19to21: August 5, 2008
Travelin' Longballers: Sluggers Who Moved With the Trade Winds
19 to 21
No, that’s not how many times 500-home run hitters have been traded, it’s Baseball...Then and Now
As is usually the case in baseball, there are a multitude of subtleties to explore in conjunction to the frenzy that took place on Thursday, July 31, 2008. Let’s see…
1) Three future, no-questions-asked Hall of Famers were traded in the same day, in three different deals.
2) The Pittsburgh Pirates once again confirmed their status as a minor league farm team for the major leagues.
3) Theo Epstein once again confirmed his status as the reigning genius among GMs.
4) The principals in the tightest pennant race in baseball – the National League East – fell on their collective faces in their efforts to improve for the stretch run.
5) A staggering total of 1118 home runs were traded in the person of just two players.
For purposes of discussion herein, the first four angles can be dismissed relatively quickly. Only an Act of Congress (or hanging around with Pete Rose’s friends) will keep Ken Griffey, Jr., Manny Ramirez and Ivan Rodriguez out of Cooperstown. Trading two-thirds of the best-all-around hitting outfield in the National League for eight minor leaguers does nothing to dispel the thought that the Pirates are not playing for keeps. On the other hand, Epstein and the Red Sox are playing for keeps. Faced with an untenable situation, that is, Manny Being Manny to the extent that he managed to alienate his teammates and, even worse, was dogging it in the field, Epstein, despite being backed into the proverbial corner, managed to turn Manny (and a couple of minor leaguers they won’t miss at all) into a younger, cheaper All-Star outfielder. Said outfielder, known as ex-Pirate Jason Bay, while not being as good a hitter as Ramirez, is hardly chopped liver at the plate (his OPS+ for the year is 138, Manny’s is 147) and is a whole lot better fielder (of course, my nine year old twins Jared and Joseph are better fielders than Manny, as is 10 year old Conor Coyne, but you get the picture) and will prove to be a better citizen of the Fens as well. While the Sox may or may not be a better team on the field today than they were at this time last week, they’re not all that worse, either. Compare, if you will, what the Phillies got for two stars (Curt Schilling and Scott Rolen) who backed them into similar you‘ve-got-to-trade-them corners in 2000 and 2002 … Omar Daal, Nelson Figueroa, Travis Lee, Vicente Padilla, Placido Polanco, Mike Timlin and Bud Smith. Theo Epstein is a genius. Finally, those same Phillies, along with their compatriots formerly know as the Mets and the Marlins, despite (or maybe because of) various holes in their rosters, managed to pick up exactly Arthur Rhodes (to the Marlins) at the trade deadline. Although all three teams made efforts to improve their pitching and hitting on July 31, all three failed, partly because none of them have Theo Epstein running the show. (And partly because they don’t have the minor league assets of the Red Sox.)
No, the Big Story on Action News, certainly from the historical perspective, were those 1118 home runs changing location. The trading of Manny Ramirez and Ken Griffey, Jr., both on the same day was, to put it mildly, unprecedented. In all of baseball history, there had previously been just seven trades wherein a player with 500+ home runs was traded… and three of those deals involved the same player – Frank Robinson. Wait, there’s more… only three times previously has a player with 500+ home runs been traded during the season.
Since F. Robby was dealt three times after he reached 500 home runs (exactly what that says is a little hard to figure at this point), prior to July 31, 2008, just five individual big hitters have been part of an actual trade… Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Sammy Sosa, Robinson and Eddie Mathews. Leaving aside Robinson’s case(s) for the moment, the other four were all under unusual circumstances.
Name HR when traded from/to
Eddie Mathews 503 Astros to Tigers
Aaron and Mays were both going home. After breaking Babe Ruth’s career home run record early in the 1974 season, the 40 year old Aaron would hit just 18 more in a little over 300 at bats during the rest of the year. Although still a good outfielder (his fielding percentage and range factor were above the league norms) in ’74, Aaron could only play in 112 games that year, having, in fact, not topped 130 games since the 1971 season. Although he was still a dangerous hitter (a 177 OPS+ in ‘73 and a 128 OPS+ in ’74), he was clearly slowing down and the Braves, who weren’t going anywhere themselves, traded him and his 733 home runs back to Milwaukee (where the Brewers weren’t going anywhere either), the city where he’d played the first dozen years of his career. For Dave May and a Player To Be Named Later (minor leaguer Roger Alexander.) There he played two more years as a DH, hitting 22 more home runs with an OPS+ of right around 100 in 736 at bats. Mays, in going from the San Francisco (where he never seemed quite at home) Giants back to New York (in this case the Mets) on May 11, 1972, was one of the rare cases where a home run hitter of this stature was traded during the season. For the one and only Charlie Williams. Although the 41 year old Willie seemingly had very little left after 21 years and 646 home runs, he bounced back to fashion a 145 OPS+ in 195 at bats for the rest of the ’72 season, thanks mainly to 43 walks (which says something about the rest of the Mets’ unthreatening lineup.) Of course, he was clearly beyond the hill in 1973, hitting just .211 in 209 at bats.
Sosa, like Manny, had worn out his welcome, in this case with the Cubs, despite the fact that he’d hit 35 home runs in just 478 at bats in 2004. So they shipped him off to Baltimore prior to the start of the 2005 season for Jerry Hairston, Jr., Mike Fontenot and a minor leaguer – not much of a return for 574 home runs, including 367 in the preceding seven seasons. Sammy proceeded to stink up the harbor in Baltimore (not an easy thing to do) with a 78 OPS+ in 102 games before retiring for the 2006 season and making an average comeback (102 OPS+) at the age of just 38 with the Rangers in 2007.
The Mathews trade was his second. After spending 15 years with the Braves organization in three cities (a truly unique feat), including 13 years teaming with Aaron, Mathews was cruelly turned out of Atlanta following the 1966 season… traded to the Astros along with Robby Alomar’s dad for strikeout king Dave Nicholson and Bob Bruce. At that point, on the last day of 1966, Matthews had 493 home runs. Matthews hit 10 homers for the Astros in 1967, including his 500th (great trivia question there – for what team did Eddie Mathews hit his 500th home run?) and then, with the Tigers in a three-team pennant race in the summer of 1967, he went from Houston to Detroit on August 17 for yet another PTBNL. However, in this case, the PTBNL was a pretty fair relief pitcher, Fred “Flintstone” Gladding, who would save 76 games for Houston over six seasons. Although the Tigers would fall short in ’67, Mathews hung around long enough to play in the 1968 World Series with them (right around the time of his 37th birthday) and finish with 512 home runs, thus cementing his future status as either the second- or third-best third baseman of all time.
Robinson’s odd odyssey included two true blockbuster trades. The first came after the 1971 season (and a World Series wherein the O’s coughed up the bit against the Pirates) when Robby and his 503 homers went to LA, along with Pete Richert, for four young Dodgers -- Doyle Alexander (the only even decent player to come to Baltimore in the deal and one who would later become famous for being traded even-up for John Smoltz), Bob O’Brien, Sergio Robles and Royle Stillman in a trade, that to this day, still doesn’t make any season, Maybe the O’s thought he was an old 36. After one year in LA, Robby was on the move again in an even bigger trade. Along with his 522 home runs, he went across town to the Angels, accompanied by Billy Grabarkewitz, Bill Singer, Bobby Valentine and Mike Strahler, for Andy Messersmith and Ken McMullen. By way of attempting to explain this one, it should be noted that Messersmith was a good pitcher for the Angels from 1969 to 1972, and would also have three good years for the Dodgers (53 wins) before flaming out with the Braves as one of the first free agents. Still, Singer and Messersmith were pretty much an even match – the former winning 20 twice and 118 for his career, and the latter winning 20 twice and 130 for his career. Which makes this essentially a trade of a certain Hall of Famer, plus two decent utilitymen, for Ken McMullen (whose career OPS+ is about the same as Grabarkewitz’). Go figure.
Robby’s travels as a player ended on September 12, 1974, a little more than seven years after Eddie Mathews was traded with 503 home runs, and two-and-half seasons after Willie Mays was traded with 646. With possibly the idea already in mind of making him the first African-American manager, the Indians picked up Robinson and his then-572 home runs from the Angels for a short melody, namely Ken Suarez (who would never play for the Angels) and Rusty Torres. As noted, it was just the third time that a player with 500+ home runs had been traded during the season. And now, just short of 34 years later, it’s happened twice in one day. Only in baseball.
-- John Shiffert