Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #89 Rudy May

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The well-traveled lefty's Yankee career unfortunately included a gap during the championship seasons, but his fine pitching in two stints led to multiple division titles and World Series appearances.

Name: Rudy May
Position: Starting pitcher (LHP)
Born: July 18, 1944 (Coffeyville, KC)
Yankee Years: 1974-76, 1980-83
Primary number: 43 (1st stint) and 45 (2nd stint)
Yankee statistics: 54-46, 3.12 ERA, 3.04 FIP, 184 G, 102 GS, 841.2 IP, 586 K, 30 CG, 5 SHO, 84 ERA-, 82 FIP-, 12.1 rWAR, 16.3 fWAR

Biography

A well-traveled prospect

Rudy May was one of the last pitchers to rise through the minors without being subject to the MLB Draft, but it was a slow ascent to the top. An Oakland native and Castlemont High School graduate, May was signed by the recently-established Minnesota Twins on November 5, 1962, just two seasons into the franchise's move from Washington, D.C. He pitched to a 4.29 ERA in 24 games and 168 innings with Class-A Bismarck-Mandan, but before he could get comfortable in his first organization, he was selected by the Chicago White Sox in the 1963 first-year draft, which was designed to help owners avoid giving amateurs bonuses. With Class-A Tidewater, May improved to a 2.61 ERA in 20 starts despite an unsightly 5.7 BB/9, but was promoted midseason to Triple-A Indianapolis, where in 10 starts, he again pitched well (2.77 ERA) with a bad walk rate.

May was on the move again after the season, as the White Sox traded him to the Phillies in a deal for catching prospect Bill Heath. He never suited up for the Fightins though, as two months later, the Phillies flipped him to the California Angels in a deal for controversial lefty Bo Belinsky, who was suspended in mid-August for fighting a Los Angeles sportswriter. May was somehow on his fourth different team in just a few years in the pros, but the 20-year-old impressed the Angels and veteran manager Bill Rigney in Spring Training. He made the team and put on an absolute show in his major-league debut.

Facing a tough Tigers lineup that included great players like Al Kaline and Willie Horton, May no-hit Detroit for 7 1/3 innings, bidding to become the first pitcher since Bumpus Jones in 1892 to pitch a no-hitter in his MLB debut. May had been nervous, noting "I was really worried about starting Sunday, 'cause I didn't think I was really ready. I hadn't pitched anything but batting practice in the past two weeks." Nonetheless, Detroit was hitless until pinch-hitter Jake Wood doubled a Texas Leaguer into center field with one out in the eighth. An error by Angels second baseman Bobby Knoop brought Wood home with the tying run. May departed after nine innings, 139 pitches, one run, ten strikeouts, and one hit despite five walks, a brilliant debut, even though the Angels lost the game in 13 innings.

May had a strong start to his career, but he was wild (5.7 BB/9) and inconsistent during his first full season, ending with a 3.92 ERA and 4.01 FIP that weren't nearly as impressive as they looked given the pitching-friendly era. It was ultimately replacement-level, and May would not reemerge in the majors for another four years. He returned to the minors for the '66 season and fought arm problems over the next three seasons with the Angels' affiliates in El Paso, Seattle, and San Jose. His sore arm only allowed him to pitch 35 innings in '66 and 84 innings in '67 before rebounding somewhat in '67 with 129 innings in 22 games.

Although 24 years old in '69, May still had potential, and a strong Spring Training inspired Rigney to bring him back to the MLB rotation. Splitting the season between the bullpen and the rotation (25 starts, 18 relief appearances), May pitched to a league-average 3.44 ERA and 3.62 FIP with much better control. Having established himself as a decent starter, May remained in the Angels' rotation for five and a half years, alternating between solid and mediocre performances. He would occasionally pitch gems, like a 16-strikeout game on August 10, 1972 against the Twins that briefly tied him for the best strikeout performance in Angels history with Nolan Ryan. (Ryan, of course being Ryan, broke it a month and a half later with 17.) May also pitched 28 consecutive scoreless innings from April 17-May 9, 1973, a streak that included three shutouts in a row against the Athletics, Indians, and Orioles.

The shutout streak was his last moment of greatness for the Halos though, as he was abysmal for the rest of '73, pitching to a 6.17 ERA in the second half. He began '74 in the bullpen, only making three starts through mid-June, and he struggled again with an unsightly 7.00 ERA. The Angels were ready to give up on the soon-to-be 30-year-old, and they found a suitor in the Yankees. Longtime ace Mel Stottlemyre was battling tendon problems in his right shoulder that would eventually cost him his career, and the Yankees needed a new starter. At the June 15th trade deadline, they purchased May from the Angels.

Return to respectability

Under new owner George Steinbrenner and GM Gabe Paul, the Yankees' fortunes had reversed from the CBS era, and manager Bill Virdon had them in contention in the second half of '74. May joined the rotation and pitched to a 1.38 ERA in his first three starts as a Yankee (all complete games), but shoulder and hip injuries put him on the shelf for most of July. When he returned, he was brilliant down the stretch, pitching to a 2.26 ERA and .194/.286/.267 triple slash against with five complete games and two shutouts. It was a classic case of a pitcher needing a change of scenery, as May cited the Angels' loss of confidence in him as one of the reasons for his decline. The Yankees bounced back from a mediocre start as well, and jumped from sixth place on July 14th to the top of the AL East on September 4th. Unfortunately, the red-hot Orioles ended up winning the division title with a 16-2 finish to the season and a nine-game winning streak.

May and big free agent signing Catfish Hunter anchored the '75 rotation, and May threw 212 innings and 13 complete games with an 82 ERA- and 85 FIP-. The Red Sox were just too good in '75 though, so the Yankees had to settle for a third-place finish, above .500 at 83-77. May had another near-miss at a no-hit opportunity in early May of '76, as an Amos Otis double to lead off the ninth ruined a second significant bid 10 years and half a month after the first. Overall, May was off to a middling start in '76, pitching to a 104 ERA- and 107 FIP- in 11 starts. Although the Yankees were in first place, Paul decided that the starting rotation needed an overhaul. Two years to the day of the June 15th deadline deal that refreshed his career, May was on the move again in a tumultuous 10-player swing with the Orioles. May, backup catcher Rick Dempsey, bullpen arms Tippy Martinez and Dave Pagan, and pitching prospect Scott McGregor were shipped to Baltimore for starters Doyle Alexander and Ken Holtzman, backup catcher Elrod Hendricks, reliever Grant Jackson, and minor leaguer Jimmy Freeman. The deal ultimately paid off for the Yankees, as Alexander really helped the rotation and Jackson was dominant out of the bullpen. The Yankees won the AL pennant in '76, but were swept in the World Series by the Reds.

Brief stints away, then back to New York

May finished the season with the Orioles with a disappointing 116 ERA- as his former teammates went to the World Series. He pitched better in '77 though with a two-win season by WAR measures, and he was dealt to the Montreal Expos after the season. Olympic Stadium did not treat him well in '78, but in '79 while mostly staying in the bullpen, May was superb for the Expos as they made their first real run for a National League division title. May had a sterling 63 ERA- in 33 games, and while the Expos eventually lost the NL East by two games to the eventual-champion Pirates, he was able to parlay this campaign into a new deal during the 1979-80 offseason.

The 35-year-old lefty chose to return to the Yankees on a three-year deal worth $1 million, and in 1980, he proved to be an absolute steal. The Yankees had missed the playoffs in '79 after back-to-back titles in '77 and '78, but new manager Dick Howser had them on fire in 1980. Bouncing between the bullpen and the rotation again (17 starts, 24 relief appearances, and 175 1/3 total innings), May led the AL with a dominant 2.46 ERA (63 ERA-) in a near-five-win season by WAR measures, the best of his career. Reggie Jackson led the league with 41 homers, the Yankees won a MLB-high 103 games, and by winning the AL East, May was off to his first postseason in his nigh-20 years in the game.

The Yankees won three consecutive American League Championship Series from the Royals in '76-'78. 1980 was a different story however, as the Royals captured the first game of the best-of-five, then scored three runs off May in the third innings of Game 2 to beat him 3-2 in his playoff debut despite a complete game effort. A decisive three-run homer by George Brett off relief ace Goose Gossage in the seventh inning of Game 3 doomed the Yankees and just like that, the awesome season was over in just three games. Howser and Steinbrenner split under murky circumstances, much to the dismay of his team and many Yankees fans.

The '81 season was strange, as a mid-year strike split the season in two. By virtue of holding first place at the time of the strike, the Yankees were assured of a playoff spot. Steinbrenner made it even stranger by replacing new manager Stick Michael and replacing him with Bob Lemon even though Michael helped them to the first-half finish. May was not as good as he was in 1980, but the Yankees carried him on the playoff roster anyway. Lemon's Yankees won the AL East via a five-game Division series win over the Brewers, and they swept Martin's A's in the ALCS. The Yankees started May in the second game of that series, but he was knocked around, necessitating a comeback with reliever George Frazier on the mound. In his first and only World Series, May pitched out of the bullpen in three games against the Dodgers, pitching to a 2.84 ERA in 6 1/3 innings. The Yankees blew a two-game lead and lost four in a row to the Dodgers; they would not appear in the playoffs again for 14 years.

May's career wound down as he neared his forties in '82 and '83. He was almost traded to the Royals after '81 for DH Hal McRae, but both players were able to nix that deal. May wast then excellent as a lefty reliever out of the bullpen in '82. Back injuries shortened his '83 campaign, which was almost spent with the AL West champion White Sox due to an error. May stayed on the Yankees' roster in '84, but never made it into a game. His '83 season proved to be his last, as his career ended when his contract expired after the '84 season.

May was certainly not the most noticeable player on those wild '70s and '80s Yankees teams, but his contributions still helped lead the team to the playoffs. From the time he first joined the team, he had a lofty goal of replacing the beloved Stottlemyre in the rotation. From '74 through '84, the only Yankee to compile a better fWAR than May was the ace, Ron Guidry. I'd say that May did a fine job.

Andrew's rank: 76
Tanya's rank: 88
Community's rank: 99.6
Avg. WAR rank: 91

Season Stats

Year

Age

Tm

W

L

ERA

FIP

G

GS

CG

SHO

SV

IP

H

R

ER

HR

BB

SO

HBP

BK

WP

ERA-

FIP-

rWAR

fWAR

1974

29

NYY

8

4

2.28

2.94

17

15

8

2

0

114.1

75

36

29

5

48

90

4

1

2

64

82

2.7

2.2

1975

30

NYY

14

12

3.06

3.20

32

31

13

1

0

212.0

179

87

72

9

99

145

2

0

5

82

85

2.7

3.9

1976

31

NYY

4

3

3.57

3.75

11

11

2

1

0

68.0

49

32

27

5

28

38

1

0

3

104

109

0.0

0.5

1980

35

NYY

15

5

2.46

2.94

41

17

3

1

3

175.1

144

56

48

14

39

133

0

1

9

63

75

4.9

4.0

1981

36

NYY

6

11

4.14

3.28

27

22

4

0

1

147.2

137

71

68

10

41

79

2

0

6

116

90

0.4

2.2

1982

37

NYY

6

6

2.89

2.03

41

6

0

0

3

106.0

109

43

34

4

14

85

1

0

2

73

50

2.1

3.3

1983

38

NYY

1

5

6.87

3.85

15

0

0

0

0

18.1

22

15

14

1

12

16

1

0

2

175

100

-0.7

0.1

NYY (7 years)

54

46

3.12

3.04

184

102

30

5

7

841.2

715

340

292

48

281

586

11

2

29

84

82

12.1

16.2

Stats from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs

References

(News articles referenced in linked articles throughout story.)

Other Top 100 Yankees

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