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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #51 Dave Righetti

Righetti firmly holds the title as second-best Yankees closer of all time, and he was a pretty darn good starter, too.

New York Yankees Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Name: David Allan Righetti
Position: Pitcher
Born: November 28, 1958 (San Jose, CA)
Yankee Years: 1979-90
Primary number: 19
Yankee statistics: 522 G, 1,136 IP, 74-61, 224 SV, 76 GS, 3.11 ERA, 127 ERA+, 940 K, 21.3 rWAR, 23.7 fWAR

Biography

Dave Righetti’s career as a New York Yankee was filled with great personal accomplishments as both a starting pitcher and relief pitcher. Unfortunately for him, his peak came during some of the most disappointing years in recent franchise history, but it didn’t stop him from being extremely effective. Only one man in Yankees’ history has more saves than Righetti, and you can probably guess who.

“Rags” was born in San Jose in 1958, pitched 16 years in the big leagues, and had an even longer career as the pitching for the San Francisco Giants. The San Jose native is a baseball lifer who got to experience the repeated success of being part of a dynasty; it just didn’t happen while he was pitching for the big leagues, or for anybody as a matter of fact.

New York Yankees Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Road to the Big Leagues

Righetti was a baller from a young age. To some extent, he at least came by it naturally. His father, Leo Charles Righetti, had been a minor league infielder in the Yankees’ organization from 1944-49. He never made The Show but continued playing minor league ball until 1957, shortly before Dave was born.

As a kid, Dave came up through playing ball in northern California, often on the same team as his brother, fellow future pro baller Steve Righetti. The two were both position players, but Dave played the outfield. In fact, Steve had more promise as a big leaguer at this time, though that all changed very quickly before Dave’s senior season. A local scout named Paddy Cottrell — a Texas Rangers scout and former head coach at University of Santa Clara — thought Dave had a future on the mound due to his throwing motion. Boy, was he right.

After moving to the bump, Righetti was fantastic, and even had a 15-strikeout game. Soon thereafter, Righetti was drafted 10th overall by the Rangers and crossed the country to report to Low-A Asheville. Righetti was fantastic in his first full season as a pitcher. Across 109 innings, he struck out 101 batters to the tune of a 3.14 ERA. Not too shabby for a guy who hardly pitched his entire life!

Righetti carried that success into 1978 while in Double-A. In fact, he was dominant. In July of that season, he set the Texas League record with 21 strikeouts in one game. He was one of the best pitchers in all of the minor leagues. His three-pitch repertoire was enough to devastate batters. That was extremely attractive to the Yankees, as he was traded to them at the conclusion of the 1978 season.

There were a few players in the trade, but the highlights were Righetti and Sparky Lyle. The former Cy Young Award winner was just about ready to spill all the tea on his experiences with the Yankees during the ‘70s and he had faltered in ‘78 after George Steinbrenner signed Goose Gossage to take his job, so The Boss promptly sent him away — as he did several times during this period of Yankees baseball.

New York Yankees Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Righetti was fantastic in the minor leagues once again upon his arrival, but he was only 20 years old. Although he earned a September call-up, pitching 17.1 innings with a 3.63 ERA, he wouldn’t return to the big leagues until 1981 due to his struggles at Triple-A in 1980.

The young southpaw quickly bounced back at the beginning of 1981. Righetti earned a call-up during the spring and was dominant in his first four appearances. However, the players’ strike halted play until mid-August. Righetti returned in prime form and finished the season with the following eye-opening stat line: 105.1 IP, 8-4, 15 starts, 2.05 ERA, 2.12 FIP, and 3.5 fWAR. Over a full season, this is top level, Cy Young-caliber pitching. The outstanding performance won him AL Rookie of the Year. To date, Rags remains the last Yankees pitcher to win this honor.

That same season, the Yankees went on a fantastic postseason run, and Righetti played a pivotal role. In the Division Series against Milwaukee, he helped New York build up a 2-0 series lead with six shutout frames and 10 strikeouts in a Game 2 outing at County Stadium, and when the Brew Crew rallied in the Bronx to force a Game 5, Rags returned in relief. He followed ace Ron Guidry with three innings of one-run ball, ultimately earning his second victory of the short set when the offense rallied. As a rookie, being the middle man between Guidry and the legendary closer Gossage was a tough task, but Righetti didn’t disappoint.

Next up came former manager Billy Martin and his Oakland A’s, who led the AL with a 64-45 overall record in ‘81. With several Yankees veterans still around from the championship teams of the late ‘70s though, New York didn’t blink. They took the first two games at Yankee Stadium and back in Oakland for Game 3, skipper Bob Lemon turned to the 22-year-old Righetti on three days’ rest.

Righetti delivered a series-clinching performance with six shutout innings, and the Yanks swept the A’s with ease to advance to the Fall Classic.

In the World Series, the Yankees ran into an extremely talented Dodgers team with an exciting Rookie of the Year of their own in Fernando Valenzuela. After the Yankees took the first two games in the Bronx, Nando and Righetti matched up in Game 3 at Dodger Stadium with all the pressure on Tommy Lasorda’s club to avoid a 3-0 deficit. Righetti’s exceptional performance during the season and throughout the playoffs put much confidence into the team that he could deliver on the road.

Unfortunately, this start didn’t go as planned for Righetti. He was pulled after only two innings when he gave up a three-run dinger to eventual series co-MVP Ron Cey. Valenzuela threw 147 pitches in a hard-fought complete game and took the momentum away from the Yankees. Nando’s gutsy outing was the turning point in the series. The Dodgers took four straight and claimed the title. Despite this early taste of playoff success, Righetti never made it back to the postseason as an active player. The Yankees won at least 90 games three times in the ‘80s (even winning 97 in ‘85), but it was to no avail.

Righetti was prevented from registered any further playoff innings to his name, but he did at least throw many more quality innings in pinstripes throughout the 1980s. He even recorded a legendary performance that still ranks high up in Yankees history.

Forty years ago, Righetti matched up against the rival Boston Red Sox on the Fourth of July, 1983. It had been 27 years since Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. That streak ended with Righetti’s no-hitter where he struck out nine batters, including future Hall of Famer Wade Boggs to end it.

This was only a midsummer game, but it came in brutally hot conditions against a stacked Red Sox lineup that featured Boggs, Jim Rice, Tony Armas, and Dwight Evans. Righetti walked four in total and had to work his way through the brunt of the lineup in the last inning, too.

Boggs later said that Righetti’s two slider shapes were too tough to handle that day. Was Righetti throwing both a bullet slider and another one with more sweep? This is a perfect example of a pitcher who knew how utilize two shapes of the same pitch with perfection. Oddly enough, this would be the last significant memory Righetti would have as a starting pitcher with the Yankees.

Move to the ‘Pen

1984 was a big change in Righetti’s career. Gossage became a free agent and was signed away by the San Diego Padres, so there was a huge hole in the Yankees’ bullpen. Yogi Berra had just begun his second stint as manager with the Yanks and decided Righetti was the guy to take on a role and fully move to the ‘pen. He had been a successful starter in the beginning of his career but command troubles in 1983 beyond the no-no had cast doubt around his future as a starter. Berra wanted a strikeout pitcher to take on the role. Relative to his peers, Righetti was that.

Right away, it was clear Berra made the right decision in moving Righetti, even if he wasn’t particularly thrilled about the change. When the ’84 campaign was said and done though, he had thrown 96 innings across 64 games. He had a 2.34 ERA and converted 31 saves. He followed up with two fantastic seasons where he threw at least 100 innings as a reliever in both and accumulated 5.7 fWAR. Righetti’s skill as a multi-inning reliever always kept folks thinking that he should still be a starter. After all, he proved at a young age what he could be. Perhaps with more time to fully understand his skills, he could have been effective out of the rotation for an extended period, but his stellar performance made it difficult for the team to ever move him back.

Righetti earned All-Star nods in both 1986 and 1987. In the former, he set a then-single-season saves record with 46. The mark stood as the MLB-best until White Sox closer Bobby Thigpen saved 57 in 1990, and once again, you can guess who surpassed him in Yankees history with 50 in 2001 (and 53 in 2004). Righetti was clearly well-regarded as one of the best in the game, earning a fourth-place Cy Young Award finish in that superb campaign.

During that record-breaking year of ‘86, Righetti had two separate occasions where he saved both games in a double header. I can’t imagine how tired he was. It was all worth it though, as he won AL Reliever of the Year, and actually did so again in ‘87. When the ‘86 season ended and he finished as the league leader in saves, he became first pitcher ever (at the time) to both throw a no-hitter and lead the league in saves at one point in his career.

Righetti was a pioneer in that sense. To dominate as a starter and reliever so early in a career was largely unprecedented (as it remains today). Typically, pitchers with 200-inning, 5-fWAR seasons don’t get moved to a relief role, but times were different then. The closer role was extremely valuable to managers, and Righetti’s success set the stage for Hall of Famers like Dennis Eckersley and John Smoltz to make similar transitions, albeit in their thirties rather than their twenties.

However, after the 1986 campaign, Righetti’s volume ticked down. He constantly pitched through a dead arm and didn’t have the physical capability of being a 100-inning reliever anymore. Righetti was a smart and talented enough pitcher to still be more than solid though, as he accumulated 86 saves during his final three seasons in pinstripes. He had signed a new three-year contract as a free agent following 1987, but with the Yankees fully in the tank by the end of 1990, Righetti chose to bid adieu to the Bronx after 11 years.

San Francisco Giants v New York Mets Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

A Champion at Last, By the Bay

Righetti went to his hometown Giants in 1991 and served as the team’s closer while earning 24 saves. But all the years of pitching through dead arm quickly caught up to him in 1992. The strong arm player now didn’t have one of his primary skills. The team dabbled with moving back to a starting pitcher role, but that didn’t work for more than a month. He moved back to the pen, but his ERA was over 5.00 for the first time in his career. Righetti stayed with the club through 1993 before hopping between the White Sox, Athletics, and Blue Jays. He called it quits after the 1995 season, but his career in San Fran wasn’t over.

After taking a couple seasons off, Righetti returned to the Giants as a pitching instructor with their minor league clubs. He roamed around helping pitchers figured out for a few years. Then in 2000, he took on the pitching coach role for the big league club. The rest of the story is history.

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Tim Lincecum with Dave Righetti
Photo by MediaNews Group/Bay Area News via Getty Images

Righetti held the position through 2017 while winning the World Series in 2010, 2012, and 2014, as well as a National League pennant in 2002. The former All-Star helped in the development of two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum, hometown favorite Matt Cain, the electric Brian Wilson, and postseason legend Madison Bumgarner.

To put it plainly, Righetti’s success as a pitching coach is among one of the best of all time. Righetti is a baseball lifer. He made his big league debut at the early age of 20, had a long pitching career, immediately moved into coaching, and then into a front office role. His stamp on two legendary franchises is palpable. His success as a great Yankees closer is overshadowed by the great Mariano Rivera, but make no mistake: Righetti was a stud.

Staff rank: 53
Community rank: 40
Stats rank: 40
2013 rank: 49

References

Baseball Almanac

Baseball Reference

BR Bullpen

Charles, Stan. “Catching Up With Dave Righetti.”

FanGraphs

Nowlin, Bill. SABR: no-hitter history

Pinstripe Alley

Wancho, Joseph. SABR bio

Previously on the Top 100

52. Jason Giambi
Full list to date