Last night, David Robertson earned the save in the Yankees' 4-2 victory over the Astros. It was not the first save of his career (it was number nine), but it represented the start of a new era for the Yankees, as it was their first without Mariano Rivera on the roster in some capacity. Mo's not coming up back tomorrow after a day of rest, and he's not rehabbing from injury. The ninth inning now belongs to Mr. Robertson and his hellacious curve.
While Mo will be a nigh-impossible act to follow, the future Hall of Famer was once in a similarly formidable position of replacing a highly regarded reliever. John Wetteland was coming off a super '96 campaign and the World Series MVP Award after closing out four saves during the Yankees' championship comeback over the Braves, their first title in 18 years. Several years before that, young lefty starter Dave Righetti was thrown into the bullpen to replace future Hall of Famer Goose Gossage at the end of ballgames. Going back a little bit further, Gossage was the free agent import signed by George Steinbrenner to replace his own Cy Young Award winning-closer, Sparky Lyle. There have been some terrific relievers throughout Yankees history tasked with securing victories, and Robertson appears ready to join these memorable names and continue this Yankees hallmark.
The First Firemen
For most of their early years of existence, the Yankees' pitching staff operated like pretty much every other pitching staff of the time. Starter typically pitched on three days' rest at most and almost always completed their games. This standard was especially true when the score was close since most managers felt comfortable with their starters on the mound to finish the job. Occasionally relievers were used in mop-up roles, and starters often filled in the bullpen on throw days if needed.
In 1927 though, Yankees manager Miller Huggins had an abundance of excellent starters on his soon-to-be legendary team. His top three starters, Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock, and Urban Shocker, all finished within the top eight of the American League in ERA, and fourth starter Dutch Ruether wasn't far behind them. (The offense gained the headlines for its "Murderers' Row" moniker, but the pitching was clearly unbelievable as well.) Huggins also had up-and-comer George Pipgras available to start, too. Prior to the '27 season, Hall of Fame GM Ed Barrow signed a 28-year-old mystery man from Greenville of the Sally League named Wilcy Moore. The righthander had dominated his league '26, and Barrow felt he could help the Yankees in '27 despite their starting pitching depth.
Moore made 12 starts in '27, but he did most of his damage out of the bullpen, appearing in 50 games total. Huggins was ahead of his time in using Moore as a regular reliever, though his outings were typically much longer than relievers today. Moore pitched an amazing 213 innings, led the league with a 2.28 ERA and 171 ERA+, and he even pitched a complete game in the World Series sweep clincher. The statistic didn't technically exist at the time, Moore also led the league with 13 saves. Although he never had much success after that one breakout season, Moore became the first great Yankees reliever.
Moore pitched out of the 'pen with moderate success for them in '29, '30, and '32, but he was awful in '33 and his career ended. Manager Joe McCarthy called former Fordham star Johnny Murphy up from Newark in '34 to join the pitching staff, and although Murphy made 20 starts that year, he quickly established himself as a bullpen presence. Dubbed "Fireman" for his tendency to put out rallies with his "masterful curveball," Murphy became baseball's best reliever in the '30s and played a pivotal role on the Yankees teams that won four World Series titles in a row from 1936-39. He led the league in the not-yet-created saves department four times, made three AL All-Star teams, and pitched to a 117 ERA+ throughout his career in pinstripes.
Murphy maintained his ace relief status into the early '40s, helping the Yankees capture three straight pennants from '41-'43 as more players enlisted for World War II, thus running his World Series ring total up to six thanks to titles in '41 and '43. When he finally went off to the military in '44 though, the Yankees had to replace him, so they called on 40-year-old former National Leaguer Jim Turner to fill the void. He wasn't spectacular, but he saved 17 games in two seasons and posted a league-average 99 ERA+. The Yankees weren't close to the pennant in either of those years due to an awful offense, so it didn't particularly matter. Eventually, Murphy returned but just wasn't the same pitcher he was before the war. His '46 season was okay but nothing spectacular, and the Yankees made the tough decision to part ways with their longtime ace in the hole just before the start of the '47 season.
The Yankees did not have to wait long to bridge the gap between the first great fireman and their next great fireman. The following few years were all about Joe Page, a hard-throwing lefty from a coal mining town in western Pennsylvania who became one of superstar Joe DiMaggio's few close friends. Page first joined the team in the '44 rotation and was named an All-Star thanks to a solid first half. By '47 though, it seemed evident that Page was unlikely to find consistent success in the rotation. Skipper Bucky Harris shifted the southpaw to the bullpen, where his rising fastball excelled. He led baseball in games finished from '47-'49, in total games from '48-'49, and in the still-unofficial saves department with 17 in '47 and 27 in '49. Both of those years, the BBWAA liked him enough to vote him into the top four on their AL MVP ballots. The '48 campaign was a bit of an off-year sandwiched between two superb years in the 'pen, as he posted a 3.6 and 4.2 rWAR years while pitching to an ERA under 2.60 both times. It wasn't an accident that those were both championship seasons for the Yankees, first under Harris, then under Casey Stengel. Sadly, Page's success was fleeting, as his hard-drinking lifestyle caught up to him and he was released by the Yankees in May of '51 after a disastrous '50 season. It would be quite some time before the Yankees found a reliever who measured up to Page's feats.
Reliever Dominance Carousel
Stengel's Yankees certainly didn't suffer in the 'pen; they just had a different management style with a wide variety of contributors. It obviously worked, since they went to the World Series in all but two years of Stengel's tenure. It was seemingly a new cast of characters every season, and perhaps its most well-known member, Allie Reynolds, was in a hybrid starter/relief role. Lefty Bob Kuzava proved to be reliable during his couple seasons in the Bronx, and he closed out World Series victories over the Giants and Dodgers in '51 and '52, respectively. Old National League aces joined in the fun as Johnny Sain of the famous '48 Boston Braves' "Spahn and Sain, pray for rain" duo preceded a prestigious career as Yankees pitching coach with a few solid seasons out of the 'pen, and the Phillies' 1950 NL MVP, Jim Konstanty, became Stengel's best weapon in '55 with a 2.32 ERA and 11 saves at age 38.
Brooklyn native Bob Grim had big seasons in both '54, when he won AL Rookie of the Year, and '57, when he was an All-Star, pitched to a 2.63 ERA, and led the league with 19 saves. Toward the end of Stengel's tenure, hard-throwing Ryne Duren became a fan favorite since his hat would occasionally fly off due to the power of his pitches, but he near-mirrored Page's quick rise and descent. Despite being named an All-Star twice with a couple amazing seasons (1.95 ERA, 185 ERA+, 34 saves, and a 1.149 WHIP from '58-'59), the bespectacled righty rapidly fell from prominence, like Page, due to his alcoholism.
As the Yankees concluded their long run of AL dominance in the early '60s, random reliever brilliance continued to occur under Ralph Houk. Puerto Rican lefty Luis Arroyo used his screwball to break out with back-to-back sub-3.00 ERA seasons out of the bullpen and set a then-MLB record with 29 saves in the Yankees' 109-win '61 championship season. The next several years saw names like Marshall Bridges, Hal Reniff, and Pete Mikkelsen serve in a kind of closer role for three more pennant-winning squads. Then came the decline, as the Yankees went 12 consecutive seasons without returning to the playoffs. Occasionally, relievers like Pedro Ramos, Dooley Womack, Jack Aker, and Lindy McDaniel would have standout seasons before fading. Steve Hamilton was known for his "folly floater," but did not use that trick pitch until late in his career. It wasn't until '72 until the Yankees finally found a long-term reliever who actually managed to have consistency not seen since the days of "Fireman" Murphy.
Sparky, Goose, Rags, and Mo
The mustachioed Albert "Sparky" Lyle was acquired in another steal of a trade with the Red Sox in exchange for forgettable infielder Danny Cater in spring training of '72. When one of the greatest hitters in the history of the game, Ted Williams, told Lyle that the one pitch he couldn't hit was the slider, Lyle made it his mission to master it, figuring that if it was good enough to fool the "Splendid Splinter," it was good enough to fool everyone else. Lyle built up some impressive seasons in his early twenties and joined the Yankees as a 27-year-old in '72. He proceeded to have a brilliant seven-year run in pinstripes, kicking it off with a 1.92 ERA, 35-save, dominant season out of the bullpen in his first season. It was so good that he finished third in AL MVP voting and received some Cy Young Award votes as well. Lyle pitched to a career-best 1.66 ERA in '74 and was named an All-Star three times as a Yankee, often pitching at least three innings in valuable relief efforts.
Through both his achievements and those of the growing core around him, the Yankees returned to the World Series in '76 and won it in '77, Lyle's pinnacle season. That year, Lyle became the first AL reliever to win the Cy Young and remains the only Yankee reliever to do so, thanks to a 2.17 ERA, 26-save, and 137-inning campaign. He pitched three games in a row during the tight five-game ALCS against the Royals, including a ridiculous 5 1/3 inning stint in Game 4 to keep the Yankees alive. The very next day, he finished the Royals off after the Yankees rallied in the ninth to take the lead, clinching the pennant on a double play.
Lyle threw 4 2/3 innings of two-hit ball in the World Series as the Yankees won their 21st World Series title. Yet in the off-season, owner George Steinbrenner made the curious decision to sign flamethrowing White Sox closer Richard "Goose" Gossage on the open market for six years and $3.6 million. Lyle would later say that he understood the move since he was about to turn 34 whereas Gossage was seven years younger, but it made for an awkward situation. As third baseman Graig Nettles said, Lyle went "from Cy Young to Sayonara." After early stumbles, Gossage recovered to post a 2.01 ERA and save a league-high 27 games as the Yankees also recovered from early stumbles to capture the AL East title over the Red Sox in a stirring 14.5-game comeback emphasized by a one-game playoff victory at Fenway Park. Gossage was on the mound for the final 2 2/3 innings of that game and induced a pop-up from Red Sox legend Carl Yastrzemski to end it.
Goose fired 10 innings of two-run ball during the playoffs, including six scoreless in the World Series against the Dodgers, and the Yankees repeated as champions. In the off-season, Lyle was quietly dealt to the Rangers after 141 saves as a Yankee in a package that included 20-year-old southpaw Dave Righetti, who would later join the Yankees' rotation in the early '80s. Gossage dominated as Yankees closer, often picking up two or three-inning stints like Lyle, being named to four All-Star teams, and finishing among the top five in AL Cy Young voting three times. After finishing third in AL MVP voting in '80, he was unreal in the strike-shortened split-season of '81, when he pitched to a ridiculous 0.77 ERA and 0.771 WHIP in 46 2/3 innings. The Yankees returned to the World Series thanks to Gossage's 14 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings of relief, but lost this time to the Dodgers. They failed to reach the playoffs in Gossage's last two years with the team, and he departed during the 1983-84 off-season after topping Lyle's Yankees record with 151 saves. When Gossage was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2008, he went in with a Yanekes hat.
To fill Gossage's place at the end of games, new manager Yogi Berra decided to move Righetti to the bullpen, even though he had been a fine starter. He had pitched to a 3.28 ERA, 117 ERA+, and combined 9.9 rWAR during his first three full seasons in the rotation, won the '81 AL Rookie of the Year, and authored an unforgettable July 4th no-hitter against the Red Sox in '83. "Rags" said he would have preferred to stay a starter, but his new job as closer appeared to suit him just fine. He was a hard thrower with a good slider, a clear recipe for success in the bullpen. He was twice named an All-Star during his seven seasons of closing for the Yankees, and he set a then-AL record with 46 saves in '86, a 2.45 ERA season. While Righetti was money in the bank at the end of games for years and broke Gossage's team record with 224 saves, the starters in front of him just weren't good enough and the Yankees never made the playoffs. After a last-place finish in 1990, Righetti walked as a free agent, and the Yankees responded by signing Royals righty Steve Farr.
The Yankees were awful in Farr's two big seasons as closer, overshadowing what was actually a fairly nice run by the 34-year-old veteran. Farr posted a 1.92 ERA over those two years, pitching 122 innings and saving 53 ballgames. He led the team again in saves in '93 with 25, but his performance was quite obviously slipping with a 4.21 ERA and 1.532 WHIP. This coincided with the Yankees actually returning to over-.500 baseball, and they made an August trade for elite closer Lee Smith to take over for Farr in September. Smith threw eight scoreless innings and recorded three saves, but the Yankees missed the playoffs. Both Farr and Smith departed after the season, and the Yankees actually had veteran Steve Howe serve as their closer during a successful '94 campaign. The lefty was quite good with a 1.80 ERA, 0.875 WHIP, and 15 saves, but the players' strike prevented the Yankees from snapping their playoff drought despite standing in first place.
Concerned about Howe's drug abuse, the Yankees made a trade for Expos closer John Wetteland before the '95 season finally got underway. Although he often made fans nervous by putting baserunners on in the ninth, Wetteland was reliable during his two years as Yankees closer, saving 74 games and 88% of all opportunities with a 2.88 ERA. He ran out of gas helping the Yankees reach the playoffs in '95 and was smacked around in the ALDS by the Mariners, but he rebounded in '96 when the Yankees won the World Series and he captured the World Series MVP.
Wetteland departed after the season for a free agent contract with the Rangers, but the Yankees had an ace in the hole--their setup man from '96. You might have heard of him.
That leads us to today. D-Rob has a long tradition to live up to, and I certainly have the confidence that he will rise to the challenge.