When I was a kid, my dad would always talk about his favorite baseball players growing up. Though he grew up in Washington and became a Mariners fan, Seattle didn’t have a team when he was growing up. He and his brothers and friends had to find another favorite team. They would play a version of wiffle-ball where they chose a team, and had to hit the way the players did — right-handed, left-handed, trying to mimic their stances. My dad always chose the Cincinnati Reds, known in the early-to-mid 70’s as “The Big Red Machine.”
Though I obviously never saw these Reds’ teams play, I felt a connection to them, like I knew something about them anyway. I certainly will always remember the big names that my dad would tell me about — Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Dave Concepcion, Tony Perez, Cesar Geronimo. But, in actuality, I now realize I know next to nothing about these teams. Of course I know about Pete Rose’s career and subsequent ban. I know about Joe Morgan’s elbow-spasm-stance. But I haven’t taken the time to really do much research beyond that, particularly from the analytical perspective I have adopted over the past few years, so I wanted to do that now.
The Big Red Machine pulverized the National League from 1970 to 1976, winning 683 games over that span — an average of 98 wins per season. The team with the most wins over the last six MLB seasons is the Yankees at just 646, 92 wins a season. During the Reds’ era of dominance, the next best team was the Orioles in the American league, and even they were 28 wins behind. So how were the Reds so dominant?
Well, having three future Hall of Famers — Morgan, Bench and Perez — certainly helps. I don’t know precisely how the baseball world, both then and now, sees Joe Morgan, but his numbers indicate he is one of the best players of all-time. He has a 98.8 career WAR, good for 21st all-time overall, 4th among second baseman. It’s a similar story with Bench. He comes in at 43rd all-time in Wins Above Replacement, in addition to being number one among catchers at 74.8. Perez isn’t quite at that level, with a career 58.9 WAR and 121 wRC+, but when you are getting that kind of production from your fourth best player, you are in good shape.
And that’s without even mentioning Pete Rose, who would certainly be in the Hall of Fame if not for his gambling scandal that got him kicked out of baseball. He ranks ahead of Bench in all-time WAR at 80.1, placing him 35th. His overall offense is probably a touch overrated by most due to him having the most hits of all-time (4256), and his career 121 wRC+ ranks outside of the top-200 among players with at least 6000 career plate appearances. He was a compiler, in a lot of ways, but that isn’t a bad thing. There is value in playing over 20 seasons and being an above average hitter in all but four of them.
These four were supported by the likes of Geronimo, Concepcion, Ken Griffey Sr., and George Foster for some or all of those seven years, and all were solid players in their own right. Though Geronimo’s career was pretty mediocre overall, he managed to have his only three above average seasons from 1974-1976, posting 4.3, 3.8 and 3.0 WAR, respectively, over that time. Concepcion spent his entire career with the Reds, and he too had some of his best seasons from 1970-76, with WARs ranging from 2.5 to 5.8, with above-average hitting and defense as a shortstop. Griffey was the youngin’ of the bunch, but was still an on-base machine in ’75 and ’76, posting OBPs of .391 and .401 in each season respectively. Foster, too, came into his own in ’75 and ’76, posting 11 WAR and hitting 52 homer runs over the two years.
This is a kind of lineup that is not often seen in baseball, especially in this day and age. It would require elite player development as well as enough cash to be able to pay the other pieces you weren’t able to develop. The closest thing we have right now might be the Chicago Cubs, and at this point they are just potential. Their absolute best case scenario probably doesn’t even come out to 98 wins a year for seven years, two World Series crowns and three (four) Hall of Famers.
Think about how excited most people are about the potential of that club, and then realize that they probably won’t come close to matching what The Big Red Machine did. It’s hard to fathom. And that might be part of why the team feels special to me, despite the fact that I never saw them play. I know on the surface how great they were. They were essentially unmatched, then or now. I understand that, and yet at the same time it is hard for me to think of a team that is so consistently dominant for over half a decade.
I especially can’t imagine how great it must have been to be a fan of the team then, witnessing greatness, utter domination, including three of the best to ever play the game, year in and year out. It’s something I can only dream of experiencing at some point in my life.