The McNamara Fallacy and Justin Upton-Off the Radar

The Arizona Diamondbacks traded right fielder Justin Upton to the Atlanta Braves, but was it a good trade for both sides? Find out below. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

The Justin Upton trade has sent ripples throughout the baseball communities, especially since it didn’t appear that the Diamondbacks received fair value for the young outfielder that has been a little inconsistent (especially in 2012, which may or may not be blamed on a thumb injury) but has played, at least at times, like a superstar. One of the many criticisms of the trade was that the most established big leaguer going to Arizona, Martin Prado, will be under contract for just 2013. It has been countered that the Diamondbacks could (and apparently they want to) extend Martin Prado. On the other hand, some have argued that an (in this case, possible) extension after the trade should not count towards the value of a trade because you are trading for the current contract. When (the fantastic) Cubs blogger Brett Taylor brought up the point that there should still be some value attached to the ability to extend a player, that is, you are paying for a contract situation (along with age and talent, which plays into that), not just a contract, Keith Law responded:


What I believe Keith Law, the respected writer from ESPN Insider, commits here is often called the McNamara Fallacy, basically arguing that if it can’t be measured, than it can’t exist (or in this case, doesn’t have any/much/wanted value). As sociologist Daniel Yankelovich argues, this is rather arbitrary and rigid. One is to only count what one can measure exactly, and shouldn’t spend (in this example, currency and mainly, players) on things that they believe/know have value just because they can’t measure it exactly? This is a very impractical way to live, or in this case, run a front office.

Even from a baseball perspective, this criticism is a little silly. Even though MLB teams have better ways to measure defense than what is publicly available (such as Field F/X versus UZR for the teams that use the former), to argue that anyone, including teams, have found a way to measure defense exactly seems a little silly. Even with knowing this, teams still try to measure defense and acquire defense.

Prospects are ranked and we have a general idea of odds for success, and which ones usually succeed and which one fail, but we don’t know their exact value. Systems that have tried to put exact dollar values on prospects tend to fail to take in attrition rates, or just turn out to be very inexact as projecting players from the minors to the Majors is so hard to do. As Jason Parks says, it is more of an art than a science. This isn’t to say that everything is subjective, we still can judge trades than involve prospects, even if we have a hard time quantifying their value. Teams obviously aren’t a whole lot better at evaluating prospects as evidenced by draft busts and big bonus babies that turn out to have so many flaws they don’t even make AA. We don’t know how to measure prospects exactly, but through scouting and advanced analysis, we still ascribe some values to them (at least when we evaluate trades), and it doesn’t seem to be a totally fruitless enterprise, and more importantly, teams value prospects, even if the exact value can’t be pinned down. This is one way the famous “market efficiencies” are created in baseball. A team measures something more than most other teams do, and take advantage of it. If they are right to value that more than other teams, than the move will allow them to have more success, while if they wrongly value something more than others, it will hurt them.

Sept. 19, 2012; Miami, FL, USA; Atlanta Braves left fielder Martin Prado (14) fields a base hit by Miami Marlins center fielder Gorkys Hernandez (not pictured) during the first inning at Marlins Park. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Having the exclusive rights to negotiate with Martin Prado does seem to have some value, even if we can’t put an exact dollar amount on that value. Making a guesstimate of that value could even give them some kind of market inefficiency advantage. If they know (or at least have a general idea) of what Prado will be asking for when it comes to an extension beforehand, they can determine the future contract value compared to how they project him to age and perform in the future with their in house projections. So if we were to assume that the McNamara Fallacy was not in fact a fallacy, it does actually seen the extension can be measured.

I do think this situation is different than one like the Angels had with Zach Greinke. The Angels weren’t going to be able to extend Greinke while he was under team control, and they knew that. This means, if they wanted to re-sign him (which they did), that the only real upperhand they had was that they was the last team he had pitched for. Just based on prior experience, we know that this usually doesn’t have a ton of value. Prado, on the other hand, is under team control for a full season, in which the Diamondbacks will be able to negotiate with him, and he can only negotiate with the Diamondbacks.

The criticism that the Diamondbacks had the ability to negotiate an extension for Upton, and thus gain no value by having the ability to negotiate with Prado, is a non sequitor. The Braves don’t even seem enthusiastic about extending Upton. His contract is certainly not bad, but there isn’t a real reason to extend him, at least at this time. Again, this doesn’t mean that I think the Diamondbacks “won” the trade, but I do believe you can factor in the ability to extend Prado when evaluating the trade. A better example would be a trade in which a team acquired a good player that will be a free agent after the season willing to sign an extension for prospects. The team is banking on having the player for more than one year on a deal they think is fair value, or better than fair value, and thus are able to pay more. If they aren’t able to extend the player, that means they calculated wrong, and you always have to factor in the possibility that they will not re-sign. It is not a case that comes up a lot, but it is possible, and I think you have to factor in a projected extension and odds of signing.

Of course, a lot of the heated discussion around the Upton trade centers around the conversation of “intagibles”:

These things seem to have some value (probably contrary to what Law claims), but I tend to think that “intangibles” are usually overrated, I don’t believe in “clutch” players and tire about hearing about “good guys”, but some players are better in the locker room than others and some work harder and better than others. I don’t think that means you should kick Sam Dyson off your roster for Mark Derosa, but there is some kind of value. The Diamondbacks have famously said they wanted gritty players, and stated that while there wasn’t a problem with Upton’s work ethic, he wasn’t a “gritty player”. This is somewhat different than the value of being able to negotiate a contract with Prado. This is more than an intangible, this just doesn’t seem to have much value at all. It is not as if we just don’t know the value of gritty players versus non-gritty players (whatever gritty actually means), but there is no reason to think that they are more valuable. If it is a question about effort, then that would actually show up in numbers. If two equally talented players worked at different levels when training or practicing, the difference would end up showing when the harder working one got better (or declined less). If a player runs out more groundballs than another player, then that will show up in his batting average and on base percentage. If the question is work ethic, than that can be measured, even if not exactly (perhaps the most notable is the one mentioned in “Feeding the Monster” by Seth Mnookin in which Bill James measured how many runs and bases Manny Ramirez cost the team by not hustling). However, the difference between grittiness and effort seems to be ill-defined, if it even exists. As Jeff Passan points out, there seems to be a racial bias in this distinction. This is clearly not the same thing as not being about to project the value of being able to negotiate exclusively with Martin Prado.