Viewing a Memorable Trade with 20-20 Hindsight

I’m pleased to present another first guest post, this time from Brendan Bingham, a regular reader and fellow member of the Society for American Baseball Research. Brendan recently offered to write something here, and I had no idea his approach would be so analytical, research-driven, or thorough. Enjoy.

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Trades in baseball are made looking forward but judged looking backward.  The MLB Network recently broadcast a program listing the 40 most memorable trades in major league history. Brock-for-Broglio, Robinson-for-Pappas, and the multi-player deal that sent Joe Morgan to Cincinnati were among the famous trades profiled. Absent from the top-40 list was a transaction that has always fascinated me, the February 1972 trade between the Cardinals and Phillies that sent Steve Carlton to Philadelphia in exchange for Rick Wise. That deal featured two solid starting pitchers at a time when both were involved in contract negotiations. The trade greatly affected the fortunes of both men and both teams.

Career stats through 1971
Player Age W L ERA WAR
Steve Carlton 28 77 62 3.10 22.6
Rick Wise 27 75 76 3.57 13.6


Carlton had better career numbers at the time. As a result, perhaps the deal looked a bit one-sided, although not nearly as one-sided as it turned out to be. Carlton, having posted one 20-win campaign in his five full seasons with St. Louis, was a very good pitcher, but did not have the look of someone on the fast track to Cooperstown. Everything changed when he got to Philly, where he thrived, earned the nickname Lefty, and anchored the pitching staff of the team that became frequent NL East winners in the late 70s and early 80s and World Series champions in 1980.

Evaluating this trade from Philadelphia’s point of view is simple. Carlton accumulated 63.5 WAR with Philadelphia from 1972 to 1986 before a late-career shuffle among four teams for which he mostly underperformed. Meanwhile, Wise accumulated 21.5 WAR after being traded for Carlton. Not bad career numbers when coupled with Wise’s pre-1972 WAR, but as far as the trade goes, it’s big advantage to Philly at +42 WAR. Viewing the trade from the Cardinals’ side of the fence, the picture is more complicated. The numbers are not merely reversed. No, they’re much worse than that; the post-trade WAR discrepancy between Carlton and Wise greatly underestimates just how badly things turned out for St. Louis.

The Cards saw a limited benefit from Wise (8.4 WAR), as he spent only two seasons in St. Louis before being packaged with Bernie Carbo in a trade with the Boston Red Sox for Ken Tatum and Reggie Smith. Tatum did not play for St. Louis before being traded early in the ’74 season, and Smith played only three years in St. Louis, contributing 8.1 WAR to the team, before being traded to the LA Dodgers for Joe Ferguson and two other players. Much like Wise, both Carbo and Smith still had some productive years ahead of them when they left St. Louis.

In the mid-70s, the Cardinals forged a total of nine transactions involving Wise, Smith, and the players acquired for them (15 players in all, collectively the “progeny” of the Carlton trade). In the end, however, Wise and Smith were the only acquisitions from whom St. Louis derived any measurable benefit. All others either never played for the Cardinals or played only briefly and contributed only fractional (and mostly negative) WAR values.

The Cardinals’ cost-benefit summary is shown in the table below. Please note that the positive post-St. Louis WAR of Carbo and Mike Vail are included in the calculation as costs, because these players were St. Louis property traded away in multi-player deals, bundled with Carlton progeny. However, this calculation still provides a conservative estimate of the cost of the trade to St. Louis, because the post-Cardinal WAR values of Wise, Smith and the other Carlton progeny do not figure in the analysis, since these players were traded for players of equal value (at least in the eyes of the Cardinal front office) whose St. Louis WAR values do figure in the analysis, grouped under “Others.”

Carlton-Wise WAR Benefit (Cost) to St. Louis
Player Acquired Years with STL WAR with STL
Rick Wise 1972-1973 8.4
Reggie Smith 1974-1976 8.1
13 Others (0.7)
Player Dealt Years post-STL WAR post-STL
Steve Carlton 1972-1988 (61.8)
Bernie Carbo 1974-1980 (8.0)
Mike Vail 1975-1984 (2.0)
Net (56.0)


For those who prefer a more qualitative and less sabermetric recap, the Cardinals’ situation can be summed up like this: future Hall of Famer Carlton was traded for a significantly lesser player in Wise. Wise was traded for Smith, which might have been okay if it had been a 1-for-1 deal, but it wasn’t; St. Louis gave up a valuable player in Carbo. Smith was then given away in exchange for players that on balance were no better than the ones that could have been called up from the minor leagues.

The WAR stats suggest that the Cardinals missed out on 56 team wins as a result of having traded Carlton. Squandering not only Carlton’s future value, but also that of Wise, Carbo, Smith, and Vail provides a negative, if narrow, view of the Cardinal organization’s ability to evaluate talent during the 1970s. I would hope that there must have been other deals that turned out better. However, it is perhaps no coincidence that the late 70s were an uncharacteristically low period for the Cardinals, an organization that typically experiences more success than failure.

As the table below indicates, though, missing out on Carlton’s contributions did not cost the Cardinals any championships during the late 70s, since they finished far enough off the pace each year from ’75 through ‘80 that even Lefty’s pitching talents would not have been enough to land them in the NLCS.

Year Carlton-Wise WAR Benefit (Cost) to STL STL finish in NL East
1972 (6.7) 21.5 gb
1973 0.2 1.5 gb
1974 (0.6) 1.5 gb
1975 (4.4) 10.5 gb
1976 (2.7) 29 gb
1977 (8.4) 18 gb
1978 (3.5) 21 gb
1979 (3.8) 12 gb
1980 (10.3) 17 gb
1981 (5.0) 2 gb*
1982 (5.5) Won by 3
1983 (6.0) 11 gb
1984 (1.9) 12.5 gb
1985 (1.2) Won by 3
1986 2.1 28.5 gb
1987 0.7 Won by 3
1988 1.0 25 gb
Total (56.0)
* Split season


The 1980s tell a different story. The Cardinals (with one WS championship and two other NL pennants) rebounded to become one of the two dominant MLB teams of that decade (along with the Dodgers and their 1981 and 1988 World Series championships). If St. Louis had not made the Carlton-Wise deal, they might have seen even greater success during the 80s. In both ’85 and ’87, the Red Birds lost seven-game World Series. At that late point in his career it is questionable whether Carlton could have improved the Cardinals’ chances, but perhaps even a few well-timed late-inning outs from an aging Lefty might have tipped the balance in one or both of those series.

Somewhat less speculative, however, is the value that Carlton could have brought to the 1981 Cardinals. In that strike-altered season, the Cards failed to make the playoffs despite their having the best combined record in the NL East. St. Louis finished a game and a half back in the first part of that quirky split season and a half game back in the post-strike session. Carlton’s 5.4 WAR in 1981 would have served the Cardinals very well indeed. Looking backward, had St. Louis (with Steve Carlton on board) made the playoffs in 1981, they might have had the opportunity to knock off the Dodgers, something that would only have cemented their later claim on team of the decade.

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This was a guest post written by Brendan Bingham. Email Brendan at Brendan@calibertherapeutics.com