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A Forgiving Look at the Steve Carlton Trade 49 Years Later

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The trade was disastrous, but didn’t look that way at the time

St. Louis Cardinals v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Yesterday marked the 49th anniversary of the most infamous trade in Cardinals history. On February 25th, 1972, the Cardinals sent their lefty wünderkind, Steve Carlton, to the Phillies in exchange for righty starting pitcher Rick Wise. We all know how poorly this trade worked out for the Cardinals. From that point until his retirement in 1988, Carlton would pick up 252 wins, the most in the league. His 3,185 strikeouts from 1972 through 1988 rank second, trailing only the legendary Nolan Ryan. He won four Cy Young awards and made seven All-Star teams. If fWAR is your jam, he trailed only Ryan and Bert Blyleven. He was eventually a first ballot Hall of Famer thanks mostly to what he did after the Cardinals traded him. Wise... did not do those things. Was this trade truly as grim as it seems in hindsight?

There’s a lot of context to this trade, and we’ll get to that later. First, we should take a look at what Carlton and Wise were at the time of the trade. I’m going to play coy with this and hide their identities.

Two Pitchers, Career Through 1971

Category Pitcher A Pitcher B
Category Pitcher A Pitcher B
Age 27 26
Wins 77 75
Innings 1265 1244.1
FIP 3.02 3.09
K/BB 2.12 2.19
K% 17.9% 13.7%
BB% 8.5% 6.2%
fWAR 21.2 19.4
ERA 3.10 3.60
LOB% 75.4% 69.4%
HR/9 0.63 0.61
WHIP 1.28 1.30
BABIP 0.284 0.295
Salary $40,000 $45,000

These two pitchers are remarkably similar. One is a little older, racks up more strikeouts, and benefitted from superior defense. The younger pitcher did a better job of limiting walks and was victimized by a worse strand rate. They both kept the ball in the yard around the same rate per 9 innings. Pitcher A had a 25 inning debut in 1965 while Pitcher B debuted with 69 innings in 1964 before spending all of 1965 in the minors. I should note that Pitcher B’s 1971 salary is disputed- one source says $25k, another says $45k.

At first blush, this hardly seems like a case where one team gets swindled in a swap of the two pitchers listed. How does this table look if we focus only on recent data at the time of the trade?

Two Pitchers, 1970-1971

Category Pitcher A Pitcher B
Category Pitcher A Pitcher B
Wins 30 30
Innings 527 492.2
FIP 3.56 3.24
K/BB 1.76 1.99
K% 16.2% 12.9%
BB% 9.2% 6.5%
fWAR 6.7 8.4
ERA 3.64 3.45
LOB% 73.4% 71.0%
HR/9 0.82 0.64
WHIP 1.37 1.32
BABIP 0.286 0.292

Now we start to get more clarification. Pitcher B suddenly looks like a more attractive option in a few ways. Despite a lower K rate, he was much better at limiting walks and keeping the ball in the yard. The strand rate gap is still there, although it’s less pronounced. He carried a better FIP, ERA, and his fWAR was 1.7 better over the two seasons combined. This is all in addition to being a year younger.

Before showing one last bit of info, it’s time to confess. Pitcher B is Rick Wise, Pitcher A is Steve Carlton. The last bit of info I’ll share is their most recent season- 1971- before the trade. I had to reveal the names because it would be obvious which was which in looking at 1971. Here’s how each fared in 1971:

Carlton: 20-9, 3.1 fWAR, 3.56 ERA, 3.42 FIP, 1.76 K/BB, 0.76 HR/9, 14.7% K%, 7.6% BB%
Wise: 17-14, 4.6 fWAR, 2.88 ERA, 3.08 FIP, 2.21 K/BB, 0.66 HR/9, 13.8% K%, 6.3% BB%

The records are a giveaway. The Phillies were a last place team in 1971, while the Cardinals won 90 games. Other than that and a superior strikeout percentage, Wise was the better pitcher.

I mentioned that there was more to the trade. Cardinals owner August A. Busch was frustrated with Carlton’s requests for larger salaries. The invaluable Retro Simba looked at it last year:

On March 12, 1970, after Carlton refused to accept the club’s salary terms, Busch said, “I don’t care if he ever pitches a ball for us again.”

Carlton and the Cardinals eventually agreed on a contract, but Busch held a grudge.

Two years later, when Carlton again balked at the Cardinals’ contract offer, Busch ordered general manager Bing Devine to trade the pitcher.

Wise was also quarreling with Phillies ownership over his salary. Much like the Templeton for Ozzie Smith trade a decade later, this was a classic “I’ll give you my problem if you give me yours” trade.

Yesterday, the Post-Dispatch re-ran Bob Broeg’s analysis at the time of the deal. Broeg pointed out in 1972 regarding Wise that “there’s no suggesting that he’s as good as Carlton, much less better,” while simultaneously acknowledging Wise’s superior 1971. He was also aware that Wise’s reputation was victimized by pitching for a bad Phillies team. That’s at least one reporter close to the situation who did not foresee the massive production gap between the two pitchers over the rest of their careers. Even in an era when wins and ERA were the deepest analysis anyone did regarding pitching quality, folks could tell that these two were similar.

Using advanced metrics like FIP today, we see that they were even closer than they looked at the time. If anything, there’s a good argument that Wise was the more favorable option. Mind you, it’s not obvious- there’s also a good argument for Carlton. Mostly it seems like a case of bad process (Busch quarreling with a good young player), followed by good process (management identifying Wise as a comparable return), all demolished by bad results in the long run.

BBN-STEVE CARLTON Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

Why on earth did this trade turn out so poorly for the Cardinals? There are a few answers here:

The fickle nature of pitchers: There’s a reason Voros McCracken’s DIPS concept had some truth to it. Pitchers are limited in what they can control, and it gives us wide ranges of outcomes for year to year results. That’s doubly true for the game in the 1960s and 70s, when even the best pitchers were only striking out 23-25% of hitters faced. For context, Gerrit Cole and Max Scherzer struck out more than 35% of hitters in 2019. Another eighteen starting pitchers were over 26%.

All of those contact-heavy profiles in the Wise/Carlton era made for humongous error bars. Wise had been reasonably good in Philadelphia, and was pretty good in his two years in St. Louis. But there was wiggle room for him to have been so much worse.

Strikeouts are important for pitchers: I mean... duh, right? But folks didn’t realize how important they were in 1972. While the two pitchers were closely aligned in how they pitched, Carlton had a clear edge in strikeouts. Wise’s ability to miss bats was below average. Carlton’s was above average. It gave Carlton’s success some stickiness that Wise’s lacked, and implied that Carlton had an extra gear that Wise lacked. Now... this shouldn’t be overstated. Carlton’s strikeout rate was above average, but wasn’t elite. In 1970-71, his K% ranked 26th out of 81 qualified pitchers. His K%+ was 110. Over the next twelve seasons, he goosed that number up to 149. He found another gear, which leads me to...

A failure in Cardinals scouting or development: We know Carlton was difficult to hit before he was traded. We don’t know exactly what his velocity was like, but his slider was legendary. He took those tools to Philadelphia and translated them into better results. It’s impossible to know, 49 years later, whether the Cardinals failed in developing Carlton or in scouting and understanding his abilities. But one of those things seems very likely.

There’s an important epilogue to this disastrous trade. Because of Carlton’s dominance after leaving St. Louis, there’s a perception that Wise was a bust. That’s hardly the case. Wise was a Cardinal for two years. In those two years, he had the 11th highest pitcher fWAR. He had a better FIP and fWAR than at least three future Hall of Famers- Phil Niekro, Jim Palmer, and Fergie Jenkins. His career slipped a bit after leaving St. Louis, but he was still perfectly serviceable from the time he was traded to St. Louis until the end of the decade. His ERA and FIP were both better than league average in that time, and his 25.0 fWAR was 23rd best.