A Look Back

Revisiting Ron Guidry’s 1978 Cy Young season

With the end of season awards announcements fast approaching, it’s time to take a look back in time at some previous winners that represented the New York Yankees.  First up, Ron Guidry‘s phenomenal 1978 season that garnered him a Cy Young Award.

At 5’11” and 161 pounds, Guidry was not an imposing presence on the mound by any stretch of the imagination.  He also got by on just two pitches, a fastball that he could gun up to 95-mph and a sharp breaking slider.  Painting corners was the name of his game and he often got ahead of hitters with the heater and finished them off with a slider that just dipped out of the strike zone.  Louisiana Lightning and Gator were appropriately earned monikers.

Guidry came into the 1978 season on quite a roll as he had helped lead the Yankees to a World Series victory by winning 7 of his last 8 regular season starts and then 2 of his 3 playoff starts.  After having struggled as a starter before the 1977 season, the Yankees front office saw Guidry’s future as the heir apparent to closer Sparky Lyle.  Ironically, it was Lyle that taught Guidry the slider that made him so effective and pushed him back into the rotation.  Lyle held on to his fireman role and won the 1977 American League Cy Young.

Early in 1978, Guidry was the main piece keeping the Yankees afloat.  Despite his win against Detroit on June 22nd pushing his record to 12-0, the Yankees still found themselves 7 games back of the Red Sox and in third place.  This was not only the stuff of a Cy Young candidate, but an MVP candidate as well.

There are many highlights to point at when speaking of the season Guidry had in 1978.  25 wins.  A number that has only been surpassed once (Bob Welch, 27, 1990) since is quite a total, especially when you consider that  20 wins is becoming more of a rarity.  3 losses.  An .893 win percentage for starting 35 games is astounding.  I could go on and on about eye popping numbers. 16 complete games, 9 shutouts, 273 innings pitched, an ERA of 1.74, and an ERA+  of 208 (100 being considered league average), 18 strikeouts in one game against the California Angels, 248 strikeouts for the season.  All of these are definitely numbers that would be the epitome of a Cy Young winner.

Digging a little deeper into the numbers, the thing that really stands out to me is the way that Guidry essentially picked the rest of the Yankees up on his shoulders and carried them through the home stretch.  Not to take anything away from his torrid start to the season, but his September and consequently October in ’78 was the stuff of legend.

With the Yankees trailing the Red Sox by 6.5 games to start September, Guidry was lights out the rest of the way.  Of his 6 starts that month, he won 5 of them, with 5 complete games and 3 shutouts.  2 of the 3 shutouts came in back-to-back starts against the Red Sox near the middle of the month.  And for good measure, he started the one-game playoff against the Red Sox on October 2nd, pitching on 3 days rest and picking up the win.  Talk about pitching in the clutch.  Guidry was money that month and nearly single-handedly erased the 6.5 game deficit the team had faced.

Guidry would come out of the 1978 season with a large thumbprint on the Yankees record book.  He would end up with the highest single-season winning percentage, lowest ERA for a left-handed pitcher, most shutouts for a season, most strikeouts in a game and for a season.

Not to stop there, but he then went out and pitched 8.0 innings of 1-run baseball against Kansas City in the ALCS and then threw a complete game against the Dodgers in the World Series.  That made back-to-back World Series with complete games against the Dodgers for the lefty.

These are all great numbers, but what is most impressive to me and seemingly overlooked is the total domination from Guidry in consecutive years during the month of  September.  Put 1977 and 1978 together and he pitched 99.3 innings and went 10-2, giving up just 11 earned runs.  That’s a 0.99 ERA.   9 out of his 12 starts were complete games.  5 were shutouts.  In 1978, Guidry had already pitched 230 innings coming into September and was so dominant that he lowered his ERA from 1.88 to 1.72 by the end of the month.  You have to be lights out for that to happen.

Jim Rice of the Red Sox won the AL MVP in 1978 and deservedly so.  Rice led the league in hits, home runs, RBIs, total bases, and OPS+.  Rice’s  406 total bases were the most since Joe DiMaggio in 1937.  Typically, in that era, the only time a pitcher won the MVP was in a season with no real standout offensive performers.  That was certainly not the case here, Guidry’s numbers notwithstanding.  Guidry (9.1) did have the advantage over Rice (7.5) in WAR and i’m sure that writers had to take into account the Red Sox late season plummet to make it a very interesting vote.

Guidry’s 1978 performance was one of the top seasons by any pitcher in New York Yankees history.  To top it off with a second World Series title in a row was simply fabulous.  Add in the dramatics of a season of overcoming clubhouse in-fighting, one of the most amazing mid-season turnarounds for a team in baseball history, and winning a Game 163 tie-breaker and it was certainly a season for the ages.  Guidry has the Cy Young Award to prove it.

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