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Who Gets Best of Pitcher-for-Hitter Trades?

By Kenneth Broder
Los Angeles Herald Examiner
August 21, 1988

For Tommy Lasorda, the Pedro Guerrero-John Tudor trade posed an age-old question: "Do you want an everyday player or do you strengthen pitching, which is the name of the game?"

Well, I thought the name of the game was baseball. Half the time you hit it and half the time you defend against the hit.

John Thorn and Pete Palmer make a rather impassioned argument in the "Hidden Game of Baseball" that the conventional wisdom (given voice by the Dodgers' Tim Leary when he said "pitching and defense is probably 80 percent of the game") is dead wrong. The authors split the game right down the middle between offense and defense. They further divide defense's 50 percent between fielding (6 percent to account for unearned runs) and pitching (44 percent).

Who's right? Leary-Lasorda or Palmer-Thorn? It's something general managers ponder every time they trade a good hitter for a good pitcher. But it's only one factor. There is also the clubs' needs to consider, in addition to the players' relative health, age, attitude, championship experience, etc.

All these comparisons become more pronounced when the trade is one-for-one, a big bat for a strong arm. Trades like this could provide classic field experiments in the search for definitive answers to some vexing questions and probably would if there were very many of them.

"The Baseball Encyclopedia" lists every trade ever made, but a late-night foray through the 2,800-page tome turned up only a few transactions that even vaguely resemble a big-hitter-for-top-pitcher swap. And two of those involve . . . John Tudor.

Some of the highlights were:

1965 Frank Robinson (30, Reds) for Milt Pappas (25, Orioles) Reds management said Robinson was an "old 30;" they were wrong. Robinson had six great years with the Orioles, winning the MVP award in '66, and three more productive years in the Southland. It's considered the classic lopsided trade, but in truth, Pappas pitched well for the next eight years, winning 17 games twice and 16 once. But still, big edge to Robinson.

1964 Lou Brock (25, Cubs) for Ernie Broglio (29, Cards) Brock didn't go crazy as a base stealer until he went to the Cards, but could have had a journeyman's stats and still been the winner in the matchup because Broglio won 10 games in the final three years of his injury-plagued career. Brock was a steal.

1971 Dick Allen (29, Dodgers) for Tommy John (28, White Sox) Moody Dodger slugger for crafty left-hander. Hmmm. Sounds familiar. Allen led the AL in homers with 37 the next year and played well for three seasons before struggling through the last three. Forty-five-year-old TJ pitched Thursday night for the Yankees and gave up just three earned runs in seven innings. Big edge to the bionic pitcher.

1983 Mike Easler (33, Pirates) for Tudor (28, Red Sox) and 1984 George Hendrick (35, Cards) for Tudor (29, Pirates) Easler is out of baseball and Hendrick should be. Two for Tudor.

1966 Orlando Cepeda (30, Giants) for Ray Sadecki (23, Cards) Cepeda was a force for six more years, while Sadecki struggled with arm problems and never won more than 12 games in a season. Score one for the slugger.

1977 Al Oliver (31, Pirates) for Bert Blyleven (26, Rangers) Oliver continued to be a solid, if overrated, performer for six more years. But toiling for lousy ballclubs helped turn Blyleven into the most underrated pitcher in the AL. Edge to Blyleven.

In all, I found 18 such trades, including Don Demeter for Jim Bunning in 1963, Rick Monday for Ken Holtzman in 1971, Wally Post for Harvey Haddix in 1957 and Jimmy Piersall for Dick Donovan in 1961. But no clear overall verdict on who fared better, the hitter or pitcher. I see it 8-5 for the pitchers with five ties. However, health problems and age differentials of the participants tend to blur the matchups. What is most apparent is that these trades are not made often for one reason or another.

Going into this little exercise, I suspected that pitchers would fare worse. It seemed to be a position where players were more susceptible to injury and inconsistency. That was an impression fostered by five years of playing in a fantasy baseball Rotisserie League and watching between one-third and one-half of the top 21 pitchers in baseball annually fail.

Hitting success from one year to the next seems easier to predict, so the seven "general managers" in our league tend to go for hitters first. But this little survey will certainly engender a more thorough researching of the subject.

Meanwhile, we can just sit back and watch what happens when a temperamental, injury-prone, 32-year-old slugger is traded for a temperamental, injury-prone, 34-year-old left-hander who's won more than 13 games just once in his career. Come to think of it, maybe this trade doesn't add much to the debate, either.