On the ottoneu Slack community, this week featured an interesting debate on the merits of spending on Mike Trout at an ottoneu auction. There were two things posited about Trout:
- Keeping/buying Trout and leaving the auction with him ties up too much money in one player, thereby hurting your chances to field a competitive team, and
- Because of this, the team that does buy Trout is almost always looking to sell him, so you can get him later (with loans) anyway.
I disagreed, arguing that unless the market was messed up, paying fair value for any player should not hurt you unless that player underperforms. Agreement was not to be found, so data needed to be found instead.
I went through every FanGraphs Points leagues (manually, so I won’t pretend this is foolproof data; I also removed leagues with under 12 teams) and looked for four things – 1) how many players were owned above $50 or $60, 2) how many of those players were on teams wire-to-wire that finished top-two; 3) How much did Mike Trout go for; 4) Was Trout traded?
If these $50+ and $60+ players (side note: the $60+ are included in the $50+) were paid fair value for their production, we would expect one in 12 teams that bought them to finish first, and another one in twelve to finish second. If they were overpaid, fewer than that would end up top-two. One in 12 would be 38.1 $50+ and 10.1 $60+ players. So these guys appeared slightly more often than expected in terms of first place teams and slightly less than expected on second place teams (and slightly less often than expected combined). But the sample size is small and the data is fuzzy. I didn’t, for example, account for $50+ players who a top-two team owned out of the auction and then traded or cut in-season. Assuming even a small set of those, and these numbers look pretty much as-expected. In other words, spending $50 or $60 on a player at auction is not inherently problematic, and may even give you a small leg up.
What about Trout? The short answer is that buying Trout is not a bad strategy by any means. Of the 91 teams, eleven owned Trout wire-to-wire and won the league. That’s 12.1% of Trout keepers/auction winners who won leagues, as opposed to 8.3% of total teams. 27 teams (29.7%) owned Trout coming out of the auction and finished top-three, as opposed to 25% overall.
Again, small samples, fuzzy data, not a clear statement that you should buy Trout, but solid evidence that you don’t have to avoid him either.
Speaking of trades, what about the theory that you don’t need to buy Trout because he is always getting traded in-season, with a big loan to cover the big price tag? 20 of the 91 leagues (22%) featured in-season Trout trades. He isn’t impossible to acquire, but he also isn’t freely available. More teams (25) chose to keep Trout despite finishing in the bottom half of their league than chose to trade him.
The teams that traded for Trout did do better (average finish 3.4), overall, but there is serious selection bias at work there – not many teams traded for Trout without already being confident they would compete. And the teams that kept Trout ended up with a 5.0 average finish – 1.5 spots above the average team.
Again, there are some issues with this data – it is far from perfect. But I think we have a pretty decisive response to the two hypotheses at the beginning of the article:
- No, buying Mike Trout at auction (or keeping him pre-auction) does not, on average, hurt you, set you back, or make it more difficult to win. If anything, it makes it easier, which makes total sense, cause Mike Trout is really good at baseball.
- No, you cannot simply wait for Trout to hit the trade block and pick him up. There is simply no guarantee (or even really likelihood) that he’ll be available.
Ofcourse, the price at which you buy Trout matters.
That graph shows price points at which Trout was owned pre-season and the average finishing position of the team that owned them coming out of the auction (regardless of whether that team later traded him, cut him, etc.). The trend isn’t surprising – teams with cheap Trouts do better than teams with expensive Trouts. The big take-away for me is that $66 spot – there is a noticeable jump in the line and you can see it in the raw data, too. The four teams that paid Trout $66 finished 8.5 on average; the three that owned him at $65 finished 5.7 on average. The 20 traded Trouts had an average price of $66.4; the 71 kept Trouts averaged $62.8. Trout’s average price today, by the way? $65.53. It seems if you are paying much more than that, you are not getting the right value.
Then again, one team owned a $72 Trout after the auction and still won his league.
One last argument – For the $65 you pay Trout, you can get two $30 OF who will do more. Trout put up 1208 points this year and has been right around there the last few years. The 61st best OF (replacement level) put up 545 points, though with platoons (and making sure you use all 162 games for that OF spot) you could easily get to 700, which is 4.3 points per game. Even assuming 4.0 Pt/G, which would be a really bad OF, you would get 648 points from that spot, which takes you to 1856 for Trout and his replacement level peer. What two OF could you get for ~$30 each instead? Choices include Ryan Braun ($34.33 average), Justin Upton ($31.74), Carlos Gonzalez ($31.87), Adam Jones ($31.72), Yasiel Puig ($31.00) or Jason Heyward ($29.09). Those six scored 839, 795, 891, 720, 358, and 799, respectively. Even if you hit the jackpot and wisely chose Cargo and Braun, rather than the other four, you would have 1,730 total points from those two spots, a solid 126 points less than Trout and your cheapo second OF.
The reality is, there are so many factors at play. Overpaying a player – ANY player – is a bad idea, even if that player is Mike Trout. But entering the off-season with a strategy of not taking on expensive players, like Trout, is probably not a great idea. You are closing off the best players in the game, passing on production that cannot be easily replaced, and putting yourself at a disadvantage.
But the best advice is to know your team. Think you can compete, have plenty to spend, and just need one more big bat? Buy it, like the owner of the $72 Trout. Otherwise, look for values. Just don’t forget that “expensive” isn’t an antonym for “value.”
Chad Young is a product manager at Amazon by day and a baseball writer (RotoGraphs, Let's Go Tribe), sports fan and digital enthusiast at all times. Follow him on Twitter @chadyoung.