The Bullpen History of the Yankees
The signings of Zach Britton and Adam Ottavino over the winter were greeted with approval and excitement by Yankee fans everywhere. In today’s bullpen-driven game the Yanks should enter the season with perhaps the most dominant pen in the game, with five pitchers who could be considered “closer material”. Now I know it’s a long season, and bullpens can wear down, but the Yankee relief corps sure looks built to last.
It should be no surprise that the Yankees are again seeking to build their club with a shutdown bullpen. History shows that one the consistent pieces in successful Yankee teams has been quality relief pitching.
Any historical analysis of a bullpen must mention that it’s that the role of the relief pitcher has evolved through the years. The players have changed from failed starters to talented pitchers groomed for the role. Usage has changed from the expectation of throwing multiple innings to specialized and limited roles. The save rule itself wasn’t invented until 1960 by Jerome Holtzman of The Sporting News and became an official MLB rule in 1969 (MLB has gone back and retroactively credited saves in prior years).
Yankee Relief Pitching Pioneers
Fans associate the 1927 Yankees primarily with Ruth, Gehrig, and Murderers’ Row, but pitching was a big part of their success. Right-hander Wilcy Moore worked primarily as a relief pitcher and was 13-3 with a 1.96 ERA from the pen with 13 saves. He averaged more than three innings in each of his 38 relief appearances.
Three time all-star Johnny Murphy was the primary relief pitcher for six Yankees World Series champions. In his Yankees career that spanned 1932 to 1946, Murphy appeared in 343 games with a 3.54 ERA.
Joe Page was a big, hard-throwing lefty. His 1947 (14 wins, 2.48, 17 saves) and 1949 (13 wins, 2.59, 27 saves) seasons both earned MVP consideration. In 1949, the Yankees went into the final two games of the season against Boston one game behind; one loss would end the season. In the first game the Yanks fell behind early and with their season in jeopardy, Page was brought into the third inning to stop the Bosox rally. He responded with 6.2 innings of one-hit relief, and the Yankees came back from a 4-0 deficit to win the game and the next day the A.L. pennant
One of Casey Stengel’s clutch pitchers when the Yanks won five World Series titles in a row from 1949 to 1953 was Allie Reynolds. “Superchief” was used as a starter and a reliever and in six World Series relief appearances was 2-0, 2.53 with four saves.
The Bullpen as a Weapon
Ryne Duren had a 1.95 ERA in the closer role 1958 and 1959. In an era in which contact hitting was much more valued than today, he struck out 10.8 batters per nine innings in that two-year stretch.
Luis Arroyo’s 1961 season was one of the great relief seasons of the era — 15-5, 2.19, 29 saves. He saved 13 of Cy Young award winner Whitey Ford’s 25 wins.
Sparky Lyle became the first A.L. reliever to win the Cy Young award in 1977 with a 13-5, 2.17, 26 save season. Despite that great season, the Yanks went out and signed Rich Gossage as a free agent. From 1978-1983, the Hall of Famer’s average season was 2.10 ERA and 25 saves.
Upon Goose’s exit after the 1983 season, the Yanks filled the role in an unorthodox way by moving 25-year-old starter Dave Righetti — fresh off a solid 1983 season that included his July 4 no-hitter again Boston — into the bullpen. This move was widely debated, as “Rags” looked to be an ace starter in the making. He handled the switch well, and in 1986 he set a (then) record of 46 saves.
John Wetteland was a Yankee for only two seasons, saving 74 games, but made his mark as World Series MVP in 1996.
Wetteland’s departure in 1997 opened the door for Mariano Rivera to take over the closer role. Rivera is of course baseball royalty, widely regarded as the best reliever of his generation and perhaps of all time. You know the numbers: 2.21 career ERA, 652 saves, 0.70 postseason ERA. Unanimous Hall-of-Fame election. Legend.
As I said, the game continues to evolve, and teams are now relying on their bullpens even more than before. During this time of change, the Yankees continue to lead the way. They rode their pen in 2018 to 100 wins, when they were amongst league leaders in relief ERA and save conversion percentage.
For 2019, the signing free agents Britton (two-time All Star) and Ottavino (2.43, 13K/IP in 2018) to join holdovers Aroldis Chapman (2.43, All-Star in 2018), Dellin Betances (2.70 ERA, 15.5 K/9, All-Star from 2014-2017), Chad Green (2.18 ERA in 2017-18) makes the Yankee pen the envy of baseball.