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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Does pitching really win championships? Yes, but …

21 10 2015

This concludes my series on Yankee starting pitchers.

This series started with an observation that the Yankees haven’t had many all-time great starters, but have won more world championships than any other team. I raised the question then about how could that be, if pitching actually wins championships?

I’ve covered notable pitchers in a variety of posts since then: Yankees in the Hall of Fame, Yankees who belong in the Hall of Fame, Yankees who had great careers but won’t make the Hall of Fame, and so on.

But I still haven’t thoroughly examined the question that started this discussion. So that’s where I’ll wrap it up. The Yankees have won so many championships without all-time great starting pitchers for a variety of reasons:

  • Pitching does win championships, but so do other factors. Yankee champion teams were often better at those factors than at starting pitching.
  • Pitching does win championships, but even an all-time great starting pitcher pitches only every few days. Depth of a rotation might be more important to winning a championship than having an all-time great as your No. 1 starter.
  • Pitching does win championships, but starting pitching is not all of pitching. Yankee closers rank higher on all-time-best lists than Yankee starters.
  • Managing, especially management of the pitching staff, wins championships.
  • Yankee starting pitchers have actually been pretty great. If not for the Hall of Fame biases against Yankees (and against longevity), Yankees would easily have more pitchers in the Hall of Fame than any other team.

I’ll elaborate on these points in order: Read the rest of this entry »





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): Read the rest of this entry »





Nicknames of Yankee starting pitchers: Catfish, Babe, Gator, Whitey …

16 10 2015

This continues my series on Yankee starting pitchers.

The Yankees’ starting pitchers through the years have had some fun nicknames.

I’m mostly going to concentrate on nicknames here. I’ve linked to other posts, where you can read of the accomplishments of most of these pitchers. But I summarize the career briefly if a pitcher didn’t merit mention elsewhere.

Sorry, nicknames based in your given name don’t count. For instance, if I could pitch and had pitched for the Yankees (if only …), I’d need something better than Steve or Stevie (given name Stephen) to make this list. I’m pretty sure fans and/or teammates could have found a nickname playing with my last name. Especially the way I no doubt would have pitched.

Here, in the order I like the monikers, are my favorite nicknames of Yankee starting pitchers:

Catfish


Have to start here, of course. I’ve always been a bit skeptical of the story of Charlie Finley giving Catfish Hunter his nickname, but it’s a good story. Given name was Jim. I covered his Yankee career in a post on Hall of Famers.

Babe, Bambino

Babe Ruth started only four games as a pitcher for the Yankees, but the Babe had one of the best nicknames in the history of baseball (with an Italian sub-nickname that got attached to a curse), so I gotta include him here. Real name: George Herman Ruth. Read the rest of this entry »





Yankees who pitched no-hitters: Don Larsen, Allie Reynolds …

14 10 2015

This continues my series on Yankee starting pitchers.

Ten Yankees have pitched 11 no-hitters. I’ll review them here, in order of importance:

Don Larsen

Larsen had a mostly unremarkable career for the Yankees and seven other teams. He never won more than 11 games in a season (but he lost 21). He only made it to double figures in wins twice, though he made it to double figures in losses three times. He finished 14 seasons with a losing record, 81-91.

But for one Monday, October 8, in Game Five of the 1956 World Series, Don Larsen was better than any pitcher ever. In a World Series, you face a team that knows how to get on base, how to score runs. That’s how they make it to the championship level, and no other pitcher has ever pitched a no-hitter in World Series play. But Larsen pitched a perfect game.

Facing a lineup that included four future Hall of Famers — Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider and Pee Wee Reese — Larsen didn’t allow a base runner. Read the rest of this entry »





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. Read the rest of this entry »





A team of the best who played for Yankees and Royals

28 10 2014

Decades ago, the Kansas City A’s and New York Yankees made so many trades the A’s were derided as a Yankee farm team. The Yankees and Royals haven’t made as many trades, but still have shared a lot of the same players.

Since I usually blog here about the Yankees, but have been blogging about the Royals this month, I’ve compiled a team of the best players who played for both teams (most of them not involved in trades between the two teams).

Catcher: Don Slaught. Slaught barely missed the Royals’ world championship year. He caught 124 games for the 1984 division champions, but was traded to the Texas Rangers in a four-team deal that brought Jim Sundberg to Kansas City. After three years in Texas, Slaught was the starting catcher for the Yankees in 1988 and ’89, two fifth-place seasons.  This isn’t a strong position, but Slaught started for both teams. Fran Healy had a couple mediocre years as the Royals’ starter, but was just a sub for the Yankees.

First base. Steve Balboni was a feast-or-famine slugger for the Royals who had his best year in the Royals’ 1985 championship year, with 36 homers, and led the league in strikeouts that year with 166 (he had 146 hits). Known as “Bye Bye” Balboni in the Yankee farm system, he had no chance of winning the first base job away from Don Mattingly. Balboni became “Bonesy” in Kansas City, where his homers are remembered fondly, but not as fondly as the single that eventually became the tying run (Onix Concepcion pinch-ran) in Game Six of the 1985 World Series. Read the rest of this entry »