MLB's Expanded Postseason Changed The Trade Deadline — And Maybe Not For The Better
Only Juan Soto can redeem it now.
This is a week of big decisions for nearly every general manager in baseball. Ahead of Tuesday’s trade deadline, front offices need to figure out exactly where their teams stand in the playoff race and just how much risk they’re willing to tolerate in the name of making a run this year, versus selling off talent and reloading for the future. These kinds of quandaries can end up having ripple effects on franchises for years (or even decades) to come — no pressure!
This year’s deadline is even more interesting than most. For one thing, there’s the giant elephant in the room: Washington’s openness to trading 23-year-old right fielder Juan Soto, a once-in-a-generation hitter who would shake up World Series odds and command a huge return of both prospects and MLB-ready talent. Then add in another wrinkle: the change in MLB’s playoff format for this season, which adds two extra postseason spots and offers a first-round bye to each league’s top two seeds. Both of these factors will fundamentally change the calculations around each team’s willingness to stand pat or go for it down the stretch.
Though we can’t tell you where Soto is headed, we can offer our annual assessment of which teams should be buying and selling at the deadline and to what degree. For that, we call upon what’s known as the Doyle Number, which represents the amount of future six-year wins above replacement1 a team should be willing to deal away to improve its talent by 1 WAR this season. (This ratio — named for former Detroit Tigers pitcher Doyle Alexander, in honor of a fateful 1987 trade in which he featured prominently — is based on a combination of factors, such as a team’s Elo rating, its playoff odds and its chance of winning the World Series.)
Generally speaking, top contenders have sky-high Doyle Numbers — meaning they should go all-in to win right now — while non-contending teams are closer to zero, meaning no amount of WAR this season would be worth adding at the expense of the future. Teams on the fence between buying and selling have a Doyle around 1.00, so they might be best served by either tactic, depending on the deals available to them. According to Doyle, here are the leading buyers — and sellers — of the 2022 trade market:2
How our Doyle Number metric views the 2022 trade deadline
Postseason odds (according to the FiveThirtyEight prediction model) and Doyle Numbers* for 2022 MLB buyers and sellers
Sure enough, the World Series-favorite Dodgers and Yankees have the highest Doyle Numbers; in fact, both are over 2.00, which implies they should be willing to part with double the future WAR to improve this year. But there are fewer clear-cut buyers than in the past, as only seven teams have a Doyle value over 1.00, compared with nine teams that fit into that classification last season. Meanwhile, seven other clubs are squeezed between a Doyle of 0.40 and 0.90, indicating a glut of teams for which the best deadline tactic is not entirely obvious.
A small field of would-be buyers isn’t uncommon; for instance, 2019 also saw just seven teams with a Doyle Number over 1.00. But in this case, the new postseason format serves as a limiting factor. With more teams in the playoffs, the value of a borderline playoff campaign is heightened … but the value of everything else is diminished. Here is one component of the Doyle formula — the odds of making the division series as a function of regular-season wins — and how we tweaked that to account for the new format:
The effect is subtle, but the new format suggests it’s less likely that teams that are good — with at least 90 wins, say — but not great will advance in the playoffs. This in turn depresses those teams’ Doyle Numbers, since the prospect of reloading for next season and beyond looks better if your World Series odds this season look worse. After all, why would you waste trading away good prospects for a season that has a slim chance to end in a championship?
But that’s not to say any of those middle-tier teams wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) buy if given the chance to add talent this year. Here are the clubs that Doyle thinks could conceivably be deadline buyers — meaning they should be willing to give up more future talent than the current talent they’re getting back — if they’re able to add either a typical starter (worth 2 WAR), an All-Star caliber player (5 WAR) or an MVP-level superstar (8 WAR):
Sizing up the deadline-market buyers
MLB trade deadline buyers (according to Doyle Number), with team weaknesses* and amount of future WAR the team should trade away to acquire different levels of talent
|Team||Starter (2 WAR)||All-Star (5 WAR)||MVP (8 WAR)||Biggest Weakness|
|Blue Jays||2.9||8.4||15.8||SS (17th)|
The Minnesota Twins, for instance, probably shouldn’t go after small-time acquisitions — adding 2 WAR of talent at the 2022 deadline wouldn’t be worth giving up 2 WAR of prospects for the future. But their short- and long-term expected championships would come out roughly balanced if they added 5 current WAR of talent for 5 future WAR of prospects, and they could break even on adding an 8-WAR talent even if they gave up 9.8 WAR of prospects in return.3 Even a team like the Phillies, with a 2 percent chance to win the World Series and just a 25 percent chance to make the division series, could be justified in going big at the deadline if the haul improves their World Series odds enough. (We all happen to know of a right fielder who might fit that bill, although general manager Dave Dombrowski has been careful to hush any of those rumors.)
What might be surprising are the teams that aren’t on that list — including the Cardinals, White Sox, Guardians, Red Sox and Giants, as well as the upstart Orioles. While some of those clubs have decent playoff odds in the FiveThirtyEight forecast, only Chicago (34 percent) and St. Louis (27 percent) are even 20 percent likely to make the division series, and they’re also the only members of that group with any kind of World Series odds whatsoever. (The White Sox sit at 2 percent; the Cardinals are at 1 percent.) Given the low probability that this season turns into a championship for those teams, it’s likely that any future talent traded away at the deadline will end up being for naught.
Then again, ask the Atlanta Braves about their Doyle Number last season. The algorithm assigned Atlanta a base Doyle of 0.47 at the 2021 deadline, with no reasonable, WAR-balanced trade supporting the Braves being buyers. Of course, Atlanta GM Alex Anthopoulos bought anyway — and all he did was pull off one of the greatest sequences of trade-deadline moves ever, helping to spark a World Series title. So it’s entirely possible to ignore Doyle’s guidance and have a great deadline anyway.
But unlikely runs such as Atlanta’s are special precisely because they are, well, unlikely. Doyle, meanwhile, is rooted purely in the cold probabilities — probabilities that have changed somewhat under MLB’s expanded postseason setup. Keep all of that in mind while watching Soto’s suitors and the rest of this year’s dealings. A ton of big names on the block and an unusually large crop of teams that aren’t obvious buyers or sellers could be the recipe for a wild deadline, regardless of what the odds recommend.
Check out our latest MLB predictions.