The Yankees have always been a team with its fair share of excellent baseball players. In the last decade alone, we’ve seen Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mariano Rivera, Robinson Canó, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, Gerrit Cole, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, and more make their mark on the franchise. They were expected to perform at the highest level and, because of their talent, became franchise cornerstones.
This article isn’t about those kinds of players. This one is about the scrappy guys who bite and claw their way to relevancy and who, despite the odds stacked against them, become fan favourites among Yankees fans. These are the most unlikely players who have endeared themselves to the Yankee fanbase over the last decade.
We have to start with Nasty Nestor, whose performance on Tuesday night was my inspiration behind this article. Cortes was one of the Yankees’ best stories last year, and he continued his remarkable run earlier this week after absolutely shoving against one of the best lineups in all of baseball.
Prior to returning to New York for a third stint with the organization in 2021, Cortes had pitched to a 6.72 ERA, 6.69 FIP, and -1.1 fWAR to start his career. He was initially drafted by the Yankees in the 36th round of the 2013 MLB Draft before being selected by the Baltimore Orioles in the 2017 Rule 5 draft. By early April of that year, he was designated for assignment by early April. After languishing around the Yankees’ and Mariners’ organizations for a couple years, Cortes returned to New York on a minor league contract last year and, well, we saw just how well he performed after coming up in late May. Let’s hope that Cortes can continue his run this season, because he could quietly be a huge piece for this team. He’s also endlessly entertaining on the mound.
2021 Messing with Timing PitchingNinja Award!— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) December 2, 2021
Winner: Nestor Cortes (vs Shohei Ohtani)
See, Satchel Paige, Luis Tiant, Cueto, Stroman, Robles and Nasty Nestor.
Watch Full Video! --> https://t.co/xtmOn5Djng pic.twitter.com/bE8ZbCe6up
After quiet seasons in Cincinnati and Arizona, the Yankees acquired Didi Gregorius in a three-team trade in late-2014. His task was virtually impossible: he was set to take over shortstop after the retirement of Derek Jeter. After a particularly rough stretch to begin his Yankees tenure, Gregorius would eventually find his groove and slug his way into the hearts of Yankees fans.
In five seasons with the Yankees, Gregorius only hit to the tune of a 101 overall wRC+, but he clubbed 97 home runs and played excellent defense while with the team. He also posted his best seasons of his career by far in 2017 and 2018, when he slashed .277/.326/.486 with a 115 wRC+ and 8.8 fWAR. I still miss seeing Gregorius’s emoji-filled recap tweets in my feed. Oh, and he also just so happened to hit two of the biggest home runs for this club in recent memory.
I genuinely can’t think of a bench player more beloved in recent memory than Ronald Torreyes. After one season with the Dodgers, Torreyes joined the Yankees in 2016 and became a backup utilityman for three seasons. Although he was never particularly good on the field — he played decent defense at multiple positions and wasn’t exactly a threat at the plate (albeit with a nice walk-off moment) — his energy and life on the bench is what made him such a favourite among Yankees fans.
In particular, remembering Torreyes’ role as “cameraman” in the 2017 home run celebrations never fails to make me laugh. Toe is the epitome of unlikely fan favourite: he wasn’t really good, but he’s a guy you can’t help but root for. He is also responsible for my favourite baseball photo of all-time:
After some bad seasons in Cleveland and Toronto, the Yankees brought Gio Urshela in for the always useful “cash considerations.” After spending time in Triple-A, Urshela was brought up to replace an injured Miguel Andújar and never gave the third base job back.
In 2019 and 2020, Urshela went wild at the plate, slashing .310/.358/.523 with 27 home runs, 104 RBI, and 132 wRC+ as a bottom-of-the-order bat over that span. This was remarkably improbable, seeing as his career wRC+ before coming to New York was 57. Beyond just performing at the plate, though, Urshela endeared himself to Yankees fans through grit and hard work. He was never one of those guys who had a pretty Statcast page or excellent underlying metrics, but he was one of the hardest workers on the team, and fought his way to not only relevancy, but also stardom. No play embodies the effort that Urshela brought to this team better than this one, in what turned out to be his final regular season game in pinstripes:
Tommy Kahnle, like Cortes, was originally a Yankees draft pick who, after a few years in different organizations, found his way back to New York and immediately won over the Yankee faithful. Armed with a wicked changeup, a fiery personality, unrivaled intensity on the mound (perhaps fueled by too much Red Bull), and extremely tight pants, Kahnle managed to become a fan favourite despite posting up-and-down results out of the bullpen.
Kahnle also closed out one of the most important playoff games this team has played in the last decade and pitched to a 2.33 ERA and 0.776 WHIP in 19.1 postseason innings. Unfortunately, his career is currently on hold after having Tommy John surgery in 2020, but it’s only a matter of time before the fiery Tommy Tight Pants returns to a major league mound and gets the crowd fired up again.