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Public Service Announcement: Zack Greinke and the Philosophy of No-Trade Clauses

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In which the author employs a very special metaphor to talk about why a no trade list doesn’t say what some seem to think it does.

Colorado Rockies v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

Ladies and gentlemen, the hot stove is beginning to heat up. We’ve got trades involving Jerry DiPoto’s team coming fast and furious now — shocking, I know — with potentially more on the way. The Mets are getting Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz. Jean Segura might be heading to the Phillies. James Paxton is already a Yankee. It’s a good reminder to all, I should think, that when a GM comes out and publicly denies his club is considering a teardown after it’s reported that his club is considering a teardown, maybe be skeptical of what the guy holding the cards is saying. After all, you can’t bluff anyone if they all know what you’ve got in your hand.

So much of the action this offseason has involved the Mariners, in fact, that it’s basically all but forgotten at this moment that there’s another club out there which has been rumoured to be entering a rebuild phase, and that’s the Arizona Diamondbacks. Now, we Cardinal fans haven’t really forgotten the DBacks are maybe tearing their club down, largely because one of the biggest rumours surrounding the Cards’ offseason plans has been a potential pursuit of Paul Goldchmidt in trade.

Now, I’ll leave aside my thoughts on whether Goldschmidt represents a good way forward or not for now — short version: I think he’s likely to age better than the average first baseman, and should be a good offensive centerpiece for a couple years, but I worry about him four and five years down the line much more than I would a Harper signing or the like — in order to focus on a separate issue that has cropped up in the context of the Cardinals trying to make a deal with the Diamondbacks. Namely, the fact that Zack Greinke’s name has also come up, and the Cards appear at least somewhat interested in expanding a Goldschmidt deal to include Greinke, and taking on a huge chunk of salary in order to not pay as much in talent, and there’s a no-trade list in Greinke’s contract with the Cardinals included on it.

It’s that last point above all others I want to focus on this morning, as I’ve seen a lot of chatter floating around about that clause in Greinke’s contract, and what it means specifically in regards to the Cardinals.

So here’s the thing: I think quite a lot of the readership here at VEB understands how no-trade clauses really work, and why they’re included, and all that, but not everyone. It’s certainly a higher percentage here I think than in the general population, where I’ve seen Greinke derided for not wanting to come to St. Louis, the Cardinals derided for having fallen so far that Greinke wouldn’t ever want to come here, drama from 2011 dredged up, all sorts of things. But even here we’ve had some of that stuff. Plenty of people talking about the state of the franchise, and why the Cards can’t convince players to come here anymore, all of that.

So as a public service, I would just like to take this time to go through the realities of no-trade clauses, what they do and don’t say about any of the parties involved, and why Zack Greinke having St. Louis on his no list has basically nothing to do with whether or not he wants to be a Cardinal or not.

Okay, first point: there are two types of no-trade clauses; partial and full. Full no-trade clauses are exactly what they sound like; the player has the ability to block a potential trade to any and all teams. The player can not be traded under any circumstances without his permission, essentially.

Partial no-trade clauses are a little more complicated, mostly because they’re not all the same. Depending on the exact language in the contract, the player can block a trade to a certain number of teams, usually somewhere between seven and fifteen, or in other words between a quarter and a half of the clubs in the league. There’s also a little variance in how the list is made; the teams a player can block have to be spelled out ahead of time, but some contracts only allow for one list, while others allow a player to make a list every year. I think the ones with annual lists are a little more rare, possibly because it’s an extra chore the player and his agent have to deal with each year and rarely seems worth the hassle. They do exist, however.

Second point: no-trade clauses are priced in to contracts, just like every other contract clause. Team options at the end of a deal are valuable to the team. Player options/opt-out clauses are valuable to the player. Mutual options are muddier, and usually more about longstanding relationships than leverage and value, and are not super common anymore honestly. Player gets a suite on the road? That’s some hypothetical unit of value that the player adds in to what he feels he’s getting out of the contract. Travel tickets for a spouse? Same thing. Small things, sure, but each of those tiny clauses spelled out in a contract are there for a reason.

No-trade protection works the same way. An agent and a team representative hammered out a contract, and a no-trade clause, if included, was essentially priced in to the structure. How much are such clauses worth? I honestly don’t know, and I’m not sure there’s a lot of great research about it. We have a fairly solid handle on how to value opt-outs, but no-trade clauses are a bit more nebulous. Still, just because we can’t put a hard number on it doesn’t mean it isn’t priced in. If a club is negotiating with a player and doesn’t want to offer trade protection, there is some number of extra dollars they can offer to avoid it. It’s probably variable, depending on the player, but it’s still a value like anything else in a contract.

Third point, and this is probably the biggie: no-trade clauses are not about not wanting to get traded. No-trade clauses are not about the player saying no, you can’t trade me; no-trade clauses are about the player saying I don’t want to be traded without having a say in the matter. No-trade clauses can always be waived, and we see them waived all the time. Mike Leake waived his to go to Seattle, because he probably liked the extra month in Arizona for spring training, and also because he could see the writing on the wall that the Cardinals were looking to go a different direction. Break ups don’t always have to be messy.

No-trade clauses are, in reality, not about wanting to stay with the team the player is signing with, or not wanting his life uprooted. No-trade clauses are, plain and simple, about choice and leverage. The player wants to have a choice in where he goes, and whether he goes, and wants some bit of leverage he can exert in the process of being traded. An option year guaranteed, or a payout agreed to, or maybe just the right to say no, I don’t want that or sure, that’s fine. You have a choice in where to sign in free agency, and the idea of trade protection is to continue to have a choice if things get sideways and the team is looking to move you.

Fourth point: full no-trade clauses are better than partial ones. This seems fairly self-explanatory, right? Total choice is better and more valuable than partial choice.

Fifth point: partial no-trade clauses all want to be full no-trade clauses. Again, this makes sense, right? If you have partial choice, you’d probably like to have full choice and leverage.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, brings us to the true crux of the matter here today, which is this: most of the time, the choices players make in filling out their no-trade lists, in the case of partial no-trade clauses, have virtually nothing to do with where they do or do not want to go, and basically everything to do with trying to game the system and turn that partial no-trade clause into a de facto full no-trade clause.

To the Twitter we must go, for a moment:

Okay, so we have a list here. Admittedly, we don’t know with 100% certainty this is absolutely the list, but I’m willing to take it on faith that it’s pretty accurate. Including the Diamondbacks, who Greinke cannot be traded to due to already being a DBack, we have sixteen teams Greinke and his agent decided were worth putting on the no-fly list, as it were.

So the question is: why these clubs? Are these all the teams Zack Greinke doesn’t like? All the cities he thinks totally suck and would never want to go there? Of course not. These are, for the most part, the clubs Greinke and his agent think are the strongest possibilities to trade for Zack Greinke.

We have the Yankees, and the Red Sox, and the Dodgers (who Greinke reportedly enjoyed pitching for very much), and the Giants, and the Cardinals, and the Phillies. Now, there are also a few odd ducks on here, and a few left off, that might really be about player preference. Neither Chicago team is blocked, which is interesting. The Reds and Athletics seem like long shots to ever be in on a Greinke trade. But it’s telling that clubs like the Cardinals and Boston and the Angels and Yankees, all of whom are very competitive and have the financial resources and talent wherewithal to actually attempt an acquisition, are blocked, while the Marlins, who are a train wreck, and the Rays, who are far too cheap to ever think about taking on that contract, are both totally fine as potential destinations.

The reason, I would hope should be obvious by now, is this: when making out a no-trade list, the idea is to make it as close to a full no-trade list as possible. And the best way to do that is to block deals to as many of the really likely outcomes as possible, while leaving the teams that aren’t realistic suitors in a trade scenario off the list, simply because they’re basically already on the list anyway. If you make it so that the majority of clubs who might want to trade for you are blocked, while the clubs you think are unlikely to take a run at a deal are on the okay list, then you’ve essentially moved yourself far closer to a full no-trade clause than the partial one you and your agent agreed to.

Up until this point in VEB history, I think the nerdiest thing I’ve ever written on this site, and maybe the nerdiest thing ever written period, came back in 2011, when I was writing about the Cardinals and Brewers preparing to square off in the NLCS. Conveniently for those who believe in Carl Jung’s synchronicities, that series featured Zack Greinke as the ace of the Brewers, and was really the high point for St. Louis-Milwaukee baseball tensions during that era, when there was a bunch of Nyjer Morgan trash talking and Chris Carpenter screaming going on seemingly at all times.

What I wrote was about Jason Motte, and it was this:

“Watching Jason Motte pitch is a little like playing through the original Bioshock on Easy; you keep waiting for the moment when, “You know what? I’m just gonna walk over there and smack ‘em with a wrench,” stops being a viable strategy, and that moment just keeps on not arriving.”

That bit remains, to this day, one of my favourite things I’ve ever come up with in the spur of the moment. It was unplanned, tossed in entirely off the cuff, and I’ve always been proud of it. Dumb, I know, but these are the small things you remember in a career of writing, like that weird nerd reference or the comma added by my editor at the RFT that shifted the meaning of a sentence about one degree and which I have never, ever gotten over being frustrated by.

Well, as of today, I think I have a nerdier metaphor for you.

See, I’ve had Magic: the Gathering on my mind the past few weeks. Now, that probably seems like an odd thing to bring up near the close of this professorial lecture about baseball contract clauses, but I’m going somewhere with this. The reason I’ve had Magic on my mind is because, a few weeks back, my girlfriend said to me just before I drifted off to sleep, “You know, I think I’m going to start entering Magic tournaments again.”

My first reaction, quite honestly, was panic, because I had a sudden fear that some mystical transmogrification had taken place and I was actually in bed with my MTG buddy from high school, but a quick anatomical check assured me I had not, in fact, just had sex with John Duncan, which was a great relief to me. (Also, hi John if you ever happen to read this! And sorry for, you know, bringing you up in this context.)

But anyway, it was not entirely shocking to me that she would be looking to get into some tournaments; she got back into the game last year sometime, and has been somewhat frustrated by not having a ton of people around to play with, so it makes sense. Now, for anyone not familiar with Magic: the Gathering, it’s a collectible card game, where you play with a deck of cards composed of various monsters and spells and abilities. I was a huge Magic nerd back around 1995ish, freshman year of high school, but eventually fell out of the hobby, sold my cards, and never really picked it back up. My friend Travis tried to get me to play the online version about ten years ago with a group of our mutual friends, but nobody ever seemed to have as much time as expected, and adulthood just generally got in the way.

The point of all this is this: in Magic, there are five colours of card, representing different elements/aspects of nature. You have green, red, blue, black, and white. All the colours are more or less equally viable (though blue isn’t nearly as good as it was back in the day when I played, since Time Walk and Time Vault have both been nerfed significantly, I believe), and all colours perform just fine against any others.

So Nikki got to talking about entering some games/tournaments, and how she might want to set up a deck. We chatted about it, and the game has been on my mind off and on ever since. See, back in the day, I actually did play in a few tournaments, though it wasn’t nearly so easy to find them in the mid-90s, largely because the internet didn’t really exist yet in a meaningful form, and niche things were just nichier.

How does this all relate to Zack Greinke and no-trade clauses? Well, it’s like this: say you were going to a Magic: the Gathering tournament at a book shop, and there are ten people in it. Round robin format, couple nights, prizes are just card packs or whatever. Say you know the people in the tourney relatively well, and have some decent idea of what they are as players, and how good their decks are. How would you go about setting up a deck?

Well, first off, you would want to know the primary colours each person is playing. All colours perform reasonably well against any other, but there are specific counters for what each colour does well, and you need to have certain things in your deck if you’re going up against certain colours. So say of the ten people, six of them are playing some combination of red, white, and black. (This is fairly true to life, actually, in my experience.) The other four have some green and blue stuff going on, but two of them are players you know to be fairly new to the game or just not that skilled, one just doesn’t have great cards, and one is testing out a new deck she’s building that her boyfriend thinks is kind of a terrible idea. (Hypothetically.)

If you know those things, what would you include in your deck? Well, you’re going to set things up to try and counter red, white, and black, right? Green and blue are floating around, sure, but the players playing those colours are not really a threat, you don’t think. So if you can counter the three colours that are being played by skilled players with good decks, and the other colours are all in the hands of players who are not as big a threats to win, then you’ve essentially covered your bases, without having to plan for every single eventuality. Now, is it possible that a green player could get a little lucky and make a run, maybe have a Matt Harvey and Jacob DeGrom both pop up in their deck at the same time? Sure, it’s possible, but you don’t bet on that. You bet on the good players with the good decks being what you have to plan for, and prepare accordingly.

That’s how a partial no-trade list works. You prepare for the scenarios that are likely, and you bet that the unlikely ones don’t pop up and bite you. You put the Yankees and the Red Sox and the Cardinals on your no-trade list because you think they might want you and try to trade for you, and you leave off the Marlins and Rays and Mets because you don’t think they’re very likely potential suitors, and thus you cover all your bases without having to actually prepare for every eventuality.

This has been a public service announcement, reminding you that when a player has your team on his no-trade list, it’s probably not because he hates you, or your city, or your team, or doesn’t want to play for said team. The reason that team is on his list, in all likelihood, is because he and his agent sat down and decided that team x is a legitimate possibility in a trade, and thus should be on the list so that we have some leverage if and when the time comes. Unless the player has a black lotus clause in his contract, in which case all bets are off.

Now that’s a nerdy fucking reference. I’m going to go give myself a wedgie.