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How the A's Won the Shark Trade(s)

In which we defend the *other* most unpopular Billy Beane trade of the past decade

Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

I know, I know. I see you: most of you have already got your pitchforks and torches ready to drive me out of town for daring to write that headline. Two weeks ago I dared to defend the Donaldson trade, and here I am bringing up the other trade that has become synonymous with "utter disaster" to A's fans. But I promise I'm not trolling you; there's a legitimate reason to think that the A's came out at least somewhat ahead when they made the fateful trade for Jeff Samardzija.

The Facts

On July 4th 2014 the A's struck early on the trade market, sending Addison Russell, Billy McKinney, and Dan Straily for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. This will henceforth be known as "Shark Trade 1". The trade was perceived at the time as an "all-in" move for the A's, as Russell was at the time a Top 10 ranked prospect by all of the prospect lists, mortgaging the future for the present. Shark appeared in 16 games for the A's, putting up a 3.14 ERA and helping them make the postseason by 1 game.

On December 9th 2014, after the season, the A's then traded Samardzija to the White Sox for Marcus Semien, Josh Phegley, Chris Bassitt and Rangel Ravelo. This will henceforth be known as "Shark Trade 2: Electric Boogaloo." 3 of those players are now on the A's 25-man roster.

Hammel left the A's in free agency, and Straily was traded from the Cubs to the Astros. Ravelo and Billy McKinney remain in the minors, while Addison Russell is now on the Cubs' major league roster, having appeared in 68 games.

Comparing Outgoing and Incoming Value

Since Shark was traded twice within a span of less than 6 months, it makes sense to compare the return Beane gave up to get Samardzija with the return he received when he traded him away, essentially equating Shark Trade 1 with Shark Trade 2. When looked at this way, the trade essentially becomes Russell, McKinney, and Straily for Semien, Phegley, Bassitt, Ravelo and half a season of Shark. When the trade was first made, most analysis was made on the assumption that the A's had traded a massive prospect haul for short-term help, which wasn't entirely wrong. But that analysis missed the fact that Beane knew he could get good value for Samardzija on the other end.

Russell is an incredible prospect, one that scouts salivate over and someone who has real potential to become a star. He's already appeared in 68 games for the Cubs, putting up a 79 wRC+ (for those who don't remember, wRC+ is scaled to a league average of 100; 110 is 10% better than league average, 90 is 10% worse). Don't get me wrong; it's idiotic to judge a prospect based on his first few months in the league. Hell, Mike Trout put up an 87 wRC+ through his first month and a half, and he turned out ok, and Josh Donaldson had a 24 wRC+ through May 2012. Just because a player struggles in their first cup of coffee doesn't mean that they're not going to be amazing. But the fact is, top prospects are just that: prospects. They don't always pan out. Russell has the potential to be a superstar in the making, but we have no idea what heights he will reach.

On the other end, the A's received significant, major-league ready value. In fact, 3/4 players received in Shark Trade 2 are already on the major league roster. Semien has hit just about league average this year (98 wRC+) while showing signs of maybe-someday being able to passably play the premium defensive position of shortstop. Josh Phegley has been a revelation, putting up a 1.1 WAR in only 38 games (!) founded on a 126 wRC+ and excellent defense behind the plate. Chris Bassitt is just getting his first taste of major league pitching with the A's, but with Hahn's uncertain status it seems he may be in the rotation a while, and he's pitched well in his starts thus far.

Essentially, what you're looking at is a trade of risky potential for more certainty. Again: Russell may be the next Derek Jeter, or he may be the next Cliff Pennington, and we don't truly know which. But when Beane made Shark Trade 2, he knew that he was getting players who could contribute at the major league level right away.

In prospect evaluation, you often the terms "floor" and "ceiling." Beane has a history of leveraging players' ceilings- their potential to be something great in the future- for players with a higher floor, ready to contribute at the major league level now. Another way of putting this is that Beane seems to be risk-averse: he'd rather have a few players that he knows are likely to contribute at the major league level rather than a player that could be a superstar or could be a total bust.

Whether you like the outcome of Shark Trade 1 depends entirely on just how risk averse you are. Personally, I hate risk. I'm the kind of guy who only buys ETFs because the idea of picking an individual stock freaks me out. But that also means that I don't stand to make a huge fortune when I miss out on investing in the next Google. Seeking out risk isn't necessary bad; higher risk implies high reward.

Whenever Shark Trade 1 is brought up on the internet, for the most part there seems to be a basic assumption that the A's "lost" the trade. For the most part, people take that as a given. But for that to be true, the value given up in Shark Trade 1 has to be significantly better than the value acquired in Shark Trade 2.

As you can see, I clearly don't believe that to be the case. If you're the kind of person who prefers riskier prospects, however, you may believe that to be the case. So I decided to see for myself whether most people really believed that the value given up in Shark Trade 1 was greater than the value given up in Shark Trade 2.

When I wrote the article about the Donaldson trade, I included a poll at the bottom. While SB Nation polls aren't exactly the most scientific, the poll received almost 2200 responses. Here are the results:

The poll results can be essentially reinterpreted as follows:

Yes: (Value of Players in Shark Trade 1) > (Value of Players in Shark Trade 2)
No: (Value of Players in Shark Trade 1) < (Value of Players in Shark Trade 2)
Not Sure: (Value of Players in Shark Trade 1) = (Value of Players in Shark Trade 2)

A large minority of A's fans think that the A's definitively gave up more value than they received in return, but the majority believe that the A's received equal or greater return in Shark Trade 2 than they gave up in Shark Trade 1. While this isn't exact (and might just be a product of people's levels of risk aversion), it's clear that it's far from definitive that the A's gave up more value than they recouped.

The Other Variable

All of the above analysis leaves out an extremely important variable: the A's got half a season of Samardzija (and Hammel) in a year in which they made the postseason by 1 game. In that half season, Shark put up 1.7 WAR. While it's impossible to definitively say that the A's wouldn't have made the postseason without making the trade, it's very likely that this is the case. To return to our equation from above, for the A's to have "lost" Shark Trade 1, you have to believe that:

(Value of Players in Shark Trade 1) > (Value of Players in Shark Trade 2) + Postseason Berth

A shot at the Wild Card game is, of course, completely unquantifiable, but it is a significant value. Even if you believe that the A's received slightly less value Shark Trade 2 than they gave up in Shark Trade 1, taking into account the A's getting to the postseason changes the calculus somewhat.

Essentially, it's time that we rethink the prevailing narrative about Shark Trade 1. Even if you are the type who prefers the risky prospects to the sure things, the trade wasn't nearly as much of a disaster as the internet seems to make it out.