The Nolan Ryan Trade, Part II: What Future Superstar Will the Mets Be Trading Away This Time?

12.10It 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.

Sound familiar?

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.

Luis Mateo. Is this the guy you flip?

Luis Mateo. Is this the guy you flip?

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?

Or would it be easier to lose Michael Fulmer?

Or would it be easier to lose Michael Fulmer?

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?

Goodbye Rafael Montero -- no regrets?

Goodbye Rafael Montero — no regrets?

Maybe, maybe.

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.


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  1. Dan Capwell says:

    Terrible trade for sure. Don’t forget too, they also wanted Fregosi to change positions (he was a shortstop for the Angels). Strange how Ryan immediately became a superstar, unlike Jeff Kent who had to endure one more trade after leaving the Mets to blossom.

    • I think the “change of scenery” trade gets overstated at times, but this was one where it just felt like Ryan had to get out of New York. The thing with these deals — and let’s throw Kazmir into the conversation, too — is not who we surrender, necessarily. The trades fall apart when the guy we get back: Foy, Zambrano, Fregosi, Samuel, Lolich, all tend to stink up the joint. Talent for talent, okay, sure. Talent for crap? Um, not so great, especially when in some of those cases the organization should have known that the return was dubious at best.

    • James says:

      Dan too many player blossom once they leave NYC and too many players that fail once they are traded here

  2. RealityChuck says:

    Fregosi at the time was a six-time All Star who had received MBP votes eight years in a row. He had slumped a bit the year before, but, in 1971, every single baseball expert at the time considered that the Mets had stolen him from the Angels. Few expected Ryan to be able to turn things around, and in the second half of 1971, he absolutely stunk on the mound by any statistical measurement and there was no clue he’d ever be able to turn it around.

    It was a trade that the statistics at the time (even using modern sabrmetrics) showed to be favorable for the Mets, Ryan figured things out in California (and never would have in NY — something he has admitted) and Fregosi got injured (he was playing very well up until mid-May). It wasn’t a bad trade (where someone should have known the result) but rather a good trade that didn’t work out.

    Amos Otis for Joe Foy was infinitely worse.

  3. eric says:

    The Prospect For Proven Trades should be made when The Proven Player will be a piece on a Present Contender. The team should contend with and because of this player. You can’t be afraid of that deal….and you can’t rush it.

  4. Dave says:

    If you sit in the shoes of Mets management in 1971, the Ryan trade makes perfect sense. He was given 4 plus years to work out his control problems, and as Jim notes, the problems were getting worse, not better. You can argue the Mets should have been more patient with Ryan (as the Dodgers were with Koufax), but the Mets had a surplus of young pitching in the eaerly 70, which made Ryan expendable.

    In the pantheon of bad Mets trades, I would rank the Staub for Lolich deal far worse, based on the known facts at the time of the trade. Staub was the only reliable rbi man in an otherwise anemic Mets lineup. Lolich was clearly a washed up, out of shape former star.

    • Nice to hear your comments, Dave. Here at “2 Guys,” we’re especially pleased whenever our readers can spell “pantheon.” Later on you’ll have to explain to us what it means. Gil Hodges was in favor of the trade, at least in the newspapers at the time, and saw it as a “win now” move.

    • Yes, Lolich threw like a ton of innings the previous years and he came to the Mets as a former workhorse ready for the glue factory. But I appreciate your understanding of the Ryan trade, because, of course, I share that point of view. The surprising thing to me is how that trade is viewed by most fans. I guess I should post on it someday, but my favorite trade for discussion is John Smoltz for Doyle Alexander. Detroit got exactly what they wanted in that deal, though, of course, they didn’t realize that Smoltz would become . . . JOHN SMOLTZ. It’s never as simple as adding up WAR totals and declaring a winner.

  5. Michael Geus says:

    Otis for Foy was pretty bad at the time. One big change now is free agency. In the reserve clause days proven players were only slightly more expensive than younger ones.

    Now economics drive most trades.

  6. Lenny Dykstra for Juan Samuel, along with Staub for Lolich, are among the worst that I’ve suffered through as a Mets fan.
    And oh yeah, trading away Seaver in ’77 didn’t work out so well, either. He was far from washed up at the time.

    • Yes, the Dykstra trade killed me at the time. So misguided. It was part of the purge of personality. And another example of trading for a guy with the intention of having him change positions. It was crazy. CRAZY. As if they looked at Samuel at 2B and said, “Yeah, I think he can play centerfield, why not?”

  7. […] again, eventually we did trade him, for the immortal Joe Foy. Sigh. And you have already mentioned Nolan Ryan. Nobody forgets these things. But what about Floyd Youmans, who looked like he was going to be the […]

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