It’s fashionable these days to lament the days when starting pitchers went nine innings and teams only needed 9 pitchers; when pitchers weren’t “babied. Major League scouts, managers, announcers, and writers whine about the lack of quality pitching available today. Just to let you know, the statistical record doesn’t really show that to be true on a consistent basis, except for a period of time in the late 60’s and early 70’s when baseball offense was at it’s nadir and the game was designed for the pitcher to dominate.
However, the Big Red Machine’s “weak link was allegedly their pitching staff. I don’t think it was that bad, and it could have been even better. In fact, it could have been a whole lot better than what we had. Anyway – is it really fair to compare their pitching staff to their offense, which is considered to be one of the best of all time?
The 1975 Reds finished with a 108-54 record, 20 games ahead of the second place Dodgers. The Reds’ offense had an OPS+ of 108, which was five points better than the second place Phillies’ 103. The Reds’ ERA+ was 107, which didn’t lead the league – but was tied for third with the Cardinals behind the 117 posted by the Dodgers and Pirates. That’s not a bad pitching staff; that’s a very good pitching staff.
The 1975 staff had three 15 games winners: Don Gullett, Gary Nolan, and Jack Billingham. Gullett posted a 2.42 ERA. Nolan only walked 29 in 210+ innings. Rawly Eastwick, Pedro Borbon, Clay Carroll, and Will McEnaney all posted ERA’s under 3.00 pitching in more than 400 relief innings. Nolan was 27, and Gullett, McEnaney, and Eastwick were all 24 or younger.
The 1976 Big Red Machine won 102 games, finishing 10 games ahead of the Dodgers. The offense had an incredible year, posting a 120+ OPS+, 15 points better than the second place Phillies. The pitchers were dead on average, posting an ERA+ of 100, tying for sixth in the league (Phillies ERA+ was 115).
The Reds had one 15 game winner, 28 year old Gary Nolan. Other starters included 25 year old Don Gullett (11 wins), 24 year old Pat Zachry (14 wins), 24 year old Santa Alcala (11 wins). Their bullpen included Eastwick (age 25), McEnaney (age 24), and rookie Manny Sarmiento (age 20).
As for the 1970 Reds, the “Big Red Machine’s first World Series team? The 1970 team’s pitching actually performed better than the hitters.
Yes, you read that right. In the year when Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, Bobby Tolan, and Bernie Carbo all had their career offensive years, their pitching was actually better than their offense. The offense posted an OPS+ of 103, which was second in the league behind the Giants’ 104. Their pitching had an ERA+ of 113 – far better than average. They finished third behind the Cubs (119) and the Mets (116), and they had the youngest pitching staff in the league. Their pitchers had a weighted age of 25.2, when the league average was 27.1. The second youngest team was the Mets with a weighted average of 26.1, or almost a full year older than the Reds.
Starters Jim Merritt (20 wins) and Jim McGlothlin (14 wins) were both 26. Ace Gary Nolan (18 wins) was still only 22. Wayne Simpson (14 wins, 11-1 through June) was 21. Jim Maloney was expected to have another big season. He was the Reds’ best pitcher of the 1960’s and was still only 30. Relievers included Wayne Granger (age 26), Don Gullett (age 19), Pedro Borbon (age 23).
The Reds had even more pitching talent in their system. Pitchers in the Reds’ minor league system in 1970 included Milt Wilcox (age 20), Ross Grimsley (age 20), Joaquin Andujar (age 17), reliever Steve Mingori (age 26), and they drafted Alcala and Zachry. They signed Sarmiento in 1971 and drafted Tom Hume in 1971. They signed Mario Soto in 1973. There were some other smaller deals and then there were some bigger ones, too.
The Reds could easily have had the best pitching staff in baseball if they could have kept their pitchers healthy.
Jim Maloney threw three no-hitters (two official no-hitters, one lost in extra innings) in the 1960’s. He struck out more than 200 hitters four times in a season (his high was 265) and was a two-time 20 game winner with a lifetime ERA of 3.19. Maloney tore up his Achilles heel in April of 1970, effectively finishing his career. He never won another game – he was 30 years old.
Gary Nolan was considered to be the second coming of all-time great Bob Feller in 1967. As a 19 year old rookie, Nolan went 14-8 with a 2.58 ERA, pitching 226+ innings and striking out 206. At age 20, he went 9-4 with a 2.40 ERA and hurt his arm…because he had been pitched too much too early. He came back to go 18-7 with a 3.27 ERA for the 1970 World Series team, but he hurt his arm again in 1972. He returned again in 1975 to go 15-9 two consecutive years, but he was no longer a strike out pitcher. He hurt himself again in 1977, but could not return. The young man reinvented himself successfully twice.
Jim Merritt was the only 20 game winner on the 1970 team. He had made the Minnesota Twins rotation at age 22 in 1966 and had been a mainstay before being acquired in a deal for Leo Cardenas. Merritt hurt his arm during his 20 win season with the Reds. He did not win a game as a starter in 1971 – his only win came in relief, finishing the season 1-11. He won a total of six more big league games. He was effectively done at age 26.
Jim McGlothlin was acquired in a deal with the Angels for outfielder Alex Johnson. McGlothlin earned a spot in the Angels rotation at age 23 in 1967. He hurt his arm sometime during 1971 (age 27) and had a fast decline for the Reds.
Wayne Simpson was the phenom of the 1970 pitching staff. Only 21, Simpson had won 11 of his 12 decisions entering July with a 2.38 ERA. He had already thrown a one-hitter, a two-hitter (his first major league start), allowed three hits in four games, only four hits in two games. He had pitched at least six innings in every start except for one five inning appearance. But, that was it for him. He hurt his arm and won only three more games that year, and 22 more in his next five big league seasons.
Don Gullett was 19 on the 1970 Reds. He had 11 starts and 78 innings of A ball in 1969 when he made the big league club. He only started two games in 1970, pitching 77 innings with a 2.42 ERA. He made the rotation for good in 1971 at age 20. His Reds record before leaving for free agency was 91-44. He only made 30 or more starts three times in his seven years with the Reds and was out of baseball due to injuries following the 1978 season
Even with losing these starting pitchers, Reds General Manager Bob Howsam remained active keeping the Big Red Machine in overdrive. He was denied from obtaining Vida Blue from the Oakland A’s in 1976 by the commissioner’s office, but he did land Tom Seaver in 1977.
Zachry pitched well for the Reds, but was dealt away in the Seaver deal. He won only 10 games twice more in a season after his 14 victory debut season in 1976. Alcala only won three more games in the big leagues after his first big league season.
The Reds could have been better. Ross Grimsley won 37 games for the Reds in 1972-74, but was dealt to the Orioles for reserve outfielder Merv Rettenmund and reserve infielder Junior Kennedy because he was too much of a free spirit. Grimsley won 124 games in his major league career.
Milt Wilcox was dealt to the Indians after the 1971 season. He had won five games for the Reds at ages 20 and 21 – he went on to win 119 big league games. The Reds traded him for one year’s use of reserve outfielder Ted Uhlaender.
Joaquin Andujar never made it to the Reds. The Reds traded him to the Astros after the 1975 season at age 22 for two minor leaguers that never made the majors. Andujar joined the Astros rotation in 1976 and went on to win 127 major league games.
Lefty reliever Steve Mingori was traded to the Cleveland Indians before the 1970 season for five at bats worth of use from reserve outfielder Jay Ward. Mingori went on to pitch 385 big league games, posting a 3.03 ERA.
Bob Howsam made some great trades, but, in retrospect, it doesn’t seem he placed a value on his pitching. He gave up real value for reserve players – I mean, he gave up nearly 350 major league wins in Wilcox, Grimsley, Andujar, and Mingori to get some marginal players, while watching his pitching staff decimate itself with injuries.
And,he tried to patch his pitching staff with other team’s injured warriors. Tony Cloninger was a damaged star when we acquired him from the Braves for Milt Pappas. Pappas went on to win 63 more big league games (at least we got Clay Carroll in the deal). Ray Washburn was a washed up former star with the Cardinals (we traded reliever George Culver and over 200 future games for Washburn and four wins) . Roger Nelson was an oft-injured phenom from the Orioles and Royals (were Nelson’s seven wins really worth giving up Hal McRae?). Clay Kirby was a damaged star from the Padres (the price was Bobby Tolan and Dave Tomlin). We traded Tony Perez to get Woodie Fryman and Dale Murray. We traded Mike Caldwell (more than 100 more wins) to the Brewers for two minor leaguers.
These were Howsam’s bad deals, the ones that aren’t often discussed. I find it curiously fascinating as to how good this team could have been if we been more careful with our pitchers and invested in their arms rather than spending them or dealing quality pitching prospects for replacement level spare parts. I wonder how good we could have been if we had kept some of these successful major league pitchers that won hundreds of games for teams other than the Big Red Machine.
And, still we had one of the best teams ever in Major League Baseball history.