Flashback Part 2): The Wrecking of the 1978 Indians

Note: This is part two of a three-part piece. Here’s part 1 and part 3.

The arbitrator’s ruling blew a hole in the Indians’ plans for 1978. They had gone 71-90 in 1977 (one of their better years) and the 1977 staff had been the strength of the team.

Partly that meant the Indians had finished ninth in runs scored (4.19 runs a game) but only seventh in ERA (4.10). But largely it meant that the staff had some structure– honest-to-god players they thought they could rely on.

OK, reality check time. The Indians wouldn’t have won anything in 1978. They had Duane Kuiper (one of the worst players ever to play 1,000 games) and Tom Veryzer (who missed that club only because he played 996 games) as their keystone combo. Rick Manning, who had suffered a major injury, was now a no-hit, good-field player. The left fielder was Johnny Grubb; the right fielders Paul Dade and Jim Norris.

Other than Andre Thornton, nobody could hit for power. Other than Mannting and Buddy Bell, nobody could field. If you plug in the wins above replacement values for  Bibby and Dennis Eckersley– replacing Rick Wise and Mike Paxton, the Indians still aren’t over .500. The 1978 team blew big baby chunks. Period. End of point.

The bullpen featured 28-year-old closer Jim Kern. He had an 8-10 record, a 3.42 ERA, 91 strikeouts in 92 innings and and 18 saves in 26 opportunities. That wasn’t half-bad, given (a) how rarely the Indians won, and (b) how relief aces were handled back then.

Pop Quiz: Kern made 60 appearances and pitched 92 innings (yes, 92, they did that back then). Guess, within 10, the number of runners he inherited.

Did you say 21? No, that’s the number of inherited runners who scored. He inherited 67.

Plus, they were the Indians. Let me recount one blown save. On April 10, the Indians have a 3-1 lead going into the seventh. Dwight Evans singles and Frank Robinson goes to Kern. So he only needs three innings for a save.

On Kern’s first pitch to Carlton Fisk,  catcher Ray Fosse commits a passed ball to put Evans at second. Kern issues a semi-intentional walk. With Butch Hobson up, Kern picks Fisk off first– but Andy Thornton lets the ball go through him. Evans goes to third, Fisk to second.

Kern gets Hobson to fly to Jim Norris in right. Norris throws home (missing the cutoff man). So not only does Evans tag and score– Fisk advances to third. Then, on a groundball to Duane Kuiper, Fisk scores.

40 years later, I’m still pissed about that. Carlton Fisk won no Olympic gold medals in the 100-meter dash. As a matter of fact, if you put Carlton Fisk on a 100-meter track covered in freshly-poured concrete and instructed him to run to safety at the end of the the distance, the odds are that the concrete would harden before Fisk reached the finish line.

This was the sort of baseball the Indians played in the 1970’s.

If you never saw Kern, imagine a righthanded Andrew Miller tripping on mushrooms, or maybe Tim Robbins in the first reel of Bull Durham. Kern threw hard and hitters were scared of him, because he threw so hard. His partner was supposed to be lefty Dave LaRoche, who’d had 21 saves in 1976 and made the All-Star game. But when he struggled– and his contract was coming up– so the Indians traded him for Bruce Bochte and Sid Monge (Neither of which worked well.)

The Indians also had lefty Don Hood, Tom Buskey (who had been the closer a few years back and a 24-year-old they couldn’t seem to find room for: Larry Andersen (yes, that one).

The rotation had two veterans competing for the #5 spot. 35-year old Pat Dobson‘s time was past. He’d gone 3-12 with a 6.14 ERA and would be released on April 14. But 35 to Gabe Paul was young.

There was also 31-year-old Al Fitzmorris (discarded by the Royals after a string of good years). The Indians traded catcher Alan Ashby– who had failed four trials, and was clearly washed up at the age of 24 (he played his last major league game at 37)– to get Fitzmorris and he posted a 6-10 record with a , 5.41 ERA in 1977. But the Indians hoped for better things.

Aside from those shopworn veterans, the 1978 Indians had four starters– two young, one old and a star in his prime. Eckersley— whom Bob mentioned– was one. He’d been a starter in the minors, than broke in with the Indians as a reliever… and given how his career progressed, might have been mistakenly shifted to starter.

Another was a 25-year-old lefty (who’d come with Bibby in the trade for Gaylord Perry) named Rick Waits. He spent the first 21 games in the bullpen, then started 16. He finished 9-7 with a 3.99 ERA– not bad for a rookie.

Bibby was the third. He was 32, but he could still bring it. Pitching coach Harvey Haddix had cleaned up his delivery, gotten him to work on some breaking stuff and gotten him to the point where he was productive. Bibby went 13-7 in 1976 (with a 3.20 ERA, best of his career), and he’d pitched in what they called “hard luck” in 1977: 12-13, but a 3.57 ERA.

Nowadays we’d look at his game logs in 1977 and see that the Indians scored only 4.25 runs a game for him. Not much chance a guy with a 3.57 record will do a lot better than .500. He won a 1-0 game, two 3-1 games, a 4-2 game– and his losses included games where he lost 2-1 (twice), 4-3 (twice), 5-3 (twice) and 5-4. Many of those were complete games (he had 9 that year)

The Indians (who thought exactly like Paul Hoynes still does) considered close losses grievous personal failures on Bibby’s part. They expected him to do better.

But the guy they were really counting on in 1978– the pitcher supposed to be the ace of their staff– their big free agent signing– 10 years at $230,000 a year– was 26-year old Wayne Garland.

Garland hadn’t come close to his 20-win season with Baltimore in 1976 (20-7, 2.67 ERA). He won 13 and lost 19 with an ERA almost a run higher (3.60) in 1977.

But he had made 38 starts, completed 21 games and pitched 282.1 innings, and one could hope he would come back.

One comment: O*U*C*H*

Looking at those numbers with 40 years of hindsight– knowing all that we know now about the care and feeding of pitchers’ arms– what happened to Wayne Garland isn’t a mystery (except maybe to Paul Hoynes). Nor is it part of Terry Pluto’s curse of Rocky Colavito. It’s simply an example of a team that understood nothing about baseball doing its thing.

The Indians’ manager in 1977 (Frank Robinson) had played for Earl Weaver and had adopted most of his idea– including Weaver’s belief that the four-man rotation was still acceptable. It wasn’t– not in the American League, anyway. The introduction of the DH meant that:

  • 11% of the outs in a game– which had almost all been easy (pitchers hit around .120)– were now very difficult. The DH was often the best hitter on the team.
  • Pinch-hitting for the pitcher– which had been a natural way of controlling excessive use– had vanished.

Before the DH, if the team was down 4-1 in the fourth, with two men on and the pitcher coming up, anyone except the staff ace would get removed for a pinch hitter. It gave starters a break, which saved wear and tear on their arms.

After the DH– when a manager could use a pitcher as long as he wanted to– the possibility of overuse ballooned. The number of major arm injuries from 1973-77 skyrocketed. Eventually managers figured out that the Dodgers’ 5-man rotation (which they adopted to keep pitchers safe) was necessary. Free agency– which drove the cost of a rotator cuff injury into seven figures– also helped.

That realization came far too late for Garland. He tried his best, but his career was over.

One last thought about Garland. If you look at his 1976 stats, you see that he pitched 232.1 innings and struck out only 113. When you see someone strike out 4.4 men per nine-inning game (which is low), it’s a safe bet that one of two things is true– he’s either a fluke, or he throws a lot of ground balls.

Looking at Garland’s game logs for 1976,  you see that he got 303 ground balls in 976 batters faced– and that in his best games, he got an even higher total. Garland made 38 appearances in 1976– 25 starts and 13 relief appearances.

In 13 of Garland’s 25 starts, opposing batters hit at least 10 ground balls (counting both hits and outs). He went 10-2 in those games, with a 2.15 ERA– substantially better than his full-season totals (20-7, 2.67).

One reason Garland got such strong results was what happened in Baltimore when a pitcher got a ground ball. The defensive infield working behind Garland in 1976– his big year– was:

  • 1B Lee May. He built his reputation as a hitter, but he finished in the top 10 in defense in 9 different defensive categories during his career
  • 2B Bobby Grich: He came up as a shortstop, but got switched to second base, because the Orioles already had one. He won four Gold Gloves at his new position.
  • SS Mark Belanger: I still don’t agree with Weaver’s decision to swap Grich. I would have traded Belanger. But he won eight Gold Gloves– the Orioles didn’t lose anything on defense.
  • 3B Doug DeCinces: He wasn’t Brooks Robinson– and there was no way he was going to win Gold Gloves with Graig Nettles around. But he was a fine fielder who finished in the top 10 in eight categories during his career.

Garland also had Dave Duncan and Rick Dempsey– two excellent defensive catchers– calling his pitches, and his outfield was Ken Singleton, a platoon of Al Bumbry and Paul Blair in center and right fielder (for one year, while he played out his contract) Reggie Jackson.

You go from that to Andy Thornton (dismal at that time, as his performance in the Kern blown save showed), Duane Kuiper (OK at best), 30-year-old Frank Duffy (a hair above average) and Buddy Bell (the only genuinely good fielder of the lot) and it’ll hurt any groundball pitcher.

I said I’d do Jim Bibby; Garland is a bonus, Bob.

Note: This is part two of a three-part piece. Here’s part 1 and part 3.

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