“Oh no, why is he coming into the game?”
If you’re reading this, I guarantee you that this thought has gone through your mind more than once in recent weeks. Whether it’s Andrew Heaney, Nick Nelson, or Brooks Kriske that gets that reaction when they begin the long jog in from the bullpen door, we all understand the immense feeling of dread. No lead feels safe when they enter the game, and when the Yankees are down, their entrance feels like a white flag flying over the Yankees dugout.
For some reason, watching Kriske turn an ordinary loss into an eight-run blowout earlier this week got me thinking about the worst pitchers to have pitched more than a handful of innings for the Yankees in the last few years. To facilitate my trip down memory lane, I dove into FanGraphs’ archives, pulling out pitchers that have thrown at least ten innings for the Yankees since the year 2000 and sorting them by ERA. And surprise, surprise, guess who stared back at me from the top of the list.
Yep, that’s right, Kriske’s performance over the last two seasons is literally the worst performance by a pitcher who has thrown 10 or more innings for the Yankees in the last two decades, with the worst ERA, the worst FIP, the lowest fWAR, the highest HR/FB rate, the most HR/9, and the worst BB/9. What the Yankees see in him, I have no idea. But in the interest of ignoring the slog that is the 2021 season, let’s dive into some of the other names that caught my eye on this list.
When the Yankees signed Octavio Dotel following the 2005 season, he was a veteran closer with a career 3.63 ERA (an ERA+ of 126) and 71 saves over seven seasons with the New York Mets, Houston Astros, and Oakland Athletics. The only problem, however, was that he had Tommy John surgery the previous June, which meant he would miss the first few months of the season to begin with, while an additional setback pushed his return to the mound to the month of August.
With the Yankees desperately needing quality relief pitching from somebody not named Mariano Rivera or Scott Proctor, Dotel turned out to be...not that. Sure, he kept opposing teams scoreless in eight of his 15 appearances, but in those other seven outings, he allowed runs like they were going out of style. All that combined for ERA on the wrong side of 10, and for obvious reasons, he played no part in the playoffs that year.
The following season, as a member of the Kansas City Royals, Dotel would get himself back on track, and he would bounce around the league until 2013 as a perfectly serviceable middle reliever capable of closing in a pinch when needed. His time on the Yankees, however, was a time to forget.
Brandon Knight came to the Yankees following the 1999 season in the deal that sent Chad Curtis to the Texas Rangers. Fortunately for the Yankees, the focus appeared to be more about getting Curtis out of the clubhouse, which had grown tired of his act, than about getting value from the Rangers, because they didn’t really get any. In 11 games over two seasons with the Yankees, Knight surrendered 24 runs on 29 hits, striking 14 and walking 8; in such a short period of time, he accumulated a grand total of -0.5 fWAR and -0.7 bWAR.
Although Knight’s story with the Yankees ended poorly, however, his personal Odyssey was only just beginning. From 2003 to 2005, Knight spent time in Japan with the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks and Nippon Ham Fighters, posting a 5.95 ERA there, before eventually returning to the States. After bouncing within the Pirates organization and the independent leagues, he returned to the Major League mound in 2008 as a member of the New York Mets, with whom he would post a 5.25 ERA in 4 appearances. In the middle of that wandering, he won a bronze medal as a member of Team USA in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
When the Yankees sent Shawn Kelley to the San Diego Padres after the 2014 for Johnny Barbato, they were hoping to uncover a young reliever with several years of team control that would be able to fill an important role in their bullpen for years to come. Unfortunately, after Barbato spun five scoreless outings in April to begin his career, opposing hitters made an adjustment. He would give up five runs in his final eight games of the season, scattered over the next two months, and his opposing OPS rose from .317 to 1.041.
After Barbato surrendered three runs without recording an out on August 5, the Yankees sent him down, and he never appeared in pinstripes again. He was traded to the Pirates the following April, was claimed off waivers by the Tigers in January 2018, spent the 2019 in Japan, bounced around the independent circuit in 2020 and the first part of 2021, before finally returned to a big league organization in June, as his contract was purchased by the Toronto Blue Jays; he has yet to make an appearance in the big leagues for them.
Arguably the most successful of the random youngsters on this list, Caleb Smith made his major league debut on July 17, 2017, in which he surrendered two runs on four hits in three innings, striking out five and walking one. His next two outings were his first starts, in neither of which was he able to get out of the fourth inning, and although the Yankees won both games, it was not due to Smith’s performance. Fortunately for the Yankees, he did not need to make another start that season, as the Yankees acquired both Sonny Gray and Jaime García, relegating Smith to mop-up duty in blowouts — when he was even on the roster at all.
Smith’s greatest contribution to the team came that offseason, when he was traded, along with Garrett Cooper, to the Miami Marlins for Michael King and international bonus money. Since then, he became a solid back-end of the rotation starter who occasionally provides glimpses of top-of-the-rotation potential with the Marlins and has now become a good middle reliever with the Arizona Diamondbacks (2.89 ERA out of the bullpen this season). No matter his performance, however, he will always have to bear the mockery of being one of the first pitchers suspended for having a foreign substance on his glove.