You’ve heard the claims before. “Only a select few can play for the Bombers,” or “he just wasn’t cut out to play for New York.” You do not hear these kinds of things being said about any other MLB team than the Yankees. New York sports teams and the Yankees in particular are notorious for weeding out the meek. The pressure cooker environment of playing in front of the most demanding fan base and under the most critical media scrutiny has humbled many would-be stars.
In recent years, the Yankees have pursued many players with sparkling resumes or heaps of promise, only to see them fall flat in pinstripes. The particularly frustrating ones are the players who find instant success after escaping the New York spotlight. These are the examples that stick out in my mind of how playing for the Yankees is a whole different animal.
Any discussion about recent players who could not handle the added stress of playing for the New York Yankees begins and ends with Sonny Gray. Fans were justifiably excited when the Yankees traded for him at the 2017 trade deadline, as he was one of the best young pitchers in the league with multiple cheap years of team control.
The Yankees needed another lively arm in the rotation if they wanted to challenge the juggernaut pitching staffs of the AL, and were in a position to capitalize on the breakout performances of their young core of players. Sonny Gray seemed to fit the bill, given his third-place Cy Young campaign of 2015, in which he sported a 2.73 ERA, 3.45 FIP and 1.082 WHIP in 208 innings pitched.
Things could not have gone much worse for the expectation-burdened Gray, as his ERA ballooned to 4.51, FIP to 4.40 and WHIP to 1.416 in pinstripes. In particular, his 7.71 home ERA was untenable in the starting rotation. He looked like a deer in the headlights during every postgame interview that followed another poor outing.
Even Brian Cashman was uncharacteristically blunt in his comments about Gray’s future with the Yankees. For a general manager who normally backs his players, this was rather shocking to hear, regardless of Gray’s struggles. Ultimately, the Yankees traded Gray to the Reds for peanuts after one-and-a-half disappointing years.
Gray appears to have confirmed that his struggles stemmed from the stress of playing in New York, given his bounce-back year in Cincinnati last season. He hurled an impressive 205 strikeouts in 175.1 innings pitched, to the tune of a 2.87 ERA, 3.42 FIP and 1.084 WHIP, earning a seventh-place finish in the Cy Young voting. To be fair, Larry Rothschild was ill-equipped to maximize on Gray’s strengths as a pitcher, a stance which Gray himself has echoed. It is a shame that we will never know what Gray could have produced in pinstripes had he been coached correctly.
When Lynn’s acquisition was announced on the heels of the J.A. Happ trade, Yankees fans dreamed of a competent fifth starter to take the place of the floundering Sonny Gray at the the back of the rotation. His numbers were decidedly unspectacular with the Twins that season, but at that point anything would have been an upgrade over the man he was replacing. He actually impressed to close out the regular season, posting a 4.14 ERA and 2.17 FIP in nine starts, but it was his bellyflop in the postseason that truly secured his place on this list.
Lynn’s most infamous outing as a Yankee came during Boston’s 16-1 drubbing of the Yankees in Game Three of the 2018 ALDS. With the bases loaded and nobody out, Aaron Boone brought Lynn on in relief of a struggling Luis Severino, who had surrendered three runs in three innings. Lynn gave up four runs while only recording one out before being replaced by Chad Green, but the game, and the series, were effectively over at that point.
The Yankees declined his option for the 2019 season, and he was quickly snapped up by the Rangers. What he would go on to do in the final season of Globe Life Park beggars belief. Lynn had a career year, fanning 246 batters in 208.1 innings pitched while rocking a stingy 3.67 ERA and 3.13 FIP. This 6.8 fWAR performance earned Lynn a fifth-place Cy Young finish and left Yankees fans grasping at straws as to where the pitching department went wrong.
The Yankees entered the 2010 trade deadline with a two game lead in the AL East standings. They looked to add an impact bat to sustain them down the stretch with aspirations of defending their World Series crown, and in Lance Berkman they felt they had found their man. While expectations were not particularly high, there was hope the switch-hitting veteran still had some juice left in the tank. After all, he had been a perennial All-Star in Houston, and even had a top-five MVP finish as recently as 2008.
Instead of acquiring a power hitter who had amassed 313 home runs, and an OPS+ and wRC+ of 147 in his first ten seasons, they got a replacement-level player who only hit one home run with a 90 OPS+ and 91 wRC+ in 37 games. He gave a valiant effort in the postseason covering for an injured Mark Teixeira, but it was not enough to prevent an ALCS exit to the Rangers.
Much to the chagrin of Yankees fans, Berkman instantly rediscovered his form the next season with the Cardinals. He smacked 31 home runs and posted a 164 OPS+ and 163 wRC+ to finish seventh in MVP voting. Even more painful for Yankees fans were Berkman’s clutch contributions than helped seal the Cardinals’ World Series victory, as his game-tying, two-out, two-strike RBI single in the bottom of the tenth set the stage for David Freese’s heroics in the pivotal Game Six.
Scores of players have hoped to etch their names in the annals of Yankee history, only to wilt under the blazing lights of Yankee Stadium. Far more have failed than succeeded, with many going on to have productive careers in less stressful surroundings. This only further sets apart the Yankees legends for their achievements in the most hostile of sports environments.