Tommie Experts: Making Cents of the Major League Baseball Trade Deadline

Tommie Experts taps into the knowledge of St. Thomas faculty and staff to help us better understand topical events, trends and the world in general.

With the July 31 Major League Baseball (MLB) trade deadline, Minnesota Twins fans have been eagerly awaiting any news of a trade that could help the first place club. Fans of competitive teams across professional baseball have been frustrated by the lack of trades, though. College of Arts and Sciences’ economics program associate professor Bradley Wilson has researched and taught sports economics since 2002, helping him and the students he teaches bring a deeper level of statistical analysis to the field of economics. We asked him to help shed some light on the numbers behind the MLB trade deadline.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

With how many different ways there are in 2019 to evaluate players’ abilities and financial value, should it not be a surprise not many players get traded at a deadline?

Sports analysts have come up with new ways of evaluating player performance, which makes it easier to evaluate players. This is unique to baseball. … Baseball, while it’s teams playing, is mostly a pitcher performing against a batter and vice versa. It’s one on one. Sure, there’s a supporting cast of eight players, but for the most part that’s field dressing. Evaluating players’ performance really boils down to pitchers against the batter.

The algorithms (to evaluate a players’ worth) might look complicated and involved, but they’re not. Once they put them together it makes them easier to evaluate a pitcher or batter. All of that said, it should not be a surprise you don’t see a lot of action at the trade deadline because it’s easy to measure a players’ value. ... Most teams are now working with the same information, so they're all on the same page about the value of any given player.

The players that the sellers (teams not likely to make the players) are looking to (trade), they’re not going to unload ones they want to keep. They want to unload players they don’t think are good for their team. This is why measurement is so important. Everyone has pretty much the same information about these players. The Twins, for example, looking to add someone, and, say, Kansas City looking to unload a player, they’re going to unload a player they have no use for, but that's also a player like that the Twins have no use for, and they both know that.

Several professional sports leagues in the U.S. have a salary cap that limits the total amount a team can pay its players. Major League Baseball doesn’t have that. How does this impact players' contacts and whether they're traded?

Salary caps are put in place by leagues that fear or experience financial instability. It’s going to be financial instability not in one season, but a pattern. … Salary cap is about enforcing stability in a league that’s expecting instability or has lived it. Major League Baseball … is a league that when they have experienced financial instability, it didn’t last very long. In the late 1990s and early 2000s it experienced some instability, but for the most part it does well.

Owners on average would love a salary cap because it keeps player cost down and has more profit for owners. Players are not in favor of salary caps because they feel it keeps their pay down. Owners want salary caps, players don’t; on average, owners know they won’t get it in a collective bargaining agreement.

We’re speaking hypothetically here: (A salary cap) isn’t going to happen in Major League Baseball any time soon. I don’t think the players will have anything of it. I think the Major League Baseball Players Association will balk, pun intended, at any idea of a salary cap. Again, in the MLB, there’s no need for it. Players will say, 'Owners aren’t losing money. They’re doing fine.' And Major League Baseball players are getting paid handsomely, as well, so everyone’s pretty comfortable with the position they’re in now.