In the past six months, I’ve done about every New York Yankees Top 10s, that there could be. From the best pitchers, catchers, infielders, outfielders, to the best and worst acquisitions. One area that I have not addressed is the best Yankee relievers of all time. Over the years, the definition of reliever has been blurred. What was a closer in the 70s might be considered a middle reliever now. Most of the great relievers with the Yankees have been set-up men and closers. Here are my arbitrary selections for the top 10 relievers.
10. Delin Betances
Delin Betances didn’t have his option taken up by the Yankees this past postseason, and he is now with the New York Mets. Delin deserves to be on this list due to his eight-year tenure with the Yankees and his 2.36 ERA over the span. He was primarily the setup man for Aroldis Chapman. In the postseason, he pitched in five series for a 1-1 record and an ERA of 3.27. Betances, in his years with the Yankees, was a dependable solid reliever. Due to injuries, he did not pitch in the 2019 postseason.
9. John Wetteland
John Wetteland has two solid years with the New York Yankees. In 1995 acting solely as a closer, he built up 34 saves, and in 1996 he led the league with 43 saves. The Yankees went to the postseason both of his years. He was dominant in the postseason except for game 1 of the 1995 ALDS when he allowed seven runs in just four innings. In 1996, for the Yankees, he won all three of his postseason games. Wetteland was a strange guy, and with Rivera ready to take over for him, the Yankees and Wetteland parted ways following the 1996 season.
8. David Robertson
David Robertson pitched for the Yankees in two separate stints, the first for seven years from 2008 to 2014 and again from 2017-2018. At nine years as a Yankee reliever, he deserved to be on this list. He went 53-33 a .633 winning percentage. Although in his years with the Yankees, he was primarily the setup man for Mariano Rivera, however, he did manage 53 saves when Rivera was not available.
7. Luis Arroyo
Luis Arroyo is on this list primarily for his 1961 league-leading 29 saves. The New York Yankees got Arroyo from the Reds in 1960, where he was a full-time starter. The Yankees converted him to a reliever. His history with the Yankees is a tale of two different pitchers. In his first two years, he was dominant, and in his last two years, he stank. But in 1961, he closed 54 games for the Yankees. In his four years with the Yankees, he was 22-10 with a 3.12 ERA and a .688 winning percentage.
6. Wilcy Moore
Wilcy Moore is another pitcher that pitched long before the reliever was conceived. He was just a pitcher that came in if the starting pitcher wasn’t pitching well. He was also a starter who started 15 games while finishing 161 in his five years with the Yankees. He had a 36-21 record while pitching to a 3.31 ERA.
Moore was one of the most dominant postseason pitchers in his era. Back then, there was no ALDS OR ALCS just a World Series, and Moore was unhittable. In the 1927 World Series, he pitched 10.1 innings, and in 1932 he pitched 5.1 innings for a total of 15.2 innings while allowing a run to cross the plate, that’s an ERA of 0.56.
5. Dave Righetti
Righetti was a great relief pitcher for the New York Yankees but rated lower than Rivera, Lyle, and Gossage due to his lack of wins in the postseason that was the hallmark of the other three. In 1986 he set the record for the most saves ever by a baseball player in a single season with 46 saves. Mariano Rivera only bested that number of saves twice in his nineteen years. He saved 224 games in seven seasons in the Yankees’ bullpen. He began his career as a starter and had a no-hitter in July of 1983 against the Red Sox, which made him a Yankee favorite. Although he is most known as a reliever, he is one of the most successful pitchers in both fields.
4. Johnny Murphy
Johnny Murphy was closing games for the New York Yankees from 1932 to 1946, except for two years away for military service. That’s 13 years of closing games for the Yankees before there was an official closer category. He was an All-Star three straight years, 1937-9, as a reliever. Saves weren’t yet a stat, but he led the league an amazing four times during the period. He closed in 415 games while starting only 40. For his career, he went 93-53 with a 3.50 ERA.
3. Goose Gossage
Rich “Goose” Gossage is often credited as being one of the first pitching relievers in baseball. Gossage was a frightening figure on the mound with his fierce look and electric pitches. He saved 151 games for the Yankees in his remarkable 22-year career, six of them with the Yankees 1978-1983. That’s an average of 25 saves a year. Gossage was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2008.
2. Sparky Lyle
The most difficult of my selections was whether to place Goose or Sparky in the second placement. I choose Sparky due to his dominance in 1977, and his postseason performance. In the ALCS, he pitched in four of the games against Kansas City. In game three he closed 5.1 innings for the Yankee win, in game four he pitched the last 1.1 innings for the Yankee win. In the World Series, he pitched 3.2 innings to close out the Yankee win over the Dodgers. All in all, in the postseason in 1977, he pitched to an ERA of 1.24 over 14.1 innings that is dominance.
Both Sparky Lyle and Gossage pitched seven seasons for the Yankees (but Gossage pitched only six prime seasons, returning for 11 games late in 1989). Both led the league twice in saves for the Yankees. Both dominated in the post-season for World Series champions, Lyle in 1977 and Goose in 1978. Even though Gossage made the Hall of Fame, Lyle, in my opinion, was the better pitcher for the Yankees. Lyle is the only Yankee reliever ever to win a Cy Young Award. Gossage had some similar seasons statistically, but none that stood out as the best pitching performance in the league that year.
1. Mariano Rivera
Mariano Riveria is probably the greatest closer of all time. When Mariano Rivera entered a game to the sound of the Sandman, Yankee fans knew the game was over. Of course, he didn’t save every game but has the most saves of any pitcher (652) not only for the Yankees, but that’s for all of baseball history. Before he became the most dominant closer in baseball, he was the successful setup man for Yankee closer John Wetteland.
Consider the fact that it is near impossible for a pitcher to allow less than a run over nine innings, and you see why bests number two on this list by a mile. If you break down his postseason years with the Yankees into two seasons, the first from 1995 to 2001, his stats look like this: seven runs allowed over 71 innings for a 0.89 ERA. His second season from 2002 to 2011 was even better; six runs allowed over 70.1 innings for an ERA of 0.64. In his longest tenure Yankee history of 19 years, he pitched to an ERA of 2.21 in 1115 games. Many forget in 1995, he started ten games for a 5-3 record. Rivera is the only player ever to be elected to the Baseball Hall of fame in 2019 by a unanimous vote.
Honorable Mentions: Lindy McDaniels, Ryne Duren, Andrew Miller, Joe Page, and at some point in the future, Aroldis Chapman may find himself on this list.
Method of selection: In determining this list, I regarded tenure with the Yankees, overall performance, postseason performance, peak performance, Hall of Fame was important, but if on multiple clubs, performance with the Yankees overrode the Hall of Fame induction. Also, players that may have been excellent relievers, if they were considered more a starting pitcher, were excluded from this list.
EmpireSportsMedia.com’s Columnist William Parlee, is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research. Follow me on Twitter @parleewilliam.