, and others, either only hints at the real issue or misses it completely. There seems to be a systemic problem among baseball fans and writers in evaluating trades.

Even the aforementioned pieces, all very good in explaining what went down, written by people I greatly respect miss the point on how trades ought to be evaluated.

Trades, especially ones like these involving several high-profile prospects, tend to be evaluated in “if Player X out performs Player Y then Team Z wins” or “if Team A makes the playoffs they win the trade”.

When I’m not breaking down pitching mechanics online (calm yourself, ladies), I am a moderately successful poker player. Like front-officing (there needs to be a verb for that) poker is a game of decision making, specifically decision making based on imperfect and incomplete information.

In Harrington on Hold ‘em: Expert Strategy for No-Limit Tournaments Volume 1 by Dan Harrington and Bill Robertie the authors bring up an example hand in which a player with pocket aces is faced with an all-in decision after a 9-5-2 rainbow flop. While the future outcome is binary, you either win or lose, the correct answer involves balancing the whole range of possible future outcomes then weighing the potential future benefit versus potential losses.

Harrington and Robertie write, “The big mistake that most players make in this situation is not calling or folding, but calling or folding quickly. Their nerves fail them, and they say either ‘He’s got trip nines – I’m beaten’ or ‘Nobody bluffs me off aces – I’m calling’.”

You don’t view the Royals’ winners of the trade because you think Wil Myers is the next Delmon Young, the same way you don’t view the Rays’ winners because you think Myers will be an All-Star.

While Myers won’t be both a bust and a terrific player, he must be evaluated as possibly both. The best we can do is approximate a range of possible outcomes. Viewing future performance as exact or binary is bad analysis.

In 2009 Royals’ GM Dayton Moore took a lot of grief, deservedly so, with his talk about The Process ™.  Moore’s larger point was, is and will continue to be correct; moves should be judged by the decision making process rather than outcome. Outcome is ERA, process is xFIP.

Unfortunately for Royals fans, Moore’s version of #TheProcess is deeply flawed. Myers’ present hit-tool is below-average, but he has terrific power, very good strike-zone management and the physical ability to be an above-average defender in right field. Jake Odorizzi may or may not have an out-pitch, depending on how his off-speed stuff is that day but he’s a good bet to roughly approximate Wade Davis’ value moving forward. Michael Montgomery has a much better chance to live up to the potential he showed early in his minor league career given the Rays’ demonstrated ability to develop pitching talent compared to Kansas City’s. Patrick Leonard is very far away, but at least a chance to develop into a usable asset as a power-hitting corner infielder.

The Royals traded away all that for the age 31 and 32 seasons of one of the 18-25 best starting pitchers in baseball who is a bit underpaid but certainly not cheap and a No. 4 starter/bullpen arm with a team-friendly contract. Each of the players involved in the trade may improve or regress, over or underperform, be injury-plagued or freakishly healthy. Still, the Royals, in any reasonable estimation, gave up more potential future production. A lot more.

The only way this trade makes any sense whatsoever for Kansas City is if they can close the gap in long-term potential value with a short-term talent boost. A win today is worth more than the promise of a win down the road. However, the Royals have done a horrible job of maximizing their shot at contention in 2013.

In the poker hand above, since you can’t know exactly what your opponent has, the correct move is to assign a range of possibilities for your opponents’ hand. Say, given what you know about the player and the way the hand has played out, you estimate that he’ll have a high pair (like Kings or Queens) roughly 50% of the time, trips roughly 40% of the time and be bluffing 10%. Like any good player, know that you’ll win 92% of the time against another pair, 97% of the time against a random bluff and only 10% of the time against three-of-a-kind you know that you’ll still win the hand about 60% of the time (92% of 50 + 10% of 40 +97% of 10 = 60), so calling is the right move.

Wil Myers is nearly guaranteed to produce more wins for the Rays than Shields will for the Royals, if only because the difference in contract length - Myers has six years of service left before free agency while the veteran Shields has only two. While Shields, who’s averaged 4.6 WAR over the past two seasons, is the better player right now Myers should have been part of the Royals’ present.

Let’s say there’s a 15% chance Wil Myers is a replacement level player next year (0 WAR), a 40% chance he’s a little below-average (1.5 WAR), 30% he’s well above-average (3.0 WAR) 10% he’s an All-Star (4.0 WAR) and 5% he’s an MVP caliber player (6.0 WAR). That makes Myers’ worth 2.2 WAR next season. Sounds about right, huh? That’s not guaranteeing he’ll be a slightly-above-average everyday player, only that he figures to be on the whole.

Given that Myers could have taken over in right field for the human out machine Jeff Francoeur, who was “worth” -1.2 WAR last year, Myers’ 2.2 WAR should actually have been viewed a 3.4 win upgrade.

The Royals lost 90 games last year, finishing 16 games back of the Detroit Tigers – who will add Victor Martinez and Torii Hunter to last year’s pennant winning squad. To be legitimate contenders next year, the Royals need to improve by, roughly, 20 games. The Royals starting pitchers struggled mightily last year while James Shields is really good he’s not a 20 game improvement over any big league pitchers.

If the Royals contend next year, and it is possible, the heavy lifting will come from in-house improvements made by Eric Hosmer (.232/.304/.359) and Mike Mousetakas (.242/.296/.412) as well as improved health from Salvador Perez and Lorenzo Cain, two up-the-middle defenders who each missed over half the season. If the Royals’ core of young position players take a massive step forward they will contend, if they perform at their 2012-levels they will have another losing season - with or without James Shields.

The Process ™ is clearly broken for the Royals. There’s virtually no way to spin a small marginal upgrade on 90-loss team as worth giving up the entire big league career of Wil Myers, plus everything else they gave up. That makes it bad trade, no matter what happens in the future.

There’s a scene late in the movie Independence Day when Randy Quaid is signing up to be a fighter pilot as part of the human’s last stand against the alien hoard. Quaid says he’s eager to fight the aliens because “On a personal note, ever since I was abducted by aliens ten years ago, I’ve been dying for some payback. So…I just want to you to know, I won’t let you down” as Adam Baldwin and another random guy, who’s name I don’t know because he wasn’t in Firefly, look at Quaid like he’s a drunk, hillbilly, lunatic even though they now know for a fact that aliens do exist. Everything about Randy Quaid screams ‘drunk, hillbilly, lunatic’ (not even talking about his role as Russell Casse anymore) so loudly that it’s safe to treat him as such even while you’re in the in bunkers of Area 51 preparing a counter-offensive against aliens.

Maybe Didi Gregorius does turn into the next Derek Jeter, Arizona GM Kevin Towers made that comp, but the important thing is that absolutely nothing in Gregorius’ past performance or skill set would indicate that.

Crazy claims should remain crazy claims even if they happen to be later proven correct. It’s not impossible that Gregorius goes on to approximate Jeter’s career but it is incredibly unlikely, irrational to believe and inappropriate for someone in Towers’ position to suggest.

I’ll save my deeper thoughts on the Arizona/Cleveland/Cincinnati trade, as well as my theories on Independence Day (how exactly did Gulf War Veteran get elected president in 1992?) for a future column. The bottom line is that trades ought to be judged by forecasting a range of possibilities based on current information. It’s unfair to decision makers to hold hindsight against them.

Baseball fans and media are now very good at analyzing players. To take the next step, we need to take a lesson from the poker in how we analyze decisions. You don’t win the trade by having the best outcome; you win the trade by being more likely to have the best outcome.