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The 1975 Cubs: The contender that could have been...

... if only they’d had better pitching and defense.

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I thought it might be nice to take a break from talking about MLB’s labor dispute to discuss a bit of Cubs history that has always intrigued me.

I’ve mentioned the 1975 Cubs in various historical contexts here, and it occurs to me that I’ve never done a deep dive into this team, which had a lot of good hitters and finished third in the National League in runs scored.

The reason they wound up with a 75-87 final record and fifth-place finish was a dreadful pitching staff that allowed 827 runs. In fact, that was so many runs that their Pythagorean projection W/L record, based on runs scored and allowed, was five games worse than what they actually did: 70-92. That hints at a lot of blowout losses, which we’ll see.

The Cubs of 1974 were a bad team, losing 96 games, at the time fourth-most in Cubs franchise history. This wasn’t really a surprise as after 1973, the core of the great late 1960s/early 1970s teams was broken up and traded away and the team was rebuilding with younger players. Some of those players turned out to be stars, including Bill Madlock, though as was somewhat common in those days, Madlock too was traded away.

The team didn’t make too many moves in the 1974-75 offseason. The only real significant deal affecting the ‘75 team was the trade of Dave LaRoche and Brock Davis to Cleveland for Milt Wilcox. (Again, Wilcox became a guy who would have much success after leaving the Cubs.)

The Cubs lost to the Pirates on Opening Day, then roared into first place by winning seven in a row. They expanded that record to 11-4 by defeating the Cardinals April 26 and led the NL East by three games. The lead inched up to four games when they won seven of 11 after that to get to 18-8, and I remember a day near the end of my freshman year of college when, after a 4-2 win over the Astros, someone cut the NL standings out of a newspaper and taped them to my dorm door. The Cubs were 20-10 and 3½ games ahead. They had scored 151 runs and allowed 120 to that date, not too much different from the NL West-leading Dodgers (167/120). (Wish I had saved that standings page.)

At that point Steve Stone had an ERA of 1.15, though the rest of the rotation was struggling. Rick Reuschel, staff stalwart, was at 5.65, Bill Bonham 4.00 and Ray Burris 3.86. But all of that was enough for the Cubs to post a record 10 games over .500 despite allowing four runs per a game. For some reason, the Cubs didn’t use Wilcox as a starter at all that year — he made 25 relief appearances in between stints at Triple-A Wichita — and the following year he was sold outright to the Tigers, where he pitched well for nearly a decade and won a World Series ring in 1984.

Sigh. Anyway, the ‘75 Cubs managed to stay in first place until a four-game sweep at the hands of the Reds dumped them into second place starting June 7, and it was around this time that the pitching staff began to give up tons and tons of runs. From June 4 through July 9 the Cubs went 12-28 and lost games by scores of 10-8, 18-11, 11-3, 12-6 and 18-12. I remember that 18-12 game well, it was to the Pirates and even though the Cubs had 18 hits and a pair of homers (Jerry Morales, Rick Monday), the pitchers just kept getting pounded over and over and over, and we should name names: Bonham, Ken Frailing, Eddie Solomon, Oscar Zamora and Darold Knowles.

Ah, yes. Zamora. He’d had a pretty good year as a 29-year-old rookie in 1974 (3.12 ERA, 1.207 WHIP, 2.8 bWAR) but was just atrocious in ‘75, with the ERA ballooning almost two runs (5.07). He served up 17 home runs in just 71 innings.

Which led to this little piece of bleacher doggerel, sung to the tune of “That’s Amore”:

When the pitch is so fat
That the ball hits the bat
That’s Zamora!

Knowles, you know about from my “10 worst pitching bWAR seasons” article from last week. This was a guy who had been a World Series hero only two years earlier, but in ‘75 he was just horrific for the Cubs, with seven blown saves in 22 opportunities and a 5.81 ERA. He allowed two or more runs in a relief outing 19 times in 58 appearances and, as I noted last week, we nicknamed him “The Torch” for seemingly always making a bad situation worse.

By the All-Star break the Cubs were 42-49 and 14½ games out of first place, meaning they’d gone 22-39 since that 20-10 start, which was obviously a mirage with that awful pitching staff.

Manager Jim Marshall actually had a pretty good offensive weapon in Andre Thornton, who hit .293/.428/.516 with 18 home runs. And yet, Marshall would often sit Thornton for Pete LaCock. Inexplicable. If Thornton had just 29 more PA with that .428 OBP, that would have finished second in the National League to Joe Morgan (.466, and an MVP award). This was, of course, long before most baseball people thought of OBP as a weapon and the Cubs were years behind the time. Don Kessinger, who was reaching the end of his usefulness as a hitter, led off in 137 of the 162 games while posting an OBP of .317. Aaaaargh, says the 2022 MLB fan, what the heck were they doing? The fact is that the Cubs were being run like it was 1950 and they just didn’t know any better. (Not only that, the Cub with the second-most games at leadoff was bit player Rob Sperring, who hit .208/.288/.271.)

Even with that lousy lineup construction, the Cubs scored tons and tons of runs. They drew 650 walks, which was second in the National League (Reds led with 691), and also set a franchise record which stood until 2016. Thornton drew 88 walks — no Cub would have more until Gary Matthews drew 103 in 1984. Look at these OBPs for starters — after Thornton’s .428, Bill Madlock’s was .402 (fifth in the NL), Jose Cardenal’s .397 (sixth) and Rick Monday’s at .373. The team OBP of .338 was third in the NL behind the Reds and Phillies. Madlock wound up winning the first of two consecutive batting titles, hitting .354, which is the highest BA for any Cubs hitter since 1945 (Phil Cavarretta hit .355 for the pennant-winning ‘45 Cubs). Only three Cubs who qualified for the batting title have even hit .330 or better since 1975: Madlock in 1976 (.336), Mark Grace (.331 in 1996) and Derrek Lee (.335 in 2005).

All of that produced 712 runs, which was third-best in the league behind the Reds and Phillies. If the Cubs’ pitching staff had allowed a league-average number of runs (668), that would (by Pythagorean method) produced a W/L record of 86-76. That wouldn’t have won the NL East, but it would likely have kept the Cubs in contention most of the year, as the Pirates took the division with 92 wins.

Instead, the pitching just got worse. The Cubs were 33-38 after the All-Star break, which isn’t terrible, but again they were losing games even while sometimes scoring buckets of runs: 10-2, 13-5, 12-8, 14-12 (in that one, the Cubs had back-to-back six-run innings and still lost), 11-4, 13-7 and the pièce de resistance, the 22-0 loss to the Pirates September 19 that set a record for worst shutout in MLB history (it’s since been tied, once). In that game, Pirates second baseman Rennie Stennett set a modern MLB record with seven hits in a nine-inning game. Here’s the seventh hit, a triple that got by Cubs right fielder Champ Summers:

The final week of the season saw the Cubs nearly have a no-hitter thrown against them by Tom Seaver, only to win 1-0 in 10 innings.

Overall the Cubs pitching staff allowed 827 runs, which was the most in the National League — by 88!

John Holland, who had been Cubs GM since 1957, was clearly past his sell-by date. He was “reassigned” at the end of the season and the Cubs named E.R. “Salty” Saltwell as GM. Saltwell had been on the business side of the team and was derisively called by some a “peanut vendor.” With little baseball ops experience he made some particularly bad trades, including the swap of Thornton to the Montreal Expos for Larry Biittner and Steve Renko in May 1976 — this, likely, as a reaction to the bad pitching staff of ‘75 and an 11-16 start in ‘76. This was typical Cubs behavior from the 1950s on — always fighting the previous year’s battles.

It’s too bad. With better management decisions both on and off the field, the 1975 Cubs could have possibly contended all year in the NL East.