Yanks' Top 5 relievers: Hoch's take

June 9th, 2020

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only … if you don’t agree with the order, participate in the Twitter poll to vote for your favorite at this position.

Here is Bryan Hoch’s ranking of the top five relievers in Yankees history (minimum 200 games). Next week: managers.

Yankees' all-time team: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | LF | CF | RF | DH | RH SP | LH SP

1. Mariano Rivera (1995-2013)
Late in 2018, 425 voters for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum checked the box next to Rivera’s name, making the regal right-hander the first unanimous selection in history. They may have spent as much time debating that call as we did pondering his place atop this list -- which is to say, like Babe Ruth in right field or Lou Gehrig at first base, this was an easy one.

The all-time Major League leader in saves (652) and games finished (952), Rivera destroyed countless bats with a cut fastball that he has described as “a gift from God,” celebrating five World Series championships and seven American League pennants in pinstripes. His 2.21 ERA and 1.00 WHIP are the lowest among pitchers with at least 1,000 innings pitched since ERA became an official statistic in the early 1910s.

For a generation of fans, Rivera's entrance to the strains of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” signified dominance and (usually) victory. A 13-time All-Star who racked up 15 seasons of at least 30 saves, Rivera was at his finest when the stakes were the highest. He secured 42 saves and recorded a 0.70 ERA in 96 postseason appearances, all records. More men have walked on the moon (12) than scored an earned run off Rivera in the postseason (11).

"The Lord blessed me and opened a door for me to become the New York Yankees' closer," Rivera said last year. "We had 25 tremendous players, nine on the field and the others waiting on the bench to take action. I can never say that I accomplished [anything alone], because it would be impossible. We accomplished it through all 25 players, and that is the beauty about it."

2. Rich “Goose” Gossage (1978-83, ’89)
Gossage’s Hall of Fame plaque describes him as “a dominant relief pitcher with a trademark moustache, whose menacing glare and exploding fastball intimidated batters for more than two decades.” That’s a perfect summary of “Goose,” who signed with the Yankees in November 1977 after beginning his career with the White Sox and Pirates.

Gossage's six years as the club’s closer included four All-Star selections, 150 saves and a 2.10 ERA (183 ERA+), in addition to entertaining public battles with principal owner George Steinbrenner and manager Billy Martin. One of Gossage’s oft-aired gripes is that modern closers do not pitch nearly as much as he did: in 1978, Gossage threw 134 1/3 innings across 63 appearances, helping the team to a championship.

“It was grueling, the way we were used,” Gossage once told The New York Times. “We were abused. Nobody worried about our arms falling off. I didn’t.”

Gossage led the AL with 27 saves in 1978 and paced the Majors with 33 saves in 1980, tallying 18.8 bWAR for his Yanks career. Among Yankees relievers, he is first in ERA (2.12) and BABIP (.263), second in FIP (2.60) and ERA+ (179), third in saves (151), and fifth in games finished (272) and strikeout percentage (24). He is sixth in strikeouts (512).

3. Sparky Lyle (1972-78)
In 1977, Lyle enjoyed a magnificent season in which he notched a 2.17 ERA (183 ERA+) while leading the league in games (70) and games finished (60), earning the AL Cy Young Award. Steinbrenner’s response was to sign Gossage to a six-year contract, prompting third baseman Graig Nettles to remark of Lyle, “He went from Cy Young to sayonara.”

One of the top relievers of the decade, Lyle was acquired from the Red Sox in March 1972 and recorded a 2.41 ERA (148 ERA+) in New York, tallying 141 saves and finishing 348 games. Featuring a slider-heavy arsenal, Lyle twice led the AL in saves and games finished, helping the Yankees to two titles. He detailed that wild tenure in a classic 1979 book, “The Bronx Zoo.”

Lyle compiled 14.9 bWAR during his time with the Yanks. Among Yankees relievers, Lyle ranks third in games finished (348), and fourth in both saves (141) and ERA (2.41). He is fifth in games (420), innings (745 2/3), ERA+ (148) and batters faced (3,057).

4. Johnny Murphy (1932, ’34-43, ’46)
Though Murphy pitched in an era when starters were encouraged to finish most of their games, the lantern-jawed righty nicknamed “Grandma” for his fastidious habits established a reputation as one of the ace relievers of his day, winning six championships. Though the save did not exist then, Murphy would have led the league four times in a five-year span from 1938-42.

A New York City product who attended Fordham University, Murphy converted into a full-time reliever during the 1935 season, with manager Joe McCarthy remarking, “Johnny is one man I can always depend on.” The curveball artist was a three-time All-Star and tallied 104 saves with the Yanks, enjoying his finest season in 1941, when he recorded a 1.98 ERA (200 ERA+), with 15 saves and 31 games finished.

In eight World Series appearances, Murphy was 2-0 with a 1.10 ERA, recording the final outs of the ’36 and ’39 Fall Classics. Among Yankees relievers, he is first in wins (93) while ranking third in innings (990 1/3) and batters faced (4,240). He is fourth in games finished (277) and fifth in saves (104), winning percentage (.637) and BABIP (.268). He registered 13.9 bWAR as a Yankee.

5. Dave Righetti (1979, ’81-90)
Honored as the 1981 AL Rookie of the Year, Righetti enjoyed a career highlight on July 4, 1983, pitching a no-hitter against the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium -- the first by a Yankee since Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. Righetti would have preferred to remain in the rotation, but when Gossage departed for the Padres as a free agent prior to the ’84 campaign, manager Yogi Berra tabbed Righetti to become the closer.

That transition proved to be smooth for “Rags,” who tallied 223 saves and finished 376 games while recording a 2.96 ERA (137 ERA+) over the next six years. A two-time All-Star who won two Rolaids Reliever of the Year Awards, Righetti paced the Majors in saves (46) and games finished (68) in 1986, when he posted a 2.45 ERA (168 ERA+). A big league record at the time, Righetti’s 46 saves in ’86 still stand as the AL record for saves by a left-hander.

Righetti has a 22.9 bWAR in pinstripes, including 12.6 bWAR from 1984-90. Among Yankees relievers, he is second in games (522), games finished (379), saves (224), innings pitched (1,136 2/3), strikeouts (940) and batters faced (4,811) -- though those numbers include 76 big league starts.

Honorable mentions
Aroldis Chapman (2016-present), the 'Cuban Missile', is expected to work his way up this list over the next several years. Over 3 1/2 seasons in The Bronx, Chapman has pitched to a 2.51 ERA (175 ERA+) with 111 saves and 167 games finished, averaging 13.8 strikeouts per nine innings. As a bonus, he helped the Yankees land Gleyber Torres in a trade from the Cubs.

Dellin Betances (2011-19) made four consecutive All-Star teams from 2014-17, averaging 14.4 strikeouts per nine innings with a 1.011 WHIP over that stretch. For his Yankees career, Betances’ 2.31 FIP and 40.1 strikeout percentage are first among Yanks relievers. His 2.36 ERA and 177 ERA+ are third, and his 621 strikeouts are fourth.

Ramiro Mendoza (1996-02, ’05) was a valuable swingman for the Joe Torre-era clubs, tallying 11.6 bWAR in 278 appearances. His finest season was 1998, when he was 10-2 with a 3.25 ERA in 41 games (14 starts). His 699 2/3 innings and 2,992 batters faced are sixth among Yanks relievers.

Jeff Nelson (1996-2000, ’03) featured a lethal slider that earned him a place as one of Rivera’s trusted setup men during a dynasty that featured four World Series titles. He recorded a 3.47 ERA (136 ERA+) in pinstripes, striking out better than one batter per inning. His 24.5 percent strikeout rate is fourth among Yanks relievers.

Joe Page (1944-50) was a hard-throwing three-time All-Star who helped cement the blueprint for modern closers. Page led the league in games finished in three consecutive seasons beginning in '47, and twice paced the circuit in saves, including 27 in '49, his best season.

David Robertson (2008-14, ’17-18) had a 2.75 ERA (145 ERA+) over two tours in pinstripes, averaging 12.0 strikeouts per nine innings and compiling 12.9 bWAR. Nicknamed “Houdini” for his ability to escape jams, he had a 32.5 percent strikeout rate that is second among Yanks relievers. His 501 appearances, 666 strikeouts and 2.76 FIP are third. His 154 ERA+ is fourth.

Mike Stanton (1997-2002, ’05) earned three championship rings as a Yankee, registering 8.8 bWAR. In 20 World Series games, 11 with New York, the lefty had a 3-0 record with a 1.54 ERA. His 456 appearances are fourth among Yanks relievers.