Making Video Game Trades

Back in the day, I used to spend my summer mornings playing Major League Baseball Featuring Ken Griffey Jr. That’s the first one for N64 and not to be confused with Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball (SNES). The N64 version was the first to allow trades. The AI was…not smart.

Teams could roster exactly 25 players. No more, no less. There were no salaries. Three-for-one trades were allowed and the computer assigned no value to opportunity cost. The team acquiring three players would be forced to make a couple immediate cuts. I got in the habit of trading a player, let’s call him Robin Ventura, with Rich Aurilia and David Weathers for an incremental upgrade, like Alex Rodriguez. The computer said no to Ventura for A-Rod. It said yes to the trio. Then it cut Aurilia and Weathers. I picked them back up off the wire. Rinse and repeat.

Your leaguemates are not as bad as a broken AI. At least I sure hope they aren’t. And reality is considerably more opaque than a video game. A-Rod’s value over Ventura was objectively quantifiable on the N64. Meanwhile, in the real world, we think we know Kyle Seager will be a lot better than Jake Lamb next year. Nobody should be shocked if Lamb actually has the better season. There’s at least a 25 percent chance it happens – all the scenarios where Seager is hurt and Lamb isn’t plus all the scenarios Lamb simply outplays him.

It’s this very uncertainty that makes fantasy baseball trades so interesting. Assuming everybody initially has the same resources, there are two ways to become the most powerful team in your league. The proactive way is to make dozens of tiny incremental trades. Alternatively, throw the dice and hope for luck. Sure, there are myriad ways to attempt to make your own luck, but it’s still some kind of luck. The incremental trades are a type of luck too.

In the dynasty league I so often reference, the Chicago Cubs of the league is named Trade Spam. True to name, they constantly spam trade ideas. They believe in the incremental approach. Ours is a 20-team, 45-player, keep-28 format. The keeper cap is low enough that a few interesting players get cut every year. Ideally, the best 560 players get kept.

Chad and I already own at least 35 top-560 players. We’ll trade some of those for picks, but a couple probably won’t find a new home. Lack of demand. To get better, Chad and I should just consolidate our 35 keepables into 28 better keepers through a series of incremental trades. For example, trade Lamb plus something for Seager then trade Seager plus something for Josh Donaldson. Right. We’d love to do that, but it’s easier said than done.

Nearly every owner believes they have more keepable players than keeper slots. If we took a poll of owners, there would probably be something like 650 top-560 players. Some of that can be chalked up to the endowment effect. Mostly, it’s a function of different owners having different goals. A rebuilding owner usually doesn’t care about over-30 players. They’ll never make a fair trade for John Lackey. A contending owner won’t assign much (any?) keeper value to a good-not-great prospect three years from the majors. They have bigger fish to fry.

Let’s go back to that team I mentioned – Trade Spam. Your league probably has a tamer version of this team. Maybe it’s yours. The approach is simple enough in a high effort sort of way. View players as asset classes. Always acquire the best player in the trade, even if trading “too much” to get him. Send out a dozen trade offers per day. It’s a strategy that evokes constant ire from your leaguemates. Often, rules will be invoked to prevent you from continuously improving. Trades vetoed. Etceteras.

In our league, Trade Spam has built a group of very good keepers. Instead of top-560 talents, 23 of their guys are comfortably top-250 players. Their bubble guys aren’t too shabby either. Now, they’re locked into this incremental approach. It makes very little sense to divest one of the top talents unless the same return can be used to acquire an even better player.

That’s the best case scenario. Not every incremental trade is a win. Think back to last offseason. Dallas Keuchel was coming off a fantastic Cy Young campaign. Imagine you traded Justin Verlander and Jean Segura for him. I bet everybody would have screamed about that one. Verlander was looking a little toasty and Segura had fallen deeply out of favor. Now Keuchel looks like a typical core performer while Verlander and Segura are back on top of the value chain.

When your team is top heavy – a few stars and a volume of scrubs – it can make sense to disaggregate your talent. Diversify your investments. But you should be very picky. In any setting with a keeper limit, such trades should always have a positive EV for the owner acquiring more players. Especially in the offseason. Trades during the season involve other complicating factors beyond pure value.

We hoped you liked reading Making Video Game Trades by Brad Johnson!

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Brad, I just wanted to say please keep writing these. I love the philosophies, etc.

My buddy and I who have probably played 30 fantasy seasons together across all sports can’t trade with one another because we both think the other is trying to screw us and/or it would actually help them. (Think the Red Sox and Yankees making a trade….but in a 12 team universe.)

Anyways, just wanted to say “Thanks” and “Keep them coming!”