- The Red Sox are on the verge of clinching the AL East, but gaze into the statistics and you'll discover remarkable similarities between the famous 1978 season.
This week, SI will release 14 Back, Jon Hock’s stirring documentary about the Yankees’ furious comeback from that deficit to the Red Sox in the standings late in the summer of 1978. To sign up for SI TV, click here.
First, a caveat: There is no good comparison for the 1978 American League pennant race, because there’s never been anything quite like the 1978 American League pennant race. The fact that any team, in any fashion, could manage to come out on top after being 14 games back as late as midsummer is remarkable enough; the fact that it was these New York Yankees against those Boston Red Sox, with that performance by Bucky Dent? Even Bobby Thomson’s1951 Shot Heard ‘Round the World saved a Giants team whose lowest point dropped them just thirteen games back, after all. So, no, there isn’t any real match to be found. But if you’re searching for another race with similarly well-matched squads from Boston and New York—well, you could do much worse than 2018.
Right now, of course, it sounds ridiculous to suggest that any team could be a match for the Red Sox. Over the last month, the team has gotten hot enough to flirt with historic franchise greatness. The Yankees have, conveniently, spent most of the same period stricken by injuries. Boston’s lead reached ten-and-a-half games in August, and it could potentially get even bigger here down the stretch. But rewind to just before the All-Star Break. The Red Sox had baseball’s best offense, an .801 OPS. The Yankees were just a breath behind, at .793. Their strikeout-to-walk ratios were near identical, 0.43 to 0.42.
On the other side of the ball, the two teams were even closer. Their pitching staffs’ strikeout rates were almost the same (Boston’s 9.72 per nine innings to New York’s 9.92) and so, too, were their walk rates (3.03 to 3.04). They sat side-by-side in ERA (3.59 to 3.48) and FIP (3.60 to 3.65), as the second- and third-ranked American League teams in each metric. Dig further into the stat sheet, and the teams’ lines blur together more—not just in terms of their stellar results, but in terms of how they got them. The Red Sox and Yankees allowed almost the exact same proportions of groundballs (43.6% to 43.4%) and flyballs (36.7% to 35.8%), and hitters pulled the ball just as often against each team (40.0% to 40.2%). They were, in short, as close to a perfect match as any two teams can be. By the numbers, Boston and New York were almost exactly the same, with complimentary strengths and very few weaknesses.
But baseball goes by more than the numbers, and so the second half of the season has told a very different story. Through July, though? The 2018 Red Sox and Yankees were just about as well-matched as ... the 1978 Red Sox and Yankees. Like their modern counterparts, those squads had nearly identical offenses, with Boston’s 104 OPS+ just a hair above New York’s 103. They even finished the season with precisely identical batting averages, .267. Meanwhile, Boston had the best pitching in baseball, with a 118 ERA+; New York had the second-best, at 115. The similarities ran all the way down to the fact that their No. 5 starters—Jim Wright and Catfish Hunter, respectively—had almost the same ERA, 3.57 and 3.58.
The ‘78 Yankees’ low point came on July 17. They’d lost in extra innings to Kansas City, thanks to a nightmarish blown save from Goose Gossage. It was a bad night, soon to be made worse: An hour later, Boston would finish up an extended contest of their own, victorious, after Carlton Fisk drove home Jim Rice in the tenth inning. The Yankees, reigning champions, were fourteen games back. Manager Billy Martin would resign the following week. .
July 17 fell in the middle of the All-Star Break in 2018. The Yankees’ situation wasn’t nearly so dire as that of their forefathers from 1978. On July 1, they’d been tied for first place, but they’d handed that over with a July 2 loss to Atlanta, and they’d never recovered it. They were four-and-a-half games back by July 17; their lowest point, a ten-game deficit, would not come for almost another month. They lost ground throughout August, entering the month back five-and-a-half and exiting back seven-and-a-half. And that’s one area where they mirror their predecessors almost exactly.
The 1978 Yankees began August back six-and-a-half, having recovered some ground under new skipper Bob Lemon. They ended August ... still back six-and-a-half, despite a strong record of 19-8. Instead, their time to shine came in September, when they went 22-8. The Red Sox, meanwhile, faltered, and it all shook out with one epic postseason play-in game. The 2018 Yankees? Their September isn’t shaping up quite so nice, after a start of 7-8. The 2018 Red Sox don’t seem to be showing any signs of being human, let alone of being ready to collapse. (The team has two everyday players with an OPS above 1.000, Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez, while the ‘78 Sox and Yankees had none.) The 2018 teams are matched for great competition, but barring a miracle, the ending is already clear. The same was true in 1978—but then, of course, the miracle was real.