Monday, February 14, 2011

Top 10 Yankee Pitchers

Rest in peace, Chuck Tanner, 1929-2011. Once an outfielder who homered in his 1st at-bat for the 1955 Milwaukee Braves, he nearly managed the Chicago White Sox to an AL West title in 1972 (Dick Allen, AL MVP that season, called him his favorite manager), and nearly managed the Oakland Athletics to an AL West title in 1976 (despite Charlie Finley already having broken up the team some).

The New Castle, Pennsylvania native managed his "hometown" Pittsburgh Pirates to what is still their last Pennant, winning the 1979 World Series with Hall-of-Famers Willie Stargell and Bert Blyleven, plus Dave "Cobra" Parker and Bill "Mad Dog" Madlock.

Good man, good manager, good teams... wacky uniforms.


Having gotten that bit of unhappy news out of the way, and having properly saluted its subject...

Today is February 14, a wonderful day, filled with love and hope.

Pitchers and catchers report to the Yankees' spring training complex in Tampa, Florida.

In honor of the day, I present my picks for

Top 10 Yankee Pitchers

I'll do the top 10 of the other positions in the next few days.

Honorable Mentions

Eddie Lopat, 1948-55. One of the "Big 3" of the late Forties and early Fifties, along with Allie Reynolds (see below) and...

Vic Raschi, 1946-53. Steady Eddie and the Springfield Rifle backed up the Superchief to form as good a 1-2-3 punch as any baseball team has ever had. They didn't have the longevity of the 1990s-2000s Atlanta Braves of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, but they won more in that less time. And they far outclass the early 2000s Oakland Athletics "Big 3" of Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson.

Mel Stottlemyre, 1964-74. Talk about bad luck: He was the right kind of pitcher, for the right team, but both arrived and, due to a rotator cuff injury that could probably have been properly repaired with today's medicine, left at the wrong time. But he's the best pitching coach of recent times (rest in peace, Johnny Sain, Mel's predecessor as such), having put together the staffs of both the 1980s Mets and the 1990s Yankees.

Albert "Sparky" Lyle, 1972-78. Along with Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter and -- to Sparky's dismay -- Goose Gossage, he redefined the role of the relief pitcher in the Scintillating Seventies. Cy Young Award winner in 1977 (the 1st AL reliever to win it). Just don't give him a cake on his birthday. Unlike Yankee prospect turned Met joke Marv Throneberry, the problem is not that he would drop it.

Jim "Catfish" Hunter, 1975-79. He was a Hall-of-Famer, and a Yankee for 5 years, but was only really available for 2 and parts of 2 others: 1975, '76, the 1st half of '77 and the 2nd half of '78. I love the guy, but, in all honesty, I couldn't put him on this list.

Dave Righetti, 1981-90. He came to the Yankees in the 1978-79 offseason, in the trade that sent Sparky to the Texas Rangers.  He was the AL Rookie of the Year in 1981, helping the Yankees win the Pennant. He pitched a no-hitter against the Boston Red Sox on the 4th of July 1983. He became a reliever, and set a record of 46 saves in 1986. (It's still a record for AL lefthanders.) He saved 252 games (a record for lefties later broken by John Franco), 224 as a Yankee. He never became the great pitcher everyone hoped, though. The San Jose native grew up as a San Francisco Giants fan, and has been their pitching coach since 2000. This past fall, the Giants won the World Series, finally getting themselves, and Rags, a ring.

Jimmy Key, 1993-96. Another guy who's probably kept out of the Top 10 due to not being in Pinstripes long enough. But, along with Paul O'Neill and Wade Boggs, he was one of 3 big 1992-93 acquisitions that signaled that the rebuilding was not only underway, it was succeeding. He started and won Game 6 of the 1996 World Series that finished the job of bringing the Yankees back -- though it was his last game for the team.

David Cone, 1995-2000. He wouldn't make either the Mets' or Yanks' all-time starting rotation, but put the two of them together, and you have one of the great New York pitchers of all time, and a guy who should be in the Hall of Fame. (He is now eligible.)

David Wells, 1997-98 and 2002-03. His tenures were brief. His performances were memorable. He wasn't perfect (except on May 17, 1998), but he was a winner.

Orlando Hernandez, 1998-2002 (with a brief comeback in 2004). El Duque wasn't with us long, but he'll be long remembered.

Mike Mussina, 2001-08. He helped the Yanks win 2 Pennants, made several other postseason appearances possible, and won 20 games at age 40. A classy guy, but his dates of arriving and leaving do kind of make him the Don Mattingly of pitchers. Still, put his work for the Baltimore Orioles and the Yankees together, and he should be elected to the Hall of Fame. (He'll be eligible in January 2014.)

CC Sabathia? He's only had 2 years in Pinstripes so far, although they've been superb. I have no doubt he'll break into the Top 10 by the time he's done. Let's hope that's a long wait.

I will not give an Honorable Mention to Roger Clemens, even though his statistical performance deserves it. The pitcher does; the man does not.

10. Herb Pennock, 1923-33. The Boston Red Sox had him before that, and after that. Too bad for them. He was one of many players the Red Sox let go to the Yankees in the 1920s, along with Babe Ruth. He won 241 games, 162 for the Yankees, only 62 for the Sox. He helped the Yankees win their 1st 4 World Series (1923, '27, '28 and '32). Had there been a Cy Young Award in his time, he might have won it in 1923, '24 and '26.

The Philadelphia-area native started his career with the Philadelphia Athletics, and ended his life as general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. Sadly, in that role, he was a major and enthusiastic part of the Phillies' hideous attitude on race relations. Nevertheless, his pitching made him a deserving member of the Hall of Fame. The Yankees have never put him in Monument Park, nor retired a number for him. He played in the era before numbers were worn, then, when it was a new phenomenon, he didn't have a regular number, wearing 11, 12 and 16 at various times.

9. Rich "Goose" Gossage, 1978-83. His bulk, his fearsome stare (later augmented with a nasty biker mustache), his blinding speed and his willingness to pitch inside made him the 1st truly intimidating modern reliever. He honed his craft with the Chicago White Sox, then spent a year with the Pittsburgh Pirates, giving Yankee Fans a taste of what was to come by pitching in that retina-burning Pirate black-and-gold uniform at the old Yankee Stadium in the 1977 All-Star Game.

In 1978, he got off to a rough start in Pinstripes, but straightened out to become the 1st pitcher ever to throw the final out of a Division Title clincher (the AL East Playoff against the Red Sox, a.k.a. the Bucky Dent Game, a.k.a. the Boston Tie Party), a Pennant clincher (Game 4 of the ALCS against the Kansas City Royals) and a World Series clincher (Game 6 against the Los Angeles Dodgers).

Unfortunately, bad trades and injuries -- including the plane-crash death of Thurman Munson in 1979 -- made 1978 his only ring season, although he was sensational in helping the Yankees win the 1981 Pennant. He moved on to help the San Diego Padres win a Pennant in 1984. He's finally in the Hall of Fame, although the Yankees have not yet retired his Number 54 or given him a Monument Park Plaque.

8. Waite Hoyt, 1921-30. A Brooklyn native, he was the 1st native New Yorker to be a Hall-of-Fame quality Yankee.  He was another that Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sent to the Pinstripes, like the Babe. Hoyt knew how important the Babe was, particularly to ballplayers' salaries: "Every kid, when he goes to bed at night, should say, 'God bless Mommy, God bless Daddy, and God bless Babe Ruth.'"

He won 237 games, 157 as a Yankee. He was a member of the Yankees' 1st 6 Pennant winners (1921, '22, '23, '26, '27 and '28) and 1st 3 World Champions (1923, '27 and '28). Had there been a Cy Young Award in his time, he, rather than Pennock, almost certainly would have won it in 1927 and '28. He appeared in the 1931 World Series for the Athletics, and was still a pretty good pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the mid-1930s. He finished his career with his hometown Dodgers. Later became a beloved broadcaster for the Cincinnati Reds.

He is in the Hall of Fame. He is not in the Yankees' Monument Park, but the Reds elected him to their team Hall of Fame. He was another player who was with the Yankees at the time numbers were first used in 1929, and wore both 11 and 12, neither of which is retired for him.

7. Allie Reynolds, 1947-54. Known as the Superchief, for his Native American heritage and a fastball that reminded a sportswriter of the fast Super Chief train of the Santa Fe Railroad, it was his blessing to arrive in The Bronx just as the Yankees were embarking on a great new era; but it was his curse to arrive 30 years too soon to become one of the great relief pitchers ever.

He had the talent to be a great reliever, and he had the mentality: He could have out-Goosed Rich Gossage. He was tough, and he was mean: He once went to 3 balls and no strikes on a batter, and hit him with the 4th pitch, telling the media after the game, "If I'm gonna put him on, I might as well hurt him." But he was good enough to justify the faith of manager Casey Stengel, who wasn't afraid to pitch him every 4th day and often bring him in for relief duty in between.  He was 131-60 as a Yankee, 182-107 overall.

In 8 seasons with the Yanks, he was a member of 6 Pennant winners, winning the World Series every time. In Game 1 of the '49 Series, he outdueled Don Newcombe and rode a Tommy Henrich walkoff to win, 1-0. In 1951, he pitched 2 no-hitters, the only Yankee to do so in a career, let alone in a single season. He could have won the Cy Young Award in 1949, and he would have won it in 1952.

A back injury forced him to retire, and his energy investments in his native Oklahoma meant he didn't need the Yankees' money. He was the 1st great Sooner for the Yanks, before Mickey Mantle and Bobby Murcer. And while his Number 22 has not been retired, he does have a Plaque in Monument Park. (Lopat and Reynolds do not.) He's not in the Hall of Fame, but if Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance could be elected together, then the Yankees' "Big 3" of this period -- Reynolds, Eddie Lopat and Vic Raschi -- deserve consideration for the same.

6. Andy Pettitte, 1995-2010. (Well, 1995-2003 and 2007-10.) "Average Andy"? No way. He won 240 games, 203 for the Yankees. Twice, he won 21 games in a season despite pitching in the Five-Man Rotation Era. He won more games as a Yankee lefty than any pitcher except for the one at Number 1 on this list. He has a career winning percentage .635. He won 7 games in Division Series play, 7 in the League Championship Series, and 5 in the World Series, including the 1998 and 2009 World Series clinchers, for a total of 19 postseason wins, the all-time record (18 of those for the Yankees, 1 during his sojourn with his hometown Houston Astros).

He'll be eligible for the Hall of Fame in January 2016. His Number 46 should be retired, and his Monument Park Plaque should already be on order.

UPDATE: He came out of retirement in 2012, and pitched through 2013. He's gotten his number retirement and his Plaque, and will not be eligible for the Hall in 2019.

5. Vernon "Lefty" Gomez, 1930-42. Instead of the Red Sox, his acquisition came from the Yankees' unofficial "farm system" relationship with the Pacific Coast League's San Francisco Seals. He went 189-102, although his last solid season was at age 32. In 1934, he went 26-5, and those 26 wins have not been matched by any Yankee pitcher since. (Don Newcombe's 27 in 1956 mark the only time any New York-based pitcher has matched or surpassed it since.) He probably would have won the Cy Young Award in 1932, '34 and '37. He holds the record for most career World Series games won without losing any, 6-0.

He is in the Hall of Fame and Monument Park. He wore Number 11 for most of his Yankee career, although the number is not retired, not for him or for anyone else.

4. Ron Guidry, 1975-88. The Louisiana native preferred "Gator" as a nickname to "Louisiana Lightning" and "the Ragin' Cajun." But the way he pitched, a better thing to call him would be "Sir."

He holds the Yankee record for most strikeouts in a season (248 in 1978) and a game (18 against the California Angels on June 17 of that season). He went 25-3 with a 1.74 ERA that season, including 3 2-hit shutouts in September, one of those being in the 3rd game of the 4-game Fenway Park sweep known as the Boston Massacre. The 25th win was, of course, in the Playoff against the Sox. He also won Game 4 of the ALCS (the Pennant-clincher) and, though exhausted and far from his best (and with serious help from Graig Nettles putting on a fielding clinic at 3rd base), Game 3 of the World Series.

Of course, he won the Cy Young Award that season. That Jim Rice of the 2nd-place Red Sox got the MVP that season is a travesty: If ever a pitcher was "the most valuable player in his league," it was Ron Guidry in 1978.

Guidry had one flaw: The worst pickoff move I have ever seen. I remain convinced that he wrecked his arm with all those pickoff moves. He had his last good season at age 34 (22 wins in 1985, a total no New York pitcher -- Yankee or Met -- has reached since), and was done at 37. But his career record is a sparkling 170-91, with a 119 ERA+ and a 1.184 WHIP. He was 5-2 with a 3.02 ERA in postseason play, including 3-1 with a sizzling 1.69 in the World Series, helping the Yankees win it all in '77 and '78 and the Pennant in '81.

He will probably never make the Hall of Fame, not even through the Veterans' Committee, but the Yankees have retired his Number 49 and awarded him a Plaque in Monument Park.

3. Charles "Red" Ruffing, 1930-46. Red Sox fans can't blame Frazee for this one, as he sold the team in 1923 and died in 1929. It was subsequent Sox ownership that traded Ruffing to the Yankees for Cedric Durst and, probably more important in that 1st full year of the Great Depression, $50,000 cash. It seemed like a good deal for the Sox at the time, as Ruffing went just 39-96 for some terrible teams... although his ERA+ was a not-particularly-bad 92.

As a Yankee, Ruffing went 231-124, with a 120 ERA+, and was a member of 8 Pennant winners (1932, '36, '37, '38, '39, '40, '41 and '42) and 7 World Championships (winning the World Series in all but the last of those). Had there been a Cy Young Award in his day, he could have won it in '38 and '39, and possibly also in '32 and '36.

He remains the winningest righthanded pitcher in Yankee history -- in fact, of all the righthanders in New York baseball history, only Christy Mathewson has won more. (373 -- Tom Seaver won 311, but "only" 198 as a Met.) He is in the Hall of Fame. He mostly wore Number 15 for the Yankees, but that number has been retired for someone else. He was honored in Monument Park in 2004, well after his death, and, for the moment, is the most recent player so honored. (George Steinbrenner has since been honored, but, of course, George was not a player.)

2. Mariano Rivera, 1995-present. I seriously considered putting Mo in at Number 1, especially since I've seen his entire career, whereas the other serious candidate for Number 1 is someone I only saw on old films. I just couldn't do it. Not even for the Panamanian Strongman. The Silent Assassin. The Sandman. The man who, like 1930s-40s Yankee outfielder Tommy Henrich, could have been nicknamed Ol' Reliable.

He is the all-time leader in ERA+, 205. His career ERA is 2.23. His career WHIP is 1.003. He has 559 saves, the most in AL history, and only Trevor Hoffman has more among NLers. (He just retired with 601, 42 more than Mo, so Mo has a shot at breaking the record this year.) He has 42 saves in the postseason. He has the lowest ERA in postseason history, 0.71.

He is the most important player for the Yankees from the 1980s onward -- even more than Derek Jeter. Without Mo, the Yankees might not have won any Pennants since 1981; with him, they have won 7 so far (1996, '98, '99, 2000, '01, '03 and '09) while winning 5 World Series (1996, '98, '99, 2000 and '09).

At age 41, he looks like he hasn't lost much from his peak. When it is all over -- and I sure hope the Yankees have a solid closer ready to step in when it is -- he will get his Number 42 retired (the last remaining player allowed to wear it after it was retired for all of baseball for Jackie Robinson), his election to the Hall of Fame, and his Monument Park Plaque. And, on top of everything else, he's a Hall of Fame human being as well.

1. Edward "Whitey" Ford, 1950-67. They called him "The Chairman of the Board" and "The Money Pitcher," and a man would have to be a serious money pitcher to rank ahead of the great Mariano Rivera.

Born in Manhattan, raised in Queens, he has the best career ERA of any starting pitcher in the post-1920 Lively Ball Era, 2.75, and the best winning percentage of any pitcher with at least 300 decisions, 236-106 for .690. Those 236 wins also make him the winningest pitcher in Yankee history, in spite of Casey Stengel's tendency to not only throw him against the tough teams of the era, but also to hold him back a day, or move him up to throw him on short rest, against said teams. As good as the Yankees were, Whitey raised their winning percentage.

The Cy Young Award was not established until 1956, right after Cy Young died, and it did not get awarded in each league until 1967, Whitey's last season. If it had been in place when Whitey started, he would have won it in the AL in 1955, '56 and '63. He did win the both-leagues award in '61.

He missed 2 seasons due to serving in the Korean War, but he still won 11 Pennants (1950, '53, '55, '56, '57, '58, '60, '61, '62, '63 and '64) and 6 World Series (1950, '53, '56, '58, '61 and '62). He holds a slew of World Series records including 10 wins (against 8 losses, also a record). His 33 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings are still a World Series record, although Rivera made it no longer a postseason record.

Hall of Fame, Number 16 retired, Monument Park. But the greatest tribute Whitey could have received came from my Grandma. A Dodger-turned-Met fan, she hated the Yankees of the Forties and Fifties. Hated Joe DiMaggio. Hated Mickey Mantle. Hated Yogi Berra. Hated Billy Martin -- and hated him even more as a manager, because he was a "hothead." (Her word, and quite accurate.) Really, really hated Casey Stengel.

But there were 2 Yankees she loved: Phil Rizzuto and Whitey Ford. She loved them because they were little guys but tough, and always seemed to come through when the spotlight was brightest. The fact that, like her, they came from Queens might have had something to do with it.


dickrich said...

What? You left out Spurgeon "Spud" Chandler?
How could you?

Christopher Atwood said...

Spud Chandler is right! His 1943 MVP season is the best in Yankee righthander history. Also, where is 1904 Jack Chesbro? Also, the best Yankee left fielder of all time is Rickey Henderson (1985), and he should be the Yankee lead-off hitter. Last, Rizzuto's plaque is still correct; he was better than Jeter -- much better defensive shortstop and shortstop is the most important defensive position.

Christopher Atwood said...

I realize R. Henderson played mostly cf with the Yanks, but he's perfect for that big left field at Yankee Stadium and he played left field most of his career -- he was a left fielder playing center for the Yanks. I'd have DiMaggio in cf and let Ruth and Mantle share time in right field and at dh.

marcj said...

Your post on famous sports is great. Mariano Rivera is my favorite player. He has achieved so much throughout his career. He is one of the best pitchers ever and is my uncle’s favorite too.