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Trading For A Star At The Deadline Doesn’t Always Pay Off. L.A.’s Hoping That Trading For Two Will.

From the jump, it has looked perfect. 

On Aug. 10, 11 days after the Los Angeles Dodgers acquired Max Scherzer and Trea Turner at the trade deadline from the Washington Nationals and four days after Turner cleared COVID-19 protocols, the two slotted into their new club’s lineup together for the first time. Scherzer, no less glowering and sweat-logged for having gone Hollywood, fired six strikeouts across 3 1/3 shutout innings against the Philadelphia Phillies, leaving the game only after an hourlong rain delay cooled his arm. Turner, the National League’s batting average leader, notched a pair of hits, including a sixth-inning leadoff double cast out to deep center-right. After Will Smith followed him up with a single, Turner sailed around third and swept himself over home plate so nimbly it was a surprise that his uniform picked up dirt. The Dodgers won 5-0; had style points been awarded, the margin would have been twice that.

Midseason acquisitions can serve all sorts of needs: bullpen depth, a platoon advantage, middle-of-the-order pop. But when L.A. sent off top pitching prospect Josiah Gray for a chunk of the Nats’ 2019 World Series-winning core, it didn’t really need anything. At the time, the Dodgers sat three games behind the San Francisco Giants in the NL West, but Pythagorean win-loss had them as baseball’s best club. They had a Cy Young favorite in Walker Buehler and a potential MVP in Max Muncy, with past winners in both categories (Clayton Kershaw, Mookie Betts) working their way back from injury. Even without would-be starter Trevor Bauer, who was placed on administrative leave by MLB following sexual assault allegations, the Dodgers had at one point allowed the fewest runs in baseball and scored the fifth-most. Most deadline deals fortify a contending team’s weakness; this one meant to add to the Dodgers’ strength, nudging their status from “great” to “prohibitively so.” It’s about the biggest ask a team can make of fresh hires: championship or bust. It’s also one Scherzer and Turner are uniquely capable of pulling off.

Even the most successful stretch-run and postseason cameos tend to end up as parables. In 2004, Carlos Beltrán went down to Houston and racked up 20 hits and eight homers over two playoff series; the Astros still fell in seven games to the Cardinals. In 2008, CC Sabathia and Manny Ramírez switched leagues and dragged their new clubs to the postseason but lasted only until the division and championship series, respectively. Fred McGriff in 1993, Randy Johnson in 1998, David Price in 2014 and again in 2015 — each fell short of even an appearance in the World Series. While summer sweet-talks contenders into believing the notion of “final pieces,” autumn tends to remind them that one player can do only so much.

The most obvious leg up Scherzer and Turner have on their predecessors is that there are two of them. Across 29 starts this season between Washington and L.A., Scherzer has put up a career-best 2.28 ERA and amassed 6.2 pitching wins above replacement, per Baseball-Reference.com. Turner has popped 25 home runs, the most of his career, without sacrificing his definitional contact hitting or best-in-class speed; add it all up and his WAR sits at 6.0. Those figures would lead all Dodgers pitchers and hitters, respectively, had Scherzer and Turner spent the whole year in L.A. 

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Apart, the two newcomers slot in comfortably on a ledger of recent marquee midyear acquisitions. Together, they mean more than the gold standard: Rickey Henderson, who between the New York Yankees and Oakland A’s in 1989 spent a bicoastal season tallying 148 hits and 126 walks, swiping 77 bags and racking up 8.7 WAR.

Trades of big names don’t guarantee a trophy

MLB players with at least 5 position-specific* wins above replacement (WAR) who were traded in June or July and whether their new team made the playoffs, since 1986

Player Year WAR Old Team New Team Result
Rickey Henderson 1989 8.7 NYY OAK Won WS 🏆
Mark Teixeira 2008 7.8 ATL LAA Lost ALDS
Tom Candiotti 1991 7.1 CLE TOR Lost ALCS
David Cone 1995 7.0 TOR NYY Lost ALDS
Carlos Beltrán 2004 6.8 KC HOU Lost NLCS
CC Sabathia 2008 6.7 CLE MIL Lost NLDS
Scott Rolen 2002 6.4 PHI STL Lost NLCS
Max Scherzer 2021 6.3 WAS LAD ?
David Price 2015 6.3 DET TOR Lost ALCS
Yoenis Céspedes 2015 6.2 DET NYM Lost WS
Manny Machado 2018 6.1 BAL LAD Lost WS
Trea Turner 2021 6.0 WAS LAD ?
Manny Ramírez 2008 6.0 BOS LAD Lost NLCS
Roy Oswalt 2010 6.0 HOU PHI Lost NLCS
Rich Harden 2008 5.9 OAK CHC Lost NLDS
Hunter Pence 2011 5.7 HOU PHI Lost NLDS
Randy Johnson 1998 5.7 SEA HOU Lost NLDS
Cliff Lee 2009 5.4 CLE PHI Lost WS
David Wells 1995 5.4 DET CIN Lost NLCS
Matt Holliday 2009 5.3 OAK STL Lost NLDS
Álex González 2010 5.1 TOR ATL Lost NLDS
Charles Johnson 2000 5.1 BAL CHW Lost ALDS
David Justice 2000 5.1 CLE NYY Won WS 🏆
Zack Greinke 2019 5.1 ARI HOU Lost WS
Doug Fister 2011 5.1 SEA DET Lost ALCS
Cliff Lee 2010 5.1 SEA TEX Lost WS
Rickey Henderson 1993 5.0 OAK TOR Won WS 🏆

*Pitching WAR only for pitchers, batting WAR only for batters.

MLB moved the trade deadline to July 31 from June 15 in 1986. Trades made during the August waiver period (possible through 2019) were not included.

2021 stats through Sept. 26.

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

That Henderson helped the A’s pay off his acquisition with a title speaks, at least in part, to the scalability of his greatness. They say that speed doesn’t slump, and whether he slugged or not, Henderson was a good bet during any given game to reach one base and get to the next. Over a 4-1 series win over the Blue Jays and a World Series sweep against the Giants, he registered 15 hits and nine walks and stole 11 of 12 attempted bases.

Scherzer and Turner have brought L.A. similar night-to-night returns. As a Dodger, Scherzer has surrendered no earned runs in six of his 10 starts and just 10 earned runs in total; only five times all season has he given up four runs or more. He has held to the proportions of aggression and adaptability that earned him three Cy Youngs over the 2010s and helped him pace the Nationals to the 2019 title; his fastball, slider and changeup all yield an expected batting average of less than .200. (If you watched him bully the San Diego Padres with letter-high heaters and Yomega changes during the near-perfect game that earned him his 3,000th strikeout, those numbers just confirm what you already knew.) He has all the stuff to get out of trouble, on the rare occasions that he gets into it; his strikeout percentage of 35.7 is a career high, and his WHIP leads all of baseball.

Turner, meanwhile, is lab-built for the modern postseason, when contact hitting and strikeout avoidance regain their former stature. His swing gets baseballs moving regardless of whether his barrel finds them and there aren’t many off nights; Turner has failed to reach base in only four games of the 45 starts he’s made for the Dodgers. Two-strike hitting is increasingly a staple of championship-worthy offenses, and his .240 mark ranks the fifth-best among players who have faced at least 400 such pitches. On the bases, Turner moves like a rumor. He sprints at 30.6 feet per second and steals almost whenever he likes (31 of 35 on the year); he refutes the notion of a sure out.

So neither Scherzer nor Turner seems a likely candidate for the sort of swoon — forgivable and even expected during the 162-game slog, disastrous when you’re supposed to be a guarantor of a postseason run — that has sunk deadline acquisitions in the past. They’re also well-positioned to avoid the other sad ending common to midyear imports: excellence as solo act. Beltran’s 2004 masterpiece came to a stop in the NLCS against St. Louis after he hit four homers and put up a 1.521 OPS while only two other Astros regulars cracked .700. Ramírez’s 2008 ended in the same round to the Phillies, despite his 1.748 OPS mark; he drove in seven of the Dodgers’ 19 runs on his own.

Even though they came to town in the thick of a still-ongoing pennant race with the unpredictable Giants, this year’s Dodgers imports didn’t arrive as saviors. L.A.’s pitching WAR was second in MLB even pre-deadline, and its position player WAR ranked fifth, according to FanGraphs. No team in baseball is sturdier; as Neil Paine wrote for FiveThirtyEight, a historic regression from a former MVP and subtler slides from a cast of All-Stars amounts to a negligible blip. When Betts is your fourth- or fifth-best player, there’s only so much work left to do.

If bringing aboard Scherzer and Turner amounted to purchasing a gold-leaf insurance policy, they have so far fit the bill. The day the trade went through, FiveThirtyEight’s postseason predictions gave L.A. a 20 percent chance of winning the World Series; the number has since grown to 25 percent, eight points better than the next-closest team. (This despite the increasing likelihood that L.A. will face a wild-card game.) If the postseason unfolds as the model predicts, the Dodgers will have earned the standing as the most clear-eyed deadline dealers in recent memory. Individual players tend not to rewrite a flawed team’s fortunes, but they can make a great one more fully itself.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

CORRECTION (Sept. 27, 2021, 12:40 p.m.): An earlier version of the table in this article gave an incorrect outcome for the 1993 Toronto Blue Jays. The Blue Jays won the World Series that year.

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