The Yankees have such a rich history that one wouldn’t have much of a problem finding a surplus of options for any position in terms of pure production. One of the factors that played a role in the decision-making process beyond consistency and lack of stardom was the ability to show up in big spots.
In general, I find myself most often on the side of contextualizing and not letting a small sample size dictate my evaluation of a player. It’s why I firmly state that Billy Wagner is a Hall of Famer and Jack Morris probably not (however that’s not the focal point of this series). Was Monte Pearson the best complementary right-handed starter in the history of the Yankees? Not really, but I wanted to highlight his elite World Series career and he was certainly good enough to be here.
The whole point was to highlight players with great significance in the history of this ballclub and its 27 championships.
The lineup is set and our two starters as well, Eddie Lopat and Monte Pearson will headline this team of complementary greats. However, before we turn our attention to the two relievers (one right-handed and one a southpaw), there is a specific role that’s marked by its flexibility and deserves some attention.
Much like we did with Johnny Blanchard and the role of a bench specialist, we’ll open up another spot for that swingman pitcher. The choice for the role is Ramiro Mendoza.
Career NYY stats: 54-34, 4.10 ERA, 699.2 IP, 112 ERA+, 1.31 WHIP, 3.98 FIP
Mendoza was born June 15, 1972 in Los Santos, Panama. Nicknamed “El Brujo,” which is Spanish for the witch doctor, he originally came up as a starter for the Yankees’ eventual 1996 champions, but quickly moved to the ‘pen and had sort of a hybrid role for the majority of his career.
Looking at Mendoza’s career numbers, he was an above-average pitcher, but not nearly great enough to have his name involved in any sort of Yankees list, regardless of criteria. Only if you look a little further and dig deeper will you see what made him special and earned his place here in our list.
First and foremost, one must understand that any pitcher who fits the mold of a swingman has a limited ceiling. If you’re too great as a starter or as a reliever, teams will be more hesitant to move you around. There are instances where at a specific period, a pitcher transitions from starter to reliever or vice versa like Hall of Famers Dennis Eckersley or John Smoltz. That’s not what we’re looking for here.
As previously noted, Mendoza came up as a starter in 1996 and was exactly that for all but one of his appearances. His initial crack at the bigs was far from kind outside of a few scant outings, and he didn’t even make the postseason roster. A 6.79 ERA in 53 innings will do that to you, but even then there was some bad luck involved. After all, he had an ungodly .385 BABIP and a very reasonable 3.91 FIP, which is actually lower than his 3.98 career number in pinstripes.
From 1997 onward, Mendoza took on the swingman role. He was too versatile a pitcher to simply stash in Triple-A, and manager Joe Torre found that it was quite useful to have Mendoza around for whatever was needed. He usually pitched in middle relief, but he could slide up to the setup role, start if the Yankees needed someone to step in with short notice, and even close if fellow countryman Mariano Rivera was out. Although Mendoza rarely overpowered anyone, when his vicious sinker was on, hitters could do very little against it; sure enough, he induced 72 double plays during his Yankees career.
For the majority of his career, Mendoza alternated moments and didn’t show a ton of consistency; however, the ballclub often came back to him in important spots. In his second year, Mendoza rebounded to put up respectable numbers and followed that with the best season of his career in 1998. The 26-year-old went 10-2 in 41 games (14 starts), posting a 3.25 ERA and 1.23 WHIP, good for a 137 ERA+ and 2.9 rWAR.
From ‘97-’99, El Brujo pitched in five different postseason series the Yankees were in and held his own, highlighted by three shutout innings of one-hit ball in relief of a shaky David Cone in the 1998 pennant clincher and the opportunity to close out the Red Sox in Game 5 of the 1999 ALCS.
After a down year in 2000 plagued by a shoulder injury that ended his season in late July, Torre came back to him in 2001 and he had his greatest playoff run in a Yankee uniform.
Mendoza allowed just a single earned run in 12.1 innings pitched (0.73 ERA) during the unforgettable 2001 postseason, which ultimately fell short against the Diamondbacks in Game 7 of the World Series. The right-hander pitched 4.1 scoreless against the A’s in the ALDS, allowed a solo shot in 5.1 innings versus the Mariners, and another 2.2 frames of shutout ball in the Fall Classic, keeping Arizona off the board at crucial moments prior to the comebacks in Game 4 and Game 5.
Following another steady campaign in 2002, Mendoza left for a two-year contract with the Red Sox. He added another World Series ring to his collection, though he only pitched twice in the 2004 run to the title. Mendoza returned to the Yankees’ minor league system over the next couple seasons, but made it into just one game in 2005. That marked the end of his 10-year career.
Overall in postseason play for New York, Mendoza had the following stat line:
18 G, 26.2 IP, 2.36 ERA, 3.31 FIP, 1.01 WHIP, 16 K, 4 BB
Mendoza was never a dominant pitcher for a significant period, but was always reliable and counted upon by Torre time and time again in pivotal spots. El Brujo certainly left his mark.