In March of 1998, the Yankees finalized a deal with Cuban pitching legend Orlando “El Duque” Hernández. The organization was confident enough in the skills of Hernández that they committed $6.6 million dollars over four years to the international star. There will always be a roll of the dice to a certain extent when pinning your hopes on an international player with regards to his performance — baseball is played on a very high level in Cuba to be sure, but it’s not the same as facing the best hitters in the world every time you take the mound.
Furthermore, this wasn’t an ordinary opportunity to pitch in the majors. The Yankees had won the World Series in 1996, then won 96 games in 1997, ending the season with a heartbreaking loss in the ALDS. Heading into 1998, their core of good young players was becoming a core of great young players, and they upgraded their infield significantly by acquiring Chuck Knoblauch and Scott Brosius via offseason trades. El Duque would be playing in the biggest city in the world, for the sport’s most storied franchise, with the sport’s most temperamental owner, on a team with every expectation of winning the World Series.
As much as everyone loved his ability to throw a baseball, El Duque was being put into a situation with about as much pressure as there can be in MLB. The question as much as anything would be “Can he handle it?”
Contract Details: Signed to 4-year, $6.6-million contract (arb-eligible)
Transaction Date: March 23, 1998
NYY stats during first contract (1998-2002): 53 wins, 4.04 ERA, 114 ERA+, 4.39 FIP, 2.51 postseason ERA in 16 games; 1999 ALCS MVP
After defecting to the United States and working out a deal with the Yankees, Hernández toyed with minor league hitters over nine starts pitching for High-A Tampa and the Triple-A Columbus Clippers. After striking out 74 batters in 51.1 innings, it was clear he was going to fit in the Yankee rotation somehow.
As fans of the era likely remember, Veronica — the beloved Jack Russell Terrier of Joan Cone — took a disliking to Joan’s son David and bit him on the finger in early June of ‘98. This might have been a mildly amusing and only slightly inconvenient situation had it happened to a mere mortal like you or me, but the bite caused enough damage that it necessitated the Yankees’ star pitcher skipping at least one start.
As a result, Hernández would make his first start in the Bronx on June 3, 1998 against Tampa Bay. He quickly eliminated any cause for concern by dominating the Devil Rays that Wednesday evening, allowing only one run over seven innings while fanning seven. He impressed even more in his next start in Montreal by tossing a complete game and striking out nine, leading the Yanks to an 11-1 win.
As much optimism as Hernández’s first two starts generated, it had to be noted that they came against two offensively inept teams, as both Tampa Bay and Montreal had the fewest runs scored in their respective leagues by a pretty wide margin. El Duque’s next start would be in Cleveland, against the powerhouse nemesis of the Yankees’ 1997 postseason.
That was very likely the last time anyone around the Yankees worried about El Duque’s ability, as he shut Cleveland down, striking out seven over 7.2 innings, allowing only a couple runs in a 5-2 Yankees’ win. Over his first three starts, Hernández averaged over 7 innings per start, with 121 pitches per start and an average Game Score of 71, showing that he wasn’t going to be a back end of the rotation pitcher or spot starter – he was going to be a front end starter in a rotation that was already loaded.
By season’s end, Hernández threw 141 innings over 21 starts, and finished third among Yankee pitchers in WAR. Among pitchers in the AL who threw as many innings in ’98, El Duque trailed only Cy Young frontrunners Roger Clemens and Pedro Martínez in opponents’ OPS+, while finishing fourth in ERA+, fifth in K%, and sixth in FIP. That earned him a fourth place finish in the Rookie of the Year voting that November.
Yet as we mentioned above, the Yankees’ 1998 team was going to be defined by their postseason results. After winning 114 games during the season, then getting past Texas in the ALDS without much resistance, the Yankees would face adversity for the first time of the season in the ALCS, once again against Cleveland. After winning Game 1, the Yankees dropped two in a row in crushing fashion and were in Cleveland for Game 4, trailing the series 2-1.
In what was surely the most pressure-packed start of the season for any Yankee pitcher, El Duque showed no signs feeling the pressure. He absolutely dominated Cleveland that night throwing seven innings, allowing no runs and only three hits, leading the Yankees to a 4-0 win. It ended the Yankees’ two-game losing streak and started what would become a 12-game multi-year postseason win streak for the team.
In the World Series, El Duque demonstrated that his first postseason start was no fluke. Facing San Diego in Game 2 with the Yankees leading the Series 1-0, “the Duke” threw seven innings, striking out seven and allowing only one run in front of the Bronx faithful. The Yankees would win the game 9-3, and the series 4-0 for their 24th championship.
In 1999, El Duque showed he wasn’t going to be a flash in the pan, making 33 starts for the Yankees and finishing second on the team to Cone in WAR among pitchers. He posted a 114 ERA+ on the season and finished third in the AL in hits allowed per nine innings and sixth in WHIP. But again, it would be the postseason when the lights were brightest in which he would shine the most.
In Game 1 of the ALDS against a Texas team that averaged 5.83 runs per game in 1999, El Duque threw eight innings of shutout ball in the Yankees’ win. In Game 1 of the ALCS against Boston, he threw eight innings, allowing only two runs and left with the game tied (the Yankees would eventually win in 10 innings on a Bernie Williams walk-off HR.) Then in ALCS Game 5, he led the Yankees in the series clincher with seven innings of one-run ball while striking out eight Red Sox. His performances in Games 1 and 5 earned him the ALCS MVP.
Perhaps the most telling example of how much confidence the Yankees and manager Joe Torre had in El Duque came when he got the nod to start Game 1 of the 1999 World Series against Greg Maddux and the Braves. On a team that had David Cone, Roger Clemens, and Andy Pettitte to choose from for Game 1, Torre went with El Duque, despite El Duque pitching the last game of the ALCS.
To no one’s surprise at that point, that trust was rewarded with a dominant seven-inning, one-hit, 10-strikeout performance that led the Yankees to a 4-1 win and the series lead. Hernández wouldn’t need to pitch again in ’99 as the Yankees would win the next three games and have their 25th championship.
After another good regular season in 2000, Hernández continued his postseason sovereignty with a win over Oakland in the ALDS, then two more over Seattle in the ALCS. His 8-0 record to start his postseason career broke the previous MLB record of 7-0 set by Orel Hershiser. His first postseason defeat would come at the hands of the Mets in Game 3 of the 2000 Series, but even then. Hernández kept the Yankees in the game, getting into the eighth inning while allowing four runs.
Hernández missed most of the summer of 2001 due to both back and shoulder pain (the shoulder would eventually require rotator cuff surgery), limiting him to only 16 starts and 94.1 innings on the season. After avoiding arbitration with the Yankees on a one-year, $3.2 million deal, he’d have a modest resurgence in 2002, but was traded to the White Sox in the offseason (Chicago would then trade him to Montreal on the same day). He’d end up having a solid second stint in the Bronx in the second half of 2004, and he’d win another ring with Chicago in 2005 before moving on to Arizona and the Mets, for whom he’d pitch his last game in 2007.
There were many questions surrounding “El Duque” when the Yankees signed him in 1998, but in the face of the pressure, he never blinked. His skill and performances on the mound, and his proclivity for being at his best in the postseason made him a phenomenal acquisition.
Nostalgically, it was more than that, however. Whether it was his knee-high socks, unique wind-up, fielding ingenuity, or his gritty persona (how many times did we wonder if he and Jorge Posada would have to be separated during mound visits?), El Duque was a fan favorite as well. Due to his ability to miss bats and avoid hard contact, he was a favorite of the analytical crowd, but his ability to use guile, command and game management instead of overpowering stuff also make him beloved among the “old school” crowd.
Well done Yankees, and well done El Duque.