The Greatest, Until They Weren’t

Carlton-Fisk

As I write this, the 2018 Boston Red Sox sit at 59-29, the best record in baseball, a pace that would have them finish 109-53. The Red Sox have not won 100 games since 1946, and only the Pirates and White Sox have gone longer without reaching that mark.

Winning 100 games isn’t everything — the team has won 95 games 13 times since 1946, along with occasional pennants and what not, and plenty of teams have won 100 games only to fail in October.  But there is still something magical about winning 100 games, and it has gnawed at me for 40 years.

The reason it has gnawed at me for 40 years is the 1978 Red Sox. This was the best team I ever saw in Boston, the team that came the closest to ending this drought — 99-63, followed, alas!, by a loss in the division playoff against the Yankees on October 2.

Is this surprising? The 1978 Red Sox are famous for collapsing, for coughing up a big lead in September. Ask any Red Sox fan over 50 to remember the 1978 Red Sox, and he or she will likely grimace and turn away.  But honestly, how good do you have to be to collapse to 99 wins?

The infamous club was 62-28 on July 19, 9 games ahead of the Brewers and 14 up on the Yankees, the struggling defending champs. Suddenly, so quickly that no one noticed until the shift was well under way, the Yankees and Red Sox changed direction; just 53 days later—on September 10—the race was tied. Six days after that—September 16—the Yankees were 3½ games ahead, an astonishing 17½ game reversal in 59 days. Their fans having completely given up, the Red Sox then won 12 of their last 14 games to force the playoff game.

Once the Red Sox lost that game, history has simplified the team’s saga to Bucky Dent’s lazy fly ball into the screen which put the Yankees ahead 3-2 in the seventh inning. But for fans of a certain age, the rooters who suffered through that roller coaster of a season, watching an unstoppable juggernaut go through an unthinkable series of slumps and injuries, a second look is long overdue. Why did this great team stop playing well? What went wrong?

Personally, this was an interesting year.  I graduated from high school in June, spent the summer doing whatever nonsense 17-year-olds do, and started college in September.  In those pre-internet days, I watched or listened to as many games as I could through the end of August, and then resettled to Troy, New York, losing contact with the team in real-time.  I literally read about most of the games in the next morning’s paper.

So, how did the Red Sox win 99 games?  Or, as it has come to be phrased, how did the Red Sox win only 99 games?

The 1977 Red Sox were no slouches — they won 97, the team’s highest total in 31 years, and followed up with a very productive off-season. That team finished second in the league in runs scored, but sixth (of 14) teams in preventing runs, the typical imbalance that seemed to plague all Boston teams in this era. The club slugged 213 home runs, a franchise record, with five players hitting 25 or more: Jim Rice (39), George Scott (33), Butch Hobson (30), Carl Yastrzemski (28), and Carlton Fisk (26). Meanwhile, no starting pitcher won more than 12 games, and the team’s 40 complete games was a very low total for the era. Clearly, the team needed pitching.

Or did they?

According to Baseball-Reference.com, Fenway Park in the late 1970s was the most hitter-friendly American League park of the past 60 years. More concretely, in 81 road games the 1977 Red Sox averaged 4.49 runs, the seventh highest total in the league, while allowing 3.77 runs, second lowest. When properly taking Fenway into account, the Red Sox actually had a very good pitching staff, and a good (though not great) offense. Manager Don Zimmer, like many a Red Sox manager through the years, was forever complaining about the pitching, while yanking guys in and out of the rotation after a few bad starts.

Nonetheless, the team made several moves in the 1977-78 off-season to correct their pitching “problem.”

In November the club signed Mike Torrez, a 17-game winner who had won two games for the Yankees in the just completed World Series. Taking a pitcher from their primary rival was a good start. The team also traded for Jerry Remy, a defensive-minded second baseman, and signed Dick Drago and Tom Burgmeier, two of the more reliable relief pitchers of the period. Finally, very late in spring training, the Red Sox dealt four players to the Cleveland Indians (including pitchers Rick Wise and Mike Paxton) for Dennis Eckersley, already one of the better pitchers in the league at age 23. Without losing any offense, the Red Sox had added two top starters and two very good relievers to a 97-win team. Optimism all around.

The pitching upgrade was not as large as it appeared. As Bill James wrote in the 1978 Baseball Abstract, “Take it for what it’s worth, but in my opinion, this [1977] pitching staff, scattered to the winds, was the best in the league. Cleveland, Jenkins, Paxton, Aase, Wise … gone. They will never receive credit for it, even from their manager, but they pitched very well, under impossible circumstances.”[2] Ferguson Jenkins, who posted a 3.68 ERA in 28 starts before Don Zimmer pulled him from the rotation, was dealt to Texas for John Poloni and won 18 games for the Rangers in 1978. Don Aase, who finished 6-2, 3.12 in 92.1 innings after a late July call up, was dealt for Remy.

With the pitching staff fortified, the 1978 Red Sox would be led by three star offensive players in the prime of their careers. Catcher Carlton Fisk was coming off a .315/.402/.521 season, arguably the best of his many great years. Jim Rice, left fielder and DH, had hit 39 home runs and 15 triples. Center fielder Fred Lynn had had an injury-plagued off-year with the bat, but was one of the best players in the game. Rounding out this core were slugging first baseman George Scott; new second baseman Remy; Rick Burleson, a brilliant defensive shortstop who had hit .293; third baseman Hobson coming off a promising first full year; 38-year-old left fielder Carl Yastrzemski (.296/.372/.505 in 1977); and Dwight Evans, still just 25 and the best defensive right fielder in the game.

The top four starters were Eckersley, Torrez, Bill Lee, and Luis Tiant. Lee had pitched well in 1977 after recovering from an injury sustained during a 1976 on-field brawl with the Yankees. Tiant was just one year removed from a 21-victory season. The best pitcher on the 1977 team was reliever Bill Campbell, who had won 13 games and saved 31 in 140 innings. He would be joined in the bullpen by Drago and Burgmeier, along with Bob Stanley, who had pitched well in his 1977 rookie season.

The 1978 Red Sox started slowly, blowing late inning leads in the season’s first two games and finishing April at 11-9. But then the team took off like a freight train, finishing 23-7 in May, 19-7 in June, and cruising to the 90-game mark at 62-28, a pace that would have yielded an American League record 112 wins. They had scored 488 runs, a very high total for the era—only two other AL teams, Milwaukee and Kansas City, had yet scored 400 runs. They had also allowed just 351, the second lowest total in the league.

As Table 1 shows, the offense was high-powered and deep.

Table 1 – 1978 Red Sox Hitters, through July 19

Player BA OBP Slugging OPS
Jim Rice .322 .378 .609 .987
Fred Lynn .327 .405 .559 .964
Carlton Fisk .296 .380 .531 .911
Dwight Evans .272 .366 .507 .873
Carl Yastrzemksi .311 .406 .455 .861
George Scott .267 .344 .466 .811
Butch Hobson .255 .325 .471 .796
Rick Burleson .248 .298 .357 .656
Jerry Remy .266 .303 .330

.632

There were three legitimate MVP candidates on this team. Rice, splitting his time between left field and designated hitter, had 23 homers and 76 RBI, while Lynn and Fisk were having great seasons while playing key defensive positions. Dwight Evans was enjoying the best offensive season of his young career, and Yaz was still crushing the ball approaching his 39th birthday. Fisk, Rice, and Lynn started the All-Star game, while teammates Burleson, Remy, Yastrzemski, and Evans were selected as reserves. Scott had missed six weeks early in the season with a bad back and a broken finger, while Hobson returned from the DL on July 19, recovering from bone chips in his elbow. Both were hitting.

The most common everyday lineup for the Red Sox: Burleson, Remy, Rice, Yastrzemski, Fisk, Lynn, Evans, Scott, Hobson.[5] This ordering seems odd today, with the team’s two worst offensive players at the top of the lineup, but this was not unusual for the period, as bat control (Burleson) and speed (Remy) were considered the most important tools at the start of the batting order. Nonetheless, it is remarkable that Jim Rice drove in 139 runs in this lineup configuration.

After considering their home park, the pitching staff was as impressive as the offense.

Table 2 – 1978 Red Sox Pitchers, through July 19

Pitcher W-L SV IP ERA
Mike Torrez 12-5 0 149 3.80
Dennis Eckersley 11-2 0 145 3.41
Bill Lee 10-3 0 119 2.94
Luis Tiant 7-2 0 103 3.06
Jim Wright 5-1 0 72 2.86
Bob Stanley 5-1 7 62 2.92
Dick Drago 2-2 6 34 3.74
Tom Burgmeier 2-1 3 32 3.94

Torrez and Eckersley were the workhorses, but veterans Lee and Tiant were also pitching very well. Jim Wright had taken over for Alan Ripley as the fifth starter in June. The club had an effective, flexible bullpen which also included Bill Campbell, struggling through injuries. The best and deepest pitching staff in the league was backed by a wonderful defense, anchored by Lynn, Evans, Fisk, and Burleson.

This team, the team that stood at 62-28 on July 19, 1978, was the best Red Sox team I have ever seen, and absolute joy to watch play every day.

Fifty-nine days later, the Red Sox were 3½ games behind the Yankees.

It was not actually a 59 day death march, but two terrible streaks separated by a good month. Starting on July 20 the Red Sox lost 10 of 12 games, watching their 9-game lead reduced to 4 1/2. For the next month, the ship was righted. From July 31 through the end of August, the Red Sox put up a record of 20-10, and the lead was back up to 6 1/2 games, with the Yankees now the leading contender.

With a record of 84-48 on August 31, the team just needed to finish 16-14 down the stretch to win that elusive 100 games.  And don’t think I wasn’t monitoring this on a daily basis.

The Red Sox then had their second terrible stretch of the season, starting the month of September at 3 and 13, while the Yankees over the same period went 13-3. A 10-game swing, and, just like that, the Yankees led by 3 ½ and the Red Sox were dead in the water.

The lowlight of this second bad period was the notorious “Boston Massacre,” when the Yankees came to Boston September 7 trailing by four games, and crushed the Red Sox four times by a combined score of 42-9.

It was OVER.

Remarkably, just as right-thinking people had looked away in horror, the Red Sox caught fire, winning 12 of their last 14 games, including their final 8, to force the playoff game.

Setting aside the daily details, what went wrong?  What caused this remarkable team to stumble and give up the lead over the last 10 weeks of the season?

Very simply, the Red Sox stopped hitting. That’s it.

While the team’s pitching and defense regressed slightly from 3.9 runs allowed per game to 4.2 over the final 72 games, the star-studded offense tumbled from 5.6 to 4.2 runs per game.

Table 3 –1978 Red Sox OPS Before and After July 19

Player Before After Change
Jim Rice .987 .949 -.038
Fred Lynn .964 .760 -.204
Carlton Fisk .911 .759 -.152
Dwight Evans .873 .655 -.218
Carl Yastrzemski .861 .681 -.180
George Scott .810 .573 -.237
Butch Hobson .796 .642 -.154
Rick Burleson .656 .606 -.040
Jerry Remy .632 .728 +.096

 

Jim Rice continued slugging, but all the other star hitters fell off a cliff. Fisk and Lynn were MVP candidates no more. Yastrzemski looked every bit of his 39 years old down the stretch.

George Scott, most dramatically, was finished as an effective player.

Two severe injuries contributed to the collapse. Hobson’s elbow (he actually had to re-arrange the bone chips before every at bat) had deteriorated past the point where he could effectively play third base, though Zimmer continued to play him. After 17 first-half errors, Hobson logged a remarkable 12 in August, and 11 more in September before finally moving to DH for the final nine games.

Dwight Evans was beaned by Seattle’s Mike Parrott on August 28 and was worthless the rest of the season. He valiantly (?) continued to play, but hit just .147 with one home run in September before taking a seat for the final week.

For five months, Don Zimmer managed this remarkable collection of players as if every game was a World Series game. He used his bench only when a starter was physically incapable of playing. Hobson missed 16 games all season, despite missing 15 during his DL stint. A bad back sidelined Yastrzemski for two weeks in August, but he still played 144 games. George Scott missed six weeks with injuries beginning in late April, but played 120 games through an ungodly slump. Carlton Fisk caught a mind-boggling 156 games, still a team record. Lynn played 150 games, the most he would ever play. Rice logged all 163.

When the bench was needed early on, a few players acquitted themselves well. Jack Brohammer hit .284 in 124 at bats through July 19. Bob Bailey had a .778 OPS on that date, mainly as a DH during Scott’s injury. But mainly the bench was not used.

Bernie Carbo, after hitting .289 with 15 home runs in part-time work in 1977, had just 46 at bats through May 21 (.762 OPS) when he turned his ankle. On June 15 he was sold to the Indians largely because Don Zimmer hated him, much like he hated his friend Bill Lee. Lee was still needed, though, while Carbo (apparently) was not. Lee protested the sale by leaving the team for a few days. (Carbo’s later admission that he was a daily drug user who was high every game throughout his time in Boston helps explain his problems with Zimmer.)

As it transpired, the team desperately needed Carbo, and their need grew as the injuries mounted. Zimmer continued to play Evans because he felt he had no one else. The Red Sox called up Gary Hancock on July 16, and he became the team’s most used reserve outfielder the rest of the season—.225 in 80 at bats. When players like Bailey and Brohammer were desperately needed in September, they hadn’t played much in three months and they were ineffective. Bernie Carbo, meanwhile, was in Cleveland.

The pitching rolled on after July 19. Mike Torrez posted a 4.20 ERA in this period, perfectly acceptable for someone pitching half their games in Boston, yet finished only 4-8. Bill Lee lost all seven of his decisions, though his performance (4.53 ERA) was not as bad as his record—it was just a slump. Having disposed of Carbo, Zimmer yanked Lee from the rotation in August, for the most part going with a four-man rotation the rest of the way. Eckersley was great (9-6 2.55) and Bob Stanley, mainly in relief, went 10-1, 2.36 in those 10 weeks (to finish 15-2 on the season).

It is likely that the team’s defense/pitching was the best in the AL, even better than it had been in 1977. When the hitters were crushing the ball over the first 90 games, the team was unstoppable. But the pitching was not enough to carry the anemic hitting over the last 10 weeks of the season.

Meanwhile, I was trying to navigate my way through my first month of college, my first month away from home — meeting new people, learning how to do laundry, figuring out how much Genesee Cream Ale was enough, trying to understand Dr. Medicus’s Physics lectures. The Red Sox were no help, and they should have been.

So, the 2018 Red Sox are 59-29.  To keep that in perspective, I track their progress against their predecessor from 40 years ago.  As of today, they are one game behind the 1978 club, who were 60-28.  Once the current team pulls ahead I will start to take them seriously.

The Red Sox have won three championships in recent years, but none of those teams will ever match the late 1970s Red Sox for me.  Why?  Because I wasn’t 17, for one thing.

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Author: Mark Armour

Long-time SABR member, co-chair of the Baseball Cards Committee, founder and past chairman (2002-2016) of the Biography Project, author of several books and dozens of articles on baseball. See mark-armour.net.

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