Last week, I offered my take on the Yankees’ all-time “good” lineup, composed exclusively of non-Hall of Famers. Now it’s time to do the same for pitchers.
Once again, the rules are fairly simple. I’ll be looking for the best single-season performances as measured by Baseball-Reference’s WAR model. (Looking at career WAR, or really any other way you’d like to measure performance, is perfectly fine. By all means, make your own lists! This is just my version.)
This list will feature four starters and three relievers. To qualify as a reliever, a pitcher must have thrown at least 80 percent of his innings out of the bullpen. Only retired, non HOF-eligible ballplayers are allowed.
I’ve also decided that only pitchers from 1920 onward will be eligible. The two decades prior composed the Dead Ball Era and it frankly is quite far removed from the game we know and love today. Arbitrary? Maybe, but those are my rules.
Here we go:
Starting pitcher – Ron Guidry
1978: 273.2 IP, 25-3 W-L, 1.74 ERA, 2.19 FIP, 0.94 WHIP, 9.6 bWAR
Guidry’s second full season in the majors was his finest, spearheading the Yankees’ rotation en route to the team’s second consecutive World Series title, while taking home the AL Cy Young Award. He even came in second in AL MVP voting. His 1.74 ERA led the majors and his ERA+ was a whopping 208, meaning his ERA was more than twice as good as league average. He threw an amazing nine complete game shutouts.
Starting pitcher – Andy Pettitte
1997: 240.1 IP, 18-7 W-L, 2.88 ERA, 2.96 FIP, 1.24 WHIP, 8.4 bWAR
Pettitte was long established as one of baseball’s most reliable starters, but he rarely put up flashy numbers. His performance in 1997 was a notable exception and turned out to be the finest of his career, finishing third to only Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez in pitcher WAR. Earlier this year, Fangraph’s Effectively Wild podcast dove into Pettitte’s Hall of Fame case, with Sam Miller offering a compelling argument for the southpaw. Unfortunately for Pettitte, he stands on the outside looking in currently.
Starting pitcher – Bob Shawkey
1920: 267.2 IP, 20-13 W-L, 2.45 ERA, 3.26 FIP, 1.23 WHIP, 8.1 bWAR
Shawkey just gets in under the wire with my ban on pre-1920 players. His numbers speak for themselves, so let me just share a tidbit I picked up while perusing his SABR bio: in 1914, he married Marie Lakjer (pronounced “look here,” as SABR points out), who was a “divorcee known to Philadelphians as the ‘Tiger Lady’ for her ‘massive robe of tiger skins.’” She apparently shot her previous husband in the head (he survived) but the charges were dropped after she claimed self-defense. In the “Tiger King” era we’re living in, this connection alone would merit Shawkey a spot on this list.
Starting pitcher – Mel Stottlemyre
1965: 291 IP, 20-9 W-L, 2.63 ERA, 3.24 FIP, 1.16 WHIP, 6.9 bWAR
Most current fans will remember Stottlemyre as Joe Torre’s pitching coach during the 1990s dynasty, but don’t sleep on Stottlemyre the pitcher. His first full season in the majors, 1965, was his best, earning him the first of five All-Star nods. The tragedy of Stottlemyre’s career is that he came just after the great teams of the early ‘60s and retired in 1974, just before the late ‘70s squad would return the franchise to glory. For an otherwise dark decade in between, Stottlemyre was one of the few bright lights.
Relief pitcher – Joe Page
1949: 135.1 IP, 13-8 W-L, 27 SV, 2.59 ERA, 3.59 FIP, 1.31 WHIP, 4.4 bWAR
Page, a failed starter who was known as a hard-drinking carouser, found a home pitching out of the bullpen with the Yankees’ great teams of the late ‘40s. In 1949, he pitched exclusively out of the pen, compiling one of the finest years ever by a Yankee reliever. In fact, the only single season bWAR totals better are owned by Hall of Famers Goose Gossage (4.5 in 1982) and Mariano Rivera (5.0 in 1996). Of course, throwing 135 innings doesn’t hurt.
Relief pitcher – Lindy McDaniel
1970: 111.2 IP, 9-5 W-L, 29 SV, 2.01 ERA, 2.62 FIP, 0.99 WHIP, 4.2 bWAR
McDaniel pitched six of his 21 major league seasons for the Yankees, turning in pretty solid performances. But in 1970, at age 34, he had his best in the Bronx. After retiring in in 1975, he became a minister, which he’s apparently still doing to this day. According to McDaniel’s SABR bio, Joe Garagiola once said of him: “Lindy’s the only preacher I know with a great knockdown pitch.”
Relief pitcher – Tom Gordon
2004: 89.2 IP, 9-4 W-L, 4 SV, 2.21 ERA, 2.44 FIP, 0.88 WHIP, 4.0 bWAR
“Flash” Gordon spent just two seasons in pinstripes, but was Mariano Rivera’s top deputy and one of Joe Torre’s most trusted bullpen options during that time. He was never better during his 21-year career than he was in 2004. Most impressive is the fact that, unlike Page and McDaniel, Gordon accumulated that hefty WAR total over less than 100 innings.
So that’s the staff. Is there room for argument? Certainly. Finishing just off the pace were David Cone, who had a 6.7 bWAR season in 1997, and Dave Righetti, who had a 3.8 bWAR season in 1986 out of the bullpen. If I were actually staffing a team, those guys might well get the nod, but it’s interesting to look back on some of the lesser known Yankees who made big impacts, if only for a season or two.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story listed Catfish Hunter, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1987.