Yankees who succeeded as starters and relievers

13 10 2015

This continues my series on Yankee starting pitchers.

The Yankees have had an extraordinary number of pitchers, it seems to me, who have succeeded both in starting and relieving roles.

The two most successful pitchers in both roles were not Yankees: Dennis Eckersley, a 20-game winner before becoming a Hall of Fame and MVP closer, and John Smoltz, a Cy Young Award-winning starter before cementing his Hall of Fame bid by becoming a dominant closer.

As I explained earlier in this series on Yankee starting pitchers, Allie Reynolds should join them in the Hall of Fame for his career, which combined starting and relieving excellence in the same season again and again and even within multiple World Series.

Read the earlier post for the full case to include Reynolds in the Hall of Fame, but this tidbit explains how he succeeded in the dual roles: In 1951, Reynolds led the American League with seven shutouts and had twice that many relief appearances, also posting six saves.

No Yankee (no pitcher in major league history, for that matter) matched Reynolds’ dual starting/relieving mastery within seasons, but others have succeeded notably in both roles:

Dave Righetti

Rags was a promising Yankee starter of the 1980s. He won Rookie of the Year with an 8-4 record in the strike-shortened 1981 season and posted a solid 14-8 record in his third year in the rotation, 1983. He pitched exclusively as a starter that year, completing seven games and pitching two shutouts. One of those shutouts was a July 4 no-hitter against the Red Sox. (More on that game in a separate post on Yankee no-hitters.)

Righetti seemed on his way to a successful starting career.

However, the departure of Goose Gossage after the 1983 season left the Yankees without a closer, so manager Yogi Berra tried Righetti in the role. He was a perfect fit. Rags saved 31 games in 1984, 29 in 1985 and then set the major league record with 46 in 1986. In seven years as the Yankee closer, he saved 224 games, never fewer than 25 in a season.

Gossage spent only six years as the Yankee closer. He led the league twice, to only once for Righetti. And Gossage pitched in an era of longer and fewer relief appearances for closers. But he saved only 151 games for the Yankees. Gossage is in the Hall of Fame and saved more career games than Righetti, 310 to 252. Goose was a closer for the White Sox and Padres, and Righetti didn’t play the closer role after leaving New York. So Gossage was the better closer for his career, but you could argue that Righetti was a better closer for the Yankees. Of course, Mariano Rivera eventually ended any argument about who was the Yankees’ greatest reliever.

You also could argue that Righetti has had the most success ever in three pitching roles: starter, closer and coach. He has coached the San Francisco Giants’ pitching staff since 2000, winning three World Series rings. He won’t make it to Cooperstown based on his pitching career alone, but maybe if you add Tim Lincecum‘s back-to-back Cy Young Awards and Madison Bumgarner‘s 4-0 World Series record to Righetti’s own 82 wins and 252 saves, a future Hall of Fame committee might give Rags his Cooperstown moment.

Righetti was the first pitcher to pitch a no-hitter and lead his league in saves, an accomplishment later matched by Eckersley and Derek Lowe.

Derek Lowe

Speaking of Lowe, he didn’t excel in either role as a Yankee, but he pitched 17 games in relief for the 2012 Yankees, late in his career.

Lowe’s excellence in the dual roles came for the Red Sox, Dodgers and Braves. Like Smoltz and Eck, he was a 20-game winner (2002 for the Red Sox) and led his league in saves (42 in 2000, also for Boston). Unlike Eck (though Smoltz matched this feat), Lowe led leagues in both saves and wins (16 with the 2006 Dodgers).

Neither his 176 wins nor his 86 saves will get him any Hall of Fame consideration, but he’s among the best ever at the dual pitching roles.

Yankee fans remember Lowe mostly as the starting pitcher in the clinching Game Seven in the 2004 American League Championship Series, capping the Red Sox’ comeback (and Yankee collapse) from a 3-0 deficit in the series. For good measure, Lowe also won the World Series clincher and division series clincher (in relief) that same year.

Tom Gordon

Flash was a better reliever than Lowe, though not as good a starter, finishing his career with 138 wins and 158 saves. Like Lowe, Gordon led his league in saves (46 in 1998, also for the Red Sox), but his high point as a starter was his 17-9 rookie season for the Royals.

Gordon made the 2004 All-Star team as a middle reliever for the Yankees (Rivera kind of had the closer role locked up), winning nine games and saving four that year. In 159 games for the Yankees over two years, he had a solid 2.38 ERA.

But Gordon played a much different role than Lowe in the 2004 ALCS. He gave up the tying runs in the eighth inning of Game Five, which the Yankees eventually lost in 14 innings.

Johnny Sain

Johnny Sain and Warren Spahn (and a prayer for rain), linked from Wikimedia

Johnny Sain might be Righetti’s closest competition for the best ever in three pitching roles: starter, reliever and coach.

Sain was a better starter than Rags: He was a 20-game winner four out of five years for the Boston Braves, including a league-leading 24 wins in 1948, pitching almost exclusively as a starter.

Paired with perennial 20-game winner Warren Spahn, Sain inspired a bit of doggerel by Boston Post sportswriter Gerald Hern:

First we’ll use Spahn, then we’ll use Sain, Then an off day, followed by rain. Back will come Spahn, followed by Sain, And followed, we hope, by two days of rain.

That got shortened in baseball lore to “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain.”

Sain joined the Yankees in late August 1951, in a trade for prospect Lew Burdette. His first two full years for the Yankees, Sain mixed starting and relieving: He started 16 games (completing eight) and relieved 19 times in 1952, posting an 11-6 record with seven saves. The next year, he started 19 times (completing 10, including a shutout) and relieved in 21 games. He was 14-7, again with seven saves and his third All-Star selection.

John Sain's autograph on a ball belonging to my son Mike.

John Sain’s autograph on a ball belonging to my son Mike.

The next year, Sain was exclusively a reliever, coming out of the bullpen 45 times, with a 6-6 record and leading the league both in games finished (39) and saves (26). So he led the league in both saves (though it wasn’t yet an official stat) and wins before Smoltz and Lowe matched that feat.

Sain was a pitching coach for the A’s, Yankees, Twins, Tigers, White Sox and Braves. He coached pennant-winning staffs for three different teams in five seasons in the 1960s. His pitchers loved him, but he fought with managers, particularly Sam Mele of the Twins and Mayo Smith of the Tigers, his Wikipedia entry says.

Pitchers who had their best seasons under Sain’s guidance included Whitey Ford, Jim Bouton, Mudcat Grant and Denny McLain.

I’d give Sain the advantage as a starter, Righetti as a reliever. Sain probably has the advantage as a coach right now, but Righetti is still coaching and gaining on Sain.

Bob Grim

Grim was 20-6 for the Yankees in 1954, winning Rookie of the Year, with 20 starts and six relief appearances.

That was the best he ever performed as a starter. He was an All-Star in 1957 as a relief pitcher, going 12-8 with a league-leading 19 saves. In an eight-year career, those were his only seasons in double figures in wins or saves.

Joe Page

Joe Page, linked from Wikimedia

Page played a similar role to Grim, though he wasn’t as successful as a starter. He made the All-Star team as a starter his rookie season, 1944, winning five of six games before the All-Star break. But he didn’t win again, finishing 5-7 with a 4.56 ERA, starting 16 of 19 games that year. It may be the weakest All-Star season in Yankee history. I’m guessing some deserving All-Star pitchers left to join the military (Page had a 4-F draft status because of a leg injury).

He split time between the rotation and the bullpen the next two years, with nine starts, 11 relief appearances and a 6-3 record in 1945 and 17 starts, 14 relief appearances and a 9-8 record, with three saves in ’46.

But then Page became almost exclusively a relief pitcher and achieved legitimate All-Star berths in 1947 and ’48. Oddly, 1949 was probably his best year, but he didn’t make the All-Star team (after ’44, though, you can’t complain). He was 14-8 with a 2.48 ERA in ’47 and led the league in both games finished (44) and saves (17). The next year he led the league in games (55) and games finished (38), going 7-8 with 16 saves. In ’49, Page led the league in saves (27), games (60) and games finished (48). He was 13-8 with a 2.59 ERA and was third in the MVP vote, behind Ted Williams and teammate Phil Rizzuto. He even got three first-place votes. Relievers were starting to get a bit of respect.

Page was 2-1 with two saves pitching exclusively in relief in the 1947 and ’49 World Series.

He didn’t have another good year after 1949 and arm injuries curtailed his career.

In the 1970s, Dick Schaap interviewed a drunk in a bar who claimed to be Joe Page and wrote a story for Sport magazine about the ex-pitcher’s miserable decline. The real Joe Page sued for $1.5 million but settled for $25,000.

Rudy May

Rudy May didn’t do double duty long, but he won the ERA crown (2.46) in 1980, pitching 17 starts and 24 relief appearances. Dick Howser used him adeptly to supplement a strong starting rotation that included Ron Guidry and Tommy John, both having excellent years; Tom Underwood, having his best year at 13-9; and Luis Tiant, fading at 39 but still good for 25 starts.

Goose Gossage anchored the bullpen in one of his best seasons, and Ron Davis got nine wins and seven saves, pitching solely in relief.

May pitched where and when Howser needed him, winning 15 games, losing five, and saving three. He pitched three complete games and a shutout. He pitched a complete game against the Royals in the ALCS, but lost a 3-2 pitching duel to Dennis Leonard.

May was primarily a starter for most of his career, which also included stints with the Orioles, Expos and Angels, winning 18 games for Baltimore in 1977 and starting 360 of his 535 career games.

He was mostly a reliever for the Yankees in 1982, again having a strong ERA, 2.89 and relieving in all but six of his 41 appearances. He was 6-6 that year, with three saves. His final year, 1983, May was strictly a reliever for the Yankees and got into only 15 games, going 1-5.

Jim Coates

Jim Coates, photo linked from Wikimedia

Coates won 43 games in nine years, but 24 of them came in dual starting and relieving roles for the 1960-61 Yankees. He started 18 games and relieved 17 in 1960, compiling a 13-3 record and leading the league in winning percentage. He pitched two shutouts, saved a game and was selected as an All-Star. He appeared three times in the World Series, all in relief.

In 1961, Coates started 11 games, relieved 32 and was 11-5, with another shutout and five saves. He teamed with Whitey Ford to pitch a shutout in Game Four of the World Series.

By 1962, Coates was primarily a reliever, starting only six games and coming out of the bullpen 44 times. He was 7-6 with six saves and lost Game Four of the World Series against the Giants, giving up two runs in a relief appearance.

That was about it for Coates, whose career was short, but perfectly timed.

Bobby Shantz

Shantz won 24 games and an MVP Award for the 1952 A’s. His next four years for the A’s were horrible, though.

When Shantz joined the Yankees in 1957, he resurrected his career by mixing starting and relief. In his four years with the Yankees, Shantz started 124 games and relieved 96, winning 30 games and saving 19. He won the ERA title, 2.45, and an All-Star berth in 1957. The Gold Glove started that year, and Shantz won the first four for the Yankees and four more in the National League.

Bob Shawkey

Shawkey was an earlier version of Allie Reynolds. From 1916 to 1924, he was probably the Yankees’ best starter, winning 20 games four times (in and era when 20-win seasons were much more common).

What’s most interesting about Shawkey is how he was used out of the bullpen between starts. He won 24 games in 1916 on only 27 starts. But he also had 26 relief appearances and led the league with eight saves (of course, that wasn’t even a stat back then). I didn’t examine box scores with any of these pitchers to see how many of his wins came as a starter and reliever.

Three years later, Shawkey won 20, again on 27 starts, but with 14 relief appearances. Again, he led the league in saves, with just five.

Other dual-role Yankees

These pitchers didn’t succeed in dual roles the way the other pitchers mentioned here did. But they played both roles and deserve mention:

  • Clark GriffithAs noted in the post on Yankee starting pitchers in the Hall of Fame, Griffith was the Yankees’ player-manager from 1903-8 and he used himself in both starting and relief roles. After a weak year as a starter in 1904, he led the league in games finished in 1905-6. But this was before the role of relief closer had developed. Griffith mostly entered games with the Yankees trailing. He saved just one game in 1905 and two in 1906.
  • Jack ChesbroHe was primarily a starter, but appeared 60 times in relief, never more than eight times in a season. I also discuss him in more depth in the post on Yankee Hall of Fame starters.
  • Jim KaatHe was primarily a starter through age 39, and I discuss his Hall of Fame credentials in a separate post. He never became a closer (had only 17 career saves), but he was a respectable middle reliever his last five years.

Who else?

Have I overlooked a Yankee who excelled in both starting and relief (or perhaps one who played one role primarily but had a memorable outing in the other)? Have I prompted you to think of other dual-role pitchers for other teams (Wilbur Wood may be the most notable I didn’t mention earlier)? Or does someone compete with Righetti and Sain in your mind for the best starter, reliever and coach of all time?

Also in this series:

Other posts in this series on Yankee starting pitchers:

Source note: Unless otherwise noted, all statistics cited here come from Baseball-Reference.com.

Correction invitation: I wrote this series of blog posts over several months, mostly late at night while unable to sleep while undergoing medical treatment. I believe I have fact-checked and corrected any errors, but I welcome you to point out any I missed: stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com. Or, if you just want to argue about my opinions, that’s fine, too.



20 responses

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16 10 2015
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[…] tell more about Dave Righetti in my posts on Yankee no-hitters and Yankees who succeeded as starters and relievers. Twists on a last name are pretty common nicknames (don’t I know […]


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[…] as Willie Hernandez, Eric Gagne, Sparky Lyle, Royal Dan Quisenberry, Lee Smith, Bobby Thigpen and Dave Righetti appeared much closer to the Hall of Fame at age 29 than Davis does, and none of them has reached […]


31 12 2015
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[…] on Whitey Ford, Allie Reynolds and Don Larsen, and I think I did justice to all three, as well as Dave Righetti, who wasn’t on that list but should have been. Maybe a few […]


14 04 2016
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[…] Righetti didn’t have the post-season glory that Rivera, Lyle and Gossage experienced, but he set a record (since broken) with 46 saves in 1986 and saved 224 games in seven seasons in the Yankees’ bullpen. He began his career as a starter. I wrote more about him in my posts last year on Yankees who pitched no-hitters and on Yankee pitchers who succeeded as starters and relievers. […]


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