The world of baseball lost a legend last week. Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, one of the best position players ever, died at age 83. He slashed .294/.389/.537 with 586 home runs over 21 seasons, and won numerous awards over his distinguished career, including becoming the first player to win an MVP in each league.
He also had a great track record in the playoffs, hitting .238/.356/.532 over 35 games. He was a part of two World Series champion teams with the Orioles in 1966 and 1970, winning the MVP in the former. Off-the-field he was a racial justice advocate, and outspoken critic of the lack of diversity in baseball leadership, appropriate for the man who became the league’s first ever African-American manager.
Frank Robinson was coming off another excellent season in 1965. He was not at his peak like he was from 1960-1962, but hitting .296/.386/.540 with 33 HR still made him one of the best hitters in baseball.
His 150 wRC+ ranked him sixth among qualified hitters, and he was clearly still going strong despite having turned 30 years old during the season; performance was not why he was traded. Furthermore, some of the reasons that players are traded today did not apply back then. Players did not make much money, and the reserve clause was still in effect. The Reds were not even in need of rebuilding, having come off an 89-win season.
So why on earth did Reds GM Bill DeWitt decide to trade a future Hall of Famer?
Robinson was still the best hitter on a team that led the majors in offense, and it wasn’t even close! Of course, hitters were evaluated differently back then, but trading Robinson was still confusing. He was coming off a season where he nearly hit .300 with 33 HR and 113 RBI.
The problem with the Reds’ 1965 season was the pitching. There was a sharp drop-off in the rotation after Sammy Ellis and Jim Maloney, and the bullpen wasn’t great. DeWitt decided to leverage the team’s offense in order to acquire pitchers Milt Pappas and Jack Baldschun, as well as outfielder Dick Simpson.
Pappas was arguably a top-20 pitcher in the league when the Reds acquired him. He was coming off a season where he had a 3.29 RA9, though he had an unremarkable 14.3 K% (keep in mind that strikeout rates were a lot lower back then at an average of 15.7 percent). Again, players were evaluated differently back then, so DeWitt was probably a lot more interested in Pappas’ 13 pitchers wins than he was his strikeout rate, as any GM would have been at the time.
There is not much to say about Baldschun and Simpson, as Pappas was the headliner of the trade. Baldschun was coming off a season with a 3.82 ERA, but his RA9 was over a run higher. It is not terribly uncommon for a reliever to have a big gap between his ERA and RA9. His track record showed a declining pitcher. As for Simpson, he was an outfielder who had trouble producing at the major league level, albeit in a small sample. He had been traded from the Angels to the Orioles just one week prior.
If this trade appears to make no sense to you given what I have laid out here, well, it did not make any sense to fans and media members back then either. DeWitt defended it by uttering the now infamous words about Robinson: “[He] not a young 30.” He also stated that Robinson was “a fading talent increasingly hobbled by leg injuries.”
I did not want to leave the evaluation of this trade as nothing more than a GM screwing up, so I tried to investigate further to see if there was more to it. I came across an article by Andrew Shinkle over at our friends at Red Reporter. He did an excellent job in discovering possible reasons for this move beyond what happened on the baseball field. He referenced a book called Before the Machine by Mark J. Schmetzer, and in that book the author reported that Robinson did not have a good relationship with DeWitt and was unhappy with the organization. It is possible that DeWitt just wanted to be rid of Robinson and was willing to accept anything in a trade in order to get it done.
As you might very well know, this trade ended up being a complete disaster. In fact, it might be one of the worst trades of all time.
We in the analytical community are big on emphasizing the realities of randomness and luck while downplaying the effects of soft factors. That being said, even I have a hard time believing that Robinson’s 1966 performance was not at least partially the byproduct of his feelings of frustration over having been traded and wanting to prove the Reds wrong.
Robinson had the best season of his career in 1966, and a historically good one at the plate. He hit .316/.410/.637 with 49 HR, good for a 195 wRC+, and he lead the league in all five of those categories. More relevant to fans and writers at the time, he also led the league in RBI and Runs. He won the Triple Crown, and was the unanimous selection for MVP. He was a big factor in the Orioles winning the World Series that year, with Robinson taking home the MVP honors.
The Orioles enjoyed six wonderful years of Frank Robinson, and he raked the entire time, hitting .300/.401/.543. He never had a wRC+ below 150 in a season. In what must have been a particularly sweet bit of revenge for Robinson, the Orioles won the World Series again in 1970 against... the Cincinnati Reds.
After the 1971 season, Baltimore traded Robinson to the Dodgers, and was subsequently traded two more times over the final four years of his career. He finally retired after the 1976 season.
Pappas was seen has having been a failure in Cincinnati, but he really wasn’t. He was an average pitcher in his first year with the Reds with a 4.55 RA9 and 2.7 WAR. What fans saw, however, was a 4.29 ERA the year after having a 2.60 ERA in Baltimore. Nobody knew the impact of park factors and defense back then. The Reds played in a very hitter-friendly stadium, and the Orioles’ defense was far superior. Pappas got to pitch in front of Brooks Robinson! He followed that up with arguably the best year of his career by turning in a 3.64 RA9 and 4.1 WAR. Unfortunately, his performance fell off a cliff in 1968. He had a 5.89 RA9 over 62 2⁄3 IP before the Orioles traded him to the Braves.
In 1970, Pappas got traded to the Cubs where he somehow completely revitalized his career. Over 3.5 years in Chicago, he had a 3.73 RA9 and accumulated 16.3 WAR! He retired after the 1973 season, and sadly passed away in April 2016.
As for Baldschun, he struggled in relief for a couple of seasons. He missed the 1968 season and then finished out his career with the Padres before retiring after the 1970 season. Simpson got his offense to nearly average levels, but that does not cut if for a right fielder. As with Baldschun, he lasted only two seasons in Cincinnati. He bounced around a lot over the 1968 and 1969 seasons, but he just was not able to become a viable major leaguer.
Usually I include a table with the players’ WAR and salary, but players made so little money back then compared to now that it is hard to conclude anything from that. Also, let’s be real here, the dollars don’t matter when these are your results:
Frank Robinson: 32.3 WAR with the Orioles
Pappas/Baldschun/Simpson: 5.5 WAR with the Reds.
In addition, the Orioles won two World Series, while the Reds did not finish better than fourth place until 1969. As I mentioned before, the Reds reached the World Series in 1970, but lost to the Orioles in five games. They could have really used Robinson in that series. Luckily for Reds fans, the Big Red Machine was coming.
Perhaps there is a book or an old article somewhere that explains why DeWitt executed this trade. He likely could have gotten this return for a lot less than Frank Robinson. If you happen to know more, feel free to let me know and I’ll update this article!
Robinson was an all-time great. More importantly, he did good works off the baseball field too. He will be missed as baseball lost a good one last week.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.