Most of you reading this don’t remember the 1979 Phillies.
Forty years ago, the Phils were in the middle of what was, up to that point, the greatest sustained run of success in franchise history. They had won three straight division titles from 1976-78, but failed to make it to the World Series in any of those three seasons.
In the fall and winter following the 1978 season, the Phillies felt they were missing something, a key ingredient that would help push them over the top and finally get them their first world championship in team history. Unfortunately, that huge free agent addition didn’t help, as injuries and underperformance submarined the season. The ‘79 Phils went 77-85 and finished in 4th place in the NL East.
Unlike that team, this Phillies team is not coming off three straight trips to the postseason. In fact, the Phillies have endured seven straight seasons in which they not only fell short of October baseball, but were one of the worst teams in baseball, having endured a painful rebuilding process.
But coming into this season, the feeling around the team was different. There were some young players with star potential (Rhys Hoskins, Odubel Herrera, Aaron Nola, Scott Kingery to name a few), some intriguing young arms (Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez, Zach Eflin and Seranthony Dominguez), and a huge wallet wielded by owner John Middleton that would help acquire whatever star power they already lacked.
In ‘79, the Phils had one of the best lineups in baseball. Mike Schmidt was one of the five best players in the sport. Greg Luzinski was a bona fide slugger. Larry Bowa was a defensive whiz at shortstop (back when that sort of thing took precedence), Steve Carlton was the best left-hander in the game, and guys like Garry Maddox, Bake McBride and Bob Boone were position players the team had built around.
But that off-season, they went out and plucked the biggest free agent off the board in first baseman Pete Rose. They gave him a four-year, $3.24 million contract that made him the highest paid player in baseball. The Phillies not only wanted the 12-time All Star because he was a career .310 hitter over 16 seasons, but also because he was a two-time world champion and felt his presence in the clubhouse would help out guys like Schmidt, Luzinski and the rest get over the hump.
Last off-season, the Phillies signed Bryce Harper to what was, at that point, the richest total contract in baseball (although it was later dwarfed by Mike Trout’s), only in Harper’s case, he was signed to be this team’s franchise player, not a guy who helped the franchise player get his team to the promised land. They also traded for Jean Segura and J.T. Realmuto and signed Andrew McCutchen to help round out the ‘19 roster.
After Rose and Harper were signed prior to their respective teams, expectations were raised. As noted by Wikipedia, AP Sports Writer Hal Bock picked the Phils to finish 2nd in the NL East behind the Pittsburgh Pirates in ‘79, the team who would end up in first place and eventually become world champs in ‘79. This year’s Phils team wasn’t picked by everyone to win the division, but many, like the 11 ESPN experts who picked the Phillies to win the East, thought they were a 90-92 win team with the ability to win the division.
Like this year’s Phillies, the ‘79 Phils got off to a good start. On May 17, they had a 24-10 record and led the NL East by 3.5 games following the now-legendary 23-22, 10-inning victory at Wrigley Field against the Cubs.
That game would be the high point of the season. The team stumbled a bit after that, although on May 27 they were still tied for 1st. However, starting on the 28th of that month, the Phillies went into a 5-13 tailspin that saw them drop into 4th place for a time.
Also like this year’s Phillies, the ‘79 team suffered a spate of injuries that crippled them as the season went along. Manny Trillo, who was acquired via a trade that previous off-season, got hurt, as did Bowa and Luzinski. Starting pitchers Larry Christenson and Dick Ruthven were also injured.
The team also dealt with a lot of players who underachieved. Luzkinski hit just 18 homers with a 107 OPS+ in 137 games. That was the 2nd-most dingers on the team. Only three other players (Schmidt 154 OPS+, Rose 130 OPS+ and Boone 113 OPS+) had an OPS+ over 100.
Carlton’s 2.4 WAR season was less-than-stellar for him, as was his 3.62 ERA. Randy Lerch and Nino Espinosa were decent (3.74 and 3.65 ERA, respectively), but the injuries to Ruthven and Christenson really took their toll. Tug McGraw had a brutal season as the closer, putting up a ghastly 5.16 ERA. The rotation’s 3.97 ERA was 8th out of 12 NL teams, and the bullpen’s 4.62 ERA was dead last. The next closest was the Dodgers’ 4.12, and they were the only two teams with a bullpen ERA over 4.
The manager of the team, Danny Ozark, was already under the microscope after failing to get his team to the Fall Classic after three straight years of near misses. When the team was still two games under .500 on August 31, the Phils pulled the trigger and fired the man who had been their most successful skipper in ages, replacing him with the fiery Dallas Green.
The 2019 version doesn’t appear close to making a similar in-season decision with Gabe Kapler, although a failure to make the postseason could result in the same fate. Only time will tell.
While the ‘79 Phils weren’t crushed by a number of injuries to one particular area of the team, the losses they suffered that year certainly hurt them. Some of the team’s best players underachieved, and Rose’s presence didn’t catapult the Phillies into first place automatically.
However, we know this story has a happy ending. The following season, the Phils regrouped under Green, made a late-season run for the ages, beat the Astros in the best five-game playoff series in MLB history and won their first ever world championship.
Here’s hoping 2020, the 40th anniversary of that title team, shares that same fate.
On Episode 315 of Hittin’ Season, I talked about these similarities with Yahoo! Sports’ Liz Roscher, dissected the Mets weekend series, and previewed what could be a very difficult month of September ahead for the Phillies. Subscribe, rate and review!