Masters of the mound: Yankees' top seasons

December 1st, 2021

Run production has defined the Yankees over the years, thrilling their fans by lighting up the scoreboards with long-ball prowess. The players charged with run prevention frequently have taken a back seat to the sluggers, but the franchise has seen some terrific pitchers, too.

It is challenging to compare modern baseball to the turn-of-the-century game, so this list begins when the team adopted the Yankees nickname in 1913. That said, Jack Chesbro (1904) and Russ Ford (1910) had fantastic seasons for the Highlanders worthy of recognition. With those ground rules in place, here is our review of the top five single seasons by Yankees pitchers:

1. Ron Guidry, 1978
Left-hander enjoyed one of the finest seasons ever compiled on a big league mound, going 25-3 with a 1.74 ERA in 35 starts to win the American League Cy Young Award unanimously. Guidry's 9.6 bWAR ranks 11th among AL pitchers in the divisional era (since 1969).

The peak of Guidry’s 1978 season came at Yankee Stadium on June 17, when "Louisiana Lightning" set a still-standing franchise record by striking out 18 Angels in a shutout victory. That gem launched the league-wide tradition in which fans rise to their feet with a two-strike count, trying to will the pitcher to a strikeout.

"I'm the one that started all that stuff," Guidry said in 2018. "When I was actually pitching, it was more of a distant roar because you learn to tune all of that out. When you're tuned into something else, you don't really pay attention to whatever is going on. I would think about the batter -- what I'm going to throw, how I pitched him the last time. I had so many things in my mind, I didn't listen to what was going on around me."

Guidry's dominance helped the "Bronx Zoo" Yankees overcome a 14 1/2-game deficit and catch the Red Sox in the AL East. He drew the start at Fenway Park for the epic one-game playoff that was decided by Bucky Dent's home run. Guidry capped the year with two postseason wins, including a complete-game gem in Game 3 of the World Series against the Dodgers.

2. Mariano Rivera, 1999
The first unanimous inductee to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, deserves his own list of achievements, having compiled any number of seasons that would belong in this discussion -- no small feat, considering our other four slots will be issued to starting pitchers.

Destroying bats with a cutter the right-hander frequently described as "a gift from God," Rivera led the Majors in saves three times during his 19-year career. His first time was in 1999, as the Yankees relied heavily on their closer to secure their third championship in four years.

Rivera logged 45 saves and finished 63 regular-season games while pitching to a 1.83 ERA (257 ERA+) and holding opponents to a .176 batting average. He then fired 12 1/3 scoreless innings in the postseason, notching six saves, including the deciding game in the World Series. Rivera finished third in that year's AL Cy Young Award balloting, behind Pedro Martinez of the Red Sox and Mike Mussina of the Orioles.

3. Lefty Gomez, 1934
A five-time World Series champion known for his colorful personality, enjoyed arguably his best season in 1934, the first of two times that he won the pitching Triple Crown by pacing the league in wins, ERA and strikeouts. Gomez repeated the feat in 1937. He also led the circuit in shutouts both years.

In 1934, Gomez went 26-5 with a 2.33 ERA (176 ERA+) and struck out 158 batters in 281 2/3 innings, good for 8.4 WAR. He led the Majors in winning percentage (.839), complete games (25) and hits per nine innings (7.1) while standing among the AL's best in shutouts (six), innings and WHIP (1.133).

4. Whitey Ford, 1961
You can argue that the "Chairman of the Board" had even better years during his Hall of Fame career -- his 1964 and ’56 campaigns are especially worth a look -- but '61 saw left-hander win both the Cy Young Award and the World Series MVP.

Though the home run race between Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle overshadowed all else that summer, Ford compiled a 25-4 record with a 3.21 ERA. He led the Majors in wins, winning percentage (.862), starts (39), innings (283) and batters faced (1,159). He won twice in the World Series against the Reds, firing 14 scoreless innings.

5. Catfish Hunter, 1975
One of George Steinbrenner's first marquee free-agent signings, arrived in New York before the 1975 season as the game's highest-paid pitcher. He would go on to be described by The Boss as one of the players who “returned class and dignity to the franchise,” but there was some concern when the right-hander lost his first three starts with the Yankees.

There was nothing to worry about. Hunter righted the ship, leading the Majors in victories (23) for the second year in a row while firing an astounding 30 complete games, pacing the big leagues in innings (328), batters faced (1,294), WHIP (1.009) and hits per nine innings (6.8). Hunter finished second to the Orioles' Jim Palmer in the AL Cy Young Award vote.