“We grew up learning to cheer on the underdog because we see ourselves in them.” — Poet, Shane Koyczan.
One of the best parts of Major League Baseball is watching players do extraordinary things. Last year, we got to witness the greatness of Aaron Judge and his quest for the Yankees’ single season home run record. We saw Jeter go diving into the stands. We saw Rivera save game after game. Watching the Yankees year after year, we get to see these superstars on a regular basis. Getting to watch the stars perform on the biggest stage is a privilege and something New Yorkers may take for granted because the Yankees always have superstars. The great ones are supposed to do those things.
Sometimes, we get to see something even more special. We see a player come from nowhere and play like a superstar for a period of time. He carries the team like a Jeter, Judge, or Rivera would even though we know that he is not like them. Yet, it happens, and when it does, we find ourselves rooting that much more for the athlete’s time in the sun to continue as long as it can.
This very scenario played out in 2005. For three months, Aaron Small was the Yankees’ most reliable pitcher and one of the reasons why the struggling team would eventually get hot and win the American League East. For three months, Aaron Small was no longer mediocre or just organizational depth. He was unbeatable, and he was one of the leaders of a rotation that included two eventual Hall of Famers.
2005 Statistics: 15 games (9 starts), 76 innings, 10-0, 3.20 ERA, 133 ERA+, 3.88 FIP, 1.250 WHIP, 1.3 fWAR, 2.7 bWAR
Just how unlikely was Aaron Small’s 2005 season? He was a 22nd round draft pick of the Toronto Blue Jays as a 17-year-old in 1989. Five years later, he made his major league debut for the Blue Jays against the Yankees, a two inning, five hit, and two runs allowed performance. A year later, he was traded to the Florida Marlins. In January 1996, he was put on waivers and became “that guy”, passing through waivers three times and through four different organizations before landing a bullpen role in Oakland. From 1996 through 1998, he appeared in 130 games and made three starts, posting a 4.60 FIP with just 109 strikeouts in 193 innings. He was the epitome of what it meant to be the last reliever on the staff.
After 1998, Small was released and wouldn’t appear in a major league game until 2002 — just one relief appearance at that — and would play for nine organizations. He signed with the Marlins in 2004, making eight relief appearances to the tune of a 7.33 FIP. The Marlins would let him go, and the Yankees signed him to a minor league deal on January 5, 2005.
Heading into that magical 2005 season, the now 33-year-old appeared in 146 career games, spanning 218 innings and allowing 267 hits and a 4.94 FIP. Small began the year in the minors and didn’t find great success. In 12 appearances (11 starts), he pitched 54 innings, allowed 69 hits while striking out 24 batters and compiled a 4.83 ERA.
With injuries and poor performances to Kevin Brown, Carl Pavano, and Jared Wright, Aaron Small was called to make a start on July 20th against the Texas Rangers. At the time, the Yankees were searching for anyone with an arm as Small was their 11th different starter in the span of 20 days.
He responded with 5.1 innings and allowed five hits, three runs, four walks, and three strikeouts. It wasn’t a pretty line, but it was enough to get the win. Three days later, he made an inning-long relief appearance before making his next start on July 28th. This time, at home against the Minnesota Twins, he spun seven innings while allowing six hits, three runs, no walks, and just one strikeout. He got the win, moving to 2-0.
The calendar turned to August. On the 5th, Small pitched 6.2 innings, allowed seven hits, one run, two walks, and two strikeouts. He’d pick up his third win. Five days later, against the White Sox, he’d get a no-decision although he pitched seven innings of one-run ball.
With the rotation somewhat back in order, Small headed to the bullpen for the rest of the month. He picked up wins four and five in relief appearances. Heading into September, Small was 5-0 with a 3.03 ERA, 4.00 FIP through nine games (four starts). It was already a career year for the journeyman pitcher, but September, inexplicably, was even better.
He returned to the rotation on September 3rd and pitched a complete game shutout to move to 6-0. Six days later against the Red Sox, Small picked up win number seven with 6.1 innings of work while allowing four runs.
Here’s the thing … as good as Small pitched in August and that first start in September, he wasn’t dominating. There was something more. We knew that he shouldn’t be winning, but yet he kept doing it.
After the shutout, he went on to win another three consecutive starts to move to 9-0. In those three starts, he pitched 18 innings, allowed 26 hits, four walks, and nine strikeouts. The 6.50 ERA was tough to look at, but his 3.91 FIP showed that he was pitching as effectively has he did early on. Statistically, he shouldn’t have been winning so much. His 8.8 percent strikeout rate was nearly half the league average. His 7.8 percent walk rate was league average. His fastball topped out at 90 miles per hour. Nothing really added up except for the fact that in 2005, Aaron Small couldn’t lose.
He made his final start of the season on September 29th against the Orioles, pitching 6.2 innings, allowing four hits, two runs and five walks and picked up four strikeouts to complete his perfect regular season at 10-0. He was the first pitcher since Tommy John to win his first nine decisions and became just the fourth pitcher ever to win 10 consecutive starts.
It was the perfect, magical year. The underdog won 10 decisions overall, but five of those wins came in September as the Yankees held on to the AL East Division title, tied with the Boston Red Sox. Small, along with midseason addition Shawn Chacon, saved the Yankees season with his career year.
Like most underdog stories, that spotlight burns out quickly. Small came on to relieve Randy Johnson in Game 3 of American League Division Series. Johnson was battered, allowing nine hits and five runs in just three innings. Small entered with two runners aboard and it seemed like the magical run would continue as he struck out Adam Kennedy and elicited a double play from Chone Higgins. The Yankees rallied for four runs to cut the Angels’ lead to 5-4. Small pitched a scoreless fifth inning, which allowed the Yankees to score two more runs in the bottom of the inning to take a 6-5 lead.
It looked like the magic was still there. Small came out for the top of the sixth and quickly got one out. Then, as fast as the magic came, the magic left. Two hits tied the game before Small could get Steve Finley on a strikeout. Two outs. Two more singles and the Angels took the lead for good. Aaron Small picked up his first loss of the season.
The Yankees brought Small back for a follow-up season, but he didn’t win a game. In 11 appearances (three starts) Small went 0-3 with an 8.46 ERA while giving up 42 hits in 27.2 innings. He was released and never pitched in the major leagues again.
Aaron Small packed a career into one magical 15 game stretch in 2005. While it never led to long-term success, he accomplished something few ever do. Yes, we can debate the value of a win, but winning 10 consecutive decisions in New York, in a pennant race? It was something special to watch.