Other notable Yankee starting pitchers: Al Downing, Don Gullett, Jim Beattie …

18 10 2015

This continues my series on Yankee starting pitchers.

This is the potpourri installment in this series. These guys didn’t make the Hall of Fame, win 300 games (or even 200), don’t have a strong case for the Hall of Fame (or even a long shot), didn’t win a Cy Young Award, pitch a no-hitter, win 20 games, have a great nickname or have a relative in the big leagues. But they made notable contributions to Yankee teams. Or maybe they got a lot of attention despite not making much contribution. Or maybe I just found them interesting.

Al Downing

Downing had five straight seasons in double figures in wins for the Yankees, including an All-Star appearance in 1967. His best season, 20-9 and third place in the Cy Young voting, came in 1971 for the Dodgers. All in all, he had a successful career, 123-107.

But Downing is best remembered for a pitch he served up to Hank Aaron in 1974, the 715th homer of Hammerin’ Hank’s career, breaking Babe Ruth’s career record.

Don Gullett

Gullett was one of the Yankees’ first big-name free-agent pitchers. You can’t call him a bust, because he contributed to their 1977 championship with a solid 14-4 season. But a shoulder injury the next year ended his career at age 27.

Jim Beattie

Jim Beattie had a more successful career as a baseball executive than as a pitcher. Still, he got 35 starts (only nine wins) for the Yankees in 1978-79. But he won an ALCS game over the Royals and pitched a complete-game World Series win over the Dodgers.

I argued in a post about Guidry’s performance that year that Beattie was the R in WAR, a replacement player against whom another pitcher’s hypothetical wins are measured. (I’m not a fan of hypothetical stats.)

The rookie-year post-season wins were the highlights of a replacement-player career. Beattie finished 52-87, with losing seasons (for the Mariners) in his only two years with double-digit wins.

He held various front-office jobs, including general manager, with the Orioles, Expos and Mariners.

Well-timed career peaks

Beattie was one of several Yankee starting pitchers with unremarkable careers who timed their best years or best games perfectly to contribute to championships:

  • Bill Stafford pitched only eight years and retired with a 43-40 record. But he was 14-9 back-to-back years for the 1961-62 World Series champions, mostly as a starter. He pitched five shutouts those two seasons and pitched a complete game to beat the Giants, 3-2 in Game Three of the 1962 World Series.
  • Rollie Sheldon‘s career was even less distinguished than Stafford’s but also well-timed. He was 11-5 as a rookie in 1961, mostly as a starter, with two shutouts. That was the high mark of a five-year, 38-36 career. He was far down enough on the Yankees’ staff that he appeared only twice in the World Series, both in relief roles in 1964.
  • Art Ditmar had his best year, 15-9, for the 1960 Yankees. He pitched horribly in the World Series, though, starting and losing Game One and Game Five to the Pirates, not making it out of the second inning in either game. He also was 13-9 for the 1959 Yankees, the high points of a 72-77, nine-year career.
  • Tom Sturdivant had only two seasons in his career with double figures in wins. But they were 16-win seasons for the 1956-7 Yankees. He won Game Four of the ’56 World Series, pitching a complete game. He won 59 career games, pitching mostly in mop-up relief toward the end of his 10-year career.
  • Johnny Kucks won 18 at age 23 for the 1956 Yankees, topping the season with a Game Seven shutout over the Dodgers to clinch the world championship. And he never won more than eight games again in a six-year career, retiring at 54-56.
  • Tommy Byrne had only three notable years in a 13-year career. He was 15-7 for the 1949 Yankees (the first of a record five straight world champions) and 15-9 and an All-Star the next year. After some mediocre seasons with the St. Louis Browns, Washington Senators and Chicago White Sox, he returned to the Yankees. In 1955, Byrne led the league in winning percentage, going 16-5 for a team that won the American League but lost to the Dodgers in the World Series. He was 1-1 in six World Series appearances.
  • Atley Donald pitched his full eight-year career for the Yankees, half of it during World War II. His 13-3 year for the 1939 world champions, leading the league in winning percentage, might have been his best season, but his 3.71 ERA was nothing special. He had two other seasons with double-digit wins and retired 65-33. He lost Game Four of the 1942 World Series.
  • Tom Gorman signed this ball right above the autograph of his manager, Casey Stengel. The ball belongs to my son Mike.

    Tom Gorman signed this ball right above the autograph of his manager, Casey Stengel. The ball belongs to my son Mike.

    Tom Gorman had a promising rookie season for the Yankees in 1952, going 6-2, with half of his wins coming in his six starts, including a 5-0 shutout over the Red Sox. He lasted just three seasons with the Yankees before going to Kansas City. He relieved more than he started, but never excelled at either pursuit. He had an eight-year career, finishing 36-36 with 33 starts (seven for the Yankees) and 44 saves. But he autographed a ball for my wife’s uncle, so I gotta include him, right?

  • Marius Russo pitched six seasons, all for the Yankees. He won 14 games twice, earning an All-Star selection in 1941. He also won 2-1 complete games in the 1941 and ’43 World Series.
  • Johnny Broaca mysteriously left the Yankees (possibly because of a crumbling marriage) early in his fourth season, 1937. He pitched 22 games, mostly in relief, for the 1939 Indians and then was done with baseball at age 29. But his three full seasons for the Yankees were notable: 12-9, 15-7 and 12-7 in 1934-36. He never pitched in a World Series.

Asian pitchers

Masahiro Tanaka, the Yankees’ fourth Japanese starter, is finishing his second strong season with the Yankees. Hiroki Kuroda gave the Yankees a nice three-year run, going 38-33. Earlier Japanese free agents Kei Igawa and Hideki Irabu were disappointments. Irabu was a fifth starter on the 1998-99 championship teams, but got only one start in the post-season either year (and the Red Sox pounded him for eight runs in less than five innings of relief).

Chien-Ming Wang, from Taiwan, had a spectacular start for the Yankees, with back-to-back 19-win seasons in 2006-7. At age 26, he was second in the Cy Young Award voting to Johan Santana, tied for the league lead in wins.

He should have won 20 that year. On Father’s Day, playing the Nationals in old Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, he took a 2-1 lead into the ninth inning. I was in the ballpark with my family, cheering Wang on to victory. Mariano Rivera had pitched the previous two nights, getting a win and a loss, and Joe Torre didn’t want to go to him again. Torre felt more confident in Wang, who had given up only four hits, than his other relievers, such as Kyle Farnsworth or Scott Proctor. It was Wang’s game to lose. And he did. Ryan Zimmerman hit a walk-off homer.

A foot injury in 2008 started a succession of health issues for Wang and he never returned to his early form.

You can’t be disappointed with a pitcher who gave you two great seasons. But you can’t help wishing for more.

Other tantalizing pitchers

It wouldn’t be fair to call Phil Hughes a disappointment. He gave the Yankees an 18-8 All-Star season in 2010 and a solid 16-13 season two years later. I hoped for more, and I’m sure he did, too. But he wasn’t a bust as a Yankee.

A.J. Burnett had a losing record, 34-35, in three years as a Yankee. But he won Game Five of the 2009 World Series, the last time we won a championship. I’ll take that.

Javier Vazquez was an All-Star in a 14-10 2004 season, and actually beat the Red Sox before that series turned around. I didn’t want to trade him (at age 27) for 40-year-old Randy Johnson. He did have more good years left in him than Johnson, but I’m not sure he ever got as good as an aging Johnson. He finished his career 165-160, and his return to the Yankees was forgettable, 10-10 in 2010.

Cory Lidle

Lidle was an average pitcher who made only nine starts for the Yankees after joining them in a 2006 trade-deadline deal. He died just four days after the season ended, when a small plane he was flying crashed into a Manhattan building.

Mike Kekich

I already mentioned the Fritz Peterson/Mike Kekich wife swap in the post on 20-game winners (which Peterson was). But that bit of 1970s culture is worth another mention here. As a pitcher, Kekich was otherwise forgettable, 39-51 for his career with just two 10-win seasons, both with the Yankees. (And note that Peterson commented on that post. Wonder if I can get a Kekich comment here?)

Hank Borowy

Players whose best years came during World War II never get much credit, and probably for valid reasons. Many of the best major leaguers were off in the military.

Borowy started his career in 1942 with the Yankees. He went 15-4, 14-9 and 17-12, with one All-Star selection, then won 21 games in 1945, splitting the year between the Yankees and Cubs. He never won more than 12 games in a season when the nation wasn’t at war.

He won a game for the Yankees in the 1943 World Series and went 2-2 for the Cubs in 1945, their most recent World Series appearance.

Tim Leary

Leary merits mention only briefly. He did not pitch well or long for the Yankees, but his nine wins for the last-place Yankees in 1990 were the most of any starter in perhaps the worst rotation the Yankees ever sent to the mound. He led the league with 19 losses, too. He wasn’t the more famous Timothy Leary of an earlier generation.

Gave up too soon

Several pitchers who broke in with the Yankees went on to greater things elsewhere, often traded for older, established players (some of them past their primes):

  • Larry Gura gave the Yankees two inconsequential years, and they traded him for inconsequential catcher Fran Healy after the 1975 season, at age 27. Gura developed into a strong starter for the Royals, winning 111 games in 10 years. Twice he won 18, and he had a reputation as a “Yankee killer,” but he was only 2-2 against New York in four playoff series.
  • One of these things is not like the others. Mickey Mantle's a Hall of Famer. Allie Reynolds should be. Gene Woodling was an All-Star. Bob Kuzava was just a big-leaguer. My wife's uncle got all their autographs on this ball, belonging to my son Mike.

    One of these things is not like the others. Mickey Mantle’s a Hall of Famer. Allie Reynolds should be. Gene Woodling was an All-Star. Bob Kuzava was just a big-leaguer. My wife’s uncle got all their autographs on this ball, belonging to my son Mike.

    Stan Bahnsen was Rookie of the Year as a Yankee, going 17-12 in 1968. After four solid seasons, the Yankees traded him to the White Sox for Rich McKinney, an inconsequential infielder who got only 26 of his 199 career hits for the Yankees. Bahnsen would get 91 more wins in his career, including 21 for the White Sox in 1972.

  • Bob Porterfield started just 22 games for the Yankees before being traded in 1951 to the Senators at age 27 along with two other players for Bob Kuzava, a pitcher who made little difference for the Yankees in four years, but was kind enough to sign an autograph for my wife’s uncle. Porterfield led the American League two years later with 22 wins, 24 complete games and nine shutouts for the fifth-place Senators. Could the Yankees’ dynasty of the 1950s have been even better if they’d hung onto Porterfield.

Just passing through

Some pitchers didn’t spend long with the Yankees, but made notable contributions. Or improved after leaving:

  • Bill Gullickson pitched only eight games for the Yankees before moving on as a free agent. After playing two years in Japan, he returned to the majors and became a 20-game winner for the Tigers in 1991.
  • Doyle Alexander had two unremarkable hitches with the Yankees, winning just 11 games and losing the 1976 World Series opener. He won 194 games in a respectable career, three times reaching 17 wins. But he stands as one of the ultimate cautionary tales about trading a promising prospect for a wily veteran. On Aug. 12, 1987, the Braves traded him to the Tigers, who were in a pennant race and hoping for a big post-season. Alexander delivered a brilliant stretch run, going 9-0 and finishing fourth in the Cy Young voting, even though he only had 11 American League starts. He did lose two ALCS starts to the Twins, though. And that prospect the Tigers gave up, John Smoltz, turned out to be a Hall of Famer for the Braves.
  • Pat Dobson won 20 games for the Orioles in 1971 (one of four Oriole starters with 20 or more that year) and 19 for the Yankees in 1974. Those were the high points of an 11-year career with a losing record, 122-129. He spent three years with the Yankees, one of five teams he played for.
  • Jack Quinn started his career with the New York Highlanders and later joined the Yankees. He played seven of his 23 seasons and won 81 of his 247 games for New York. His two-year stint in the Federal League, 1914-15, presented quite a contrast, winning 26 games his first year and losing 22 the second.

Ed Whitson

Yankee fans don’t remember Whitson fondly. He epitomized George Steinbrenner‘s willingness to overpay for an overrated free agent. Whitson had a respectable year, but nothing special, for the Padres in 1984, going 14-8. He beat the Cubs in a playoff game, but didn’t make it out of the first inning in a World Series start against the Tigers.

That was his best season at age 29. Realistically, the 10-8 season he gave the Yankees in ’85 was at least as likely a next season as matching 14-8 or even improving it. Whitson lasted less than two years with the Yankees and had an undistinguished but respectable career, going 126-123 in 15 years.

Other disappointments

I am certain I have (mercifully) forgotten some of the pitchers who disappointed Yankee fans. Whitson is one of many who played their best years before arriving in New York (and in some cases after they left, too):

  • Denny Neagle was a 20-game winner for the Braves and 124-game winner for his career, but went 7-7 in a forgettable turn for the 2000 Yankees. He took both losses in the ALCS against the Mariners.
  • Freddy Garcia was a two-time All-Star and an ERA champ for the Mariners in the early 2000s. But he was a pretty average pitcher when he joined the Yankees in 2011 at age 34. He gave New York seasons of 12-8 and 7-6.
  • Carl Pavano was a bigger free-agent bust than Whitson, signing with the Yankees at age 29, following an 18-8 season for the Marlins. He won just nine games in three injury-plagued seasons in New York. He started and stank in the worst Yankee game I ever watched (maybe the worst anyone ever watched).
  • Jaret Wright signed with the Yankees at age 29. His 15-8 season for the Braves the year before was one of only three decent seasons he’d had in the majors. He went 5-5 and 11-7 in two forgettable seasons for the Yankees and retired without reaching 100 wins.
  • Richard Dotson won 22 games for the White Sox in 1983, 10 more than he won for the Yankees five years later, his only full season in New York.
  • John Candelaria was a 20-game winner for the Pirates in 1977, 11 years before becoming a Yankee. He gave New York a decent 13-7 year before moving on.
  • Jose Contreras was 31 when he joined the Yankees as a free agent from Cuba. He evoked memories of El Duque, but didn’t reach Hernandez’s level of excellence (and perhaps the Yankees gave up on him too quickly). After Contreras went 7-2 in 2003, the Yankees traded him, with an 8-5 record, at the 2004 trading deadline, for Estaban Loaiza. Contreras had two strong years for the White Sox but didn’t win 100 major league games. Loaiza, who had won 21 games for the White Sox in 2003, won only one for the Yankees before leaving as a free agent in the off-season.
  • Ken Holtzman, a 20-game winner who was part of the dominant A’s rotation of the early 1970s and pitched two no-hitters for the Cubs, had little left when he joined the Yankees in 1976. He won just 12 games in three years.
  • Andy Messersmith was a 20-game winner for the Angels and Dodgers, and won 130 career games, but was 0-3 for the 1978 Yankees.
  • Sam McDowell had a great first half to a Hall of Fame career, leading the American League in strikeouts five times in his 20s, including two 300-K seasons. He also had a 20-win season and an ERA crown. At age 29, after six All-Star selections in seven years, the Indians traded McDowell to the Giants for 32-year-old Gaylord Perry. Few would have guessed that Perry had 180 wins and two Cy Youngs in his future, and McDowell had only 19 wins left in him. “Sudden Sam” joined the Yankees at age 30, midway through the 1973 season. He was 6-14 in less than two seasons in New York and retired after the 1975 season.
  • Steve Barber won 20 games in 1963, one of two All-Star seasons in his seven years with the Orioles. He didn’t have much left when he joined the Yankees at age 29 in 1967. He won only 12 games in less than two seasons for New York. He never had another good year and retired in 1974 at 121-106.
  • Bob Friend was another former 20-game winner who joined the Yankees at the end of his career. He was a three-time All-Star who won 191 games for the Pirates, but he had nine losing seasons, twice leading the National League in losses. He retired with a losing record, 197-230.
  • Wes Ferrell gets some Hall of Fame love and will get some consideration this year by the Hall’s Pre-Integration Era Committee. But at least a half-dozen Yankee pitchers belong in the Hall of Fame before he does. He did win 20-games six times, but in an era of lots of 20-game winners. (In four of those seasons, he was one of five 20-game winners in the eight-team American League.) By the time he joined the Yankees in 1938 at age 30, he had nothing left. He won three games in parts of two seasons and retired at age 33 with a 194-128 record. He was a good hitter, though, belting 38 homers and batting .280 for his career.
  • How could a pitcher of the 1920s win 20 games four straight years for the St. Louis Browns and never do it after joining the Ruth-Gehrig Yankees? Well, Urban Shocker did. He had three strong seasons for the Yankees, 12-12, 19-11 and 18-6 in 1925-7. His only World Series decision was a 1926 loss.
  • Dutch Ruether was another pitcher on the Murderers’ Row Yankees who didn’t live up to his performance with other teams. Ruether won 21 games for the 1922 Dodgers. He was a respectable 13-6 in 26 starts for the 1927 Yankees, his final season at age 33. Ruether also lost a 1926 World Series game.
  • Kenny Rogers, Brown, Gaylord Perry and Randy Johnson belong on this list of disappointments (all acquired when past their primes), but I dealt with them in other installments in this series.

Bill Zuber

Zuber was hardly a notable Yankee starter, though he did start 40 games for the Yankees and went 18-23 in four years in New York, mostly during World War II. Zuber’s 11 years in the majors were unremarkable, finishing with a 43-42 record and only six saves (except with the Yankees, he pitched mostly in relief). He never won more than nine games in a season and retired with an ERA of 4.28.

So why do I mention Zuber here at all? Because I ate in his restaurant in Homestead, Iowa, back in 1978. And news clippings and photos around the restaurant paid tribute to Zuber’s Yankee career. Yeah, he wasn’t a much of a major leaguer, and he might not make the top 200, 300 or even 400 Yankee pitchers (I won’t bother to rank them that deep). But he pitched in the big leagues, for the Yankees even. And that’s worth bragging about on the walls of your restaurant for the rest of your life.

Too soon to say

I like what I’ve seen of Nathan Eovaldi, Michael PinedaIvan Nova and Luis Severino (ranging in age from 21 to 28), but I hope their best days as Yankees lie ahead. Maybe I’ll update sometime (perhaps this October) with more on one or all of them.

I wouldn’t mind if they develop, along with Tanaka and/or CC Sabathia, if he has anything left, into the best Yankee rotation ever. But they’re not there yet.

Who else?

I’ve written about dozens of Yankees in this series. Did I miss anyone you consider notable? Do you have memories or tidbits to add about any of the pitchers I’ve discussed here?

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.

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18 responses

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