The Big Red Machine Turns 40

Johnny Bench and the Big Red Machine knew how to hit the baseball. (via John VanderHaagen)

Johnny Bench and the Big Red Machine knew how to hit the baseball. (via John VanderHaagen)

Quick: can you name a starting pitcher from the 1976 Big Red Machine?

On the 40th anniversary of one of the most iconic teams ever, it’s pretty remarkable to recall how anonymous the pitching staff was.

The Cincinnati Reds, with just the 11th-best ERA- in baseball that year out of 24 teams, won 102 games in the regular season and swept their way through the playoffs. They make it clear: Sometimes a mediocre pitching staff does not stand in the way of a world championship.

That’s certainly a comforting thought to fans of the currently first-place Orioles, who haven’t won it all since 1983 — the 10th-longest drought in baseball. The 2016 Orioles’ team ERA- of 99 and their FIP- of 101 ranked 15th and 16th in baseball as of Tuesday night.

The Big Red Machine didn’t really need to throw the ball very well because of their offense. And what an offense it was: future Hall of Famers at catcher (Johnny Bench), first base (Tony Perez), and second base (Joe Morgan), All-Stars at shortstop (Dave Concepcion), third base (Pete Rose), left field (George Foster), and right field (Ken Griffey), and a Gold Glover in center (Cesar Geronimo). Bench was the MVP in 1970 and 1972, Rose was MVP in 1973, Morgan was MVP in 1975 and 1976, and Foster would be MVP in 1977.

In that division, they could’ve had Kyle Davies and Braden Looper at the top of their rotation and they’d have won 90 games. That lineup just about guaranteed them a playoff spot. And because there were only 24 teams and two divisions then, there were only two rounds of the playoffs, the League Championship Series and the World Series. It might be harder for such an unbalanced team to march through the playoffs nowadays, when there are three rounds plus the Wild Card game.

(Here’s the answer to that sort-of trivia question. They had a six-man rotation: Gary Nolan, Pat Zachry, Fred Norman, Jack Billingham, Santo Alcala and Don Gullett. Zachry and Nolan were both rookies, and Zachry was the 1976 Rookie of the Year. To younger fans, Gullett may be the best-remembered now, having served as the Reds’ pitching coach from 1993 to 2005.)

I made a list of all 111 World Series-winning teams. Exactly seven of them had an ERA- below the league median:

  • 2014 Giants*
  • 2012 Giants
  • 2011 Cardinals*
  • 2006 Cardinals
  • 2003 Marlins*
  • 1987 Twins
  • 1913 Athletics

* Wild Card

Four of those occurred in the last 10 years. Prior to 2006, only three other championship teams had an ERA- below the league median: the ’03 Marlins, the ’87 Twins and the 1913 Philadelphia Athletics, who were likely the worst-pitching team ever to win it all.

Now, the 1987 Twins are routinely regarded as one of the worst regular-season teams of any stripe to ever win the World Series. As late as Aug. 28, they were a tied with Oakland for the AL West lead with a record of just 67-63, only four games over .500 and 10 games worse than the AL East-leading Blue Jays, who were at 76-52. They finished with 85 wins, the second-lowest win total by a World Series-winning team, and the lowest until the 83-win Cardinals of 2006 managed to win it all.

The 2003 Marlins were so bad out of the gate that they fired skipper Jeff Torborg in early May, when their record was a miserable 16-22, replacing him with 72-year-old Jack McKeon, who hadn’t managed in more than two years.

The 1913 A’s weren’t like that. They were dominant. They just couldn’t pitch.

Those A’s had an ERA- of 112, third-worst in baseball that year. The team’s “ace” was probably 37-year-old Eddie Plank, a future Hall of Famer, and he pitched 242.2 innings with a 91 ERA-, reasonably better than league average. Their best pitcher was their closer and swingman, the future Hall of Famer Albert “Chief” Bender, who started 21 games and saved 13 more and finished the year with an ERA- of 78, 15th-best in baseball.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

It’s not like the rest were complete duffers. They were just incredibly young. Rookie Bob Shawkey threw 111 innings and went on to win 195 games, and 19-year-old Herb Pennock twirled 33 innings in the very early stages of what would be Hall of Fame career. But they were far from their primes in 1913.

And most of the rest of the staff was far worse, including 20-year old Bullet Joe Bush, who threw 200 innings with a frightful ERA- of 135. (He got better, to paraphrase Monty Python. He went on to win 196 games in a 17-year career.) The 21-year-old Byron Houck was even more wretched than that, as his 176 innings of a 146 ERA- showed. The workhorse was 24-year-old Boardwalk Brown, who led the team in starts and pitched 235.1 innings with an indifferent ERA- of 104.

But that didn’t stop the Athletics from winning 96 games, finishing six and a half games ahead of the Senators, and taking down the Giants in five games to win the World Series. Those A’s were famous for the “$100,000 Infield”: first baseman Stuffy McInnis, second baseman Eddie Collins, shortstop Jack Barry and third baseman Frank “Home Run” Baker. Collins and Baker are in the Hall of Fame, and McInnis and Barry were quite good in their day. So was rookie Wally Schang, the part-time catcher, who is one of the best backstops not to make the Hall of Fame. The 1913 championship was the A’s third championship in four years, and cemented their legacy as one of the greatest dynasties of all time.

Indeed, in his New Historical Abstract, Bill James made the direct comparison: “Connie Mack’s ‘$100,000 Infield’… dominated baseball from 1910 through 1914 as the Reds did in the mid-seventies.”

Understanding the Athletics’ dominance requires understanding Eddie Collins. From 1909 to 1915, he tallied 61.4 WAR, an average of 8.8 per year. He hit for high average, drew scores of walks, and played fine defense. He also won the 1914 MVP award and finished in the top three in 1911, 1913, 1923 and 1924. Appropriately enough for a paragon of his era, he is also the all-time leader in sacrifice bunts, a record that will almost certainly never be broken. (He had 512 sac bunts, 120 more than the player in second place, Jake Daubert.)

But the Cincinnati infield may even have been even better than the one in Philly. Collins remains the best second baseman in American League history, just as Joe Morgan is probably the best second baseman since World War II. But Perez, now a Hall of Famer, was surely better than Stuffy McInnis, just as Davey Concepcion was clearly a better player than Jack Barry, and Pete Rose — whatever your opinion of his eligibility for the Hall — was at least as good a player in his prime as Home Run Baker, and had a far better and far longer career. And, of course, Wally Schang was a very good ballplayer, but he was no Johnny Bench.

Other than those 1913 A’s, fully half of the poor-pitching regular season teams that have gone on to win it all have been Wild Card teams: the 2014 Giants, the 2011 Cardinals and the 2003 Marlins. Of the World Series champions with the worst regular-season winning percentages, five of the seven worst had team ERAs below the major league median: the 83-win 2006 Cardinals, the 85-win 1987 Twins, the 88-win 2014 Giants, the 90-win 2011 Cardinals and the 91-win 2003 Marlins. In other words, if you don’t have good pitching, then you’d better have one of the greatest lineups and one of the single best players in baseball history, or else your best chance of winning the World Series is to hope for a fluke.

To be fair, the Reds pitching staff wasn’t quite wretched; it was just above the median, 11th out of 24, rather than just below it. And unlike the Wild Card teams that managed to catch fire at the right time, the Big Red Machine won 102 games that year. But that’s still extraordinarily unusual.

Of the 111 teams that have won the World Series, 34 won at least 100 games during the regular season. All but two of them did so with a pitching staff that finished the season with an ERA- in the top 10. Those two outliers were the 2009 Yankees, who won 103 games, and the 1976 Reds. (The ’09 Yankees finished 11th out of 30 teams, a slightly better performance than the Reds, who were 11th out of only 24.)

The Reds had a true six-man rotation. Each of their starters averaged between four and five days of rest, though injuries cost Gullett a total of about six weeks in May, June and July.

The starters certainly weren’t all that effective, and thanks to manager Sparky Anderson, who was known as “Captain Hook” for his quick calls to the bullpen, they didn’t stay in the game all that long. The Reds staff average of 6.27 innings per start was the seventh-lowest in baseball. Unlike the A’s, they didn’t have any future Hall of Famers on that side of the ball.

But they had a pretty good pen, and Anderson didn’t mind letting his firemen work, as was the style of the time. The co-closers were Rawly Eastwick and Pedro Borbon. Eastwick threw 107.2 innings across 71 games, with a terrific ERA- of 59. And Borbon threw 121 innings in 69 games, with a 95 ERA-. Borbon and Eastwick accounted for literally 50 percent of the relief innings on the club. (Borbon threw more than 120 innings in six straight years from 1972 to 1977. Eastwick was over 90 innings in 1975, 1976 and 1977. Both were out of baseball after 1981.)

The Reds displayed their dominance most directly by making quick work of their opponents in October, dispatching the 101-win Phillies in three straight games and the 97-win Yankees in four, one of only two World Series sweeps the Yankees have ever suffered. The Phillies, just four years away from the first championship in franchise history, were probably a better team than those Yankees, who were still a year away from acquiring Reggie Jackson and winning the 1977 and 1978 championships.

The 1976 Phillies had Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton at the height of their powers, along with Hall of Very Gooders Jim Kaat and Dick Allen and a fine supporting cast that included Tim McCarver, Tug McGraw, Bob Boone, Garry Maddox, Greg Luzinski and the slick-fielding no-hit shortstop Larry Bowa.

And it wasn’t close. The Reds won the first game behind Gullett, who went eight innings, allowing just a first-inning run, while his offense scored six. Eastwick then came in to pitch the ninth inning of a 6-1 game and gave up two runs, but he got the three necessary outs. In the second game, Pat Zachry went five innings and Borbon went the other four, while the Reds offense scored six to the Phillies’ three.

The third game was the Phillies’ best chance. They scored a run off starter Gary Nolan, then two more off Manny Sarmiento, the first and only reliever in the series Anderson called upon other than Eastwick or Borbon. Sarmiento gave up two runs, and that ended Anderson’s open-mindedness. Borbon came in for the final out of the seventh, and the score was Phillies 3, Reds 0. In the bottom of the seventh, the Reds scored four runs, because that’s what they did.

Anderson turned the ball over to Eastwick to nail down the final two innings. But over the course of getting the final six outs, he gave up his third, fourth and fifth runs of the series. The score was Phillies 6, Reds 4. Then George Foster and Johnny Bench opened the ninth by hitting back-to-back homers to tie the game. After a single and two walks, Ken Griffey strode to the plate and ended the series with a walk-off single.

The Reds went on to outscore the Yankees 22-8 and win a World Series in which only one game, Game Two, was decided by a margin of fewer than four runs. Eastwick didn’t throw a pitch in the Series, and Borbon was called on for just an inning and a half of work. Neither man was needed. Series MVP Johnny Bench got eight hits in 15 at-bats, two of them homers, and the Yankees never had a prayer.

That’s why they called them a Machine. And that’s why Sparky Anderson got the name of “Captain Hook.” If you’re going to win the World Series with a shaky starting rotation, you’d better have a truly dread-inspiring offense. The Reds certainly did. That’s why we remember nearly every one of their starting players — except for their starting pitchers.


Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times.
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tz
6 years ago

Shouldn’t that be the 40th anniversary?

(I don’t think I’ve ever felt as old as when I saw “50th anniversary” of the Big Red Machine….)

Cliff Blau
6 years ago
Reply to  tz

No, since anniversary means “the annually recurring date of a past event”.

Tom Hanrahan
6 years ago

50 is the new 40
other than that, fine article

Kevin
6 years ago

FYI, Gary Nolan was not a rookie in 1976. He was a rookie in 1967

Carl
6 years ago

Hi Alex,

Great article. Couple of minor issues:
1) Gary Nolan was a rookie (3rd in ROY voting in 1967) and was therefore not a rookie in 1976.
2) Don Gullett may be remembered as a pitching coach by younger readers, but older fans remember him as the youngest pitcher to win 100 games, and a cautionary tale of signing free agent pitchers (along w Wayne garland) to big long term contracts.
3) 4 members of the starting rotation (Nolan, Norman, Zachary, and Gullett) all had era+ better than 100, as did 3 members of the bullpen, Sarmiento, Eastwick and Borbon.

Walter E. Kurtz
6 years ago
Reply to  Carl

Great commentary. You probably remember the Yankees getting Gullet as a free agent, one of their earliest purchases. He threw a small number of games, then his shoulder went, if I recall, and his career was over (if memory serves). I well remember the Wayne Garland signing, man, did he cost Cleveland! I’m a strong Yankee fan, and as I wrote some days back, it’s hard for people who didn’t see the Reds to appreciate how great they were!

Morgan
6 years ago

Nolan was far from a rookie in 1976.

Statistics Don't Lie
6 years ago

Gary Nolan was not a rookie in 1976.

Paul Swydanmember
6 years ago

The 50 vs 40 and Nolan mistakes are completely on me. My apologies.

Dennis Bedard
6 years ago

The so called Big Red Machine was somewhat overrated. The dynasty (another overused word from that era) began in 1970 and ended in 1976. 2-2 in WS. In 1973, the vaunted machine lost to the 83-79 Mets in the playoff. They beat the Red Sox in 7 in ’75 and then a very inferior Yankees team in 4 in ’76. Tough to put them in historical perspective but the best I can come up with is that they were in reality a percursor to the 1982 Brewers. The only difference is that the Red players knew how to find the local barber shop.

Greg
6 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard

It’s hilarious that someone thinks this.

Carl
6 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard

5 division titles, 4 pennants and 2 World Series in 7 years is not too shabby. Averaged 97 wins over those 7 years; 3 times in 7 years reached 100 wins, twice with the best record in baseball.

The 1982 Brewers won 1 pennant, and nothing after or before.

Dana Yost
6 years ago
Reply to  Carl

The Reds were excellent for a long time — really from 1969-81 — and well-deserve the dynasty and “machine” labels. They usually had tough divisional competition from the Dodgers (in fact, in 1974, the Reds had one of their best teams of the era and lost the division to the Dodgers), and in one of their more impressive performances prevailed in 1979’s division race over the Astros despite an aging lineup.

But a fact that often surprises me is that the Pirates were nearly just as good in the ’70s, if not as good. Both the Pirates and Reds won six division titles in the 1970s and each won two World Series. (The Reds won four NL pennants in total in the ’70s, the Pirates two.)

The Pirates remade their roster as the decade went on, while the core of the Reds’ lineup (but not pitching staff) stayed intact. We remember the Pirates mostly for the two distinct World Series champions of 1971 and 1979, but they were consistently good throughout the decade. Indeed, both the Reds and Pirates were impressive in their own way, giving their fans a decade of great baseball.

Alex
6 years ago
Reply to  Carl

Really…seriously?? The Reds had MAJOR talent as evident that Bench, Perez, Morgan, are all Hall of Famers. The Reds bench was very good also…Dan Driessen comes to mind. I remember the Reds as a team that you dreaded to play. To say they were not a dynasty is rather narrow minded. When you think of 70’s era baseball…the Oakland teams, the late 70 NY Yankees, and the Reds must be mentioned. Milwaukee…no.

Johnny P
6 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard

Had they played with a three-division format, there’s an excellent chance that they would’ve won their division (which probably would’ve been the NL Central) in 1970, ’72, ’73, ’74, ’75, ’76, ’77, ’78, ’79, ’80, and ’81. That kind of dominance would’ve been perceived as almost-unprecedented in the National League, and they could’ve added more world championships if they had made it in to the playoffs. Hardly overrated.

Walter E. Kurtz
6 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard

Overrated?! Seriously? As close to a perfect lineup, offensively and defensively. You need to get some books regarding great teams, and you STILL can’t really “get it”. I hated them, but they weren’t called a “Machine” for nothing!

87 Cards
6 years ago

Sparky Anderson had an earned reputation as the effective “Captain Hook” and was equipped with a rubber -armed bullpen and starters who got the game to the Borbon, Eastwick, Clay Carroll and Zachary. George Anderson also needs a nod for his faith in is bench and his use of his deep bag of pinch-hitters supplied by GM Bob Howsman.

The 1975 Reds PHs had a 0.4 WAR (Red Sox 0.6 led MLB). Merv Rettenmund from the right-side did a .609 OBP as a PH and Terry Crowley from the left-side rolled a .692 OBP.

In early May of 1975, Sparky disabled a revolving door at third base (John Vukovich, Tony Perez, Doug Flynn, etc) by bringing in Pete Rose from left to the hot-corner; this opened an outfield slot for George Foster to have some noteworthy production and the 1977 MVP in Cincy). I read in Joe Podarski’s book The Machine: A Hot Team, a Legendary Season, and a Heart-stopping World Series: The Story of the 1975 Cincinnati Reds, that Sparky had a strong enough team that he could wait/play mind games until early May while luring Rose to volunteer to plug the hole beside Dave Concepcion.

The 1976 Reds were a team of many jaw-dropping statistics–including the pinch-hitting. The Red’s PHs put up a 1.2 WAR–the Yankees tallied a 0.1 WAR, second in MLB. For 1976, Rettenmund was with the Padres and Crowley was an Atlanta Brave. Dan Driessen equaled Rettenmund’s 1975 OBP of .692 as the right-handed PH. Mike Lum, from the left-side, outdid Crowley in 1975 with his .811 OBP.

The Reds’ reloading of the bench, the Hall-Of-Fame production of Tony Perez and the ascension of Driessen to starting first-basemen kept slugging but strike-out prone left-handed batting 1B Dave Revering in AAA Indianapolis. (In his age 22-23-24 AAA seasons, Revering did 21/27/29 HRs with .842/.934/.952 OBS). He was then protected in the Blue Jays/Mariners Expansion Draft and traded in 1978 to the A’s for innings-eater Doug Bair who posted 28 1978 saves.

Luis
6 years ago
Reply to  87 Cards

Dan Driessen was/is a Lefty…

Eric C
6 years ago

I got Gullett! Mainly because of the Sparky Lyle book, the Bronx Zoo. Great read.

When I see Rawly Eastwick I always think of that book too – here’s an excerpt that made him really memorable:

“Rawly Eastwick is a great explorer in the bullpen. He should have been a treasure hunter. Or a garbage man. In the bullpen he’ll hunt around and find little doodads, and no matter what it is, he’ll give it to me. For no reason. Last week, he found a little piece of copper wire, and he sculpted it into a tiny pair of glasses. He gave it to me, and I pinched it and put it on my nose. I’m going to save all the things Rawly gives me during the year, and at the end of the season I’m going to give them back to him and he’s going to make a sculpture. I told him “Make the sculpture according to what kind of year you have. If it’s horseshit, we’ll make horseshit.”

And then there was the sad line after he got traded: “I guess Rawly’s not going to make that sculpture out of the little things we found during the season. That’s too bad. I was kind looking forward to seeing what he would have made.”

CSW
6 years ago
Reply to  Eric C

I remember Gullet because he was going to the Hall of Fame, but Bill Lee was going to the Eliot Lounge. Unlike Gullett, the spaceman made it there.

BaconBall
6 years ago

You are at least one year, maybe more, behind on the BRM “turning 40.” A better title would have been, “The End of the BRM.”

87 Cards
6 years ago

Luis: I acknowledge my Dan Driessen error and feel shame as he was also an ’87 Card.

Dennis Bedard
6 years ago

I agree that the Reds put up some very impressive numbers during their run. But the reputation and hype don’t match up. When you use a term like the “Big Red Machine,” it conjures images of the Yankees or Packers or Celtics or UCLA basketball or Canadiens hockey. Interestingly, if the Big Red Machine refers only to hitting, then the time frame should start in 1968. In both ’68 and ’69, they led the NL in runs scored, 798 and 690, respectively. Then they one the pennant in ’70 in Anderson’s first year. But the foundation had already been laid. Without combing through the numbers, I remember them in the early to mid 60’s being quite a powerhouse team. Names like Deron Johnson, Vada Pinson, and Frank Robinson come to mind. But I can never remember them every having strong pitching.

Alan
6 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard

The time frame does not start in ’68 because the nickname had not been coined in ’68. As for the rest of this, it’s beyond me how the term Big Red Machine could remind you of ucla basketball. Maybe you were a big pirates fan then and didn’t want to acknowledge how good the reds were?

Gene
6 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard

Well, pitching was not what that team was known for. It was that transcendent offense that you knew could drop 6 runs on you in a heartbeat.

When the ’75/’76 Reds came to town to play your team, you were prepared to be deliriously happy if your team could just scrape one win out of the three games.

It sure seemed like a machine to fans of other NL teams.

Paul G.
6 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard

But I can never remember them every having strong pitching.

That’s not terribly surprising. The Reds historically have not been known for strong pitching. The team career leader in bWAR is Noodles Hahn, the Wins leader is Eppa Rixey with 179, and the winning percentage champ is Don Gullett. They have had great pitching seasons here and there but nothing resembling any sort of consistent greatness. However, their championship teams do tend to be better than 1976.

Marc Schneider
6 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard

I think of the Big Red Machine as being 1970-1976 and I don’t think they are overrated at all. They had good teams before and after but not as good as those teams. I think it’s a bit unfair to say that a dynasty has to be the Yankees or Celtics (the Packers wouldn’t qualify by those standards because their dynasty was 1961-1967). They won two WS but easily could have won in 1970 (when their rotation was racked by injuries by WS time) and 1972, when they lost in 7 games to a team that won 3 straight WS. Of course, they could easily have lost in 1975. This was a great team that, in my mind, deserves the appellation. As a Braves fan, I remember during college coming in from a class one night in the mid-70s, turning on the radio and hearing, “bottom of the 4th, Reds 23, Braves 5.” They had power and speed and great defense. Obviously, they didn’t have great pitching, but it was good enough to dominate the National League at a time when the league was very strong. I always wondered how those teams would have matched up with the Braves of the 90s; offense vs. pitching.

wdr1946
6 years ago

I’ve always thought that the “Big Red Machine” was amazingly
similar to the “Boys of Summer” Brooklyn Dodgers of 1947/49- 1956.
They seem similar at most positions. The Dodgers had good but not
great pitching. After the Dodgers moved to LA after the 1957 season,
New York people almost got the Reds to move to NY to take their
place. Since Ebbets Field was still there, they might have played there
as well, and the 1970s version of the Brooklyn Reds might have been seen
as the reincarnation of the old team.

MCT
6 years ago

Another interesting statistic on the 1975-76 Reds: each season, the team used only 29 players. I don’t know exactly what roster moves they made in 1975, but in 1976, 24 of the 25 spots on their active roster stayed the same all year. The remaining spot cycled through three different pitchers, ending up in the hands of Manny Sarmiento. Two additional players appeared in a handful of games as September call-ups.

There wasn’t as much in-season roster movement back in the ’70s as there is today (in 2015, the average AL team used 49.7 players, the average NL team 49.3; in 1975 and 1976, the averages for each league were in the 36-39 range), but even by the standards of that era, it was very unusual to see a team use as few as 29 players. Before the Reds, no team had done so since 1953, and none has done so since.

87 Cards
6 years ago

Taking the vine from MGT…..In August and September of 1974, Cincinnati brought up 23-year old 2B Junior Kennedy from AAA Indy for 25 games, 19 ABs and one start (game number 1962). In September, the Reds recalled 21-year old Ray Knight for 12 games, 11 ABs and no starts.

Neither player saw MLB action in 1975 or 1976-no September recall to evaluate progress, no short fill-in recall to rest Morgan or Rose; no Rule V or expansion draft exposure; no minor league six-year free agency (not available until 1982); no MLB-service time to free-agency rules to manage; not as trade bait for pitching (Gaylord Perry and Jim Kaat were entering peripatetic but still-effective phases of their careers); the two prospects just played additional seasons in American Association. The 1975 and 1976 Reds were content, to borrow from Johnny Bench’s quote in David Kagan’s article this week on catchers’ knees “ride the nag until it drops”. http://www.hardballtimes.com/the-physics-of-catchers-knees/

A 24-year old Knight got in 80 games for the ’77 Reds. the 27-year old Kennedy got back to the Bigs in 1978 filling in for injured Joe Morgan for 89 games. He spent 1977 as Giants’ property playing entirely for Phoenix of the PCL–“unknown transaction”–then was purchased by the Reds for 1978.

MCT
6 years ago
Reply to  87 Cards

“no Rule V…exposure”

This is probably true, but not because there wasn’t a Rule 5 draft back then. There was; the Rule 5 draft has been around for decades. I’d guess that Knight and Kennedy weren’t eligible for it because the Reds had protected them by putting them on the 40-man roster, just as they would need to do today.

Today, players usually are eligible for the Rule 5 draft after their fourth or fifth professional seasons, depending on what age they signed their first contact. Back then, all players were eligible following their third professional season. I think this is another reason (among many) why there weren’t as many in-season roster moves back then. Most teams had a few spots on their 40-man clogged up with young players who they didn’t feel were ready to contribute in the majors – so they weren’t likely to get called up – but who needed to occupy a 40-man roster spot in order to protect them from the Rule 5. Today, many of these players wouldn’t need to be protected, so they wouldn’t be taking up a spot on the 40-man roster, making the spot available for a more experienced player who might actually get called up.

Another rule in effect back then which placed downward pressure on in-season roster moves, and which I only recently became aware of: if a player was outrighted to the minors (not optioned, but removed from the 40-man roster), he could not be called back up to the majors until one of the following happened: 1) he passed through irrevocable waivers or 2) he was exposed to a Rule 5 draft. So, for example, if a team cut a player who was out of options in spring training and sent him to the minors, they couldn’t call him up again during the season without passing him through irrevocable waivers. Players in this scenario were typically just left in the minors for the season. Players in this situation were sometimes said to be “frozen” in the minors.

Knight’s first professional season was 1971. I am guessing that he became Rule 5-eligible following the 1973 season, and was added to the Red’s 40-man roster at that point as a result. 1974, 1975 and 1976 would then have been his three minor league options, and he had to be kept on the Reds’ 25-man roster in 1977 because he was out of options. Under current rules, Knight would not have needed to be protected from the Rule 5 draft until the offseason following the 1975 season, and would not have been out of minor league options any earlier than 1979.

Kennedy is a bit tougher to figure, as he played his first professional season in 1968, but didn’t play in a major league game until 1974, and didn’t stick in the majors until 1978. He obviously didn’t advance through the ranks as quickly as Knight did. I’ll hazard a guess that he may have been first added to the 40-man roster at the same time Knight was (following the 1973 season), that he had the same three minor league options as Knight (1974, 1975 and 1976), and that his ending up in the San Francisco organization in 1977 may have had something to do with being out of options.

MCT
6 years ago
Reply to  MCT

An alternate theory on Kennedy:

He was added to the 40-man roster for the first time when he was called up to the majors during the 1974 season.

His three minor league options were 1975, 1976 and 1977 (in 1974, it looks like he was never sent back down after being called up, so the Reds wouldn’t have had to burn an option on him that year)

He was loaned to Phoenix of the PCL for the 1977 season, but was never actually the property of the parent Giants organization (this would explain why baseball reference couldn’t find a transaction sending him from the Reds to the Giants)

He had to be kept on the Reds’ 25-man roster in 1978 because he was out of options

Cliff Blau
6 years ago

The 1976 Reds did not use a six-man rotation. Gary Nolan was the number one starter (pitched opening day and the first game after the All-Star break), made 34 starts, and was used every fifth game most of the season. The only times he went 5 or more games between starts, except when there was a doubleheader in there, were the last week of April and the first two weeks of September.
Jack Billingham was the number two starter, starting every fifth game or so except from late June to mid-August, when he was being used in the pen and as a spot starter, apparently due to ineffectiveness.
Don Gullett was hurt a lot, of course. He started the 13th game of the season, and thereafter started every 4th or 5th game until he missed two starts in late May, then three in late June-early July, and finally he was out most of August. The other guys were back and forth between starting and relieving.

Eric
6 years ago

I find this article hilarious from a historical perspective in so many spots, mostly from a pitching angle. Here is a couple:

“The starters certainly weren’t all that effective, and thanks to manager Sparky Anderson, who was known as “Captain Hook” for his quick calls to the bullpen, they didn’t stay in the game all that long. The Reds staff average of 6.27 innings per start was the seventh-lowest in baseball.”

Hilarious because Sparky Anderson gets a nickname out of it, yet in the modern game 5.9 to 6.1 innings per game is all starting pitchers average across both leagues in MLB for a given year anymore!! And that was 7th lowest then!

“But they had a pretty good pen, and Anderson didn’t mind letting his firemen work, as was the style of the time. The co-closers were Rawly Eastwick and Pedro Borbon. Eastwick threw 107.2 innings across 71 games, with a terrific ERA- of 59. And Borbon threw 121 innings in 69 games, with a 95 ERA-. Borbon and Eastwick accounted for literally 50 percent of the relief innings on the club. (Borbon threw more than 120 innings in six straight years from 1972 to 1977. Eastwick was over 90 innings in 1975, 1976 and 1977. Both were out of baseball after 1981.)”

100 innings out of a reliever? Not today, not close ever again! Relief pitchers are lucky if they work 70 innings, mostly 40 to 60 IP in a given year. Of course, gulp! this comment is kinda tragic given it ends with both relievers being out of baseball by 1981. 2 guys with 50% of the relief innings, not gonna happen today.

John Autin
6 years ago

I’ll quibble with this claim: “Pete Rose … was at least as good a player in his prime as Home Run Baker.”
By what measure? “Prime” is a fluid term, but both versions of WAR give Baker at least a 4-WAR edge for best 3-year span and best 6-year span. They rate about even for best 10-year span, but that would be a pretty broad definition of prime.
I enjoyed this article and don’t mean to nitpick. I loved Rose as a player. I just think Baker’s prime was objectively better, and was a bigger piece of the A’s dynasty.

bucdaddy
6 years ago

Got Nolan and Billingham in about three seconds, but then, I hated the goddamn Red Machine for crushing my Pirates’ dreams year after year.

Walter E. Kurtz
6 years ago

For you fans who are too young to have seen the Reds in middle seventies, well, I’ve never seen such an explosive, heady, defensively strong team as they were. Joe Morgan was just mind-blowing to watch, arrogant on the basepaths, disruptive, and smart as hell. I watched them destroy my Yankees in ’76, like a nightmare that never ended. Great, Great Team, that I hated, but man were they something to watch…..

87 Cards
6 years ago

MCT: good work and explanation of the recent evolution of the Rule 5 Draft. I accept that discussion as plausible on the seeming “abandonment” of Knight and Kennedy in ’75 &’ 76. Those roster rules may also help explain why Rettenmund and Crowley were replaced with uncomplicated vets Lum and Driessen instead of gambling on Revering, Knight and Kennedy for bench support.

I am going from childhood memory here (this summer is the 49th anniversary of my birth)—-The Reds offense had a cut-your-heart-out automaticity about them; Anderson and Howsam seem uninterested in changing the pH (pun noted but still valid to my point) of the chemistry of of the 1970s best run-scoring offense.