Saturday, December 10, 2011

Ryan for Fregosi: 40 Years Later


This is an update of an article I've posted before. I'm doing it today because it's the anniversary.

December 10, 1971, 40 years ago today: The New York Mets trade four players to the California Angels for shortstop Jim Fregosi.

At this point, there was nothing wrong with wanting a healthy Jim Fregosi on your team. He would be just 30 years old on Opening Day 1972, had been an American League All-Star 6 times, won a Gold Glove in 1967, and until slumping to 89 in 1971, had never had an OPS+ (on-base percentage + slugging percentage, in relation to the league average) lower than 108 in his first 8 full seasons in the majors, peaking at 141 in 1964.

His highest batting average had been .290, in 1967; peak home runs, 22, and peak runs batted in, 82, both in 1970. In 1968, he led the AL in triples with 13. The franchise was just 11 seasons old at that point, but Fregosi was, without a doubt, the greatest player the Angels had yet had.

Certainly, Fregosi was a better player than the Mets' incumbent starting shortstop, Derrel McKinley "Bud" Harrelson. Although Harrelson had helped the Mets win the 1969 World Series, and had won the '71 season's National League Gold Glove for shortstops and was selected for the last 2 All-Star Games, Harrelson couldn't hit a lick. His highest single-season OPS+ was 82, well below Fregosi's slump season. His peak batting average thus far was .254, and he would top that only twice; his peak RBI year was 42, and his peak home run year was... 1 -- in each case, it would remain so.

Clearly, what the Mets needed to do was make Harrelson a backup, a "defensive replacement." Or maybe the Mets could move him to third base, where 1969 starter Wayne Garrett had badly tailed off, and incumbent starter Bob Aspromonte was at the end of the line. (Bob was a Brooklyn native, now best known as the last active player who had played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was also the brother of the somewhat better Ken Aspromonte.)

Instead, the Mets kept Harrelson at short, and moved Fregosi to third. At first, it seemed to work, but then Fregosi got hurt, finished the season with only 32 RBIs and an OPS+ of just 89, and was never the same again. His 382 plate appareances that season would be far and away more than he'd ever have again.

Between the ages of 21 and 28, Jim Fregosi was, statistically speaking, similar to Alan Trammell, the longtime Detroit Tiger shortstop who is maybe one step short of being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame (and would be in, as would his double-play partner Lou Whitaker, if they could go in as a unit, like the Chicago Cubs' early 20th Century combo "Tinker to Evers to Chance"). But between the ages of 29 and 36, Fregosi was just another broken-down player.

At 36, in 1978, the Angels fired manager Dave Garcia, and asked Fregosi, then playing out the string with the Pittsburgh Pirates, to come back; he instantly accepted the job, retired as a player, and in 1979, his first full season on the job, led the Angels to the AL Western Division title, their first postseason berth.

*

Did the Mets blow it by trading 4 players for an injured formerly solid player? Not necessarily. We have to take a look at those 4 players, to see if the Mets gave up anything worth having.

Frank Estrada. He was a backup catcher who'd played 1 big-league game, for the Mets in '71, and never appeared in another. No loss there.

Don Rose. A pitcher, he'd also reached the majors for 1 game with the '71 Mets, put up a 1-4 record for the '72 Angels, and by April 1974 had appeared in the majors for the last time. No loss there.

Leroy Stanton. He was a right fielder, and he turned out to be a good player, putting up OPS+ seasons of 110, 116 and 123, before slumping a bit in 1976, and being left unprotected in the expansion draft. Taken by the Seattle Mariners, he put up an OPS+ of 130 in 1977, before an injury ended his career the next season at just 32 years old.

Still, the Mets could have used someone like that from 1972 to 1977, particularly after trading Rusty Staub after the '75 season -- another dumb Met trade, as they got Mickey Lolich. Staub for Lolich would have been a good trade, even after the '71 season; but not after '75. (Interestingly, on Baseball-Reference.com's "Similar Batters" list, Number 1 on Stanton's list is... Ron Swoboda. Former Yankee World Champions Gary Thomasson and Ricky Ledee are also in his top 4.)

*

And now, to confront the elephant in the room: The remaining player sent from Flushing Meadow to Anaheim.

Lynn Nolan Ryan of the Houston suburb of Alvin, Texas.

At the time of the trade, he was a month and a half short of his 25th birthday. He had a career won-lost record of 29-38. Not good, especially when you consider that the Mets had won 100 games in 1969, 83 in 1970 and 83 again in 1971. He struck out a lot of batters, but also walked a lot, giving him a WHIP (Walks and Hits, divided by Innings Pitched) of almost 1.6 in '71. His ERA was nearly 4, not good in the NL of the time, which was pitching-friendly with a lot of concrete multipurpose oval stadiums (3 new ones in the preceding season and a half), and, of course, no designated hitter.

With Ryan having been disappointing thus far, and with Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Gary Gentry and a somewhat-still-effective Ray Sadecki in their rotation, the Mets could afford to let Ryan go. Or so it seemed at the time.

In 1972, his first season in the AL, Ryan led the League in both walks and wild pitches... but also led it in strikeouts with a whopping 329, and shutouts with 8, forging a 19-16 record for a team that won just 75 games. A decent Angels team would probably have made him a 23-game winner.

In 1973, he set a new major league record (since the 1893 adoption of the 60 feet, 6 inches pitching distance, anyway) with 383 strikeouts. That record has never even been approached, except by Ryan himself the next season with 367. Nor is it likely to be approached, unless managers suddenly decide to stop babying pitchers and let them pitch 7+ innings every 4 days instead of the post-1990 idea of only letting them pitch 6 to 7 innings every 5 days.

By the close of the 1974 season, Ryan had 3 seasons of 300+ strikeouts, 4 no-hitters, 3 games with at least 19 strikeouts (he would add a 4th, although "only" 1 of those came without the benefit of extra innings), 91 wins (but also 86 losses), a career ERA of 3.01 (not bad considering he was now in the DH-affected AL), and 1,572 strikeouts -- and he was only 27.

Putting aside for a moment all the things Ryan would achieve after 1974 -- 233 more wins, 3 more no-hitters, and enough additional strikeouts to place himself 4th on the all-time list even if you only count from 1975 onward -- this was still a bad trade for the Mets. Add in everything Ryan did from Opening Day 1972 until his retirement after the close of the 1993 season, and Ryan-for-Fregosi -- even if you forget about the decently talented Stanton -- looks like a candidate for the title of "The Worst Baseball Trade Ever" -- and not just the worst Met trade.

*

But is it? There is another elephant in the room. (You ever smell a room with 2 elephants in it? Smells worse than the Mets... most of the time.)


Big question no one ever seems to ask: Would having Nolan Ryan have helped the Mets any from 1972 onward?

It's easy to say, as does Greg Prince, author of the book and blog Faith and Fear in Flushing, that the Mets lost the 1973 World Series to the Oakland Athletics because manager Yogi Berra pitched Tom Seaver in Game 6 and Jon Matlack in Game 7, each on just 3 days' rest.

And Yogi wasn't that "old school": He was only 48, and had seen his mentor, Casey Stengel, adapt to changing conditions pretty well when they were together on the Yankees from 1949 to 1960. And it's not like Yogi had a lot of choice: Koosman had started Game 5, and couldn't have pitched again unless rain pushed Game 7 back a day; Sadecki had pitched in relief in Game 4; and he and George Stone, the Mets' other starter, had pitched in the Series only in relief and weren't much better options.

Besides, if you're a Met fan, who would you rather have, pitching a game that could win you the World Series, in a park that really, really favored pitchers, as the Oakland Coliseum always has: Tom Seaver on 3 days rest, or... any other pitcher then active? Especially knowing that, if Tom Terrific couldn't go the full 9, you had a workhorse reliever in Tug McGraw?

If the Mets had Ryan in '73, that would have been a huge boost for them. Not just in the Series. Don't forget, due to the closeness of the race, and rainouts, the Mets did not clinch the NL East until October 1, the day after the season had originally been scheduled to end, and even then they had to play a doubleheader at Wrigley Field to get Games 161 and 162 in. They clinched in Game 161 when they won and the Pirates lost, making Game 162 meaningless, and more rain led to the umpires canceling it.

Having Ryan's 21-16 in the rotation instead of the combined 8-12 of Sadecki and Jim McAndrew might have gotten the Division clinched sooner, thus enabling the Mets to set up their NL Championship Series rotation better; having Ryan there, against the Cincinnati Reds, might have gotten the Pennant clinched before Game 5, thus helping the Mets set up better in the Series.

Or... would it? Ryan's career postseason record is mixed. He saved the Mets' bacon in Game 3 of the '69 NLCS against the Atlanta Braves, and did so again in Game 3 of the World Series against the Baltimore Orioles -- all thise before he became NOLAN RYAN.

After that, he next appeared in postseason play in 1979, and while he pitched well for the Angels, it wasn't enough, as they lost the game and the Pennant to the Orioles.

In 1980, now with his hometown Houston Astros, he blew the Pennant-clinching Game 5 of the NLCS, at the Astrodome no less, enabling the Phillies to win their first Pennant in 30 years (and then their first World Championship in 98 years of trying). At that point in their history, blowing a Pennant to the Phillies was like losing to Suzanne Somers on Jeopardy! (This was when she was playing Chrissy Snow on Three's Company, well before she proved her smarts as a fitness expert and a businesswoman.)

In the strike-forced Division Series of 1981, Ryan pitched well for the Astros, but in the process, he only got a split of two decisions against the Los Angeles Dodgers. And he made just one other postseason appearance, in the 1986 NLCS with the Astros, losing Game 2, and pitching well but not getting the decision in a Game 5 his team lost... to the Mets.

Add on the fact that, from 1974 to 1983, the Mets were not in one single Pennant race, and it's hard to say how much difference Ryan would have made then.

Then there's the Mets' glory years from 1984 to 1990. Then again, for all their talk, there wasn't a whole lot of glory. Could Ryan, who pitched remarkably well even until he was 44 in 1991, have made a difference there?

*

So, really, what might have been the impact of the Mets keeping Nolan Ryan after 1971? Keeping in mind that, like Anaheim Stadium (or whatever the California Angels are calling it, and themselves, these days), Shea Stadium was a pitchers' park extraordinaire; but also that Ryan had a career winning percentage of just .526, is the all-time leader in walks, and is among the all-time leaders in wild pitches, we can surmise the following:

1973: We can presume that Ryan would have made a difference. The Mets clinch the Division sooner, and Ryan pitches well in the NLCS, where the Met rotation is Seaver-Koosman-Ryan-Matlack (in that order), clinching in Game 4, instead of Seaver-Koosman-Matlack-Stone-Seaver (as it was in RL), going the full 5.

The World Series? Instead of Matlack for Games 1, 4 and 7; Koosman for Games 2 and 5, and Seaver for Games 3 and 6; we get Seaver for Games 1 and 4, and potentially 7; Koosman for Games 2 and maybe 5; and Ryan for Games 3 and maybe 6, with Matlack as the long man if one is necessary.

Ken Holtzman pitched great for the A's in that Series in real life, so the Mets probably still lose Game 1 in this timeline. The Mets win Game 2 anyway. Against a tired Seaver, the A's needed 11 innings to win the real Game 3; against a rested Ryan, the Mets might win, and there's your difference. Presuming the Mets still win Games 4 and 5, get the riot police ready, it's another Shea Stadium clincher. New York Mets, 1969 and 1973 World Champions.

After this, the Mets aren't in contention again until...

1984: Ryan was only 12-11, but the Astros weren't very good that year. Without him, the Mets finished 6 1/2 games behind the Cubs. Would having Ryan have made 7 games' worth of difference? Probably not: After Dwight Gooden and Ron Darling, the Mets' rotation had Walt Terrell, Bruce Berenyi and a not-yet-there Sid Fernandez. Having Ryan instead of one of those might have made it closer, but the Cubs would still have won the NL East.

1985: Hard to say. Ryan was 10-12 for another under-hitting Astro team, with a 3.8 ERA and a 1.3 WHIP. If he were in the rotation instead of Ed Lynch...

The Mets finished 3 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals. I don't know if Ryan would have made 3 games' difference in this season. If he had, do the Mets beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLCS? Maybe, the Dodgers had Tom Niedenfuer in their pen; Jack Clark hitting a Pennant-clincher in the top of the 9th in Game 6 wasn't a surprise, but Ozzie Smith hitting a walkoff in the bottom of the 9th of Game 5 was. I can certainly imagine Niedenfuer giving up homers to Lenny Dykstra in Game 5 (or maybe Lenny still hits his in Game 3) and Gary Carter in Game 6.

The Series, against the Kansas City Royals? I don't know, because the Cards did lose, and if Cardinal fans still curse the name of umpire Don Denkinger over a quarter of a century later, what would Met fans say if that same call were made? I think the Mets win the '85 Pennant, but lose the Series.

1986: No, Ryan makes no difference here. How can he? The Mets won the World Series. The only difference is that the Mets beat the Reds in the NLCS, since the Astros don't have Ryan. (Then again, the Astros won the NL West by 10, so maybe they win it anyway.)

1987: This is the season Ryan, at age 40, led the NL in ERA and strikeouts, but had an 8-16 record, because the Astros remembered that they are the Houston Astros: Great pitching, good defense, can't hit the ground if they fell off a ladder.

I saw Ryan pitch that year, at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, as a friend of the family had a relative who briefly pitched for the Astros. I got to sit right behind home plate as Ryan, still mighty fast at 40, was zippin' 'em in there. Being 75 feet away from Mike Schmidt as he batted against Nolan Ryan, even at that stage of each man's career, was awesome. It was a typical game for Ryan that season: The Phils won, 2-1, beating Ryan with a Randy Ready single in the 8th.

Anyway, in 1987, the Mets finished 2nd to the Cards again, 3 games back. Ryan definitely would have made a difference here, and the Mets would probably have beaten the San Francisco Giants for the Pennant. But the Minnesota Twins were not going to lose any World Series games in the Metrodome. Nobody beat the Twins in the Dome in October. Nobody. (Except, as it turned out, the 2003, '04 and '09 Yankees, who clinched 3 ALDS in that disgraceful facility.) So the Mets reach their 3rd straight Series, but win only 1.

1988: The Mets lost the NLCS to the Dodgers in Game 7... or, rather, they lost it in Game 4, when Mike Scioscia took Gooden deep in the 9th. The Mets started, in the 7 games, Gooden, David Cone, Darling, Gooden, El Sid, Coney, Darling. Ryan had a good year, but I'm not sure where he starts. In all honesty, I can't say with any certainty that he makes a difference in this series.

1989: In his first season with the Texas Rangers, Ryan had his last big season in terms of wins, 16, for an 83-win team. The Mets finished 2nd to the Cubs again, 6 games back. Maybe with Ryan, now 42 but still effectve, the Mets don't make that dumb trade for Frank Viola, and win the Division.

But I don't think they win the Pennant, unless there's another dumb trade they don't make, Kevin Mitchell to the San Diego Padres for Kevin McReynolds. Mitchell's trade, soon after, from the Padres to the Giants made the Giants a postseason team in '87 and '89, and they beat the Cubs soundly in the NLCS; they would have done the same to the Mets.

1990: The Mets finished 2nd, 4 games behind the Pirates. Ryan had a pretty good season, and if he'd been in the rotation instead of the sinking-fast El Sid, they might have won the Division. On the other hand, as I said, if they still had Ryan, they wouldn't have traded for Viola, who won 20 in his one good season for the Mets. No, having Ryan at this point probably hurts them.

1991: In Ryan's last effective season -- as a fastball pitcher at age 44! How come no one ever tested him for steroids? -- the Mets collapse, finishing 20 1/2 back of the Pirates. Having Ryan wouldn't have helped. Having him in the disastrous '92 and '93 seasons, Ryan's last 2, wouldn't have helped, either.

So, in their history, real and alternate...

Real Life Mets, 1962 to 2011, without Nolan Ryan after 1971: 7 postseason appearances, 4 Pennants, 2 World Championships. Not great, but plenty of teams haven't done that well, including some teams that have been around longer.

Alternate Mets, 1962 to 2011, with Nolan Ryan from 1971 (really, from 1966) to 1993: 10 postseason appearances, 6 Pennants, 3 World Championships. Not a huge improvement, but a significant one. After all, when you've only won 2 World Series, winning a 3rd is significant. Ask fans of the Chicago White Sox. And those of the Chicago Cubs.

*

My, my, this room is getting cramped. Do you know why? Because there's a third elephant in the room.

It's what happened to the Mets after the 1973 World Series. Team chairman M. Donald Grant -- who "didn't know beans about baseball," according to '69 Met scout and later highly successful big-league manager Whitey Herzog -- broke up the team, piece by piece. In 1977, he got rid of Seaver by playing him (and his wife Nancy) off the Anaheim-based Ryan (and his wife Ruth), with the help of New York Daily News columnist Dick Young, a once-great (and once-liberal) sportswriter who had became embittered, pedantic and pedestrian (and arch-conservative).

When Ryan signed with the Astros in 1980, it made him baseball's first $1 million-a-year player. At the time, if you asked most fans to name 5 current players who might be worth that, I think most of them would have had Ryan as one of the 5. (The others would have been Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton and maybe Dave Winfield.)

Grant would not have been one of those who believed that Ryan, or any player, was worth $1 million a year. (Then again, he was not a baseball fan in the classic sense.) It is likely that Grant would have gotten rid of Ryan well before the 1979-80 off-season.

After all, he had already traded several fan favorites before Seaver and Dave Kingman in the June 15, 1977 "Midnight Massacre" moves: Swoboda in 1970-71, Tommie Agee in 1972-73, Harrelson and Tug McGraw in 1974-75; Staub, Stone and Cleon Jones in 1975-76, and Garrett during the 1976 season; Matlack and John Milner would follow in 1977-78, and so would Koosman in 1978-79. And, unlike Fred and Jeff Wilpon letting Jose Reyes go in 2011-12, Grant didn't let those guys go because he desperately needed to save money, but because he greedily wanted to.

So, chances are, keeping Nolan Ryan beyond the 1971 season would have meant giving him up well before 1984. Therefore, the most likely scenario is that the Mets would have increased their winnings by 1 World Championship, and no other postseason berths.

Then again, think of how much 1 more World Series win would have meant to Met fans from 1973 onward.

A Met fan born between October 17, 1962 (who presumably would have been aware of baseball by October 16, 1969) and October 17, 1977 (the day before the Yankees won another Series) could have told a Yankee Fan born during that same stretch, "The Mets have won more World Series in our lifetime than the Yankees have!" And from October 16, 1969 until October 17, 1978, and again from October 27, 1986 to October 26, 1996 -- 19 of their 34 years -- that would have been true. And for all 34 years, the Mets would have been either ahead of the Yankees or tied with them (it would have been 2-2 from '78 to '86).

Of course, we're talking about the Mets here. Even with Tom Seaver, they found a way to lose the 1973 World Series. So who can say, with even 99 percent certainty, that they wouldn't have found a way to blow it with both Seaver and Nolan Ryan? After all, for much of their history, the Yankees have usually found a way to win; while, except for '69 and '86, the Mets have usually found a way to lose.

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