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Analyzing the 1963 Jim Perry trade and its impact on the future of the Indians

Maybe it's not normal to read into an early '60s trade of a pitcher, but the way it affected the future is kind of wild.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The other day while browsing Baseball Reference, I entered what can only be described as a fugue state, and when I came to I was deep in examination of the career of pitcher Jim Perry. Older Tribe fans might remember him, though you wouldn’t have much reason to. He pitched for Cleveland from 1959 to 1963 before being traded to the Minnesota Twins for wily veteran left-hander Jack Kralick. Not quite Jeff Bagwell for Larry Anderson, but it’s interesting to look at a little trade like this, and consider just what this did to the Indians fortunes for years to come.

Some might consider it a fool’s errand to delve too deeply into the what-if’s of baseball, but it’s late November. The stove is only lukewarm.Why not? Perry was decent for the Tribe if nothing else in his short stint with Cleveland. He logged a 70-67 record back when that actually meant something (39 complete games) with a 3.76 ERA and was good for a dead average 100 ERA+. He worked out of the bullpen and started a good number of games. Not an amazing pitcher, sure, but the kind of guy that’s nice to have around. Certainly one a team would keep, just in case they make a leap forward. And leap he did. Once he went to the Twins he became spectacular. Much like Corey Kluber did a few years back he went from average as hell to pitching hellspawn. In a good way. By 1965 his ERA dropped to 2.65 and over the next six years in Minnesota he presented a 131 ERA+, demonstrating that it wasn’t just the Year of the Pitcher effect giving him a boost. He capped this run with a Cy Young in 1970, winning 24 games with a 3.25 ERA. Not his best year but seemingly a lifetime achievement award. In a time of great pitching, Perry was excellent in his own right.

Meanwhile, Jack Kralick came to the Indians in early 1963 as Perry left and gave the Tribe 197 innings with a 2.92 ERA. He followed that with a great 1964 campaign as he logged a 3.21 ERA (113 ERA+) in 190 innings. But that was it. Injuries and ineffectiveness limited him to just 156 innings over the next three years and a 4.49 ERA, especially bad as the Year of the Pitcher was dawning. By 1967 he was out of baseball after a few years as a mop-up man and bad LOOGY,  and giving the front office an excuse to blow it up and dump Luis Tiant and Sam McDowell. It’s hard to blame the collapse of an entire franchise for multiple decades on one mediocre pitcher, but if McDowell and Tiant had been backed by some durability and young talent, perhaps the 60’s and early 70’s would have had a different history

Perry’s coming to Cleveland was an interesting period for the Indians. It was right as Frank Lane was ousted following his dogged dismantling of the team. The Tribe still had some young talent in the pitching staff, but teetered on the bring of their inevitable drive to the cellar where they would dwell for some 25 years or so. They finished second his first year with the team, then spent twenty-seven of the next thirty years under .500. While that’s not all the Perry trade’s fault, it certainly didn’t help. He spent a decade with the Twins handling 1883 innings of work, doing dual duty as a bullpen man and starter and being a mid-level workhorse. That’s the kind of pitcher that can bridge the gap from bad to decent. Then you look at his 1965, when he truly broke through with that sterling 2.63 ERA in 165 innings. The Indians were above .500 that year, on the back of McDowell and Tiant along with an aging Rocky Colavito and Leon Wagner. By sliding Ralph Terry’s 3.65 ERA (95 ERA+) to the five hole and not having Kralick, that’s a great rotation along with a solid ‘pen. Maybe not enough to catch Minnesota and their 102 wins, but in this alternate reality there’s be no Perry mowing batters down for the Twins so things could be different. A butterfly effect that twisted the fates of several teams.

This is an interesting trade to consider because it takes into account two things that are so vital in baseball. That’s patience, whether with yourself, your team or other players, and a player being in the right place at the right time. The issue with Perry more than anything in his early days with Cleveland was that he walked a lot of guys and he gave up a lot of home runs. From 1960-’62 he averaged 28 home runs allowed a season along with 79 walks. For comparison’s sake, Trevor Bauer walked 79 last season to lead the AL. Frankly it’s a wonder that Perry stuck around with how hard managers were on non-strikethrowers back then. But when he got to Minnesota he met Johnny Sain, one part of the "Spahn, Sain and pray for rain" combo the Boston Braves marched out there.

Sain taught Perry how to get on top of his fastball so he could get some break into right-handers, and taught him a power curve that allowed Perry some deception in his game. Sain saw something in Perry, a rawness that could be molded, something that would have gone to waste with the Indians of that era. Look to today for another example in JD Martinez. The Astros hung their hat on LJ Hoes and didn’t take the time, despite being dreadful, to let Martinez figure things out. That’s probably oversimplifying things, but quitting on a 25-year old is a little absurd. Perry was 27 when he was moved, which in 1963 baseball years is essentially second year player age, right? It’s not even like he was bad, he was just kind of alright.

Perhaps my favorite part of trading Perry was the team’s fiending need for that veteran lefty. As though a rotation full of right-handers was inherently handicapped because the hitters would get too used to it?. I submit no less than the 2016 Tribe rotation as counter-evidence of that idea. This is how baseball was done back then of course, but it’s also the kind of thinking that demonstrates a shortsightedness, and a lack of flexibility to work with what you had. That’s what doomed teams without resources back then. That’s what led to decades of losing seasons. The best thing about modern sports, and in particular teams like the Indians that have to work in harsh financial constraints, is that they don’t try to make everything fit into a template. There’s a creativity to it all, an art to their roster building and gameplanning. Perry was traded because you aren’t supposed to have all right-handed pitching. Never mind he was young and talented in a time when baseball players were effectively indentured servants thanks to the Reserve Clause. So he has a bad game season, so what? No reason to quit on him and get a proven and mediocre commodity. Pay him four or five grand less next year. He didn’t have any other option until Curt Flood came along.

The Indians’ history is rife with trades like this though, of dumping great young potential or even real talent for some kind of wily veteran-ness that makes more sense in the way baseball was "supposed to be played". There’s a reason they stunk for three decades until John Hart and the Jacobs boys came along. Little things like this, of not recognizing what could be in the young players on a staff, of not being flexible to work with what you have and turn it into a strength, that’s what buries a ball club. Who knows what could have been otherwise. Maybe Perry never would have reached his potential and washed out, though Tiant and McDowell seemed to do alright. Who’s to say. The only real upshot is, these moves gave Hollywood a subject for Major League. So maybe it’s not so bad.