Over recent seasons, as Yankees’ fans, we’ve been treated to some fun MLB debuts. Back in 2016, Aaron Judge homered in his very first major league at-bat, immediately after Tyler Austin had done the same. Just this past season, Jasson Domínguez replicated that feat with a homer in his first time at the plate against the Astros.
Remembering those instances got me thinking about major league debuts in general. Judge and Domínguez’s homers are memorable, but they are so in part because both are notable players. There are plenty of people who did stuff like that in their first action in a major league game but then got lost to history because they ended up not doing a ton in the big leagues.
I wanted to find out who had the most impact in their MLB debuts as Yankees, not in the sense of the career they would go on to have, just in the sense of that particular game. To figure that out, let’s look at the Yankees who put up the best Win Probability Added in a game that was their MLB debut.
The wonderfully named Hawks — born Nelson Louis Hawks — had a long career in the minor leagues, but only played in parts of two MLB seasons, the first of which was with the 1921 Yankees.
In the second game of that season, he was sent up as a pinch-hitter for pitcher Waite Hoyt with the Yankees trailing 2-1 in the seventh inning. With two on and two out, he delivered big time in his first taste of MLB action. Thanks to some help from an Athletics’ error, he gave the Yankees the lead with a two-RBI single off pitcher Eddie Rommel — who was a pretty good pitcher in his own right. The action took the Yankees’ chances of winning the game from 37 percent to 77 percent.
Hawks was taken out for a pitcher in the next inning, and the Yankees eventually lost the lead and the game. It ended up being the first of just 146 major league games he played in, despite pretty good numbers both in the minors and majors.
Leyrtiz authored one of arguably the most important moments in Yankees’ history with his game-tying home run in the eighth inning of Game 4 of the 1996 World Series.
Six years earlier, he showed a flair for the dramatic in his first-ever MLB game.
Throughout his minor league career, Leyritz had mostly put up solid numbers at the plate, which may have led to manager Stump Merrill throwing him right into the thick of things on June 8, 1990.
The Yankees were down to their last out and trailing 4-3 when Merrill sent Leyritz up as a pinch hitter in the top of the ninth inning. After Steve Sax stole second base, Leyritz promptly poked a single through the left side of the infield, scoring him to tie the game up, and increasing the Yankees’ chances of winning by 32 percent.
Much like in the case of Hawks’ game, the Yankees couldn’t come away with the win. In Leyritz’s case, he’s partially at fault for that, as an error on him in the bottom of the 10th inning is credited with allowing the Orioles’ winning run to score. Though in the case of WPA, that doesn’t actually ding his day.
Considering his reputation, you might think “Bye Bye” Balboni’s big debut moment came via home run, but it was actually thanks to getting on base in other ways.
In total, Balboni put up +0.237 WPA for the day after going 1-for-2 with a walk in his MLB debut. In his first career at-bat in the third inning, he tripled, increasing the Yankees’ chances by 11 percent. He scored on a Bucky Dent groundout in the next at-bat to give the Yankees an early 1-0 lead on the Tigers.
After striking out in the fifth, Balboni came to the plate with the bases loaded in the seventh inning of what was now a 2-2 game. After Detroit intentionally walked a batter to get to the debutant, Balboni made the Tigers pay. He worked a conventional walk, scoring a run to put the Yankees back in front, and increasing the Yankees’ chances by 14 percent.
In this instance, the Yankees did win, as Balboni and several others came around to score as part of a five-run seventh inning. The Yankees won the game, 7-2.