Commentary

Trade math: What's an ace worth?

Updated: August 3, 2012, 6:47 PM ET
By AJ Mass | ESPN.com

The major league trade deadline has come and gone, leaving in its wake a flurry of activity that saw pitchers such as Zack Greinke, Anibal Sanchez, Ryan Dempster and Wandy Rodriguez change teams.

In ESPN standard leagues, however, the trade deadline is still a week away, with all deals needing to be accepted before Friday, Aug. 10, at noon ET. The question is this: Exactly how much does your fantasy team stand to benefit from making a blockbuster move similar to the ones made by major league teams?

Team chemistry doesn't come into play. The decision to make a deal or not comes down to one thing and one thing alone: cold, emotionless mathematics. To that end, let's take a quick look at the numbers to see if it makes sense for you to go after that No. 1 starting pitcher, and if so, how much you should give up to make the deal happen.

Although we recognize that not every league uses the same rules, for the purpose of this discussion, we're going to look at a standard 12-team 5x5 ESPN league. At this stage of the season (almost at the two-thirds mark), an "average" team might expect to have the following statistics:

"Average" team: 930 IP, 3.79 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 822 K's

We're going to ignore wins, since it's the one category a pitcher has little control over. For instance, a starter can give up six runs in the first two innings and end up winning (see Ervin Santana versus the Rockies on June 10), or he could pitch 10 shutout innings and get a no-decision, a la Cliff Lee on April 18. So let's stick to the categories that pitchers have some control over.

First off, let's take a look at the absolute ceiling for success. Let's assume that the "average" staff continues to produce numbers the rest of the way that are similar to what they have done so far this season. Furthermore, let's assume that the top pitchers in the league will make 12 more starts in 2012.

The best they can do, obviously, is throw 12 perfect games. So if we were to add 108 perfect innings (and for the sake of argument, we'll also add a sterling 13.5 K's/9 rate) to the expected final numbers instead of the expected statistics you might get from a No. 5 starter, you would end up with the absolute dream scenario for your team.

In this experiment, we will use Bronson Arroyo (No. 60 among starting pitchers on the ESPN Player Rater entering Thursday's games) as our "No. 5 starter" to be replaced by our imaginary automaton. Doing so would yield the following final stat lines:

That's your maximum return on trading for an ace at this point of the season. An improvement of 0.10 in WHIP and a 0.28 ERA boost. But of course, you're not going to get that. Let's scale back those expectations to the realm of reality. Let's swap out Bronson Arroyo for someone you conceivably could trade for: Justin Verlander.

In that scenario, your improvement is not nearly as marked:

We've just swung a deal for the No. 1 pitcher on the Player Rater and gotten rid of Bronson Arroyo and all it got us was 0.02 in WHIP and 0.13 in ERA. And those numbers will hold true regardless of what your starting ERA and WHIP might be, so long as you keep the number of innings pitched constant. Unless your team's current IP total is way off from our estimated 930, you're not going to see much variance in these ratios.

Of course, we're assuming that all of your current pitchers pretty much continue at the same pace they've been on thus far this season. In all reality, some will likely surpass those expectations by a bit, while others will regress a bit. At the end of the day, that will probably all come out in the wash.

Verlander, on the other hand, gives you one shot at catching the goose that lays the golden egg. If he doesn't keep up his current pace, you've traded away for even less of a return than the paltry amount his projected 0.99 WHIP and 2.66 ERA would net you.

Is that worth what you're giving away?

My guess is that it is not, but a quick look at your league's standings will settle that argument once and for all. How many points do you truly stand to gain from such a move? Now factor in the counting stats you might lose from the hitters you are giving up in the deal to get a guy like Verlander.

I'll ask you again: Is that worth what you're giving away?

Now, let's say you are the one who owns Justin Verlander and are getting offers to try and lure him away from your clutches. Should you let the Detroit Tigers ace go? Again, let's look at our projected numbers, this time from the other angle: replacing Verlander with Arroyo on your league-average squad.

Once you build up a big enough cushion in the ratio categories of ERA and WHIP, it's hard to lose too much ground, even when you go from a Verlander to an Arroyo. In fact, given the possibility that Verlander could end up regressing closer to his career 3.44 ERA and 1.17 WHIP, does Arroyo's projected 3.82 ERA and 1.23 look all that frightening?

Now add in the value of the guys being offered to you for Verlander, say a package that includes Matt Holliday. Because hitters can give you four categories worth of counting stats (versus only two for starting pitchers: strikeouts and those elusive wins), how can you possibly say no?

The fact of the matter is, unless you're in a keeper league where "next year" comes into play, by the time we've reached the fantasy baseball trade deadline, in terms of pitching, the die has firmly been cast. Unless you find yourself in a multiple-team logjam in ERA and WHIP where the tiniest improvement could net you several spots in the standings, you really have no place to go.

So, don't go giving away your offensive weapons in search of a holy grail that simply doesn't exist. And don't hold on to those Cy Young favorites at the expense of upgrading your hitting statistics simply because they're the best at what they do.

At this stage of the season, starting pitching simply isn't worth as much as it was back in April. If you don't realize that, you're going to have a very long September.