San Diego’s blueprint for winning, dominate with pitching, is nothing new. The team has done so at many different times in the franchise’s history. In 1978, the first year the Padres posted a winning record, the team was built on fantastic pitching.
Roger Craig, the Padres’ manager at the time was quoted by Phil Collier of The Sporting News as saying, “We’re getting the type of pitching that wins World Championships.”
Over a 25-game span between late June and July, the Padres managed a team ERA of slightly over 2.00. In the mean time, they pulled themselves out of the cellar. They did not climb to the top, not even in July with plenty of baseball left to play. But it was a start. In six of the nine previous seasons, San Diego toiled away at the bottom of the division. In 1978 they would not win any pennants. They wouldn’t see any postseason action. However, they would finally put a winning ball club on the field.
Of course, there were still problems with the team. If there weren’t, the Padres would have won the division. “If it weren’t for all the runs the defense has given away, or all the times we couldn’t score a runner from third base with less than two out, we might be leading the division,” Craig continued in The Sporting News article.
It’s a sadly familiar thought to modern Padres fans. Great pitching wasted due to offensive inefficiency. The current Padres defense doesn’t factor too heavily into the team’s losses, but the offense was one of the worst in the league. In 1978, that was also the case. In fact, the 1978 team had a negative run differential while managing their winning record. They scored 591 runs but gave up 598.
The team’s offense put together a far from appealing triple-slash. They hit .252/.321/.348 with just 75 home runs. The pitching on the other hand was dominant. As a team, they walked just three batters per nine innings. They didn’t strike out too many (4.7 per nine), but they found ways to win. Overall, the team ERA was 3.28, and they had just one starter with an ERA over 4.00.*
*As a side note, the 1978 team threw just four pitchers in their starting rotation at times. Gaylord Perry, Randy Jones, Bob Owchinko, and Eric Rasmussen were the four main guys toward the end of the season, but Bob Shirley started 20 games for the team before being sent to the bullpen. We’ll get to Perry as we continue this series, but those four pitchers may have been one of the best starting pitching staffs the franchise ever saw.
“Eric Rasmussen (6-7), is a seldom used fifth starter who scored four straight victories in the climb that began on June 12, when the Padres went from eight games under .500 to one game above that plateau,” Collier of the Sporting News reported.
The 1978 Padres had 21 complete games and seven shutouts. These are the type of numbers that show a team winning almost exclusively on pitching. The offense, if only just slightly better, may have pushed this team over 90 wins. As history seems to repeat itself in the PETCO-era, it is interesting to look back at the team’s first winning season.
By year’s end, the Padres were 84-78. They finished in fourth place, behind the Dodgers, Reds, and Giants. But they finished ahead of the Astros and Braves. The Dodgers that year had won the second most games in all of baseball and the most in the National League. Had the Padres have been playing in the National League East, they would have finished in second place, just one game behind the Phillies for first.
San Diego fans, and there were a lot more of them coming to games*, finally got to taste success. Unfortunately, the team back-slid the next year and won just 68 games. But for one season, San Diegans were shown winning baseball. They liked it. On the arms of an impressive starting staff, relying on a shut-down bullpen, and giving up as few runs as they could to help their inept offense, the Padres finally broke the .500 plateau in 1978. They were no longer the laughing stock of the league.
*In 1978, the Padres drew 1,670,107 fans. That was good enough for fifth out of the twelve teams in the National League that year.