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Revisiting the Frank Robinson Trade

Everyone knows how bad the Robinson for Pappas trade was. So why did it happen?

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Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Spor

On December 9, 1965, the Reds traded 30 year old former National League MVP and Rookie of the Year Frank Robinson to the Baltimore Orioles for Milt Pappas, Jack Baldschun and Dick Simpson. The very next year, Robinson achieved the Triple Crown and won both the American League MVP and the World Series MVP. He went on to have several more extremely productive years for the Orioles and when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, he was inducted as an Oriole. None of the players the Reds received in the trade ever amounted to much, and all three were out of the Reds organization by early in the 1968 season.

The Robinson for Pappas trade is widely considered one of the worst in Reds franchise history, if not in all of baseball. It was even mentioned in the opening scene of the movie Bull Durham. The trade was executed by Bill DeWitt, who had been hired as general manager in 1960 and who then bought the team from the estate of Powel Crosley in 1961. DeWitt’s Reds went to the World Series in 1961, and it was on his watch that the team acquired and developed much of the foundation of the Big Red Machine teams, including Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez and Gary Nolan. DeWitt was clearly not a stupid man. So how was this lopsided trade allowed to happen?

To understand the trade, it’s important to understand where the Reds were coming from. The 1965 Reds led the National League in runs, hits, doubles, triples, total bases, batting average, on base percentage and slugging. The team could hit. They also led the NL in fielding percentage and had the fewest errors, for whatever that‘s worth. Unfortunately, the pitching. In the NL they were second to last, above only the hapless Mets, in both ERA and WHIP, third to last in ERA+ (not that they knew about that at the time), and gave up the most walks in the league. Despite their offensive prowess, the Reds finished in fourth place in 1965. In many ways, that team was similar to the 2011 version of the Reds: a team with a solid core, who was one good top of the rotation starter away from contending. To put it in 2011 Reds terms, what they really needed was a Mat Latos to pair with their Johnny Cueto (who was some guy named Jim Maloney).

Milt Pappas, in the end, wound up not being the guy. It happens. But looking at his numbers in Baltimore, it’s easy to see why the Reds thought he could have been. He had a 2.60 ERA in 1965, tied for fifth in the AL and better than any of the Reds starting pitchers except Maloney in that year. In fact, his numbers in the two years leading up to the trade compare favorably to Latos’s numbers in the two years leading up to the 2011 trade.

Pappas 2.80 126 1.093 5.4 1.9 0.8 7.9 2.84 3.24 7.3
Latos 3.21 113 1.135 8.9 2.7 0.8 7.6 3.34 3.09 7.2

There are a lot of similarities here. The WAR similarity speaks for itself. Clearly, DeWitt went out and got the Reds a legitimate top of the rotation starter to pair with their ace, just like Walt Jocketty would do all those years later.

Of course, I’m leaving off a couple of key differences. For one, Pappas was three years older than Latos at the time of the trade. For another, Pappas pitched nearly 100 more innings in 1964-1965 than Latos did in 2010-2011. Even by the standards of the era, Pappas had thrown a lot leading up to the trade, ranking in the top 10 in the AL in both starts and innings pitched in 1965. Ultimately, Pappas was unsuccessful in Cincinnati. It’s difficult to say why. He was booed by Reds fans who were unhappy with the trade, despite the obvious fact that it wasn’t his fault. Perhaps the pressure of trying to live up to the trade got in his head. Perhaps his innings pitched simply caught up with him. He had a bad 1966, and after bouncing back considerably in 1967, he was traded to Atlanta in June of 1968.

Harder to justify is the decision that Robinson would be the guy to get shipped out to shore up the Reds starting pitching. The official explanation from DeWitt was that Robinson was "not a young 30" (DeWitt is often misquoted as calling Robinson "an old 30," but he never actually used the word "old" in reference to Robinson). This claim is difficult to support looking at Robinson’s statistics. He had not declined significantly from his 1961 MVP season. More likely, Robinson was moved because of clubhouse and off the field issues. This profile from Sports Illustrated from June of 1963 is telling. It paints a picture of Robinson as shy and introverted, but also as a player who didn’t always get along with his teammates. The article briefly mentions Robinson’s arrest in 1961, but according to Before the Machine by Mark J. Schmetzer, that event may have had a profound influence on Robinson’s relationship with DeWitt. Robinson had had a run in with the law in 1958, and then-general manager Gabe Paul and interceded on his star player's behalf. When Robinson was arrested in 1961, new GM DeWitt did not help him in any way. Robinson may have been expecting the same treatment he had gotten previously and may have been bitter about not getting it again. And despite the team treating it as a joke, Robinson’s threat to quit baseball in 1963 had to have rubbed the front office the wrong way. In the era before free agency, a holdout was the only weapon the players had in contract negotiations. A threat to quit baseball entirely was a serious matter and DeWitt must have thought Robinson meant it, since he caved and gave Robinson the trade he was demanding. At the time, it was very common for malcontents (or perceived malcontents) to be traded away, and sometimes teams would take whatever they could get to be rid of a supposed troublemaker.

What can we learn from the Robinson for Pappas trade? First, we can learn how risky it is to predict a pitcher’s future performance, especially a pitcher who averaged over 200 innings pitched per season over the previous seven seasons. We can also learn how a quote from a popular movie can shape public opinion. And we can learn not to overpay for pitching. But it also tells us how dangerous it is to trade away a star player and fan favorite because of off the field issues, or because of personality conflicts, or because the player was unhappy with his salary, particularly when you expect your team to contend and when it’s unlikely that you’re going to get equal value back in the trade. Of course, the modern Reds would never do such a thing.


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