The 5 best relief pitchers in Yankee history

14 04 2016

This continues a series on the best Yankees at different rolesToday: relief pitcher.

1, Mariano Rivera

As with Derek Jeter, the Yankees’ best shortstop, I’ve already written a lot about Mariano Rivera, not only the best reliever in Yankee history, but also the best reliever in major league history. He’s the best reliever in regular-season history, the best in post-season history and the best in World Series history. He’s simply the best.

In 11 of Rivera’s 19 major-league seasons, he had an ERA below 2.00. And in 22 of his 32 post-season series, he surrendered no earned runs. His ERA was less than 1.00 at every level of the post-season: 0.32 in 39 Division Series games, 0.92 in 33 Championship Series games and 0.99 in 24 World Series games.

If you’re not convinced that Rivera’s the best, read my earlier pieces about how Rivera is unique in baseball history, unique in sports history and how he and Jeter are baseball’s best and most enduring teammate tandem ever.

2, Sparky Lyle

You might be inclined to rank Goose Gossage second here, since he’s in the Hall of Fame, but I think Lyle was better as a Yankee. Both pitched seven seasons for the Yankees (but Gossage pitched only six prime seasons, returning for 11 games late in 1989). Both led the league twice in saves for the Yankees. Both dominated in the post-season for World Series champions, Lyle in 1977 and Goose in 1978.

I give Lyle the edge based on three factors:

  1. His 1977 Cy Young season, better than any Gossage season.
  2. His dominant, unmatched 1977 post-season performance.
  3. Gossage’s most memorable moments didn’t work out in his favor.

Lyle is the only Yankee reliever ever to win a Cy Young Award (though Rivera probably should have won two or three times). Sparky was 13-5 with 26 saves and a 2.17 ERA in 137 innings and 72 games in 1977. Gossage had some similar seasons statistically, but none that stood out as the best pitching performance in his league that year.

I have written before about Lyle’s post-season dominance that year. It was like Rivera, but with longer outings:

  • He entered in the fourth inning of Game Four of the 1977 League Championship Series, with the Yankees facing elimination, and leading 5-4. He pitched 5 1/3 innings, giving up two hits and no runs. I was in the ballpark, and Lyle was absolutely dominant.
  • Then he came in the next night in the eighth inning, trailing 3-2 with two men on base. He got out of the inning. The Yankees took the lead in the top of the ninth and Lyle closed out the game to win the Series.
  • After just one day’s rest, he entered in the ninth inning of Game One of the World Series. He gave up a game-tying single, but then retired 11 batters in a row, and the Yankees won in the 12th inning.

That’s three straight wins in post-season games, 10 innings pitched against the best teams in baseball, with four hits and no walks given up, and the only run being an inherited runner.

3, Goose Gossage

Gossage was an All-Star, with 25 or more saves in a season, for four different teams: White Sox, Pirates, Yankees and Padres. He’d rank higher than Lyle on a list of major-league relievers, and some might rank him higher among Yankees.

He did save 151 games as a Yankee, almost half his career total of 310, and saved six games in the 1981 post-season.

But the enduring memory of Gossage for me as a Yankee fan is the three-run homer he gave up to George Brett, losing Game Three of the ALCS in 1980, giving the Royals a sweep into their first World Series. Three years later, the Yankees called again on Gossage to close out the Royals, and Brett took him deep again, this time with a bat smeared with too much pine tar.

4, Dave Righetti

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.

I couldn’t find a YouTube video from his relief pitching for the Yankees, so I have him closing out his most memorable Yankee start:

5, Johnny Murphy

The role of closer hadn’t developed yet when Johnny Murphy was closing games for the Yankees in the late 1930s. He was an All-Star three straight years, 1937-9, as a reliever. Saves weren’t yet a stat, but he led the league four times.

The rest

I very much wanted to make Luis Arroyo my No. 5 reliever, on the strength of his 1961 season, with a 15-5 record and a league-leading 29 saves. But that was his only great year.

John Wetteland‘s solid two years as the Yankee closer pushed him close to this list.

So did Lindy McDaniel‘s six solid bullpen years for Yankee teams during the late-’60s-early-’70s championship drought.

Going back even further than Murphy, Wilcy Moore started only 12 games, but pitched in 50 for the 1927 Yankees. He won 19 games and led the league in saves and ERA.

Near-sighted Ryne Duren also got consideration.

Andrew Miller and Delllin Betances have been excellent, but haven’t been relieving long enough for the Yankees to make this list. If I update this list in a few years, either or both might be on it.

Allie Reynolds came close to making the list as well. If only he didn’t start so many games in his best relief years …

Update: Thanks to Ken Freed for pointing out on Facebook that I originally omitted Joe Page from this list of people who almost made this list. I dealt with him last year in the list of pitchers who succeeded in starting and relieving. I was remembering incorrectly from that research that Page was primarily a starter with a year or two of relief. It was the other way around. He was an All-Star as a rookie starter in 1944, but he led the league in saves twice and was an All-Star two seasons as a reliever. I probably was thinking of Bob Grim, who was better as a starter, but also belongs here, based on an All-Star season and one year leading the league in saves. Neither of them displaces Murphy, but both deserve mention.

Middle relief

Everyone on this list was primarily a closer, though Rivera was an outstanding set-up man for Wetteland on the 1996 Yankees. Betances is an eighth-inning pitcher now, and Miller could slide into an eighth-inning role if Aroldis Chapman becomes the Yankees’ closer.

I’m not going to do a separate post on the Yankees’ middle relievers, because that role’s definition continues to change. But some pitchers who would deserve consideration, in addition to those already named, would be Dick Tidrow, Jeff Nelson and Mike Stanton.

Other strong relief traditions

No one has had as dominant closers as the Yankees or had strong bullpens for as long. Contenders for the second-best relief tradition would include the Cardinals, with prime years of Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Sutter, Lee Smith and McDaniel; the A’s with prime years of Hall of Famers Eck and Rollie Fingers; the Padres, with Trevor Hoffman and prime years of Fingers and Gossage; and the Cubs, with Sutter and Smith.

Ranking criteria

I explained my criteria in the post on first basemen, so if this seems familiar, it’s because I cut and pasted that explanation here, then adapted it for relief pitchers.

If a player is in the Hall of Fame (Gossage) or will be soon (Rivera), that carries considerable weight with me.

I value both peak performance and longevity, but peak performance more. Lyle edged Gossage for the second spot partly on this basis.

I rank players primarily on their time with the team. This made the Lyle-Gossage decision close. Based on full career, Gossage would have a distinct advantage.

Post-season play and championship contributions matter a lot to me, another advantage for Lyle, based on his three consecutive wins in 1977. If anyone ever approaches Rivera’s single-season record, they’ll need to match his post-season dominance to catch him.

If two players were dead even at a position for the Yankees, I would have moved the one with the better overall career ahead. As noted above, Gossage would have this advantage over Lyle, if Sparky hadn’t pulled ahead based on his Cy Young season and post-season dominance.

Special moments matter, too. Rivera had a few of those. And George Brett took Gossage deep for a couple special moments that counted against him.

Your turn

If this isn’t unanimous, there’s something wrong with you:

Rankings of Yankees by position

Starting pitchers

Catchers

First base

Second base

Shortstop

Third base

Left field

Center field

Right field

Designated hitter

Manager

Source note

Unless noted otherwise, statistics cited here come from Baseball-Reference.com.

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10 responses

14 04 2016
Randy Witke

Your research is amazing. As for the Yankee tradition, oh, what a relief it is,

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