The baseball transaction landscape has certainly changed, even in just this past decade. The best players used to be available in free agency, but now that teams are signing their young, talented players to long-term contract extensions, these players typically don’t reach free agency until around age 30 — a bit past their prime. We’re also not seeing as many trades as we used to years ago.
Chris Antonetti, Indians president of baseball operations, has some thoughts on how the trade market has evolved. Via MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian:
There has been an evolution in trades over the course of the last 10 years or so, where there’s a lot more information on players across organizations. And I think what we’ve seen is teams are starting to value players similarly. And, when that happens, it can make it a little more difficult to find matches on trades, when one of the things that leads trades to happen is you have different evaluations of a player. One team may value a player a certain way and another team values him differently, and there’s an opportunity to overlap. Those types of trades are becoming a little bit less common than they would in the past. Now trades happen when there are just areas of surplus or areas where one team may have a surplus in a place and another team may have a deficit. You can match up there. Or, you can match up where maybe teams aren’t valuing present-year wins as they are future-year wins — teams that might be rebuilding — and you can match up on trading with teams that have different priorities on different time horizons.
That, of course, makes perfect sense. Analytics have become ubiquitous in front offices across baseball and the only variation really comes from the techniques used to gather the data and the weight given to certain types of data. Before a team invested in analytics, another stats-savvy team might have been able to work a trade — for instance — for a pitcher coming off a bad season but with an abnormally high batting average on balls in play. But that pitcher’s team now knows to expect mean regression, so that team will no longer give up the player for less than market value. That’s at least one type of trade that has become increasingly rarer in recent years.
Once a counterculture, Sabermetrics has become the establishment. With most teams approaching the game similarly, these front office types must find their edges — or, to use Moneyball lingo, market inefficiencies — in new ways.