In the divisional era (1969+), only one team has ever put together a perfect postseason. That team was the 1976 Cincinnati Reds, who went 7-0 en route to their 2nd straight World Championship. For that one October, every gear of the Big Red Machine turned perfectly. The World Series paled in comparison to the previous Fall Classic. This one hasn’t been remembered as fondly, but it did feature a walk-off win, a HOF-er dominating in a clinching game, and Billy Martin throwing baseballs at umpires.
The 1976 New York Yankees (97-62) cruised into the playoffs, winning the AL East by 10.5 games. They tied for the AL lead in scoring (4.59 r/g) and had the stingiest pitching staff (3.62 r/g). I use the Juggernaut label a lot, and while I typically refer to teams that average +1.00 r/g in scoring advantage, this one’s close enough. This was the team that put the Yankees back onto the map, their first postseason team since 1964. From 1965-1975, the Yankees managed to finish 2nd only twice, and seven times were in the bottom half of their league or division. It was only a decade or so, but for the Yankees, it felt like an eternity. The ’76 team kicked off a return to Yankee dominance. The team’s best position player was 3B Graig Nettles (.254/.327/.425/ 136 wRC+ / 7.7 WAR), who led the AL with 32 HR and provided superb defense at the hot corner. CF Mickey Rivers (.312/.327/.432 / 123 wRC+ / 5.8 WAR) stole 43 bases (86% rate). LF Roy White (.286/.365/.409/ 132 wRC+ / 5.5 WAR) stole 31 bases and led the team with 104 runs scored and 83 walks. Team captain C Thurman Munson (.302/.337/.432/ 126 wRC+ / 4.8 WAR) paced the team with 105 RBI. 21 year old 2B Willie Randolph (.267/.356/.328/ 106 wRC+ / 4.3 WAR) played top notch defense, stole 37 bases, and was an All-Star. 1B Chris Chambliss (.293/.323/.441/ 126 wRC+ / 3.5 WAR) led the team with 188 hits and 32 doubles, and was responsible for the biggest moment of the season, in Game 5 of the ALCS:
RF Oscar Gamble (.232/.317/.426/ 120 wRC+ / 2.2 WAR) homered 17 times in less than 400 plate appearances. It was a really good lineup. The staff was solid, but much of the run prevention was thanks to a great defense and a suppressed offensive environment. The nominal ace was future HOF-er Catfish Hunter (17-15, 3.53, 298.2 IP, 2.3 WAR). Arguably better was SP Ed Figueroa (19-10, 3.02, 256.2 IP, 1.7 WAR), forming a formidable duo at the top of the rotation. Dock Ellis (17-8, 3.19, 0.3 WAR) was solid by traditional measures but less impressive upon closer examination – he K’d 2.76 per 9 while walking 3.23 and relied heavily on the defense behind him. Ken Holtzman (9-7, 4.17, -0.2 WAR) and Doyle Alexander (10-5, 3.29, 0.6 WAR) rounded out the rotation. The bullpen was particularly strong. Relief ace Sparky Lyle (7-8, 2.26, 23 saves, 103.2 IP, 0.9 WAR) was excellent, as were Dick Tidrow (4-5, 2.63, 10 saves, 1.1 WAR) and Grant Jackson (6-0, 1.69, 1 save, 1.1 WAR).
The 1976 Cincinnati Reds (102-60) were defending champs and playing in their 4th Fall Classic in the decade. They also comfortably won their division by 10 games and had swept the Phillies in the LCS. The Red Machine was all about run-scoring, and at 5.29 r/g, they were by far the best team in baseball at it. They were above average in run prevention at 3.91 r/g, but only barely so. Still, with a per game advantage of +1.38 runs, they were easily a juggernaut of a team. The team’s best player, en route to his second straight MVP award, was 2B Joe Morgan (.320/.444/.576/ 184 wRC+ / 9.5 WAR), who led the league in OBP and SLG, homered 27 times, scored 113, drove in 111, stole 60 bases at an 87% clip, and won a Gold Glove. If you could build a baseball player from scratch, trying to check off every box on the wishlist, you’d likely wind up with 1976 Joe Morgan. Rather unfairly, the Reds were loaded with other great players whose name you know: 3B Pete Rose (.323/.404/.450/ 144 wRC+ / 6.8 WAR) led the team with 130 runs, 215 hits, 42 doubles, and 299 total bases, and strangely was the only member of the starting lineup that didn’t steal at least 10 bases. LF George Foster (.306/.364/.530/ 150 wRC+ / 6.3 WAR) led the Reds with 29 HR and 121 RBI, stealing 17 bases on his own. C Johnny Bench (.234/.348/.394/ 112 wRC+ / 4.4 WAR) wasn’t in MVP form, but he was still very good with 16 HR & 13 SB, and oh, he happened to be Johnny Bench behind the plate, which helps. A lot. RF Ken Griffey (.336/.401/.450/ 144 wRC+ / 4.3 WAR) scored 111 times and stole 34 bases. SS Dave Concepcion (.281/.335/.401/ 105 wRC+ / 4.3 WAR) was the team’s best defensive player, and CF Cesar Geronimo (.307/.382/.414/ 123 wRC+ / 3.1 WAR) had 11 triples and 22 SB. The worst position player was arguably future HOF 1B Tony Perez (.260/.328/.452/ 117 wRC+ / 2.6 WAR), who still drove in 91 runs and doubled 32 times. The position players, 2-9, were as complete a group as any in MLB history. The pitching staff, while near the middle of the league in run prevention, still had its stars. Gary Nolan (15-9, 3.46, 239.1 IP, 2.4 WAR) led the team in starts, innings, and wins. 24 year old Rookie of the Year Pat Zachry (14-7, 2.74, 3.2 WAR) led the team in strikeouts and was the team’s best pitcher. Jack Billingham (12-10, 4.32, 0.0 WAR) was unspectacular, but #4 Fred Norman (12-7, 3.09, 2.4 WAR) performed really well. 5th starter Don Gullett (11-3, 3.00, 1.3 WAR) was impressive. The Reds had a relief ace of their own, Rawly Eastwick (11-5, 2.09, 107.2 IP, 26 saves, 2.3 WAR). While the offense was the story, the pitchers certainly held their own.
Game 1, played in Cincinnati, was the first in World Series history with a DH. For those that don’t remember, MLB didn’t alternate the DH by home park as they do now, but rather by year. Beginning in 1976, even-numbered years had the DH rule in place for all World Series games, while odd-numbered years had none. This lasted 10 years, with the last instance being the DH-less 1985 Series.
In a matchup of pitchers Alexander and Gullett, the Reds got an early 1-0 lead in the 1st inning when who else but the best player in baseball, Joe Morgan, homered. The Yankees’ best, Nettles, answered in the top of the 2nd, however, driving in Lou Piniella on a sac-fly to tie the game. In the bottom 3rd, Concepcion tripled and scored on a Pete Rose sac-fly, giving Cincy the 2-1 lead. That score would hold till the 6th, when Perez singled in Griffey to push the lead to 3-1. In the 7th, the dam broke. Foster led off with a single, and Bench followed with an RBI triple. At 4-1, the Reds knocked Alexander out of the game. Ace reliever Sparky Lyle couldn’t strand Bench, though, allowing him in on a wild pitch. At 5-1, Cincy’s win probability was 98%, and the score would hold. Pedro Borbon relieved Gullett for the final 1.2 innings, giving up nothing, and the Reds were up 1 game to none.
Average leverage: 0.85
With Catfish Hunter going against Fred Norman, many thought the Yankees held the advantage in Game 2. Again, the Reds struck first, getting to Hunter in the 2nd inning. DH Dan Driessen led off with a double and was driven in on a single by Foster. Later in the inning, Concepcion singled in Bench, and Griffey pushed home Geronimo with a sac-fly. The Reds were up 3-0. Norman stumbled in the 4th, allowing an RBI single to Nettles to cut the lead to 2. In the Yankees’ 7th, Randolph led off with a single, and weak-hitting SS Fred Stanley hit a double down the LF line to drive him in, making the score 3-2. Later in the inning, Stanley would score on a Munson groundout, and the game was tied. The Reds had already gone to reliever Jack Billingham, but the Yankees stuck with Catfish, who set down 12 straight batters, and 13 of his last 14 after 8 innings. Hunter took the mound in the 9th, and quickly registered 2 outs. However, Griffey reached on a throwing error by the hero of the 7th, Stanley, advancing to 2nd. After intentionally walking Morgan, Hunter gave up a line drive single to Perez. Griffey scored the walk-off run, and the Reds had a 2-0 Series lead.
Average leverage: 1.305
Game 3, in New York, started off much like Game 2 did. In the Reds’ 2nd, they scored three times off Yankee starter Dock Ellis. Foster drove in Driessen on a ground rule double and later scored on a Geronimo ground ball. Concepcion then pushed home Geronimo with an RBI single. In the 4th, Driessen hit a solo HR to make it 4-0, chasing Ellis from the game. In the bottom half, Oscar Gamble drove in Chris Chambliss on a single to cut things to 4-1. The score would hold until the bottom of the 7th, when Yankee backup SS Jim Mason, playing because they pinch-hit for Stanley in the 4th, homered off Zachry to make it a 4-2 game. Unfortunately, the Yankee progress would be lost the next half-inning. Rose and Griffey started the 8th with back to back singles, and a Joe Morgan double drove in Rose. Reliever Dick Tidrow would eventually load the bases for Foster, who singled in Morgan to make it 6-2. The Yankees made some noise in the 9th, but couldn’t bring home the runners, and Cincy went up 3 games to none.
Average leverage: 0.76
Nolan faced Figueroa in Game 4, and in the bottom of the 1st, Chambliss doubled in Munson to give the Yankees a 1-0 lead, their first lead of the Series. They’d carry the lead into the 4th, where Joe Morgan walked, stole 2nd, and scored on a George Foster single to tie the game. The next batter, Johnny Bench, homered to give the Reds a 3-1 lead. In the 5th, Munson drove in Rivers with a single to cut it to 3-2. The Yankees would get baserunners in the 6th, 7th, and 8th, but couldn’t get anyone in scoring position, much less across the plate. In the 8th, Yankee manager Billy Martin, out of frustration, started throwing baseballs toward the home plate umpire, prompting his ejection (God, I love the 70’s). The 9th proved to be anti-climactic: Bench hit a 3-run homer barely beyond the grasp of Roy White to give Cincinnati a 6-2 lead, and back to back ground rule doubles from Geronimo and Concepcion made it 7-2. Reliever Will McEnaney set the Yankees down in order, and Cincinnati was crowned World Champion for the 2nd year in a row.
Average leverage: 1.16
Average leverage: 1.01875
The Reds became the first NL team to win consecutive World Series since 1922. While the team would win the NL West in 1979, many consider ’76 to be the last great hurrah of the Big Red Machine. Tony Perez was traded to Montreal in the offseason, and Rose and Morgan would be gone by ’79. It was just the start for the Yankees, however – they’d reach the postseason in 4 of the next 5 seasons, appearing in 3 more World Series through 1981.
In my last entry, I used WPA (win probability added) to gauge the MVP contenders for the Series. I thought it’d be fun to do so again. So, by WPA, here were your MVPs for the 1976 World Series (actual MVP listed in bold):
#5: Jack Billingham, +.240: Billingham wasn’t a star during the regular season, and didn’t even make the World Series rotation, but he came out of the pen in Game 2 with a 3-2 lead in the 7th, 1 out, and runners on the corners. While his inherited runner scored to tie the game, Billingham got 2 outs to end the rally. He also gave the Reds scoreless innings in the 8th and 9th, retiring all 8 batters he faced, keeping things even for the 9th inning rally against Catfish.
#4: Will McEnaney, +.293: McEnaney, who had 7 saves and an ugly 4.85 ERA in the regular season, was an unlikely relief hero during the Series. In Game 3, he entered in the 7th, up 4-2 with the tying run on 1st and slugger Chris Chambliss at the plate. McEnaney induced a groundout to end the inning, and would finish out the game with scoreless 8th and 9th innings. In Game 4, he came on again to face Chambliss in the 7th, again with the tying run aboard, and again he got Chambliss to ground out. After that, he retired 6 of the final 7 batters he faced, closing out the game and the Series.
#3: Don Gullett, +.303: Gullett held the Yankees to 1 run on 5 hits and 3 walks over 7.1 innings in Game 1, striking out 4. With 8 men reaching base, Gullett was no stranger to jams, but he continually pitched his way out of them, leading Cincinnati to the Game 1 victory. Gullett was pulled in the 8th with an injury, and after 7 years, 91 wins, and 2 top 10 CYA finishes, this game would be his last in a Cincinnati uniform.
#2: Tony Perez, +.371: Game 2’s walk-off single was the single biggest play of the entire Series, but he helped beyond that, collecting 4 other hits against the Yankees.
#1: Johnny Bench, +.405: The writers correctly named Bench the Series MVP after he led the Reds with 8 hits and 6 RBI, and his 2 Game 4 home runs were both huge. The first, which broke a 1-1 tie and gave Cincinnati a 3-1 lead, was the 2nd biggest play of the entire Series after the Game 2 walk-off, and the second put the final nail into New York’s coffin, turning a 3-2 lead into a 6-2 lead in the 9th inning of the final game.
Least valuable player: Willie Randolph, -.391: The rookie went 1-14 with 3 strikeouts and numerous runners left on base.
*Main List with explanations
Note: Leverage Index is an average of the leverage of situations, with 1 being average, below 1 being low-pressure, and above 1 being high-pressure.