What Recent History Tells Us About Mid-Season Moves and Making the World Series

Do splash acquisitions at the trade deadline actually have a significant impact on October baseball?

Making a World Series run is no small task on its own, and the opportunity to do so this season is as wide open as ever. With two additional wild-card teams in an era dominated by pitching, the makeup around Major League Baseball has transformed in favor of the fans. Proof? As it currently stands, 21 teams are within six games of playoff contention, prime striking distance with two months left to play. More evidence, you say? Look at the defending world champion Boston Red Sox, who are well on their way to sandwiching their championship campaign between two last place finishes.

Some call it parity, while others call it mediocrity. Commissioner Selig calls it “competitive balance.” You can call it what you want. But for this very reason, filling needs and gaining even the slightest advantage at the trade deadline can make all the difference between bringing a parade back to your city and spending the holiday months using phrases like shoulda, coulda, woulda.

With the “non-waiver” deadline wrapping up later this week, I wanted to take a look back at recent history and see what lessons can be learned from past mid-season moves. Given all the hype the trade deadline provokes, and with team’s postseason fate hanging in the balance (so we are led to believe), it’s assumed that making a last minute splash acquisition is a crucial component in manufacturing a deep postseason run.

But is that really the case?

One caveat before we jump into the history books. We’re merely looking at one side of these acquisitions – the most impactful players acquired by teams that advanced to the World Series and a brief narrative of their production – dating back to the 2000 season in hopes of determining if there are any centralized trends between certain types of moves and postseason success.

Buckle up because we may be in for a bumpy ride.

Table Notes:
* indicates player was used as a rental and signed elsewhere in the off-season.
** indicates player was intended as a rental, was granted free agency and then resigned with the same team that off-season.

TeamResultPlayerrWAR After TradeRecognition
'13 Red SoxWJake Peavy, SP0.6 rWAR in 64.2 IP
'13 CardinalsLN/A
'12 GiantsWHunter Pence, RF
Marco Scutaro, IF**
0.2 rWAR in 248 PA
2.1 rWAR in 268 PA

'12 TigersLAnibal Sanchez, SP**1.2 rWAR in 74.2 IP
'11 CardinalsWRafael Furcal, SS**
Edwin Jackson, SP*
0.9 rWAR in 217 PA
2.3 rWAR in 78 IP
'11 RangersLKoji Uehara, RP*0.2 rWAR in 18 IPCut
'10 GiantsWJavier Lopez, RP
Ramon Ramirez, RP
0.9 rWAR in 19 IP
1.1 rWAR in 27 IP
'10 RangersLCliff Lee, SP*1.4 rWAR in 108.2 IPAll-Star
'09 YankeesWJerry Hairston, UT*0.6 rWAR in 93 PA
'09 PhilliesLCliff Lee, SP1.1 rWAR in 79.2 IP
'08 PhilliesWJoe Blanton, SP0.5 rWAR in 70.2 IP
'08 RaysLN/A
'07 Red SoxWEric Gagne, RP*-0.2 rWAR in 18.2 IP
'07 RockiesLN/A
'06 CardinalsWRonnie Belliard, 2B*
Jeff Weaver, SP*
0.1 rWAR in 211 PA
0.0 rWAR in 83.1 IP
'06 TigersLSean Casey, 1B**-0.6 rWAR in 196 PA
'05 White SoxWGeoff Blum, IF*-0.7 rWAR in 99 PA
'05 AstrosLN/A
'04 Red SoxWDave Roberts, OF
Orlando Cabrera, SS*
0.3 rWAR in 101 PA
1.8 rWAR in 248 PA
'04 CardinalsLN/A
'03 MarlinsWUgueth Urbina, RP*2.0 rWAR in 38.1 IP
'03 YankeesLAaron Boone, 3B1.4 rWAR in 209 PAAll-Star
'02 AngelsWAlex Ochoa, OF*0.2 rWAR in 75 PA
'02 GiantsLKenny Lofton, CF*1.7 rWAR in 205 PA
'01 D-backsWAlbie Lopez, SP*1.5 rWAR in 81 IP
'01 YankeesLSterling Hitchcock, SP**-0.1 rWAR in 51.1 IP
'00 YankeesWDavid Justice, OF
Glenallen Hill, LF*
3.2 rWAR in 318 PA
1.4 rWAR in 143 PA
'00 MetsLMike Bordick, SS*0.2 rWAR in 211 PAAll-Star

Whoa, that's a lot to take in. But don’t sweat the numbers because we're just trying to make generalizations from these findings.

Of the 14 World Series winners above, not one reeled in an All-Star at the deadline. Cliff Lee knows how real the struggle is after being moved to a contender in back-to-back seasons only to fall just short of championship glory on both occasions. Five teams (18%) made no trades whatsoever, yet still found themselves taking the diamond in late October. Interestingly enough, none were able to hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy. So that means all 14 champions made some sort of move at the deadline.

Moving right along. The greatest consistency in trade value appears to be found in either a veteran middle-lineup presence or a true ace. As unreliable as relievers tend to be, veteran sluggers and frontline arms are as close to a sure thing as we’ll find. Nearly 70% of the guys brought in were used as rentals simply to catapult their team into contention for that season alone – which tells us that teams are more than willing to give up a package of prospects to add the necessary pieces to the puzzle. The reality of the situation is that teams often don’t get what they pay for though – there are no guarantees of getting 100 cents on the dollar in the production department.

With the small sample we are examining, it’s hard to form an accurate judgment of a player’s total contributing value because trades can pan out in subsequent years – see Curt Schilling, for example. He was moved from the Phillies to the Diamondbacks at the deadline in 2000 and put up mediocre numbers down the stretch. He then came back in 2001 with an All-Star campaign, finishing second to teammate Randy Johnson for the AL Cy Young Award, and shared World Series MVP honors with his teammate after shocking the Yankees.

There's also value in bringing in utility players for late-game situational purposes. And sometimes the least expected players take on the role of hero.

Aaron Boone – who was acquired by the Yankees just hours before the 2003 deadline – slashed .170/.196/.302 in 58 postseason plate appearances. However, his 11th inning walk-off homer against the rivaled Red Sox in Game 7 of the ALCS is what he will forever be remembered for. Despite being an All-Star, Boone was benched that game due to his slumping bat, and pinch-ran in the 8th inning with the Yankees down 5-2 and just five outs away from losing the pennant.

The following year, the Red Sox shipped five-time All-Star Nomar Garciaparra at the deadline and brought in Dave Roberts. Roberts recorded zero postseason plate appearances, yet had one of the most significant steals and runs scored in postseason history. He pinch-ran in the 9th inning of Game 4 of the ALCS – down three games to none to the Yankees – stole second, scored the game tying run, and the rest is history. His small but crucial contribution played a major part in ending the Sox’ 86-year drought.

For simplicity, I’ll leave you with just those few scenarios, but similar storylines are littered throughout baseball’s rich postseason history.

Final Thoughts

Now for the always exciting “takeaway” section of these articles.

It’s nearly impossible to foresee the above “hero” scenarios playing out as such. Expecting a significant impact from an average hitter stepping into the unchartered territory of October baseball would be a mistake. I’m sure you’ve noticed though, with regards to postseason play, we should almost come to expect the unexpected due to all the statistical noise that arises from only a handful of plate appearances.

Maybe that’s just it. What we’ve actually learned here is that we’ve learned next to nothing, making this numberFire’s own Seinfeld. A baseball piece that has taught us nothing, which is everything we needed to know. There's no definitive recipe that assures postseason success when it comes to the trade front. No advanced statistic that tells us the best type of player to target. It’s hit or miss, year in and year out. But landing a premium player at the deadline will always be overhyped. That’s just the media-centric world we live in.

So as some of us continue to romanticize about the possibility of our team landing David Price or Troy Tulowitzki before the clock strikes 4:00 PM Thursday afternoon, remember the track record.

There are no guarantees in this game.

Championship-caliber teams are built in the winter and spring months, closely monitored through the All-Star break, and then tweaked at the deadline – depending specifically on team needs. Low-profile moves that beef up the lineup and add depth to the rotation seem to be the only trendy underlying contributors in advancing to the Fall Classic.

The same holds true in the world of fake baseball. It’s not always the team that lands the sexiest player at the deadline, but rather the team that bolsters the greatest top-to-bottom depth that brings home the hardware.