One of the big stories on the Yankees’ young season has been the MLB debuts. On Opening Day, Anthony Volpe, the team’s highest-rated prospect and one of the top ranked ones in all of baseball, made his MLB debut for the team he rooted for as a child. A couple days later, Jhony Brito put in an impressive outing in his own debut. He struck out six batters in five scoreless innings after being catapulted into a major league role with the Yankees dealing with a bunch of injuries in the rotation.
In honor of those two making an impression on the season so far, let’s dig into the history books and look at some other notable debuts. Instead of just looking at the debuts of some all-time Yankees greats, let’s see who had the greatest impact on their first games according to Win Probability Added.
We’re going to count down the top three on both the hitting and pitching side of things, starting with hitting.
3. Steve Balboni (+0.237, vs. Tigers - 4/22/1981)
Our other two hitters are going to come from games where they came off the bench to come up with a big moment, but Balboni started and played all nine innings in his debut. The future slugger for both the Yankees and Royals went 1-for-2 with a walk and an RBI.
The hit was decently big, as Balboni tripled in his first at-bat, and then scored on a Bucky Dent single to give the Yankees the lead in the third. However, the walk was even bigger, as it came with the bases loaded in a tie game in the seventh. It gave the Yankees the lead for good as part of a five-run inning.
2. Jim Leyritz (+0.322, vs. Orioles - 6/8/1990)
Leyritz’s most famous clutch moment came several years into his Yankees’ and MLB career, but he started it with a big hit as well. It was a better rookie memory than what came a month later anyway.
Trailing 4-3 with two outs in the top of the ninth inning, Leyritz, who had impressive hitting numbers throughout his minor league career, was sent up as a pinch-hitter for Wayne Tolleson. After Steve Sax stole second, Leyritz singled him home, tying things up.
Fortunately for “the King,” fielding isn’t accounted for in WPA, as after the single, he took position at third base in the field. There, he committed an error in the 10th that allowed the Orioles to get a walk-off win. Considering the bases were loaded and there was just one out when the error was made, there’s a decent chance a loss was coming anyway.
1. Chicken Hawks (+0.400 WPA, vs. Athletics - 4/14/1921)
The most impactful hitting debut in terms of the chances of winning in Yankees history belong to the delightfully named Nelson Louis “Chicken” Hawks. In the second game of the 1921 season, the Yankees were trailing the A’s 2-1 with two on and two out in the seventh. With pitcher Waite Hoyt due up, Miller Huggins sent in Hawks as a pinch-hitter.
Hawks came through in his first ever at-bat, singling to tie things up, with and error allowing a second Yankee to score and Hawks to reach third base. That flipped the score in the Yankees’ favor and increased their chances of winning by 40 percent. However because Hawks had hit in the pitcher’s spot, he was then replaced by pitcher Jack Quinn. While Quinn threw a scoreless seventh, he gave up two runs in the ninth, dooming the Yankees to a loss.
Now, let’s go to the pitching side of things.
3. Fritz Peterson (+0.447, vs. Orioles - 4/15/1966)
After impressing in spring training, Peterson made the Yankees’ rotation to start the 1966 season and made his MLB debut in the fifth game of the year. He got off to a bit of an iffy start, allowing one run in the first inning. However, he buckled down after that, throwing a complete game in a 3-2 Yankees win over the eventual World Series champions.
As for the rest of his career, well, that would be overshadowed by some other stuff.
2. Héctor Noesí (+0.461, vs. Orioles - 5/18/2011)
Noesí’s Yankee career didn’t end up being the best and is primarily remembered as part of the Michael Pineda/Jesús Montero trade, but he started it in a pretty good way. With the Yankees and Orioles locked in a 1-1 game, Joe Girardi brought him in for the 12th inning, having used Mariano Rivera, and a couple other notable pieces of the bullpen.
In the 12th, Noesi proceeded to get into and out of a bases-loaded jam. After that, he would go four innings in total. In that time, the Yankees took a 4-1 lead in the 15th, following which Noesí, brought the tying run to the plate before getting out of the inning and sealing the game.
1. Vito Tamulis (+0.493, vs. Athletics - 9/25/1934)
With the Yankees locked into second place late in the 1934 season, they gave the start to Tamulis in one of the final games of the season. He then probably some big hope for the future, by turning in a complete-game shutout, holding the A’s to no runs on seven hits and a walk.
Tamulis was average the next season and wouldn’t play for the team again after ‘35, ultimately not quite matching his debut.
For the record, Brito’s scoreless debut from April 3rd is currently 17th all time among Yankees’ pitching debuts at +0.227.