MLB’s extended postseason changed the trade deadline — and maybe not for the better

MLB’s extended postseason changed the trade deadline — and maybe not for the better

This is a week of big decisions for almost every general manager in baseball. Ahead of Tuesday’s trade deadline, front offices must figure out exactly where their teams stand in the playoffs and how much risk they’re willing to tolerate in the name of making a run this year, versus selling off talent and reloading for the future. Such dilemmas can end up having ripple effects on franchisees for years (or decades) to come – no pressure!

This year’s deadline is even more interesting than most. First, there’s the giant elephant in the room: Washington’s openness to trading 23-year-old righty Juan Soto, a once-in-a-generation hitter who would shake up the World Series odds and command a huge return for both prospects and MLB- clear talents. Then add another wrinkle: the change in MLB’s playoff format for this season, which adds two additional postseason berths and offers a first-round bye to each league’s top two seed. Both of these factors will fundamentally change the calculations surrounding each team’s willingness to stand pat or go for it down the stretch.

While we can’t tell you where Soto is headed, we can offer our annual assessment of which teams should buy and sell at the deadline and to what degree. For that, we call what’s known as the Doyle number, which represents the amount of future six-year wins above replacement a team should be willing to give up to improve its talent by 1 WAR this season. (This ratio — named after former Detroit Tigers pitcher Doyle Alexander, in honor of an ill-fated 1987 trade in which he was prominent — is based on a combination of factors, such as a team’s Elo rating, its playoff odds and its chance to win the World Series.)

Generally speaking, top contenders have sky-high Doyle numbers — meaning they should go all-in to win right now — while non-contending teams are closer to zero, meaning no amount of WAR this season would be worth adding to cost of future. Teams on the fence between buy and sell have a Doyle around 1.00, so they may be best served by either tactic, depending on the offers available to them. According to Doyle, here are the leading buyers – and sellers – of the 2022 trade market:

How our Doyle Number calculation looks at the 2022 trade deadline

Postseason Odds (according to the FiveThirtyEight Prediction Model) and Doyle Numbers* for 2022 MLB buyers and sellers

TEAM PO% WS% DOYLE TEAM PO% WS% DOYLE
Dodgers >99% 26% 2.13 Red Sox 22% 1% 0.31
Yankees >99 21 2.04 Giants 22 1 0.22
Astros >99 1. 3 1.84 Orioles 8 <1 0.10
Brave 98 9 1.70 Marlins 3 <1 0.06
Mets 99 8 1.66 D-backs 1 <1 0.01
Blue Jays 89 5 1.30 Rangers 1 <1 0.01
Brewers 83 3 1.02 Rockies <1 <1 0.01
Padres 83 2 0.90 Angels 1 <1 0.01
Rays 55 2 0.75 children 1 <1 0.00
twins 60 2 0.71 Red <1 <1 0.00
Sailors 68 1 0.67 Tigers <1 <1 0.00
Phillies 54 2 0.57 Royal <1 <1 0.00
Cardinals 56 1 0.45 Pirates <1 <1 0.00
White Sox 61 2 0.44 Athletics <1 <1 0.00
Guardians 35 1 0.32 Nationals <1 <1 0.00

*The Doyle number represents how many wins of future talent a team would have to trade away now for one additional talent win in 2022.

PO% refers to a team’s odds of making the playoffs; WS% refers to the odds of winning the World Series. Odds for playoffs and World Series are as of July 27.

SOURCES: FANGRAPHS, ESPN

Granted, the World Series favorite Dodgers and Yankees have the highest Doyle numbers; in fact, both are over 2.00, meaning they should be willing to part with double their future WAR to improve this year. But there are fewer clear buyers than in the past, as only seven teams have a Doyle value above 1.00, compared to nine teams that fit into that classification last season. Meanwhile, seven other clubs are squeezed between a Doyle of 0.40 and 0.90, indicating an abundance of teams where the best deadline tactic isn’t entirely obvious.

A small field of potential buyers is not unusual; for example, 2019 also saw only seven teams with a Doyle number over 1.00. But in this case, the new postseason format acts as a limiting factor. With more teams in the playoffs, the value of a borderline campaign is increased … but the value of everything else is decreased. Here’s one component of the Doyle formula — the odds to make the division series as a function of regular-season wins — and how we tweaked it to account for the new format:

The effect is subtle, but the new format suggests that teams that are good — with at least 90 wins, for example — but not great are less likely to advance in the playoffs. This in turn depresses those teams’ Doyle numbers, as the prospect of reloading for next season and beyond looks better if your World Series odds this season look worse. After all, why waste great prospects for a season that has little chance of ending in a championship?

But that’s not to say some of those mid-tier teams wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) buy if given the chance to add talent this year. Here are the clubs that Doyle believes could conceivably be deadline buyers — meaning they should be willing to give up more future talent than the current talent they get back — if they are able to add either a typical starter (worth 2 WAR), an All-Star caliber player (5 WAR) or an MVP-level superstar (8 WAR):

Size up the deadline market buyers

MLB trade deadline buyers (according to Doyle Number), with team weaknesses* and amount of future WAR the team should trade away to acquire different levels of talent

Team Starter (2 WAR) All-Star (5 WAR) MVP (8 WAR) Biggest weakness
Dodgers 4.5 12.0 20.7 3B (22nd)
Yankees 4.3 11.7 20.4 SS (18th)
Astros 3.9 11.0 19.6 C (30th)
Brave 3.7 10.4 19.0 SP (29th)
Mets 3.6 10.2 18.6 C (27th)
Blue Jays 2.9 8.4 15.8 SS (17th)
Brewers 2.3 6.9 13.2 CF (25th)
Padres 2.0 6.1 11.9 SP (24th)
Rays 1.7 5.2 10.2 C (23rd)
twins 1.6 5.0 9.8 RP (20th)
Sailors 1.5 4.7 9.4 2B (26th)
Phillies 1.3 4.1 8.0 RF (30th)

*Based on the category in which the team ranks lowest in WAR relative to all MLB teams. Through games July 27.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

The Minnesota Twins, for example, probably shouldn’t go after small acquisitions—adding 2 WAR of talent at the 2022 deadline wouldn’t be worth giving up 2 WAR of prospects for the future. But their expected short- and long-term championships would roughly balance out if they added 5 current WAR of talent for 5 future WAR of prospects, and they could break even by adding an 8-WAR talent even if they gave up 9 .8 WAR of prospects in return. Even a team like the Phillies, with a 2 percent chance of winning the World Series and only a 25 percent chance of making the division series, can be justified in going big at the deadline if the draw improves its World Series odds enough. (We all happen to know of a right fielder who might fit that bill, though general manager Dave Dombrowski has been careful to quiet some of those rumors.)

What may be surprising are the teams that is not it on that list — including the Cardinals, White Sox, Guardians, Red Sox and Giants, as well as the upstart Orioles. While some of those clubs have decent playoff odds in the FiveThirtyEight forecast, only Chicago (34 percent) and St. Louis (27 percent) even have a 20 percent chance of making the division series, and they’re also the only members in that group with any kind of World Series odds whatsoever. (The White Sox sit at 2 percent; the Cardinals are at 1 percent.) Given the low probability of this season turning into a championship for these teams, it’s likely that any future talent traded away at the deadline will end up being for nothing.

Then again, ask the Atlanta Braves about their Doyle number last season. The algorithm assigned Atlanta a base Doyle of 0.47 at the 2021 deadline, with no reasonable, WAR-balanced trade favoring the Braves as buyers. Of course, Atlanta bought GM Alex Anthopoulos anyway — and all he did was pull off one of the greatest trade deadline sequences ever, helping spark a World Series title. So it’s entirely possible to ignore Doyle’s guidance and have a good deadline anyway.

But improbable courses like Atlanta’s are special precisely because they are, well, improbable. Doyle, meanwhile, is rooted solely in the cold probabilities — probabilities that have changed somewhat during MLB’s extended postseason setup. Keep all of this in mind as you look at Soto’s suitors and the rest of this year’s deals. Lots of big names on the block and an unusually large crop of teams that aren’t obvious buyers or sellers could be the recipe for a wild deadline, regardless of what the odds recommend.

Check out our latest MLB Predictions.

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