Most New York Mets fans view the trade 50 years ago of Nolan Ryan as the worst trade in Mets history, possibly in all of Major League Baseball. But is that really true? Is it really and truly the worst trade the Mets ever made?
It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t know that Ryan was traded to the California Angels in exchange for former All Star shortstop Jim Fregosi.
Ryan’s time with the Mets was bewildering. But if you look at the numbers, and the philosophy that the Mets were trying to instill in the team, Ryan was, I dare say, expendable.
I completely understand why fans would be upset and consider it blasphemy to think that the trade may have been justified. Just take a look at the first three years after the trade from the Mets, a mere snippet of his career, which were truly eye-popping. I know I would never have wanted to get in the batter’s box against him, that’s for damn sure.
Ryan put up some big numbers after leaving the New York Mets
In, 1972, his first year away from the Mets, Ryan went 19-16 with a 2.28 ERA. He made 39 starts and completed 20 of them, pitching 284 innings. Not surprisingly, he led the league with both 329 strikeouts and 157 walks. He also hit 10 batters and threw a league-leading 18 wild pitches.
Year Two, 1973, Ryan won 20 games for the first time in his career, going 21-16 with a 2.87 ERA. He made 41 starts and completed 26 of them, pitching 326 innings. He set a modern day major league record of 383 strikeouts and walked 162 batters. He hit seven batters and threw 15 wild pitches.
Year Three, 1974, Ryan would increase his win total with a record of 22-16, pitching to an ERA of 2.89. He started 42 games and again completed 26 of them, tossing a total of 332 2/3 innings. He mowed down 367 batters while issuing 202 free passes. He hit another nine batters and unleased nine wild pitches.
Those three years would prove to be the most dominating of his long and illustrious career. Upon further review, though, what did it actually prove? It proved what the Mets brass believed – he was a wild one.
On the negative side of the ledger, to hammer home what the Mets must have been thinking, Ryan’s wildness could not be harnessed. On the contrary, it actually got worse. During those first three years, he went from 157 to 162 to 202 walks issued. His WHIP went from 1.137 to 1.227 to 1.272. He lost 16 games each of those three seasons.
He did win 62 games, with a 2.68 ERA, and averaged 40 starts, 314 innings pitched, over 30 complete games, 359 strikeouts during that time span. Those numbers for the starts, innings pitched, complete games, would have destroyed most pitchers. And those numbers are absolutely unheard of for pitchers in today’s game. But Ryan defied conventional wisdom and remained an effective pitcher for the Angels, the Houston Astros, and the Texas Rangers, pitching, making starts, at the age of 46.
His time with the Angels, for whom he played eight seasons, would prove to be his best, at least for compiling personal stats. Ryan compiled a record of 138-121 with an ERA of 3.07 while making 288 starts, striking out 2,416 for an average of 10 K’s per nine innings.
His Angels teams never finished higher than 4th place until his last two seasons with the club. He made it to the postseason with the Angels in his last season, losing in the 1979 AL Championship series to the Baltimore Orioles. The manager for the Angels that season? None other than…Jim Fregosi.
After his time in California, Ryan moved on to the Astros where he spent nine seasons and pitched to a record of 106-94 with a 3.13 ERA while making 282 starts, striking out 1,866 for an average of 9.1 K’s per nine innings.
At 42 years old, Ryan still wasn’t done, slinging for the Rangers for five more seasons. He pitched to a record of 51-39 and a 3.43 ERA. While most pitchers would be one-batter relief specialists by the time they are in their late 30’s in today’s game, Ryan STARTED 129 games and COMPLETED 15 of them! He would go on to strike out another 939 batters and actually increased his strikeout rate back up to 10.1 K’s per nine innings…the highest of his career.
The kicker? In 1991, at that age of 44, Ryan pitched his major league record setting 7th no hitter. And that is the one record that truly stands out is his seven (7) no hitters.
But let’s get back to what might have made the New York Mets trade of Ryan not as earth-shattering as it is presumed to be.
Ryan would stick around long enough to win 324 games, but he would also suffer 292 losses, a winning percentage of .526…with a lifetime ERA of 3.19. He would light up stadium all around MLB striking out an all-time record 5,714, but he would also hand out an all-time record of 2,795 free passes. And he was a workhorse…pitching 222 complete games over his career.
His time with the Mets…would be his worst years. In his five seasons with the club, Ryan would pitch to a record of 29-38. His ERA (3.58), WHIP (1.398), BB/9 (9), K/9 (9) K/BB ratio (1.43) would all be the worst of his career.
He came through in a big way when the Mets needed him most in the 1969 post season, relieving Gary Gentry in both the NLCS and WS.
But whether it was his military duties interrupting his progress, or his discomfort with New York City and the limelight that shined so brightly. Ryan was not able to succeed in a Mets uniform.
And if he had put up the numbers that he did once he got to the Angels, would the Mets fans and media have been patient enough while he teased us his signature Ryan’s Express, only to walk 200 batters in a season? Can you imagine the frenzy he would have caused on social media? He would have been viewed as Charlie Sheen (in the movie Major League) without the haircut.
Ironically, Ryan’s only World Series appearance? Game Three of the 1969 World Series as a member of the New York Mets.
His individual success did not lead to much team success after he left the Mets. And as one-time Pirates GM Branch Rickey once told home run king Ralph Kiner, “We came in last place with you, and we can come in last place without you…” before he shipped Kiner out of Pittsburgh.
Perhaps if Jim Fregosi hadn’t turned out to be a dud, such a HUGE dud, the trade of Ryan wouldn’t trigger such anger and resentment in Mets fans. It’s not even worth including Fregosi’s stats while with the Mets because they are just embarrassingly brutal. And because there was such a build up of what Fregosi was going to be, it just magnified how unbalanced the trade would eventually become. But there are plenty of other trades the Mets have made that provided eventual stars to other teams – Amos Otis and Ken Singleton for example– where the return was not exactly worth the price.
It’s been 50 years since the Mets decided Jim Fregosi could be yet another possible solution to the never-ending problem they seemed to have at third base, and made the ill-fated choice of sending Nolan Ryan to get him. But the logic, and reality, may just tarnish that myth about how trading Ryan was the worst thing the Mets have ever done.