From 1996-2013, Yankees fans were fortunate to watch the greatest closer in baseball history play for their team. Rivera did not actually become a closer until 1997, but in 1996 had a great year as a setup man for John Wetteland. Rivera also appeared in 19 games in 1995, starting ten and finishing with a less than impressive ERA of 5.51. Rivera’s resume is well known to Yankees fan: the most career saves and games finished, a career ERA of 2.21, thirteen All Star game selections, even better post season numbers and, five years after retiring, unanimous selection to the Hall of Fame.
Rivera was the best reliever in Yankees history, but the Yankees have had many others as well. In the late 1970s-1980s, Goose Gossage, at the height of his powers, played for the Yankees. Before he arrived, Sparky Lyle was the best fireman in the American League. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Ryne Duren was briefly a relief ace. Going back even earlier, Johnny Murphy in the 1930s and 1940s, and Joe Page after that were top Yankees relievers, but the first great Yankees fireman, closer or reliever was even earlier than that.
The 1927 Yankees are mostly remembered for their powerful offense led by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig that also included Tony Lazzeri, Bob Meusel and Earle Combs. Herb Pennock, Waite Hoyt and Urban Shocker led an excellent pitching staff as well, but that Yankees squad featured the franchise’s first elite relief pitcher as well. Wilcy Moore was a 30 year old rookie sinkerball specialist in 1927. Moore had little chance of breaking into a rotation that in addition to Pennock, Hoyt and Shocker also included Dutch Reuther and George Pipgras, but manager Miller Huggins saw something in Moore and believed he could help the team.
The evolution of relief pitching is, for a student of baseball history, fascinating. As late as the mid-1980s, multi-inning saves and ten man pitching staffs were relatively common. As little as ten years ago, the left-handed specialist was a big party of every good bullpen, but today is much less common. Last year, for example, the Yankees had an excellent bullpen but despite having two valuable left-handed relievers in Aroldis Chapman and Zach Britton did not have a specialist who was only used against left-handed batters. The three batter minimum rule that will be used for the first time in 2020 will also undoubtedly change bullpen strategy and bullpen construction.
In 1927, this was all still a long way off. There had been other good relievers, most notably Firpo Marberry who had been a valuable part of the pennant winning Washington Senators pennant winning teams in 1924 and 1925. However, relief pitching was still in its infancy. Through 1926, Marberry held the record for saves in both a single season, 22 in 1926, and in a career with 53. Pitchers were still expected to throw complete games-the Yankees themselves pitched 82 complete games in 1927. However, the advent of the live ball era with its uptick in home runs and in offense more generally meant that it was more dangerous than ever to leave a pitcher in too long after he began showing signs of fatigue.
Thus, there was no real precedent for how to use a pitcher like Moore, so Huggins had to figure it out on the fly. In 1927, Moore started 12 games, but relieved in 38. Moore pitched 120 innings of relief in 1927, out of a total of 213 innings, so a big majority of his work was out of the bullpen. He was an effective reliever, saving 13 games with an ERA of 2.28 overall. Those 13 saves were a Yankees record that lasted until 1939. In 1927 Moore accumulated 5.7 WAR, good enough for sixth on the Yankees. It is a reflection of how good the Yankees were that five players had six or more WAR.
Huggins wasted no time using Moore in the World Series. In game one, with the Yankees up 5-3 and runners on first and second with one out in the bottom of the eighth, Huggins brought in Moore to relieve Waite Hoyt and secure the Yankees victory. Moore gave up a run scoring single to Joe Harris, but no more. He then retired the side in order in the ninth to secure the win for the Yankees.
Moore pitched in one more game that World Series. In game four, with the Yankees up three games to none, Huggins tapped the versatile Moore to start. Moore scattered ten hits and only three runs over nine innings. In the bottom of the ninth, the Yankees won the game and the series with, of all things, a wild pitch to Tony Lazzeri with two outs and the bases loaded. Speedy leadoff hitter Earle Combs scored easily and the Yankees had their second championship.
Moore struggled in 1928 and 1929 and briefly retired after the 1928 season. However, over those two seasons he relieved in 76 games. By then he had become essentially a full time reliever, starting only two games in 1928 and none in 1929, but, he was not nearly as effective as he had been in 1927. His ERA for those two seasons was 4.15. He only saved three games in 1928, but his nine saves in 1929 were good enough to lead the league as he had done in 1927. After those two off years he was sent to the minor leagues for all of the 1930 season, landing with the Red Sox in 1931. Halfway through the 1932 season the World Series bound Yankees traded for him again. He pitched well the second half of that season, had another bad year in 1933, his last in the big leagues.
Moore had one last moment of greatness with those Yankees. In game four of the 1932 World Series, rookie Yankees starter Johnny Allen gave up four quick runs while only getting two outs in the bottom of the first. Manager Joe McCarthy called on Moore who retired Cubs pitcher Lon Warneke for the third out of the inning, and then threw five more innings allowing one run and, for the second time, getting the win in the final game of a Yankees World Series sweep.
Moore was only a Yankee for five seasons, and only two and a half good ones, but he helped change the game and the franchise. It is an overstatement to say that without Wilcy Moore and other early relievers who helped create the idea of the relief specialist, there would be no Mariano Rivera, but only a slight one.