When I ask you to think of the worst pitching staff in Yankees history, you probably have a year or era that comes to mind. For a lot of us, that might be the ones from those mid-2000s teams. Many years in that era, the read of the Yankees was that they had an excellent lineup but no pitching, and it would come back to cost them in the postseason.
The thing about those years, and most in franchise history, is that even if the staff is total is bad, there’s still some solid pitchers in there. For example, in 2005, marquee acquisition Randy Johnson was disappointing, but still put up above-average numbers. Beyond him, the team got some solid contributions from the likes of Aaron Small, and you still had Mariano Rivera dominating from the bullpen.
To find the truly worst pitching staff in Yankees history, you have to go all the way back to 1908, when they were still the Highlanders, and had literally no pitcher have a good season.
A generally quick and easy way to look at a pitcher’s numbers in context of that season and era is ERA+. The purpose of ERA+ is to adjust a pitcher’s ERA by both ballpark and the league average for that season, in order to compare numbers across era, since a 3.50 ERA could be pretty quick in a good hitting era, but mediocre in a good pitching one. A ERA+ of 100 is always exactly league average, while anything higher is above average, and anything lower is below.
I say all that to say this: quite literally no pitcher on the 1908 Highlanders had an ERA+ above the average 100. Everyone was worse than the league average that season.
The best Highlanders pitchers who threw a qualifying number of innings (ie one for every team a game played) were Jack Chesboro and Rube Manning, who each put up an 84 ERA+. At 2.93 and 2.94 respectively, their ERAs don’t seem bad on the surface, but 1908 was definitely a time for the men on the mound. On average, teams scored just 3.4 runs per game that year. The league leader in ERA among qualified pitchers for the season was Addie Joss all the way down at 1.16.
Okay, fine, the Yankees didn’t have anyone who qualified for leaderboards who had a good season, that doesn’t mean they could’ve gotten solid contributions elsewhere, thought? Well, they didn’t. Even if you count pitchers that threw any amount of innings, Chesboro and Manning had the joint third highest ERA+. Harry Billiard and Slow Joe Doyle had the two best figures at 96 and 95 respectively. Those two numbers are only slightly below the league norm, and it’s fair to say that’s close enough to dub their seasons as “average.” The issue is that they threw 17 and 48 innings.
Up and down the Highlanders’ roster, no one did much better than that. Doc Newton? 84 ERA+. Andy O’Conner? 26 ERA+. Hippo Vaughn? Not even him, 81 ERA+. In no other year have the Yankees had the distinction of having no pitchers with above average ERA+ figures. The next worst is 1929, and even then they had two guys crack 100.
Now saying that no one had a ERA+ over 100 is true but also a little bit of a trick. With the way math works and being unable to divide by zero, if you put up a 0.00 ERA, then you can’t register an ERA+, because it’s impossible to calculate. The 1908 Highlanders did actually have someone who put up a 0.00 ERA. That person is Hal Chase. The reason he was able to put up a ERA of nothing and not pitch too much in a year where the team clearly desperately needing pitching is because Chase was a position player. His innings total for the year was 0.1 after retiring the only batter he faced.
Statistically, position player and accused game thrower Hal Chase was the New York Highlanders’ best pitcher in 1908. You probably won’t be surprised to find out that they went 51-103.