This being the 40th anniversary of the 1977 Championship season, we are going to be looking back at that team periodically and comparing it to the present-day Yankees. Last week we discussed the lineups. This week we are going to meet the pitchers from the 1977 team and see how their performances compare with their 2017 counterparts through the first 25 games of the season.
Catfish Hunter and CC Sabathia
Jim "Catfish" Hunter made his first MLB appearance as a 19-year-old rookie with the Kansas City A's in 1965, having never played a day in the minor leagues. After the franchise moved to Oakland, Hunter pitched the eighth perfect game in MLB history in 1968. He was a 20-game winner for five consecutive years beginning in 1971, winning the AL Cy Young Award in 1974 after going 25–12 with a 2.49 ERA. The ace of the pitching staff, he led the team to three straight World Series Championships from 1972 through 1974.
"When we started winning in Oakland, Cat was the father of those teams," said longtime friend and teammate Reggie Jackson. "When Catfish pitched, we were going to win the ballgame. He was a special guy for us."
A contract dispute with A’s owner Charlie Finley led to Hunter becoming the first star free agent in the modern era, and he signed a five-year contract worth $3.75 million with the New York Yankees prior to the 1975 season. He didn’t disappoint, finishing second in the 1975 AL Cy Young voting after posting a 23–14 record with a 2.58 ERA. In 1976, Hunter was instrumental in helping the Yankees get back to the World Series following an 11-year absence.
Hunter helped the 1977 Yankees begin their quest for the franchise's 21st World Series title on a high note, hurling seven shutout innings as the Bombers beat the Milwaukee Brewers on Opening Day at Yankee Stadium. Hunter was nearly perfect, allowing only three base runners. The leadoff hitters reached on singles in the first, third, and fifth. Each runner was left stranded, and none advanced beyond first base.
That game took place on April 7, but Hunter would not pitch again until May 5. After spending time on the disabled list with a foot injury, Hunter returned to make his second start of the season against the A’s. He threw a complete game against his former team, but gave up five runs and took the loss.
Hunter was plagued by arm problems throughout the 1977 season and only started 22 games. Sadly, this would mark the beginning of a sharp decline for the future Hall of Famer, and he retired following the 1979 season.
CC Sabathia is the father of the 2017 Yankees. He has been the leader of the pitching staff since Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte retired following the 2013 season. CC became the overall leader in the clubhouse with the departures of Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran last season.
Signed in 2009 to help lift the Yankees to their 27th World Series title, Sabathia delivered in his first season. He was among the top five finishers in AL Cy Young Award voting in each of his first three seasons with the Yankees. Although injuries and ineffectiveness limited Sabathia's contributions on the field from 2013 through 2015, he bounced back last year, posting a 3.91 ERA over 30 starts.
CC had some ups and downs in his quest to reinvent himself last year. He had a tough April, pitching to a 5.06 ERA over four starts. He then started looking like a Cy Young contender again, allowing only four earned runs over his next seven starts (44 innings). He regressed from late-June to mid-August as his home run rate ballooned. He finished the season strong, allowing no more than one earned run in five of his final eight starts and pitching to a 2.37 ERA.
Sabathia's starts have gotten progressively worse thus far in 2017. Following Masahiro Tanaka's shellacking during the Yankees' Opening Day loss, Sabathia stepped up and hurled five shutout innings. He limited Tampa Bay to three hits and two walks as he earned his first win of the season. He took a no-decision in his next start, a Yankees win at Baltimore. He went to 2-0 on the year in his next start versus St. Louis, where he limited the Cardinals to one run on three hits over 7 1/3 innings. Since then, Sabathia has made three straight bad starts.
If Sabathia hopes to build on his successful 2016 campaign, then he will have to pitch better more consistently.
Ed Figueroa and Masahiro Tanaka
Ed Figueroa came over to the Yankees via trade from the California Angels with Mickey Rivers following the 1975 season in exchange for Bobby Bonds. He became a solid number-two starter behind Catfish Hunter, going 19-10 with a 3.02 ERA over 256.2 innings in his first season with the Yankees. He finished fourth in the 1976 AL Cy Young Award voting and received MVP votes.
Figueroa was 28-years-old entering the 1977 season, and he continued his success right off the bat. In his first six starts, he threw four complete games, two of them shutouts. With Catfish injured and inconsistency from fifth starter Ken Holtzman, Figueroa was the rock in the rotation that manager Billy Martin needed early on. "Figgy" remained reliable throughout the 1977 championship run, leading the team in starts (32) and innings pitched (239 1/3).
Masahiro Tanaka signed a seven-year $155 million contract with the Yankees prior to the 2014 season. After signing him, Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman kept referring to Tanaka as a third starter. Everyone knows that Tanaka was signed to be the ace, and that is exactly what he is expected to be. Plagued by injuries, Tanaka has yet to complete a season fully healthy. Tanaka made 31 starts for the Yankees in 2016, his first time hitting the 30 mark.
Describing Tanaka's 2017 campaign thus far as inconsistent would be an understatement. He has gone from one extreme to the other. On Opening Day, he gave up seven earned runs and only recorded eight outs. Four starts later, he threw the finest game of his career, a complete game three-hit shutout at Fenway Park. His other four starts were somewhere in between. To date, Tanaka is 4-1 with a 4.46 ERA and 1.27 WHIP over 36 1/3 innings across six starts.
Tanaka will have to pitch more effectively on a more consistent basis in order for the Yankees to compete this year.
Don Gullett and Michael Pineda
Don Gullett was 26-years-old entering the 1977 season, but was already a seasoned veteran. Having made his MLB debut as a 19-year-old rookie in 1970, the lefty had helped the Cincinnati Reds win five NL West Division titles, four National League pennants, and two World Series Championships. He finished seventh in the NL Cy Young Award voting in 1974 and finished fifth in 1975. In his only start against the Yankees in the 1976 World Series, he gave up one run in 7 1/3 innings, earning the win in Game One. Gullett was signed by the Yankees as a free agent prior to the 1977 season.
Gullett started the 1977 season as a reliable third starter, but later succumbed to injuries and only made 22 starts on the year.
Michael Pineda came over to the Yankees from the Seattle Mariners via trade following the 2011 season. He didn't pitch for the Yankees until 2014 due to injury, and his troubles since then have been well-documented.
Pineda has had difficulty maintaining consistency, both within games and across starts. He has had trouble putting batters away, often pitching to an 0-2 count and then losing them.
Pineda's start to the 2017 season has been his best as a Yankee. He is 3-1 with a 3.14 ERA and 1.05 WHIP over 28 2/3 innings across five starts.
If he continues at this pace, the 2017 season will be his best overall by far.
Mike Torrez and Luis Severino
Mike Torrez was acquired by the Yankees from the Oakland A's via trade on April 27, 1977. The soft-tossing righty was a journeyman known for his consistency and durability. He made 30-plus starts in nine straight years, from 1972 through 1980. He was a workhorse who pitched 270 2/3 innings over 36 starts for the Baltimore Orioles in 1975, and he pitched 270 1/3 innings over 39 starts for Oakland in 1976. He would continue to eat innings upon joining the Yankees.
Torrez's first start with the Yankees took place on May 3, 1977. He gave up one unearned run on one hit over five innings in the Bomber's victory over the Angels at Yankee Stadium.
Torrez would prove to be the final piece that the Yankees would need to put them over the top in 1977.
Luis Severino couldn't be more different from Mike Torrez. The 23-year-old hard-throwing righty hit the ground running when he debuted with the Yankees in 2015. He went 5-3 with a 2.89 ERA over 11 starts to close the year, and his performance was critical to the Yankees winning one of the American League Wildcard spots. Expected to be the fourth starter for the Bombers heading into the 2016 season, Severino got hit hard early and was demoted to the bullpen and eventually to the minors. His assignment was to learn how to throw the changeup effectively and with consistency.
Severino has pitched fairly well thus far in 2017. His worst start was his most recent one, where he gave up five runs (all earned) on eight hits over 5 2/3 innings versus the Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium on May 1. His best start was a seven-inning, three-hit shutout at Boston in his previous outing. To date, Severino is 2-2 with a 3.86 ERA in 32 2/3 innings across five starts.
Severino seems to be mixing in his changeup better this year. If he continues on this track, he will have a good year for the Yankees.
Ron Guidry and Jordan Montgomery
Ron Guidry turned in one of the best single-season pitching performances in MLB history in 1978, when he went 25-3 with a 1.74 ERA, winning the AL Cy Young Award and finishing second in the MVP voting. In 1977, the 26-year-old lefty reported to spring training hoping to make the team. He had appeared in 17 games for the Yankees over the 1975 and 1976 seasons, but got hit hard.
Guidry made the team in 1977 and pitched out of the bullpen early on. Hunter's injury and ineffectiveness by another Yankee rookie, Gil Patterson, led Billy Martin to giving Guidry a chance to start on April 29 against the Seattle Mariners. He was brilliant, limiting the Mariners to seven hits and two walks while striking out eight over 8 1/3 shutout innings. With that start, Guidry joined the Yankees' rotation for good and remained there for 12 seasons.
"Louisiana Lightin'" ended up going 16-7 with a 2.78 for the Bombers in 1977 and led the American League with a 2.73 FIP over 31 games (25 starts).
Jordan Montgomery is another promising, young lefty who will inevitably draw comparisons to Ron Guidry, Whitey Ford, and Andy Pettitte. Entering camp, Montgomery was a long shot to make the Yankee bullpen, but he came out of nowhere to win the fifth starter competition. To date, Montgomery is 1-1 with a 4.15 ERA in 21 2/3 innings across four starts.
Montgomery has pitched fairly well thus far, and it will be interesting to see if he can make strides to follow in the footsteps of his legendary predecessors.
The way bullpens are constructed and managed have changed a great deal since 1977. Back then, teams typically had a single standout reliever who served as both the fireman and closer. This pitcher would enter the game with the team leading as soon as the starter tired, often with runners on base. He would get out of the jam and subsequently finish the game, no matter how many innings were required.
Sparky Lyle was this pitcher on the 1977 Yankees. And he was the best in the business, winning the AL Cy Young Award that year.
Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Tyler Clippard, and Adam Warren combine to fill the role that Sparky Lyle once had. That group has the potential to be the best in the game.
Bullpens were smaller in 1977 and were typically comprised of starting pitching depth. In addition to Lyle, the Yankees featured Dick Tidrow and former starter Ken Holtzman. Rookie Ken Clay would later be added. The present-day Yankees have their bullpen filled out with much livelier arms. They also have bullpen depth on the 40-man roster, so expect them to continue to use it.
Results through 25 games
Here are the stats through the first 25 games of each season:
The 2.80 ERA posted by the 1977 team through 25 games jumps off the page, as does the 28 homers allowed by the 2017 squad. The 2017 Yankees beat their 1977 counterparts in every rate stat besides ERA. It will be interesting to see if that continues. Of note, the 1977 team finished with a 3.61 ERA, good for third in the AL.
We will continue following this story line throughout the season. Stay tuned!