The Yankees’ 50 best starting pitchers

19 10 2015

As we approach the end of my series on Yankee starting pitchers, I have ranked the pitchers I regard as the 50 best Yankee starters.

I will explain my selection criteria after the list, but I don’t elaborate on the choices individually in the list. Links are to earlier posts in which I address those pitchers (most of them in this series):

One of my prized autographs

One of my prized autographs

  1. Whitey Ford
  2. Lefty Gomez
  3. Ron Guidry
  4. Allie Reynolds
  5. Red Ruffing
  6. Andy Pettitte
  7. Herb Pennock
  8. Waite Hoyt
  9. Jack Chesbro
  10. Mel Stottlemyre
  11. Vic Raschi
  12. Ed Lopat
  13. Bob Shawkey
  14. Mike Mussina
  15. Spud Chandler
  16. Roger Clemens
  17. Bob Turley
  18. Tommy John
  19. David Cone
  20. CC Sabathia
  21. Fritz Peterson
  22. George Pipgras
  23. David Wells
  24. Carl Mays
  25. Catfish Hunter
  26. Orlando Hernandez
  27. Monte Pearson
  28. Ralph TerryBall Four by Jim Bouton
  29. Jim Bouton
  30. Bullet Joe Bush
  31. Bob Grim
  32. Ed Figueroa
  33. Sad Sam Jones
  34. Don Larsen
  35. Tiny Bonham
  36. Jimmy Key
  37. Johnny Kucks
  38. Tommy Byrne
  39. Dave Righetti
  40. Doc Medich
  41. Al Downing
  42. Rudy May
  43. Bill Stafford
  44. Tom Sturdivant
  45. Chien-Ming Wang
  46. Marius Russo
  47. Bump Hadley
  48. Hank Borowy
  49. Spec Shea
  50. Mike Torrez

How I ranked the pitchers

Here are my loose criteria for this list (in order of importance):

  • Extended peak performance for Yankees. A player with a 6-10-year period of excellence for the Yankees is going to rank high on my list. Pettitte didn’t have a better career than the pitchers right behind him, but his extended outstanding years for the Yankees pushed him ahead.
  • Post-season performance for Yankees. Unlike Hall of Fame voters, I place high priority on post-season play, especially the World Series. For instance, Torrez and Shea didn’t pitch long or great for the Yankees in the regular season. But they were 2-0 in the 1977 and ’47 World Series, so they got the last two spots, over some people who pitched more and/or better regular seasons. Hernandez ranks several notches higher based on post-season performance than he would based just on regular season performance. And Kucks’ Game-Seven shutout in the 1956 World Series vaulted him much higher up the list than his regular-season performance would have placed him.
  • Longevity and quality. While I think the Hall of Fame places too much importance on longevity (and not enough on peak performance), I do value players who pitched well for the Yankees for a long time.
  • Yankee tenure. I am judging mostly how a player pitched for New York. For instance, Tommy John played only eight of his 26 years for the Yankees, so he doesn’t rank as high on this list as he would on my list of former Yankees who belong in the Hall of Fame (since Hall of Fame consideration takes into account the full career). Similarly, Mussina had a better career than several pitchers higher than him, but played only half that career in New York.
  • Championship contributions. This kind of overlaps with post-season performance, but isn’t the same thing. Raschi and Lopat rank a few notches higher for their key spots in the rotation of a dynasty that won five straight World Series than they would based just on regular-season performance and post-season performance. The two things added up to baseball’s greatest championship run ever and both were key contributors.
  • Leading the league. If a pitcher led the league as a Yankee in key stats such as wins, ERA, strikeouts or shutouts, those achievements will push him up the list.
  • Ron Guidry, photo I took in 1977 with his daughter

    Ron Guidry, photo I took in 1977 with his daughter

    Special year(s). A Cy Young Award or other short-term achievements over a year or two count with me. Ruffing had four 20-win seasons, one more than Guidry. But he didn’t have anything approaching Guidry’s spectacular 1978 season, maybe the best season ever by any Yankee. So I ranked Guidry higher than Ruffing. (Guidry also led his league twice in ERA and Ruffing never did.)

  • 20-win seasons. Randy Johnson had two 17-win seasons for the Yankees and Phil Niekro had two 16-win seasons (and each of them played just two seasons). I put every Yankee 20-game winner ahead of both of them, and then some guys like Torrez and Shea move above them based on post-season play. Anyway, the two 300-game winners didn’t make the top 50. But if you won in the high teens three or four times, I might move you above a 20-game winner (unless he also had a few seasons in the high teens). Twenty wins are a measure of pitching reliability that matters to me (more about the value of wins below).
  • Defense. Guidry gets a little credit for his five Gold Gloves.
  • Special moments. Larsen wouldn’t make the list as a starter with only 45 Yankee wins who never won even a dozen wins in a season for New York. But his World Series perfect game pushed him up into the top 50. David Cone didn’t have as many good years for the Yankees as CC Sabathia or George Pipgras (each of the three had a 20-win season). But Cone’s post-season excellence pushed him even with them, then his perfect game nudged him ahead.

The next few factors don’t move a pitcher substantially up or down the list, but break ties where two or more pitchers rank pretty close together by the factors above:

  • Full career. Non-Yankee years will break ties. For instance, Clemens won only one more game than Turley as a Yankee. They both won Cy Young Awards as Yankees. Each won 17 games in his second-best season. They had similar post-season Yankee records, 5-4 for Clemens, 4-3 for Turley. But their non-Yankee seasons were nowhere near comparable: Clemens winning six other Cy Youngs and Turley never having a great season for another team. Clemens ranks just ahead of Turley on the Yankee list.
  • Relief pitching. The pitchers are ranked based on their performance as starters. Mariano Rivera, perhaps the best Yankee pitcher ever, won’t appear on the list. But pitchers such as Reynolds, Grim and Righetti, who excelled as starters and relievers, get an advantage if their starting performance ranks them closely with one or two other pitchers. Righetti might not even make the list if not for his no-hitter. Then his relief pitching nudged him up another notch or two.
  • Coaching. Stottlemyre, Raschi and Lopat were bunched pretty closely. I broke the tie in Stottlemyre’s favor based on his coaching career for the Yankees. Righetti didn’t get any credit for coaching, since he’s a coach for the Giants.
  • Interesting tidbits. Tommy John had his arm surgery as a Dodger, but that fact and his pitching to age 46 might help him nudge up a spot or two. Or the fact that Medich was actually a doctor. And, of course, Peterson’s wife swap with Mike Kekich (Peterson was good enough to make the list, but Kekich was not). Fun facts are a legitimate way to break a tie. Figueroa had three strong seasons for the Yankees and Jim Bouton had two, but they both had 20-win seasons. Figueroa was winless in the post-season, though, and Bouton was 2-1, so I viewed them as tied on performance. So Ball Four nudged Bouton ahead.
  • Drugs. I’m judging this based mostly on players’ actual performance, not trying to punish for either performance-enhancing drugs or recreational drugs. But if Clemens, Pettitte or Gooden were in a tie, they were going to be less likely to get the edge. Clemens had the full-career tie-breaker in his favor against Turley, though, and that was a pretty strong tie-breaker, so his suspected PED use didn’t offset that. Gooden didn’t make this list, but obviously would among the best on a list of Mets.

Only one New York Highlander, Chesbro, made the list. Jack Quinn might have made the list if I had gone 60 or so deep (he played for the Highlanders, then returned to New York after they became the Yankees). The Highlanders played in an era when the starting pitcher’s role was much different, making stats harder to compare to more recent pitching performances. Chesbro’s performance, though, was an all-time great performance, particularly in 1904. He belongs on this list.

One factor doesn’t matter in my rankings: WAR. Every statistic measuring baseball performance has limitations. But most statistics actually measure real performance. WAR measures hypothetical individual wins (truly a contradiction in terms in a team sport), compared against a hypothetical replacement-value pitcher’s hypothetical individual wins. As I’ve explained earlier, actual wins are a much better (if still flawed) measure of a pitcher’s performance than WAR.

Wins don’t always go to the right pitcher or the best pitcher in a game. Sometimes a bullpen will blow a win that the starting pitcher deserves. Sometimes offensive support will bail out a lousy pitcher or let down a stellar pitcher. But here are two absolute facts about wins and starting pitchers:

  1. The starting pitcher’s job is to win the game.
  2. In most games, no one has a bigger impact on whether his team wins or loses than the starting pitcher.

So I judge starting pitchers quite a lot by their wins. And not at all by WAR.

Who am I missing?

Who have I left off my list that you would include? Where have I ranked pitchers higher or lower than you would? How would your criteria have differed from mine?

Also in this series

Other posts in this series on Yankee starting pitchers:

Next: Comparing the Yankees to other teams in championships and in starting pitchers in the Hall of Fame. That will be the penultimate post in this series.

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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