Every now and then, a player takes everyone by surprise, putting up performances that their previous seasons would not have foreshadowed, and would not be replicated for the rest of their careers. These three players were the first Yankees to jump to mind for two-year stretches that exceeded all expectations.
After the departures of Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens for the Astros following the ignominious World Series defeat at the hands of the Marlins, the Yankees were quite thin in the starting-pitcher department. The following two years saw an aging rotation hindered by injuries to and general ineffectiveness of big-money free agent reinforcements. Instead of via free agency or trade, their best pitcher for two years starting in 2006 came from the farm system.
Chien-Ming Wang was originally signed as a free agent out of Taiwan in 2000, and he spent the next four years in the minor leagues. He made his major-league debut in 2005 to decent success, posting a 4.02 ERA in 18 games, but missed substantial time to injury. Little could Yankees fans have envisioned what he had in store for the next two seasons.
Wang turned in two straight 19-win seasons in 2006 and 2007. The nineteen wins in 2006 tied the league lead with Johan Santana, and his 3.63 ERA in 218 innings pitched helped him to a runner-up Cy Young finish to the aforementioned Santana. Wang’s 19-win follow up season in 2007 was, in some respects, better than his previous campaign, as he increased his strikeout rate and lowered his FIP, WHIP, and home-run rate, albeit in 19 fewer innings pitched. I acknowledge that wins has become an antiquated statistic to measure pitchers, however all of his other measurables back up his performance.
He boasted MLB’s lowest home run per nine rate in both seasons, with a mark of 0.50 in 2006 and 0.41 in 2007, both less than half of the league-average rate. He also sported the league’s third highest groundball rate over that span, at 60.6%, or about 17 points higher than average. This was due to his heavy reliance on his power sinker, which he threw over fifty percent of the time.
Unfortunately, a foot injury incurred while running the bases in 2008 robbed him of much of his effectiveness, and he would never return to the heights of those 2006 and 2007 seasons. Across six seasons in nine years with the Yankees, Nationals, Blue Jays, and Royals, Wang would never break the 100 innings pitched barrier, while pitching to a 5.42 ERA, 4.64 FIP, and a home run rate of more than double his magic two-year run in the Bronx. As the late Hank Steinbrenner put it, had the NL “joined the modern age” and instituted the DH, Wang may have carved out quite an impressive career with the Yankees.
Following the championship 2009 season, the Yankees needed an immediate marquee center fielder, rather than wait on the development of then-prospect Austin Jackson. So, they acquired Tigers center fielder Curtis Granderson in a deal that saw Jackson head the other way, as well as Max Scherzer move from the Diamondbacks to Detroit.
In Granderson, it appeared the Yankees had landed a speedy, capable outfielder with decent numbers at the plate. Granderson demonstrated that he did have some pop in his bat while with Detroit, including a 30 homer campaign the season before his trade to the Bronx, however Yankees fans could not have predicted the power surge that started in his second season with the Bombers.
In 2011, Granderson entered elite company by hitting 41 home runs on the season. He became the first Yankee center fielder to achieve that feat since Mickey Mantle. He followed that achievement up by hitting 43 home runs in 2012. In both seasons, Granderson finished second on the AL home-run list.
He certainly took advantage of the hitter’s porch in right field, and his near-50% pull rate facilitated breaking the 40 home run plateau in back-to-back seasons. During this run, he boasted a gaudy home run per fly ball rate of over 22%, far in excess of the league average of just under 10%.
The 2011 campaign was the better of the two years looking at the complete offensive picture. Granderson’s 142 OPS+ and 146 wRC+, along with his league-leading 119 runs batted in and 136 runs scored, earned him a fourth-place MVP finish.
Granderson would never replicate the slugging feats he achieved between 2011-2012. His next-highest home run total after this run was 30 with the Mets in 2016. After a down season with the hapless Marlins, Granderson called it quits in January this year. However, he is still able to carry out what has always been his greatest contribution: his charity work. For the philanthropic efforts of his Grand Kids Foundation, he won the Roberto Clemente Award in 2016, and he has recently leveraged the reach of his foundation to help combat food insecurity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
When Tom Gordon arrived in New York, the most notable thing about him was perhaps his serving as inspiration for a Stephen King novel. As an ex-starter entering his age-36 season, he had missed all of 2000 to Tommy John surgery, after which he bounced around the league between the Cubs, Astros, and White Sox in low-profile roles. Expectations were justifiably low.
In the three seasons following his surgery, Gordon only averaged 49 appearances and 54 innings pitched, to the tune of a 3.28 ERA and 1.198 WHIP. Decent numbers to be sure, but certainly not eye-popping. All of this is to say, his two sparkling seasons as a Yankee could never have been predicted.
Between 2004 and 2005, Gordon established himself as a premier setup man for Mariano Rivera. In that span, he appeared in 159 games throwing 170.1 innings, to a much-improved 2.38 ERA (185 ERA+) and 0.980 WHIP. The 2.8 fWAR he accumulated in his debut season in pinstripes was the highest mark since his days as a starter.
This rejuvenated performance earned Gordon a hefty late-career payday with the Phillies in 2006, who signed the 38-year-old to a three-year $18 million pact. And while his first season in Philadelphia approached the standard he set in New York, ultimately Father Time stepped in.
From 2006 until his retirement in 2009, Gordon would appear in 140 games, throwing only 130.2 innings, pitching to a 4.41 ERA, 4.46 FIP, and 1.393 WHIP. Apart from his baseball exploits and book fame, Flash Gordon’s other claim to fame is as father of Mariners’ infielder Dee Gordon. Yankees fans, however, will forever remember him as part of the lethal one-two punch of the Bombers’ bullpen in 2004-2005.