Over all the years I’ve watched baseball, the 1980 NLCS is still the most exciting playoff series I’ve seen. There have been some other fine series’ and a number of very good World Series contests (especially 1991), but for sheer sustained suspense there’s nothing to match this set of contests between the Houston Astros and the Philadelphia Phillies.
The Astros finished second in 1979, but in 1980 managed to tie the Los Angeles Dodgers for the West Division title. A one game playoff sent them on to the NLCS. Manager Bill Virdon, the old Pirates center fielder, was in his sixth (fifth full) season at the helm. With him in charge, the Astros (with a one season hiccup in 1978) managed a steady climb to a division title. The 93 wins was a team record.
The infield consisted of former utility man Art Howe (later A’s manager and a major figure in both the Money Ball book and movie) at first, Hall of Famer Joe Morgan at second, Enos Cabell at third, and Craig Reynolds at short. Howe’s status as a utility man meant he only had 77 games at first (and just over 30 at the other three infield slots). He hit .283 with 10 home runs (his only season with double figure homers), 46 RBIs, a 129 OPS+, and a 1.8 WAR. Morgan was at the end of his career. he hit only .243, but had 11 home runs and 24 stolen bases (with six caught stealing). As usual he walked a ton (a team leading 93 walks), had a good OPS+ (115), and fifth on the team (fourth among hitters) with 3.6 WAR. Cabell contributed 21 home runs and hit .276, but only had a 90 OPS+ and a -0.2 WAR. Additionally he wasn’t much of a third baseman. Reynolds, on the other hand, was a pretty good shortstop. In 135 games he managed only 17 errors (about dead in the middle of the league). He hit only .226 with neither power nor speed, but did manager a positive WAR of 0.5. From the bench Danny Heep, Denny Walling, and Dave Bergman spelled Howe at first. Walling got all three homers the trio provided, 29 of 38 RBIs, and led the group at .299. Their combined WAR was 2.9 (with Walling leading the pack at 0.9). Rafael Landestoy did most of the backup work for the other infield positions, hit .247, but stole 23 bases (and was caught 12 times), and produced 1.4 WAR.
The heart of the offense was the outfield. Terry Puhl held down right field and led the team in WAR with 6.2. He hit .282 with a team leading 13 home runs (it was the Astrodome after all).His 55 RBIs tied for third on the team, as did his 27 stolen bases. He had a 124 OPS+. Cesar Cedeno patrolled center field and led the starters with an OPS+ of 147 (5.0 WAR). He hit .309, had an OPS of .854, 73 RBIs, 154 hits, 48 stolen bases, and 10 home runs. The OPS, average, and stolen bases led the team. Jose Cruz was in left field. He hit .302, had 11 home runs, a team leading 91 RBIs, 36 stolen bases, and managed to led the team with 185 hits. His OPS+ was 127 and his WAR topped out at 4.8. The 24 year-old backup was Jeffrey Leonard. He hit only three homers and had 20 RBIs to go along with a .213 average. He was not yet the slugger he became at San Francisco.
Alan Ashby did the bulk of the catching, logging 116 games. He hit .256, scored 30 runs, and knocked in 48. His backup was Luis Pujols who hit all of a buck 99. Way down the list of everyday players was current Giants manager Bruce Bochy who, at 25, caught 10 games.
They caught a staff that was supposed to be the strength of the team. Joe Niekro was the ace. He went 20-12 with an ERA of 3.55 (ERA+ 93). His WHIP was 1.355, and he gave up more hits than he had inning pitched. His WAR was 0.9 (hardly inspiring for an ace). Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan had a standard Nolan Ryan year. His record was one game over .500 (11-10), his ERA was in the mid-threes (3.35) with an ERA+ of 98. He walked 98 and struck out 200. He finished second in strikeouts (in the previous eight years he’d finished 1st seven times). The 200 strikeouts were second on the league (by 86 to Steve Carlton). Ryan’s WHIP was 1.297 and his WAR 1.5. Verne Ruhl was 12-4 with a 2.37 ERA (ERA+ of 139), a 1.111 WHIP (3.2 WAR), but only 55 strikeouts in 159 innings. Ken Forsch had a losing record at 12-13, but a 3.20 ERA (103 ERA+). He’d also given up more hits than he had innings pitched, helping result in a 1.219 WHIP and 2.6 WAR. Which brings me to J.R. Richard. He should have been the ace, maybe the best pitcher in baseball, but his health caught up with him. On 30 July he collapsed with a stroke, effectively ending his career. Any speculation as to how much he might have helped Houston in the rest of the regular season (or playoffs) is just that, speculation. Swingman Joaquin Andujar took his place, starting 14 games. He put up a 3.91 ERA (ERA+ of 84) with a 1.434 WHIP and 0.0 WAR.
Joe Sambito held down the closer spot. In many ways he was a typical reliever of the era. He had 17 saves in 64 appearances and pitched 90 innings (just under one and a half per outing). His ERA was 2.19 with an ERA+ of 151 (2.0 WAR), and he struck out 75 with a WHIP of 0.963. Both Dave Smith and Frank LaCorte picked up double figure saves with Smith posting an ERA+ of 171. At 2.6 his WAR was actually higher than Sambito’s and by the end of the regular season he was doing as much closing as Sambito.
Although a good team, the 1980 Astros were flawed with a weak hitting infield and few quality pitchers. They’d taken an extra game to win the West and few chose them to win the pennant. They faced Philadelphia in the NLCS>
Tags: 1980 Houston Astros, 1980 NLCS, Alan Ashby, Art Howe, Bill Virdon, Bruce Bochy, Cesar Cedeno, Craig Reynolds, Danny Heep, Dave Bergman, Dave Smith, Denny Walling, Enos Cabell, Frank LaCorte, J.R. Richard, Jeffrey Leonard, Joaquin Andujar, Joe Morgan, Joe Niekro, Joe Sambito, Jose Cruz, Ken Forsch, Luis Pujols, Nolan Ryan, Rafael Landestoy, Terry Puhl, Verne Ruhl