The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees are in the midst of another epic battle with each other and right on the 40th anniversary of their historic 1978 AL East title race, whose ending is defined by Yankee shortstop Bucky Dent getting a three-run homer over the Green Monster in a 5-4 win. New York eventually won the World Series and Boston, in this pre-wild-card era, took their second-best record in the majors and went home. Another facet of this race that deserves more historical consideration is the battle that went on for the 1978 AL MVP.
Red Sox left fielder Jim Rice won the award and Yankee ace Ron Guidry finished second. Rice won with room to spare, getting 20 of 28 first-place votes, with the rest going to Guidry. Was it the right decision?
It wasn’t a hotly debated decision at the time and probably wouldn’t be today, because enough voters have a natural bias against giving a pitcher the MVP award. If you share that view, then clearly this is a non-debate and we’d have to argue that philosophical premise before going into the specifics of Rice vs. Guidry. But what if you’re like me, and you feel starting pitchers should be on equal ground in MVP voting, given the inordinate impact they have on every game they pitch? Then the 1978 AL MVP vote should be subject to further review.
Here’s the basics for each player…
Jim Rice: .370 on-base percentage, .600 slugging percentage, 46 home runs, 139 RBI. The slugging, HR and RBI totals all led the league. He also led the league in reliability, playing all 163 games and his 213 hits were the league’s best. The final batting average was .315
Ron Guidry: His 25-3 record and 1.74 ERA were each, by far, the best in the league. He made 35 starts, including his win in the one-game playoff at Fenway. Guidry logged 273 innings (believe it or not, that was only seventh in the AL in those workhorse days) and he pitched nine shutouts.
The core statistical resumes for each player are dazzling and more than enough for either one to be MVP in a typical year. We need to go one level deeper and assess how their impact fit into their teams…
*Each was the focal point of a team strength. The Red Sox were carried by the second-best offense in the American League, while the Yankees key was a league-best pitching staff. Each team was good on the other side of the ball, so to speak. Boston ranked fourth in staff ERA and New York was fourth in runs scored. But this race was fundamentally about Yankee arms and Red Sox bats.
*Each had to carry a heavy load. Boston’s lineup was significantly weak in at least four positions. New York’s staff was top-heavy reliant on Guidry, #2 starter Ed Figueroa and closer Goose Gossage. If either Rice or Guidry had been anything less than great, there could have been a free-fall for their teams.
We aren’t getting any closer to separation, so let’s go to the one-game playoff itself. Guidry pitched into the seventh inning and was good, but not vintage. The Red Sox got him for two runs and the early chances they missed against him are an untold part of this classic game. Rice’s day was similar—he had an RBI single in the sixth and made a couple nice defensive plays battling a brutal sun in the outfield. But a couple balls that he made reasonably good contact with ended as outs.
One of those came in the ninth inning. The Red Sox trailed 5-4 and had a man on second base with one out. Rice hit a long fly ball to right, but he was just under it a bit. It was deep enough to send the runner to third, but with this being the second out, that wasn’t enough.
And that’s why, in the most hair-splitting of decisions, I have to lean Guidry for the award. Both players had extraordinary seasons, worthy of the MVP if you could look at it in a vacuum. But we only get to pick one. Guidry barely survived in the great battle of October 2, while Rice narrowly missed adding to his legacy. But that’s enough in a race this close. Let’s retroactively give Ron Guidry the 1978 AL MVP award.