The Yankee Pitcher Curse – Part 1: The Dawn Of Steinbrenner (1975-1981)

A couple of weeks ago, Jeff Passan implied something that a lot of people have said in the past. He stated that players coming to the Yankees – most notably starting pitchers – generally fail to live up to expectations. I talked about it in an earlier post, but Passan’s point that only “three of 21” pitchers the Yankees have picked up performed better after becoming Yankees was misleading, since veterans (especially “big name” veterans) are acquired to produce at the same level as they performed previously, not better. I talk more about it here, using big words like schadenfreude.

Then I hit baseball-reference.com to see if it was true.

What follows is what I found, broken into several parts so it’s easier to digest. I started at 1975, when the Yanks signed their first free agent, some “Hunter” fellow. I figured I’d base the majority of my comparison using WAR – Wins Above Replacement – to attempt to level out things such as park factors and differences in statistical eras, although ERA+ (a statistic that gauges a player’s earned run average compared to the league average, eliminating park factors) will also be used.

There was one more thing to consider – injuries. Passan implies that the pressure of playing in New York was what causes them to fail. But is it fair really to label a player a “bust” if it’s something physical instead of mental that causes them to fail? It might be a bust for the team, but it has nothing to do with New York – blown shoulders and elbows happen in Kansas City and Atlanta too – so those in the group who faced injury will be approached on a case-by-case basis, and not automatically be ruled a failure because of it.

So on to the mid 70s!

Pat Dobson
Acquired: Trade with Atlanta
Yankee tenure: 1973-1975
WAR w/Yankees: 5.8 in 631 innings (1 per 108 IP)
Career WAR: 17.6 in 2120.1 innings (1 per 120 IP)

This was Dobson’s final year with the Yankees, as he’d get dealt to Cleveland for Oscar Gamble that following offseason. Dobson spent two and a half seasons with the Yankees and had arguably his best season of his career (by WAR standards) in a Yankee uniform in 1974. About as good as he was anywhere else, so that’s a push.

 

This is the Rudy May I remember. I always thought he was like 50.

Rudy May
Acquired: Trade with California, free agent
Yankee tenure: 1974-1976, 1980-1983
WAR w/Yankees: 11.6 in 841.2 innings (1 per 72 IP)
Career WAR: 19.6 in 2622 innings (1 per 133 IP)

This was the middle of the first of two tours of duty with the Yankees for May; purchased from the Angels in 1974, May pitched well for the Yankees for a bit then struggled and was dealt to Baltimore in 1976. May pitched for the Orioles and Montreal before coming back to the Yankees as a free agent after the 1979 season. May would end up winning the ERA title in 1980 with the Yankees as a long reliever and spot starter and remained there until his final game in 1983. May’s WAR was 11.6 for his Yankee tenure, greater than that of the rest of his teams combined.

Catfish Hunter
Acquired: free agent
Yankee tenure: 1975-1979
WAR w/Yankees: 8.6 in 993 innings (1 per 115 IP)
Career WAR: 32.5 in 3449.1 innings (1 per 106 IP)

Hunter, the first “big name” free agent (whose free agency predated traditional free agency due to an out clause in his contract), pitched his best WAR season in 1975, his first with the Yankees, and came in second in the Cy Young balloting to Jim Palmer. By this time, Hunter’s shoulder was on borrowed time, having logged 2456 innings before joining the Yankees and logging 328 innings (and 30 complete games) in his first year in pinstripes. Hunter was solid in 1976, but couldn’t match his previous numbers. 1977 saw his innings slashed in half, and he retired after the 1979 season.

Ken Holtzman
Acquired: Trade with Baltimore
Yankee tenure: 1976-1978
WAR w/Yankees: -2.8 in 238.1 innings (-1 per 85 IP)
Career WAR: 27.5 in 2867.1 innings (1 per 104 IP)

A two-time all-star with Oakland, Holtzman started 1976 with Baltimore, only to be traded to the Yankees in the deal that sent Rudy May (and Scott McGregor, Rick Dempsey, and Tippy Martinez) to Baltimore. Despite his prior success, Holtzman pitched poorly in New York, posting a negative WAR during the length of his Yankee tenure. The Yanks eventually traded him for Ron Davis, but Holtzman was a Yankee failure.

 

This guy AND Willie Randolph? SOLD.

Dock Ellis
Acquired: Trade with Pittsburgh
Yankee tenure: 1976-1977
WAR w/Yankees: 1.2 in 231.1 innings (1 per 192 IP)
Career WAR: 15.2 in 2128 innings (1 per 140 IP)

Acquired from Pittsburgh with two other players for Doc Medich. Spent ’76 and a few games in ’77 with the Yanks before being dealt to Oakland for Mike Torrez. Ellis pitched better for the Yanks than he did the previous season with Pittsburgh and won 17 games in 1976, but was on the downside of his career and didn’t approach his earlier seasons with the Pirates. However, Medich pitched worse once he left New York, and one of the other players the Yankees got in the Ellis deal, a second baseman named Willie Randolph, turned out OK.

Ed Figueroa
Acquired: Trade with California
Yankee tenure: 1976-1980
WAR w/Yankees: 8.8 in 911.2 innings (1 per 103 IP)
Career WAR: 15.0 in 1309.2 innings (1 per 87 IP)

Figueroa was coming off of a breakout season with the Angels after seeing his career nearly derailed after an injury in the minors and a tour of Vietnam with the Marines. The Yanks acquired him and Mickey Rivers in a deal for Bobby Bonds, a move that wasn’t popular at the time with Bonds coming off an All-Star season and only a year removed from being acquired himself by the Yankees for the popular Bobby Murcer. The move turned out fine for the Yankees, as Figueroa won 55 games in his first three Yankee seasons, while Rivers became a fan favorite and posted respectable numbers himself. While never posting a WAR like he did in ’75 for the Angels (5.4), he put together three very good seasons (averaging a 2.9 WAR), including a 3.7 WAR in 1978 and placing 4th in the AL Cy Young balloting in 1976. Arm issues limited him to 104.2 innings in 1979, and he was never effective again at the major league level, with the Yankees selling him to Texas in July of 1980. Figueroa would go 0-7 in eight starts for Texas, then pitch 8.1 innings in 1981 with Oakland to finish up his career.

This is '76 Doyle. The good Yankee one.

Doyle Alexander
Acquired: Trade with Baltimore, trade with San Francisco
Yankee tenure: 1976, 1982-1983
WAR w/Yankees: -0.4 in 231.2 innings (-1 per 579 IP)
Career WAR: 31.9 in 3367.2 innings (1 per 105 IP)

Two tours of duty with the Yankees, with decidedly different results. Alexander was part of the above-mentioned Baltimore trade that brought Ken Holtzman to the Yankees and sent lots of players you remember as Orioles to the Orioles. Unlike Holtzman, Alexander didn’t pitch horribly for the Yankees after being acquired, going 10-5 in 19 starts with a 3.29 ERA (105 ERA+). Doyle’s WAR for that half a season was 1.1, along the lines of his career average, but he would leave as a free agent after the ’76 season to sign with Texas.

It was Alexander’s return that flopped. After two mediocre seasons with Texas and Atlanta, Alexander posted a strong 1981 season with San Francisco (11-7, 2.89 ERA, 119 ERA+, 3.3 WAR), and was dealt to the Yankees when he held out of Spring Training looking for a better deal with the Giants. The Yankees gave him one, signing him to a four-year deal worth $2.2 million. Alexander responded by going 1-9 in 24 games (16 starts), failing to pitch 100 innings before he was released by the Yankees two months into the ’83 season.

Mike Torrez
Acquired: Trade with Oakland
Yankee tenure: 1977
WAR w/Yankees: 2.1 in 217 innings (1 per 103 IP)
Career WAR: 23.1 in 3043.2 innings (1 per 131 IP)

Picked up from Oakland for Dock Ellis, Torrez pitched solid but unspectacular baseball for the Yankees through most of the 1977 regular season, not up to the level of his previous two seasons with Baltimore and Oakland. Torrez did, however, prove his worth in the playoffs, pitching 5 1/3 scoreless innings in relief in the deciding game 5 of the 1977 ALCS, then pitching two complete game victories in the 1977 World Series, where he might have won MVP had that Jackson guy not hit all the home runs. Torrez would leave via free agency that offseason, sign with Boston, then give up the Bucky Dent home run in the divisional tiebreaker between the Yankees and Red Sox, so Yankee fans are fine with Torrez.

Don Gullett
Acquired: free agent
Yankee tenure: 1977-1978
WAR w/Yankees: 2.5 in 203.2 innings (1 per 81 IP)
Career WAR: 16.7 in 1390 innings (1 per 83 IP)

A free agent pickup from the Cincinnati Reds, Gullett signed a six year, $2 million contract, but would only play a season and a half with the Yankees. He saw DL time with shoulder issues in ’77 but still put up a respectable 2.0 WAR with the Yanks that year. He pitched in eight more games in ’78, and would never pitch in the majors again due to various injuries.

Rich Gossage
Acquired: free agent, waivers
Yankee tenure: 1978-1983, 1989
WAR w/Yankees: 18.2 in 533 innings (1 per 29 IP)
Career WAR: 40.0 in 1809.1 innings (1 per 45 IP)

What do you do when your closer wins the Cy Young Award? You demote him and sign a new closer, of course. Sparky Lyle had seen his strikeout rate drop the previous three seasons and was 33 years old, so the Yankees went out and got someone younger who struck out everyone, Rich Gossage, signing “Goose” to a 6-year, $2.8 million deal. Lyle would see his strikeout rate drop again and have his worst season in pinstripes, while Goose would continue being a shutdown dominant closer, making four All-Star games and finishing in the top 3 in AL Cy Young balloting three times in his initial six years with the Yankees before leaving via free agency for San Diego. Goose would come back to the Yankees in 1989 after being claimed on waivers and pitched in 11 games, but wasn’t the dominant closer that he was in his prime.

I swear he played for them. There was a card and everything.

Rawly Eastwick
Acquired: free agent
Yankee tenure: 1978
WAR w/Yankees: 0.2 in 24.2 innings (1 per 123 IP)
Career WAR: 4.1 in 525.1 innings (1 per 128 IP)

It wasn’t that Rawly Eastwick was a bad Yankees signing, it was just a puzzling one. It’s the type of signing that makes sense today: former closer coming off a career-worst season comes to a winning team to be a 7th inning guy and add bullpen depth. But it was 1978, where Yankee starters would complete 39 games, and their top two relievers, Goose Gossage and Sparky Lyle, averaged around two innings apiece. Still, the Yankees signed Eastwick, who was the top closer in the National League the season before, to a five-year deal worth $1.1 million. He pitched four innings in the Yankees’ fourth game of the season, then three more innings ten days later, in their 12th game. That was it for April. Eastwick pitched again on May 1st, then18 days later on the 19th. Eastwick would go on to pitch in eight games for the Yankees before being traded to Philadelphia in the middle of June; two games in April, three games in May, and three more in June, averaging about a week between appearences. Eastwick was quoted as saying he was sad to be leaving New York at the time of the trade and that he enjoyed playing there, but who wouldn’t if you only had to work once a week?

Andy Messersmith
Acquired: Purchased from Atlanta
Yankee tenure: 1978
WAR w/Yankees: -1.1 in 22.1 innings (-1 per 20 IP)
Career WAR: 35.6 in 2230.1 innings (1 per 62 IP)

Messersmith was almost a Yankee in 1976 as a result of Messersmith and Dave McNally’s challenge of the reserve clause that essentially began what we now call “free agency”, but there was some tomfoolery in regards to the contract offered, accusations flew back and forth, and the “agreed-upon” contract no longer was agreed-upon. Messersmith would sign with Atlanta and pitch well until elbow issues cut down his innings and cost him half of the 1977 season. The Yankees purchased Messersmith from the Braves, rolling the dice that Messersmith would come back from his elbow injury. However, Messersmith got hurt again in Spring Training, and didn’t debut until the end of May. His debut was the highlight of his Yankee career, combining with Rawly Eastwick (no, really) on a one-hitter. Messersmith would pitch in only five more games for the Yankees, and was released at the end of the season. Messersmith would sign on with the Dodgers for one last season, but only pitched 62 innings with LA before calling it a career.

Luis Tiant
Acquired: free agent
Yankee tenure: 1979-1980
WAR w/Yankees: 2.2 in 332 innings (1 per 150 IP)
Career WAR: 60.1 in 3486.1 innings (1 per 58 IP)

Tiant, a four-time 20-game winner, was 38 when he signed a two year deal with the Yankees. His 1978 season was a nice bounceback from his ’77 season, but his ’79 season – his first with the Yankees – was more like his ’77 season, and his 2.0 WAR was his worst season since 1971. 1980 saw him post a losing record and a 4.89 ERA, and he would pitch only 15 more games in his major league career after his Yankees stint.

Tommy John
Acquired: free agent, free agent
Yankee tenure: 1979-1982, 1986-1989
WAR w/Yankees: 18.2 in 1367 innings (1 per 75 IP)
Career WAR: 59.0 in 4710.1 innings (1 per 79 IP)

While Tiant had little left in the tank, Tommy John seemed to save his best for pinstripes. John signed with the Yankees as a free agent after the ’78 season and pitched nearly four seasons for the Yankees until he was traded to the Angels for Dennis Rasmussen. During his first stint with the Yankees, John would put together an average WAR better than his previous stops in LA and Chicago, winning 21 and 22 games for the Yankees in ’79 and ’80 and finishing 2nd and 4th in the AL Cy Young balloting those years. I’ll still remember John for his second stint with the Yankees when the team was maintaining an amazing six year stretch of having at least one of the oldest players in baseball as a member of their regular starting rotation. Even then, in his early-to-mid 40s, he managed to put together positive WARs in three of his final four seasons.

 

Remember Tom Underwood? Me either.

Tom Underwood
Acquired: Trade with Toronto
Yankee tenure: 1980-1981
WAR w/Yankees: 2.3 in 219.2 innings (1 per 95 IP)
Career WAR: 10.8 in 1586 innings (1 per 146 IP)

Underwood was a journeyman pitcher, having spent time with Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Toronto before coming to New York in a deal that sent Chris Chambliss to Toronto (Toronto would later send him to Atlanta, where he’d spend seven seasons). Underwood was coming off the best season of his career in WAR terms, despite a 9-16 record (the ’79 Blue Jays finished 53-109), and didn’t pitch badly for the Yankees, going 13-9 with a 3.66 ERA and 2.5 WAR. His second season didn’t turn out as well, and he was dealt to Oakland to make room for Dave Righetti.

Rick Reuschel
Acquired: Trade with Chicago (NL)
Yankee tenure: 1981-“1983”
WAR w/Yankees: 1.3 in 70.2 innings (1 per 54 IP)
Career WAR: 66.3 in 3548.1 innings (1 per 53 IP)

Rick Reuschel was picked up by the Yankees the day before the 1981 baseball strike, so despite being acquired in June, he didn’t pitch his first game for the Yanks until August. Reuschel pitched well during the regular season for the Yanks, then got hammered in the ’81 World Series. Reuschel held out the following season for a contract extension, got one, then promptly tore his rotator cuff, wiping out his 1982 season.  and wouldn’t pitch for the Yankees again. Reuschel never seemed to get along with the Yankees and couldn’t wait to get out of New York, but his time in pinstripes, albeit short, is along the lines with his career numbers.

 

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