If you're here looking for breaking news on chimpanzees, today you're in luck.
According to an item in the May issue of Discover, chimps aren't so different from many fantasy owners, at least in one important way:
Our closest relatives almost always prefer a sure bet, according to a recent study, choosing value in hand over risk for higher returns. The finding brings us closer to understanding chimps' trading habits and gives us precious insight into how trade, an essential cooperative behavior, works for humans ... The scientists determined which food each chimp liked best. Then they assigned values to the foods. Finally, they taught the inexperienced chimps how to trade with tokens and food.
The result was that if a chimp possessed an item of modest value -- the magazine's example was carrots, but let's just say it's Matt Capps -- he would not exchange it for a high-value item -- they used grapes, we'll say Ichiro. The chimps were incredibly risk-averse. The study also suggested that "their disinclination to barter is innate."
So you don't want chimpanzees in your fantasy leagues. Or even humanzees. And if you have one, don't bother sending trade offers, because he likes his team just fine.
But we're separated from chimps by something like 5,000,000 years of evolution. There's no reason we humans should be disinclined to trade, especially when we're only talking about small sets of statistics in online games. Still, there's a persistent school of thought in the fantasy community -- promoted, at times, by accredited experts -- that no one should make significant roster moves, including trades, before some arbitrary date. Sometimes it's in May, sometimes June.
That's astonishingly risk-averse behavior. It also suggests that those owners are terrified they'll suffer the shame involved in losing, or being perceived to have lost, a deal.
If you don't feel that you can possibly understand your team's deficiencies and strengths right now -- and thus recognize your needs and trading assets -- then you probably didn't prepare for the season particularly well. Nearly all of our teams can be improved, and we all have pieces that can be safely dealt.
Here's another quote from the end of that Discover piece:
Because humans can specialize ... we can generate surplus to purchase or barter for better foods from one another.
Or for better WHIP. If you're not willing to rearrange you roster via trade, then you'd better hope that your draft was dead-on perfect and your players are indestructible. But that's not likely. April is actually a spectacular time to deal. I'll guarantee that there are owners in your league who assign value to players based exclusively on what they've done in the first week of the season. Scan the Buzz Index on any given day if you don't believe it. The sell high/buy low opportunities are as rich right now as they're ever going to be.
Trading is a definite skill, though, and it requires that you take the time to understand your own needs, the needs of potential trading partners, and the implications that a deal will have on the rest of your league.
Derek Carty wrote an excellent piece on fantasy trade strategy for The Hardball Times last week, and it's definitely worth your time. There are a few chilling moments where he reveals the full, intrusive nature of his intelligence gathering practices -- his diligence might be impractical for some of you -- but the feature is very useful. (OK, maybe the war comparison is a bit extreme. As I've been told in an entirely different context, "If it feels like we're fighting, you're doing it wrong." You're not deliberately trying to harm the teams you deal with; you're just trying to extract what you need from their rosters. But if Derek wants to kill them with swords, that's his business).
One of Derek's initial points -- and this is something that's completely ignored by many fantasy owners -- is that you have to understand the teams you're attempting to trade with. It's necessary to know their category and position needs, and it doesn't hurt to know something about the owner's allegiances and tendencies. This makes great intuitive sense, yet people are always making offers without giving much consideration to the needs (or irrational wants) of the owners they're trying to engage.
If your league has any kind of history, then use it to your advantage. There's a natural tendency among fantasy owners to return to players who've been successful for them in the past. You know who's receptive to a Carlos Pena deal? The guy who owned him last year.
And you know who wouldn't add Andruw Jones, even in a Jones-only league? Me. Also, the guy who owned him last year. Prior experience with a player can lead to unhealthy affection or dislike.
There are three additional things I'll emphasize regarding trades:
1) The free agent pool is always a factor. Your trading partner might not realize it, though. In a public-style mixed league, there's always talent available, and you should think of the player pool as a vast farm system. If you can trade away a player whose contributions can be replaced by the best-available free agent at his position, do it -- especially if the trade helps you acquire a stat that isn't so widely available.
Recall the Moneyball line that we drag out from time to time: "The important thing is not to recreate the individual. The important thing is to recreate the aggregate."
You're going to give something away in any legitimate deal. Even if you can't perfectly replace an individual's production, you can usually replace their most important contributions to your team, often by adding an un-owned player.
2) Make it a discussion, not an assault. For reasons I can't fully explain, many fantasy owners take extreme offense to trade proposals that they consider imbalanced. There are owners -- and this is true within the expert community, too -- who will react with startling hostility to any offer they're not inclined to accept. As if fantasy baseball success were the full expression of their brilliance.
So if you don't know the person you're dealing with, go to their team page and use the "Send Email" link to begin the trade discussion. Let them know who or what you're interested in, and then ask them -- for emphasis: ASK them -- what they're looking to acquire. Don't tell people what they need. No one reacts well to that.
If you simply lob one trade offer after another at your league, as if you're using a random trade generator, you're not going to be looked upon favorably. Use notes to explain yourself. Language, as you might have heard, is one of the things that separates you from those non-trading chimps.
3) The goal is actually to win leagues, not trades. It's perfectly reasonable to "lose" a trade in terms of the overall value of the pieces involved, yet still come out ahead -- perhaps even far ahead. In any trade, you're trying to improve your team or its standing in the league. Trades are about filling needs.
I've made wildly successful deals in which I've given away more talent than I've received. Sometimes these trades are about acquiring a stat for my own purposes; sometimes they're about keeping a player off an opponent's roster, or causing an opponent to lose ground in the standings.
You shouldn't just be trying to "win" the deal. That's of limited importance. Instead, you're trying to finish first in your league.