It is widely held that the Nolan Ryan trade of December 10, 1971, was one of the worst in Mets team history. Many fans today, some too young to have seen Ryan pitch for the Mets (or sit idly with his blisters soaking in a pickle jar), consider the trade an unthinkable travesty.
I’m not one of them, however.
To this day, I think it was not an unreasonable trade. (Oh my, I sound like Sandy Alderson in that last sentence.) Obviously, it turned out to be one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history. But that’s hindsight. I understand why the Mets traded away their young, wild, unhappy flamethrower.
Today the 2013 Mets are in an eerily similar predicament to that post-1971 club, searching for the same answers, contemplating the same dark downside.
I want to briefly examine two issues here, the first is an evaluation of Ryan at the time of the trade. I’ll try to get this out of the way quickly, because I’m more interested in looking at the similarities of the overall situation. Both Mets teams (1971, 2013) had gaps in the offense and, seemingly, a never-ending pipeline of pitching talent gushing its way through the system like Texas tea.
First, Nolan Ryan, the pitcher. What a career! 324 wins, a lifetime 3.19 ERA, and 9 bazillion strikeouts. Now imagine most of it didn’t happen. It’s the Fall of 1971 and he remains a frustrating, pull-the-hair-out-of-your-head-in-clumps kind of talent. It’s important to remember, because the legend of Nolan Ryan tends to obscure the living, breathing, utterly bewildering young man from Texas who struggled here in NYC.
Some numbers (sorry for the lack of formatting, I don’t know what I’m doing):
- 1968: 134 IP, 93 H, 75 BB, 133 SO, 3.09 ERA, 1.25 WHIP
- 1969: 89 IP, 60 H, 53 BB, 92 SO, 3.53 ERA, 1.27 WHIP
- 1970: 131 IP, 86 H, 97 BB, 125 SO, 3.42 ERA, 1.39 WHIP
- 1971: 152 IP, 125 H, 116 BB, 137 SO, 3.97 ERA, 1.59 WHIP
The statistics tell a story of regression, not progress. The BB/9 in those four years depicts an arrow zinging in the wrong direction: 5.0, 5.3, 6.6, 6.9. He was getting worse! The SO/9 also trended downward, from 9.3 in ’69 to 8.1 in ’71. His SO/BB ratio in 1971 was 1.18. Read: not good. Even the H/9 jumped from 5.9 to 7.4 in 1971.
Walking more, striking out less, giving up more hits, and unhappy in NYC. Things were not going well for Nolan Ryan and the Mets. Pitching coach Rube Walker was likely going a bit insane. The kid suffered in comparison to Seaver and Koosman, that much was certain.
So despite his obvious talents, Ryan had failed to harness that talent into consistent, quality performances. Would it ever come? Four seasons came and went and no one could say for sure. The Mets were geared to win now, they were tired of waiting. So they made the trade.
Joseph Durso’s report of it in the NY Daily News carried this lead: “The Mets finally gave up on Nolan Ryan’s wandering fastball today.”
But the more salient issue to recognize is that the Mets were in a fix. They couldn’t score enough runs. They had holes in the lineup. But the good news was, they had demonstrated a knack of producing top-shelf pitching talent. They had Seaver and Koosman and Gentry, plus young Jon Matlack and Buzz Capra, with more (surely!) on the way. The pipeline was flowing, the team had pitching to spare.
What do you do in that situation? You flip surplus for scarcity.
Mets fans today can’t go 24 hours without hearing about the staggering talent down on the farm: Wheeler, Syndergaard, Montero, Fulmer, Mateo, Tapia, Mazzoni, DeGrom, Verrett, Robles, Ynoa, Matz, Pill. The supply seems endless. A pipeline. Pitchers, pitchers everywhere, but nary an outfielder to catch the ball.
Surely some of these arms are expendable. We can’t pitch them all.
So who do you package, friends and neighbors? Who do you give up?
Know this: the Mets traded Nolan Ryan with reluctance, but they weighed the pros and cons and decided, oh hell, let’s see if we can try to make the team better. Maybe go to the World Series again, that was fun, back in ’69. Add a quality bat to the mix and take another victory lap through the canyons. Seaver deserved it. Gil wanted it.
Do you flip Syndergaard in a deal? Throw in Gee? How about Flores, too?
That’s the other forgotten aspect of the Ryan deal — he was part of a package. The Mets gave up four players that day: Ryan, catcher Francisco Estrada, pitcher Don Rose, and outfielder Leroy Stanton.
All for one guy, the solution to the Mets perennial 3rd base problem.
So today we wonder: Would a package of Mateo and Montero and Plawecki be enough to pry away a big slugger in a trade?
After all, I hear that Fregosi guy is just what we need.
I write this post not, as you might expect, primarily as a cautionary tale. It’s more just a dose of reality. Because I believe the 2013 Mets need to make this same type of deal again, probably this winter. We need to surrender talented young pitching for a serious hitter.
It feels like we have all been here before.
I sure hope we get it right this time.