Endless thanks to Eric Seidman of Baseball Prospectus, who devoted his valuable time to supplying with me with the essential data for this post, and introduced me to the wonders of SQL (though, as I begin to immerse myself, I question whether “thanks” is the appropriate term …).
The 1975 Cincinnati Reds were the topic of a recently published novel by celebrated sports journalist Joe Posnanski. In the book, titled The Machine: The Story of the 1975 Cincinnati Reds, Posnanski “… captures all of the passion and tension, drama and glory of this extraordinary team considered to be one of the greatest ever to take the field,” says Amazon.com; however, based on a recent discussion that Mike Francesa had with his listeners on his radio show – Mike’d Up – about the greatest infield-plus-catcher units in baseball history, I decided to take a statistical look at things and discovered how the ’75 Reds arguably boasted the greatest quintet of players to ever take the baseball diamond.
Using weighted Equivalent Average (EqA), total Equivalent Runs (EqR) and Rally’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) data that dates as far back as 1969 for the former two, a likely indubitable argument can be made that Hall of Famers Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, and All-Stars Dave Concepcion and Pete Rose combined to not only lead their 20 teammates to a 108-win season and a World Series victory over the Boston Red Sox but, statistically, became the greatest infield-plus-catcher unit, or Diamond Unit, in the past four decades.
While the aforementioned Reds squad may very well be the greatest Diamond Unit in the past forty years, arguments can be made for almost a handful of other teams. If you go by EqA, the 2009 Yankees are the best; EqR says that the 1974 Reds – with third basemen Dan Driessen replacing Pete Rose of the ’75 team – beats the bunch; Rally’s WAR has the ’75 version of The Big Red Machine as the alpha dog since 1969. While your opinions may vastly differ from mine, I say that the 1975 Reds are the top unit because WAR factors in all aspects of a player’s production – which is something that EqA and EqR do not.
By WAR, here is the leader board for the best Diamond Units since 1969:
The Year of the Green Wood Rabbit: The 1975 Cincinnati Reds – Morgan’s Magnificence
The 1975 Cincinnati Reds – led by a 12-win season by second basemen Joe Morgan – hit to the tune of a .305 EqA and 504.9 EqR, and produced a grand total of 29.4 WAR, a full three wins above the next closest quintet, the 1976 Reds. Morgan, posting career highs in batting average (.327), stolen bases (67, tied with his ’73 mark), on-base percentage (.466), weighted Runs Created (138.2) and wOBP (.463), was the near-unanimous winner for the first of consecutive NL MVP awards (Charlie Hustle stole two votes), and actually stole more bases (67) than he struck out (52). Also, not only did Morgan’s .360 EqA and 136.9 EqR pace the majors, the next closest qualifier (at least 300 plate appearances) for EqA was the Royals’ John Mayberry (.329).
Following Morgan’s stupefying campaign, Hall of Fame backstop Johnny Bench produced an astounding 6.5-win season, which, amazingly enough, is just the fourth-highest mark of his career. Bench, a MVP candidate in any other year (well, more on that later), did not produce any career-high marks but was part of a tremendous offensive trio of catchers that included Oakland’s Gene Tenace (.316 EqA and 107.4 EqR; why is he not in the Hall?) and St. Louis’s Ted Simmons (.311 and 106.4; another questionable HOF exclusion). Although Bench’s .308 EqA trailed both Tenace and Simmons for the lead amongst MLB catchers, he trailed only Joe Morgan for the team lead in what made a devastating two-three combo in Cincinnati’s lineup.
Pete Rose put up a .317/.406/.432 vital in 1975 and his 4.4-win season was just a stepping stone in a 12-year period from 1965-1976 that saw him produce at least four wins above replacement in every season but his 3.6-win campaign in 1970. Rose, known for his trademark hustle on the base paths, produce just two runs above replacement in that regard; and it makes you wonder: how much of that storied hustle actually helped his teams instead of just showing a lot of heart? Earning All-Star and Gold Glove (Total Zone had him as ten runs below replacement, but whatever) honors in 1975, Mr. Hustle was the lone National League player earn any first-place votes in the MVP race, as teammate Joe Morgan deservedly ran away with the title.
In terms of his non-offensive production, Dave Concepcion was a stalwart – his base running and defense made him produce to a level approaching that of a league-average player (17 RAR). However, Concepcion came to the plate 762 times in 1975, and as his .257 EqA and 64.5 EqR will tell you, he was a below-average hitter in every sense of the term. The beauty of analysis is that everything is relative, and in Concepcion’s case, he was among a group of shortstops (Larry Bowa of the Phillies; Bert Campaneris of the Athletics; Chris Speier of the Giants) that could lay claim to being the best offensive performers of that position in the non-Toby Harrah (.398 wOBA) division.
After enjoying a six-year stretch from 1968-1973 in which his WAR ranged from 4.2 to 6.7, Tony Perez’s 1975 campaign saw him deliver a 3.1-win campaign as the weakest link of the Machine’s Diamond Unit. Although this was in the midst of quite a prolonged decline phase, Perez’s 83.7 EqR and .288 EqA placed him in the top 33 percentile in an environment that saw the Royals’ Mayberry pace the field with a .329 EqA, 124.9 EqR and a robust .427 wOBA.