What Does It Really Mean to Sell High?

This is a tough time of the year for fantasy baseball analysts. We’re not even at the end of week two meaning that in most cases the sample sizes are still too small to really be useful. The downside of this is that the fantasy analysis can become lazy as we wait for more data. Too often you see the vague, unhelpful “sell high” tag attached to any mid-rounder who is off to a high start or “buy low” on the star who has two rotten starts on his ledger thus far. But what does that even really mean? It’s so easy to say and so hard to actually execute.

Nobody who spent a top 20 pick on Stephen Strasburg (6.75 ERA in 10.7 IP) is going to move him for Nick Martinez (0.00 ERA in 14 IP). In fact, they probably aren’t going to move him at all (nor should they). You know what’s easy? Me telling you to go sell high on Chris Heston. But it’s also generic and frankly, shitty advice because it offers no insight into what selling high might be, especially because I know full well that unless Teresa Heston (that Chris’ mom, I looked it up) is in your league, you can’t really cash him in for some great return. The rest of your league is just as skeptical about his dubious 0.69 ERA as you are right now.

Part of the problem is that the perception of what constitutes selling high is far too high itself. You’re undrafted waiver scoop isn’t going to net you a single-digit round draft pick, even if they’re struggling nine games into the season… BECAUSE IT’S NINE GAMES INTO THE SEASON. So let’s try to identify what you might really be able to net if you go out and try to sell high on some early big performers.

Let’s start at the top with beast of all beasts right now: Matt Harvey. “Wait, what? I’m not gonna sell high on Harvey, you idiot.” First off, rude, but secondly, why not? If you truly want to sell high, who better than Harvey? At least with Harvey you can legitimately cash in and get a mint in return. Obviously you can ask for a superstar in return for Harvey and the biggest reason to do so is the fact that we know he won’t go 200+ innings like most of the other star arms.

I’d definitely offer Harvey straight up for the likes of Max Scherzer or David Price, but that is unlikely to come through because they’re also dominating early on and it’s unlikely the perception of Harvey has passed those two. But what about Chris Sale? He only has one start because of the foot issue, but you’d have trouble noticing that he missed all of Spring Training given how sharp he looked. Sale missed some time last year, but logged 192 and 214.3 innings in the two seasons prior to 2014.

It’s not unreasonable to see Sale headed for another 200-inning season as his time missed won’t preclude him from logging 32 starts as long as he stays healthy which means he has about 194 left in the tank. We haven’t been able to get a lockdown number on how many innings Harvey will get this year, but I think 190 or fewer is a safe bet (it seems he could be extended beyond 200 if the Mets were to make the playoffs, but 200 in-season seems unlikely). That leaves him just 178 left in the tank.

I realize 16 innings might not seem like much, but it is 16 star-level innings. Plus, there is a chance Sale goes for more than 200. He logged those 214.3 in just 30 starts back in 2013 so he doesn’t even necessarily have to take every turn the rest of the way to eclipse Harvey by 20+ innings. It’s not a move devoid of risk, but if you really wanted to sell high on Harvey, that’s how you could do it. I wouldn’t want to do some quantity-for-quality for trade with Harvey.

Let’s move down the ladder a little bit. What about Sonny Gray? I came into the season a little tepid on Gray compared to most. I actually love Gray as a pitcher, but I thought he was being priced as an unquestioned stud and I just don’t see the strikeouts in his profile to match that cost. He was the 20th starter off the board on average, but I think the 20% strikeout rate he showed last year is more real than the 26% figure from his 64-inning debut in 2013.

He’s off to a fantastic start with a 0.59 ERA and WHIP through two starts. He only has a 13% K rate (7 in 15.3 IP), but I think that’s outlier-ish enough that it wouldn’t cause great panic in a trade partner. As such, you might be able to parlay him into an upgrade. Initially I’d go for someone like Gerrit Cole. Some of you are probably laughing, thinking that’s a ridiculous notion as you’d never trade Cole for Gray. I wouldn’t either, but the perception of the pair is much closer than you might realize for a lot of people. Cole was 19th off the board on average and they were split by just three picks in overall ADP.

It should be promptly declined, but offer it up just in case. Other names you could seek out for Gray might not seem like you’re selling him high, but I’d gladly take them in a 1-for-1 for the Oakland ace: Jake Arrieta, Jacob deGrom, and Andrew Cashner. In light of the events during his last start, you could probably ask for Carlos Carrasco and a small supplemental piece for Gray as the team with Carrasco in your league might be concerned.

I’ll reiterate that this isn’t an anti-Gray screed by any stretch, but I just don’t see him being a top-20 arm. He wasn’t top-20 last year despite a wonderful season. The only two top-20 guys with a K rate at or below Gray’s were Doug Fister and Tanner Roark, both of whom needed sub-3.00 ERA and sub-1.10 WHIPs efforts to pull it off.

OK, we’ve been dealing with the star or near-star realm on our first two and honestly, those aren’t the types of players that I get pissed about seeing the generic “sell high” tag thrown on after a couple good starts as if your leaguemates will pay full market based on that sample. So let’s move down a few rungs with our next few guys and try to find some realistic expectations for what a sell-high would entail.

Shane Greene
I’m heavily invested in Greene this year and I don’t plan to change that any time soon, but there are certainly folks out there who kinda stumbled onto Greene and may be ready to cash in after two gems. But is anyone going to pay you for his 16 innings of 0.00 ERA? Greene was the 105th starter off the board during draft season and he was likely waiver pickup in plenty of 10- and 12-team leagues. Your leagueamates know you just FAAB’d him, too.

I think the absolute, very best you could do is to catch someone in a sell-low situation on Michael Pineda (5.11 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, but skills that portend a much brighter future). That would be the jackpot. The realistic expectation should be more like Chris Tillman or James Paxton. “But Greene could match or top those two.” Exactly, so why trade him? I think sometimes we hear “sell high” and automatically start thinking single-digit round guys, but unless you’re in a league full of overreactionary dopes, that’s not gonna happen.

One possible avenue to that could actually be a big time sell-high on Greene would be to target some injury guys. Greene is getting so much run after his start and he plays for a good team which increases his value so there may be more juice behind him than some of the guys who feel more like stone-cold flukes with their tiny ERAs (Nick Martinez, Eddie Butler). And with that, there is a chance you could maybe sell him for someone like Hyun-Jin Ryu, Homer Bailey, or Greene’s teammate, Justin Verlander.

You’re also taking a boatload of risk in all of those situations, but that’s the only way you’re getting in that tier for Greene and with that much risk coming back, are you even selling “high” at that point? If you are really insistent on selling high on Greene, then your best bet is to wait and hope he continues to excel. After six or seven starts of high-quality work, you might actually be able to get a substantial return. But again, then we’re right back to asking ourselves why we want to trade him at that point.

Anthony DeSclafani
If you listen to the podcast, you’ve heard Eno and I discuss DeSclafani quite a bit. He got me sold on the Cincinnati righty and the early returns have been strong (1.38 ERA, 0.77 WHIP, and 3.7 K:BB ratio), but let’s sell him! Let’s be honest, a lot of you are in leagues where at least a few owners still don’t know who he is so how are you going to cash him in for big returns? DeSclafani was going a little higher than Greene (101st SP) so you could maybe target similar names, though I don’t think it would work as he didn’t get the same spring buzz as Greene.

I don’t think even a best-case scenario could land Pineda as with Greene, but rather someone like Brandon McCarthy and it would be a similar situation where you’re trying to catch someone selling low on a guy whose skills suggest he has been better than his inflated ERA after two starts (6.75 ERA, 19.0 K:BB ratio). Maybe a one-for-one with John Lackey could work if you found the Eno of your league who knew about and really liked DeSclafani’s outlook. Otherwise, I think you’d have to look at names like Nathan Eovaldi, Drew Pomeranz, and Wily Peralta. And while I like all three of them better than DeSclafani, it’s not impossible to imagine him being better than them this year.

Nick Martinez
These are the ones I hate. Telling someone to sell high on Martinez as advice is worthless on its own. He doesn’t have special skills, he was uninspiring for 140 IP last year, and nobody is really dying to buy pitchers from the Rangers, especially with Darvish on the shelf. First off, the kind of league depth needed to make Martinez viable means you’re likely playing with pretty savvy people.
It takes an AL-only or super-deep mixed to get Martinez on the radar in the first place. And then he was almost certainly a waiver pickup so we’re back to peddling a waiver add on someone who sees your transaction on the front page of the league site. I think you would definitely have to buy low on someone to move Martinez, but I’m not sure you could get Kyle Lohse and his 11.17 ERA for Martinez right now.

So we’re looking for someone who is struggling, but also kinda not-good to begin with so that there isn’t an automatic expectation that he gets better. I think that leaves us with guys like Rubby de la Rosa, Jeremy Hellickson, and Josh Collmenter (sweet rotation, Diamondbacks). I could see you getting one of them for Martinez. The best-case scenario might be Kyle Gibson – doesn’t have any good-looking stats on his ledger, no longer a prospect, and on a bad team. You might be able to get that done, but chances are that if someone has Gibson then they kinda believe and they’re willing to wait it out more than two starts.

I guess the real question is why the hell did you pick up Nick Martinez?

Hopefully this was somewhat helpful. I realize it’s basically a rant against the idea of selling high as advice. It’s not so much that I hate the idea, but rather I believe it’s too much of a copout as standalone advice. Context obviously matters most for all things fantasy baseball, but there’s no reason the sell high suggestion can’t come with some actual names, too.

The next time you ask for advice on Twitter or in a chat and get hit with an obvious “sell high”, first I recommend coming back to Rotographs because you might’ve gotten lost somewhere, but also challenge the analyst who gave that “advice” to actually tell you what to expect if you do try to sell high. And if they can’t come up with any names, tell them to stop just saying “sell high” on every fourth, fifth, or sixth starter-type who strings together a few nice outings.

Paul is the Editor of Rotographs and contributes to ESPN's Daily Notes. Follow Paul on Twitter @sporer and on Twitch at sporer.

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I think the biggest issue you have is you are trying to trade like for like. Most people who could sell high would be better off trying to sell their Chris Heston to Teresa for her slumping hitter or closer. Different positions complicated the equation and make others think differently about the trade. Maybe Sonny Gray could get you Beltre or Bautista in return from a team that has had poor pitching so far.


I hear you on the like for like. Would’ve been a massive undertaking to try and say what you could get at each position. I don’t think there’s any way you get Bautista or Beltre for Gray. Bautista was a first rounder.