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Pioneers/Executives, Sidebars

Branch Rickey’s Very Mixed Trading Record

branch rickey confused

Is the Mahatma himself confused by his trade record? Probably not.

The first honoree in our pioneers and executives wing of the Hall of Miller and Eric is an executive who was a pioneer. Or perhaps a pioneer who was an executive? Well, that’s the point. Branch Rickey’s accomplishments as what we’d call today a GM merit our vote. And so do his revolutionary ideas and actions. He, Babe Ruth, and Jackie Robinson may well be the three most important people in baseball history.

For good reason, folks called Rickey “The Mahatma” (revered or wise one). Around baseball, everyone considered him a real sharpie. Shrewd, always trying to cut a corner or chisel a price to get every last scrap of advantage. His men hunted the most ivory in the NL, and his teams won and won and won. Rickey’s frequent disquisition on his theories on acquiring players centered on two main ideas:

  • “Out of quantity comes quality.
  • “Trade a player a year too early rather than a year too late.

The first idea gave birth to the farm system. The 1953 swap of Ralph Kiner is probably the most famous example of the second quote, but you can see it too in the famed Frisch for Hornsby deal or in the 1936 heist in which he sent a rapidly aging Ripper Collins to the Cubs and got back Lon Warneke.

Trouble is, when you actually look at Rickey’s trade record, the whole damned thing, it’s hard to tell how wise he was in the art of the deal.

Let’s Look at the Record

Using the annual transactions list on BBREF, I looked at every transaction on Rickey’s ledger. Many of them are not known during the first half of his career and appear to be either purchases from minor league squads or amateur free agent signings. So we may not know every trade he made, but we’ve got a big chunk of them. One hundred and ten to be exact. He dealt away 150 players and received 188. The players he received contributed 261.5 WAR to Rickey’s employers before leaving the team or the game. The 150 players he jettisoned recorded 573.4 WAR before they either retired or returned to Rickey’s team.

Wait, what? Rickey ended up 311 WAR in the hole on this trades? That’s unpossible! He’s the Mahatma for Pete’s sake!

Well, it is certainly possible that my measuring sticks aren’t well calibrated. However, I selected them because before the free-agency era the choice to swap a player meant surrendering to another team the ability to own the player’s rights in perpetuity. Every time Rickey traded, he effectively traded the right to do whatever he wanted with his guy for the right to do whatever he wanted with someone else’s guy. Which only heightens the weirdness of Branch Rickey’s peculiar trading record.

Below I’ve listed Rickey’s best and worst trades. These are trades where he nabbed or gave up 10 more WAR than his opponent. For reasons we’ll discuss in a moment, I’ve left out any trades known to include cash. In each of these swaps, Rickey’s team comes first, and the number in parentheses next to the players’ names are the WAR they delivered to their new team as long as they stayed there. For the other team the number in WAR represents everything the player did after the trade, unless he returned to Rickey’s team.

Branch’s Brainchilds

December 12, 1947

  • To Dodgers: Preacher Roe (22.0), Billy Cox (5.9), and Gene Mauch (-0.3)
  • To Pirates: Vic Lombardi (3.9), Dixie Walker (2.0), and Hal Gregg (-0.5)

Net WAR to Rickey’s team: 22.3

September 5, 1940

  • To Cardinals: Al Brazle (20.4)
  • To Red Sox: Mike Ryba (6.0)

Net WAR to Rickey’s team: 14.4

October 8, 1936

  • To Cardinals: Lon Warneke (15.4)
  • To Cubs: Ripper Collins (4.0) and Roy Parmelee (-1.6)

Net WAR to Rickey’s team: 13.0

January 21, 1919

  • To Cardinals: Milt Stock (11.8), Pickles Dillhoffer (0.3), and Dixie Davis (0)
  • To Phillies: Gene Pakard (0.6), Stuffy Stewart (0), and Doug Baird (-0.1)

Net WAR to Rickey’s team: 11.6

Branch’s Brainfarts

May 7, 1933

  • To Cardinals: Leo Durocher (1.6), Dutch Henry (0), and Jack Ogden (0)
  • To Reds: Paul Derringer (32.9), Sparky Adams (1.7), and Allyn Sout (-0.3)

Net WAR to Rickey’s team: -32.7

July 14, 1919

  • To Cardinals: Frank Woodward (0.4), Doug Baird (-0.1), and Elmer Jacobs (-0.4)
  • To Phillies: Lee Meadows (27.3) and Gene Paulette (0.7)

Net WAR to Rickey’s team: -28.1

May 11, 1928

  • To Cardinals: Jimmie Wilson (4.8), Art Decatur (0.0), and Bill Kelly (-0.9)
  • To Phillies: Spud Davis (14.9), Don Hurst (12.4), and Homer Peel (-0.6)

Net WAR to Rickey’s team: -22.8

February 15, 1923

  • To Cardinals: Hi Myers (0.1) and Ray Schmandt (0.0)
  • To Dodgers: Jack Fournier (18.7)

Net WAR to Rickey’s team: -18.6

January 11, 1934

  • To Cardinals: Glenn Spencer (0.0)
  • To Reds: Syl Johnson (13.7) and Bob O’Farrell (0.0)

Net WAR to Rickey’s team: -13.7

October 4, 1949

  • To Dodgers: Dee Phillips (0), Al Epperly (-0.1), and Don Thompson (-1.6)
  • To Braves: Sam Jethroe (8.7) and Bob Addis (0.7)

Net WAR to Rickey’s team: -11.1

May 30, 1944

  • To Dodgers: Goody Rosen (5.3)
  • To Pirates: Fritz Ostermueller (16.2) and Bill Lohrman (-0.4)

Net WAR to Rickey’s team: -10.5

June 16, 1930

  • To Cardinals: Burleigh Grimes (7.1)
  • To Braves: Fred Frankhouse (15.3) and Bill Sherdel (2.2)

Net WAR to Rickey’s team: -10.4

October 14, 1952

  • To Pirates: Cal Abrams (1.5), Gail Henley (0.1), and Joe Rossi (0)
  • To Reds: Gus Bell (12)

Net WAR to Rickey’s team: -10.4

Rickey’s overall record in the 70 trades that don’t include cash (that we know of) looks like this:

  • 10+ WAR ahead: 4
  • 5–9.9 WAR ahead: 1
  • 5–7.4 WAR ahead: 3
  • 5–4.9 WAR ahead: 4
  • 0-2.4 WAR ahead: 16
  • Even: 3
  • 0-2.4 WAR behind: 14
  • 5–4.9 WAR behind: 9
  • 5–7.4 WAR behind: 1
  • 5–10 WAR behind: 6
  • 10+ WAR behind: 9

This is a surprisingly poor record for someone so widely revered as Branch Rickey.

A Brief Note from the Management

Let’s stop here and note that we are looking at retrospectively with a statistic that wasn’t available to Rickey himself. As someone who championed the whole ballplayer as well as statistical analysis, I suspect he would approve of it. But WAR is a nice stand-in for a GM’s judgment simply because it does asses the whole ballplayer, and Rickey famously liked ballplayers who could run fast and throw well—the rest, he said, was teachable. Another shortcoming here is that in assessing any trade in isolation, we don’t account for the fact that some trades are made as part of a series of interrelated transactions. We simply hope here that these are expressed in the aggregate.

Now, Let’s Talk About the Money

I left out the money trades because we can’t take the money away in isolation. It’s part of the value swap that’s agreed upon. In some deals with money, it’s like a little something-something to even things off. But in many cases for Branch Rickey, the difference between a trade and selling off a player is getting a nobody back with the money.

For today’s fan, the idea of selling a player to another team probably seems odd. Especially for those familiar with Bowie Kuhn’s voiding of Charlie Finley’s sale of his stars in the mid-1970s. But in Rickey’s day, the sale of players from team to team (even to minor league teams) created a revenue stream. The beauty of the farm system was that it created a perpetual revenue stream. The Cards had more talents than roster slots, so selling those talents to another team allowed them to keep the lights on and pay their stars. But often teams outright sold their stars as well. Especially when their prospects were dim and a rebuild was in order. Now, Rickey had a chunk of the ownership in his teams. Selling players not only profited the club, it profited him personally.

In about 37 percent of the total trades Branch Rickey made, cash was exchanged. In 35 of his cash-inclusive deals, Rickey got the cash back. He only surrendered money in six trades. In a couple instances, Rickey received six-figure cash payments, which for his time was extremely large. Remember, no player took home a $100,000 annual salary until Joe DiMaggio in 1949. So how do we evaluate these cash-inclusive trades?

It’s kind of tricky, but I’ve got a theory. We have limited data on how much money Rickey bought, spent, and traded to acquire talent, but it’s the best we can do. Taking that data, I converted all sale/trade prices to 1955 dollars via the Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI Calculator. I used 1955 because it was Rickey’s last year as a GM. Then I looked at each type of transaction (purchases, sales, trades, etc) in aggregate to see what Rickey valued talent at. I used $/WAR as a rough approximation. For example, we have data for nine player sales. Rickey surrendered 51.4 future WAR for an average CPI-adjusted sale price of $8,500 per win. We assume that Rickey priced out the risk with his mathematical mind and arrived at this price.

When looking at trades, we have to consider the player return in combination with the dollar amount. So my method was to apply the $/WAR calculation to the net WAR of the players in the trade like this:

Cash / ( WAR acquired – WAR surrendered)

The idea is that the cash covers the imbalance between the players involved. Not every trade goes smoothly or predictably, so we’re hoping that the weight of all the trades we have information on will give us a sense of what Rickey was doing.

In the two trades where we know the amount of cash he sent to the other team, Rickey paid about $7,700/WAR. On the flip side in the three dozen trades where we know how much money his teams received, Rickey got back about $13,800/WAR. To put some flesh on the bone here, Branch gave up 166.7 WAR in these deals and received just 46.4 WAR. But he got $1,744,177.36 in CPI adjusted cash. Because he was known as a skinflint by his players, I don’t believe for a second that Rickey valued a win at $14,500. Naturally as a good salesman who drives a hard bargain, he sought and got a premium in every trade. So let’s figure that his reality was $10,000 per win, and that he got a discount when he bought and a hefty premium when he sold. Contextually, this figure makes a lot of sense. The highest paid player of the early 1950s was Ted Williams. He earned $85,000 a year. BBREF tells us that 8 WAR represents a typical MVP level season, in which case, $10,000/WAR would be a pretty reasonable estimate.

OK, so armed with our $10,000/WAR ballpark figure, we can now evaluate the money trades. What we’ll do is convert the money into WAR using our estimate and add it to Rickey’s side of the ledger. When we do that, some of these deals come out looking good. I’m going to quote the CPI adjusted cash, not the real price.

April 16, 1938

  • To Cardinals: Curt Davis (6.7), Clyde Shoun (4.3), Tuck Stainback (-4.3), and $351,631 (35.2)
  • To Cubs: Dizzy Dean (4)

Net WAR to Rickey’s team: 37.9

August 8, 1915

  • To Browns: Baby Doll Jacobson (27.9) and $40,606 (4.1)
  • To Tigers: Bill James (2.5)

Net WAR to Rickey’s team: 29.5

Many of these deals go from negatives to small positives, including this famous and controversial move:

June 4, 1953

  • To Pirates: Toby Atwell (0.1), Bob Addis (-0.1), Gene Hermanski (-0.3), Bob Schultz (-0.4), Preston Ward (-0.4), George Freese (-0.5), and $150,562 (15.5)
  • To Cubs: Ralph Kiner (4.7), Howie Pollett (4.3), Joe Garagiola (1), and George Metkovich (-0.3)

Net WAR to Rickey’s team: 3.8 (where this was an 11.3 WAR loss without the cash)

And in one case it softens the blow of losing a HoMEr.

December 11, 1941

  • To Cardinals: Ken O’Dea (4.5), Bill Horman (0.5), Johnny McCarthy (0), and $91,156 (9.1)
  • To Giants: Johnny Mize (32)

Net WAR to Rickey’s team: -17.9 (versus -27 WAR without accounting for the moolah)

In total, Rickey received about 165.5 WAR. Including that cash in the trade WAR I mentioned a long while back, we get him to 435 WAR in versus that 573 WAR out. The Mahatma’s looking a little more respectable. He averaged $91,799 in CPI-adjusted money in these trades. Among the moves where we only know that cash changed hands (not how much), no one of the caliber of Kiner, Dean, or Mize was on the move. So I’m going to simply guesstimate that these deals averaged about $25,000, or 2.5 WAR per trade. There are 16 of these deals, and so another 40 WAR to tack on to Rickey’s total. But he also gave up cash in four other deals. In none of them did a player of consequence come back. I’ll just call them all $10,000 deals, and knock 4 WAR off the total. So that makes Rickey’s final guesstimated trade total 471 WAR in and 573 out. Still a 110 WAR gap, and theoretical wins aren’t real wins—especially if the money ends up in shareholders’ pockets, not in player salaries.

Great Trade. Who’d We Get?

This is where Rickey’s trade legacy gets a little funkier. See, he only acquired five guys who put up even ten WAR for his team, among whom only a couple can be considered impact acquisitions: Frankie Frisch, Baby Doll Jacobson, Al Brazle, Lon Warneke, Eddie Stanky, and Milt Stock. And at that, Frisch came back in the famous Hornsby trade…and Hornsby outperformed the Fordham Flash before returning to the Cardinals.

Of course, with farm systems as deep as the Cardinals’ and Dodgers’ a GM didn’t necessarily require impact players from outside the organization. Trading could either fill holes or simply bring in revenue to supplement ticket and beer sales. So why did Branch Rickey acquire so many no-count players? If quantity begat quality, why did he routinely take out other teams’ trash instead of at least taking flyers on C-ball arms? For example, the Gus Bell trade. Cal Abrams was 29 at the time of the trade but had never played a full season. He appeared in 136 games for Pittsburgh over two seasons as a below-average corner outfielder. Gail Henley was a 25-year old outfielder whose career had stalled in the high minors. He appeared in 14 games for the Pirates in 1954. Joe Rossi was a 32-year-old career minor leaguer who had a 55 game look-see with the Reds in 1952. While Bell had gotten in the Forbes Field doghouse, he was entering his age-24 season and immediately began a four-year run where he averaged about three WAR a year. Or this trade. Billy Herman for Stew Hoffer. In 1946, Herman, 36, had just gotten back from the war but managed to hit 288/376/375. Rickey traded him to the Braves for Hoffer who himself was a 33 year old catcher who could barely hit the ground if he fell on his face. Hoffer never played for Brooklyn or ever again in the majors. Why in the world would Rickey have picked that guy in a deal for a player who at least appeared to have something left in the tank? There had to be some 24 year-old longshot somewhere in the Boston farm system he could take a chance on.

See it’s little things like that peppered all over Rickey’s trade record that make me wonder. In all, Rickey acquired 188 players, and 71 of them gave back zero value. Another 47 contributed totals beneath replacement. Of the 150 he gave up, only 15 were worth nothing, and 42 were below replacement. Of all his trade acquisitions, 63% gave back 0 or less WAR. Of those he gave up, just 38%. Now that’s in part because of the quality of his farm system. It was typically well stocked. But even so, taking back has-beens and never-beens is not consistent with Rickey’s own postulate, “Out of quantity comes quality.” It’s an awfully blasé approach to trading.

When the Braves’ John Quinn came calling about Eddie Stanky in March of 1948, why did the sage Branch Rickey ask for Bama Rowell and Ray Sanders, two total wash-ups in their thirties? He also got $100,000 dollars, sure, but Stanky was the only guy in the deal worth anything. The Brat dropped 22 WAR on the NL over the rest of his career, and that trade was heralded for its impact on the 1948 pennant race. Rowell was gone before 1948 began and Sanders was actually sent back to Boston as the PTBNL in the deal (yes, traded for himself). The Dodgers lost the deal by about 11 WAR. If quantity mattered, why wasn’t Rickey asking for some kind of lottery ticket? In 1952, for George Strickland (a 26-year-old shortstop with a light bat) and Ted Wilks (who was just about done), Rickey got back 50 grand, washed up 35-year-old infielder Johnny Berardino, and 33-year-old career minor leaguer Charles Sipple. Berardino was cut before the 1952 season, Sipple never appeared in the big leagues. I can see taking back one of those two in tandem with a younger player, but both? Where was the silver-tongued salesman in that negotiation? Trades like this with the Pirates are especially puzzling because the Bucs’ farm system was not replete with talent like the Cards’ and Bums’ were. That’s why they didn’t win until five long years after Rickey left.

I easily imagine the ghost of Branch Rickey telling me, “Young man, you don’t know the first thing about my plans and designs.” He’d be right. I don’t know much about the conditions under which his deals were made, nor about the particular motivations in each. But the results aren’t too pretty. There’s many, too many, non-prospects and old ballplayers coming and too many good players going. The cash helps, naturally. Someone’s got to pay for the farm teams. And in the end, his teams won a lot of games. Well, except the Buccos.

But boy, it’s sure surprising to see that the Mahatma lost so many trades.

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