The Yankees’ 10 Greatest Pitchers
Whitey Ford (1950, 1953-67)
With a smooth, cool confidence that earned him the nickname Chairman of the Board from the Yankee rat pack, Ford made winning look way too easy for the Yankees, helping to win 11 pennants during his tenure. Ford’s career 236-106 record translates to a .690 winning percentage—the highest of any modern (post-1900) pitcher enshrined in Cooperstown.
Ford made an instant impression as a 21-year-old southpaw rookie by winning his first nine decisions late in 1950, and helped finish off the Yankees’ sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies in that year’s World Series with 8.2 innings of near-shutout ball (allowing two unearned runs in the ninth). He missed the next two seasons participating in the Korean War, then returned to the Yankees in 1953 without skipping a beat, winning 71 games while losing just 27 over the next four years to establish himself as one of the game’s premier pitchers. Ten times throughout his career, Ford would win at least 15 games—and only twice, he would lose 10 or more, with a career-high 13 defeats pitching in pain at age 36 for a broken-down Yankees team in 1965. His only two losing campaigns came over his final two seasons (1966-67), in which the aches and pains intensified even as his earned run average during that time remained exceptional at 2.15, improving his career mark to 2.74—the lowest by a major league starting pitcher playing exclusively after the deadball era.
Relatively preserved during the 1950s because manager Casey Stengel insisted on pitching rotations of at least five starters, Ford was let loose in 1961 by Stengel’s successor Ralph Houk, who let him pitch every four days; Ford responded with his best year yet—winning 20 games for the first time in his career with a personal-best 25 against just four losses in 39 starts. For this he picked up his first (and only) Cy Young Award, and added to his success with another significant achievement: Running a multi-year streak of consecutive scoreless innings in the World Series to 32, breaking the former mark set by Babe Ruth—whose season home run mark had also been erased by Roger Maris that same season. (Ford’s run would end at 33 innings in 1962.) Ford continued to operate at workhorse speed over the next four years for the Yankees, averaging 260 innings annually (as opposed to 210 pitching for Stengel) and racking up another 20-win campaign in 1963 when he finished 24-7.
Ford maintained a voluminous assortment of pitches, all of them good; though it didn’t seem he needed to, he nevertheless resorted to throwing illegal pitches on occasion in the early 1960s, without ever being caught.
As tough as he was to hit against, those fortunate to reach base against Ford found the going even more difficult. Opponents managed just 29 stolen bases over Ford’s 16-year career; another 55 attempts ended in failure, while 52 others were picked off before even getting the chance. In 1961—the year Ford set a career mark with 283 innings—he didn’t allow a single steal; no other pitcher has thrown as many innings without giving one up.
Red Ruffing (1930-42, 1945-46)
Nobody exposed the fates of the Yankees and Boston Red Sox—two teams headed in entirely different directions during the 1920s—than Ruffing, who suffered badly in Boston before a rescue by the Yankees turned his career completely around.
Ruffing was a good-hitting outfielder as a teenager before he lost four toes in a coal-mining accident; he soon realized that pitching didn’t provide the physical disadvantage that playing in the field would, so he worked up a repertoire that relied on excellent control complete with a changeup to baffle hitters. Signed on with the Red Sox, Ruffing’s first six years in the majors were short of disastrous—winning 39, losing 93 and, in his final two full years at Boston in 1928-29, leading the AL in most losses and most runs allowed. After a 0-3 start to the 1930 season, Ruffing was dealt to the Yankees—where manager and former pitcher Bob Shawkey told him to redirect the exertion of his pitching style away from his overused arm and towards the rest of his body.
Like night and day, Ruffing’s luck swung 180 degrees in New York. He finished the 1930 campaign 15-5 for the Yankees and would only suffer one losing season for the rest of his career pitching in pinstripes. Throughout the 1930s he evolved towards greatness and became as automatic as the Yankees in the late 1930s, paralleling the team’s dynastic success of 1936-39 by winning at least 20 games each season—the only four times he would reach the milestone. The massive offensive support he received from the Yankees—in sharp contrast to what little he got in Boston—helped, with a career 3.80 ERA that’s the second highest (after Jack Morris) of any pitcher in the Hall of Fame. But there’s little doubt he became a better hurler in New York, as evidenced by a much more respectable career Yankees ERA of 3.47.
Ruffing stepped it up to earn his World Series pay, going 7-2 in 10 starts with a 2.63 ERA; in Game One of the 1942 World Series, a 37-year-old Ruffing took a no-hitter into the eighth inning against St. Louis.
Further assisting Ruffing’s success on the mound was his own bat. Channeling his early days as an outfielder, Ruffing had a career .269 average in the majors and hit 36 home runs, one shy of the major league record among pitchers; for much of his time in New York, he was the go-to as a right-handed pinch-hitter.
Mariano Rivera (1995-2013)
A native of Panama, Rivera didn’t even begin pitching until he was 19. Soon after, he began a long and lucrative career with the Yankees from which he would become known as the greatest closer of all time—achieving such status essentially with one pitch and one pitch only: The cut fastball.
Had Rivera been born 10 years earlier and come to the Yankees under similar circumstances, owner George Steinbrenner might have shipped him away for over-the-hill talent, but the Boss’ newfound patience with the farm system in the 1990s allowed Rivera and a cadre of teammates (Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte among them) to evolve and thrive for the long haul in New York, all to the benefit of a Yankees team that greatly prospered from his presence in the ninth inning—particularly during the playoffs.
Rivera evolved from spot starter in 1995 to set-up man in 1996 to the full-time closer’s role in 1997, depending solely on the cutter taught to him by his predecessor, John Wetteland. Astonishingly consistent at a high level, Rivera only once finished a year as closer with an ERA over 3.00 (in 2007, with a 3.15 mark) and led the AL three times in saves, including the 2004 season in which he generated a career-high 53. Additionally, Rivera never allowed an earned run in nine All-Star Game appearances, collecting four saves; and although he never won a Cy Young Award, he placed second or third in the vote four times.
In 2011, Rivera’s 602nd career save made him the all-time leader, surpassing Trevor Hoffman; he also became the first pitcher ever to make 1,000 appearances for one team. Two years later, a 43-year-old Rivera played one final year and pitched as if he was still in his prime—racking up 44 saves (to finish with a total 652) and a 2.11. The Yankees prodded him to reconsider his retirement, but he said no thanks.
As sensational as Rivera was during the regular season, it’s his postseason numbers that alone helped clinch his ticket to Cooperstown with 100% of the vote—a Hall-of-Fame first. In 94 playoff games, Rivera compiled an uncanny 0.70 ERA and 0.76 WHIP (walks and hits allowed per inning); he was at the height of his game in 1999 when he pitched 12.1 innings without allowing a run in the postseason—extending an overall streak that began midway through the regular season to 43 innings—and was named MVP of the World Series. Cruelly, he’ll be just as remembered for imploding in Game Seven of the 2001 Fall Classic (handing Arizona the championship) and for failing to nail down Boston’s last-gasp effort in Game Four of the 2004 ALCS, launching the Red Sox on a historic comeback from the dead to win the series after falling behind three games to none.
Rivera was the last active major leaguer to wear number 42, as he was grandfathered to continue wearing it after the numeral was retired for Jackie Robinson in 1997.
Lefty Gomez (1930-42)
Until Yogi Berra came along, the charming left-hander from California was the Yankees’ King of the Quotes, always amusing reporters and fans with his zany wit. Tall (6’2”) but thin (170 pounds), Gomez mixed humor and humility by once remarking that he was so skinny, he never cast a shadow until he was 23—and memorably spoke that “I’d rather be lucky than good.” Backed by a thunderous New York lineup, he was both.
Like Joe DiMaggio a few years later, Gomez was plucked away by the Yankees from the Pacific Coast League’s San Francisco Seals—but at double the price ($50,000). In 1931, his first full season in pinstripes, a 22-year-old Gomez justified the fee by forging a 21-9 record and 2.67 ERA, cementing his presence as the Yankee ace for the bulk of the 1930s. He would win 20 games three more times, and in two separate seasons—1934 and 1937—won the American League’s “triple crown of pitching” by leading the circuit in wins, ERA (both times with a 2.33 mark) and strikeouts.
Gomez had that special Yankee gift of performing at his best when the spotlight shined brightest. In 1932, he won seven of eight decisions against the three-time defending AL champion Philadelphia A’s to help end their reign and resuscitate the Yankees—mired in a prolonged funk by their standards—back to the top of the charts. A year later, he started the first All-Star Game and won it—even knocking in the very first run; he would gain credit for two more Mid-Summer Classic victories in five appearances. And in the postseason, Gomez was a perfect 6-0 in seven World Series starts with a 2.86 ERA.
Ron Guidry (1975-88)
The left-hander who eventually earned the nickname Louisiana Lightning was so lightweight (160 pounds), Yankees manager Billy Martin initially didn’t think he could make it in the majors and lobbied to trade him. But Guidry proved Martin wrong in a big way, breaking out in 1977 with a 16-7 record and 2.82 ERA—all in advance of a season for the ages in 1978.
With a sharp fastball complimented by one the best sliders of the day, Guidry stormed through the opposition in 1978, winning his first 13 decisions and finishing the year at 25-3 for an .893 winning percentage that’s the best recorded by a 20-game winner; his last win of the year came in the Yankees’ fabled 5-4 win over the Red Sox in the tie-breaking playoff to decide the AL East. Guidry’s numerous other accomplishments in 1978 also included a sparkling 1.74 ERA, nine shutouts—the most by a left-hander since Babe Ruth in 1916—and a Yankees team record 18 strikeouts on June 17 against California; on that day, Yankees fans began a tradition emulated at ballparks everywhere today by standing up and lending vocal encouragement every time Guidry ran the count to two strikes, hoping they’d see the third. Guidry finished his exceptional Cy Young Award-winning season with a 2-0 record in three postseason starts for the champion Yankees.
Though his 1978 season stands out of his career stat sheet, Guidry was hardly a one-year wonder. In the prime of his career from 1977-85, he manufactured a 154-67 record and reached the 20-win barrier two more times, including a league-high 22 (against six losses) in 1985. He had a 5-2 career postseason mark and was 3-1 with a 1.69 ERA in World Series competition, and was a five-time Gold Glove winner on defense, winning all five consecutively from 1982-86.
Herb Pennock (1923-33)
A refugee of two historic fire sales—Connie Mack’s dismantling of the Philadelphia A’s in the mid-1910s and Harry Frazee’s prolonged “Rape of the Red Sox” in the early 1920s to feed his passions on Broadway—Pennock joyously arrived in New York in 1923 and took advantage of the Yankees’ filthy riches. That he pitched well didn’t hurt his overall numbers, either.
A very young (18) Pennock struggled to muscle his way into a crowded and talented Philadelphia rotation during the early 1910s but gave moments of the greatness that lay ahead by pitching the pennant-clinching win for the A’s in 1913 and, as an Opening Day starter in 1915, coming to within an out of tossing a no-hitter against the Red Sox—the team he’d be traded to a little over a month later as Mack cleaned house. Pennock landed in a Boston rotation that was equally talented and tough to crack, finally emerging as a full-time starter in 1919 with a 16-8 record for the Red Sox. But Pennock’s luck in the win-loss column suffered as Frazee began shipping away talent to the Yankees for common players and lots of cash, and it was just a matter of time before Pennock himself was sent southward via the Red Sox-Yankees pipeline; that moment came in 1923 when he was traded to New York for three nondescript players and $50,000.
With the Yankees, Pennock was seldom the staff workhorse but effectively ran up the wins—162 of them in 11 years for New York while losing just 90. He was 19-6 with an AL-best .760 winning percentage in his first year at New York in 1923, won 21 games the following year and 23 two years after that. His ERA, which had been languishing at the end of his tenure in Boston, held consistently around 3.00 for much of his time with the Yankees, even as league ERAs shot up with the increase in offense following the deadball era. And in four separate World Series for New York, Pennock started five games—finishing four of them and winning them all, including a masterful effort in Game Three of the 1927 Fall Classic in which he retired the first 22 Pittsburgh Pirates he faced.
Arm woes caught up to Pennock after 1928 and he never pitched at the same level afterward. Following his retirement, he became a prominent front office employee, first as the director of the Red Sox’ farm system in the early 1940s, followed by a stint as general manager for the Phillies—helping to mold the “Whiz Kids” edition that would win the NL pennant in 1950—before a stroke led to his untimely death in early 1948.
Spud Chandler (1937-47)
Few pitchers took efficiency to its zenith as did Chandler, who threw over 200 innings only three times in his 11 years at New York but compiled a 109-43 record and never once suffered a losing season; his career .717 winning percentage is the highest for all post-1900 pitchers with 100 or more decisions.
From the University of Georgia, Chandler patiently awaited his big-league opportunity through six years in the minors, finally making his major league debut in 1937 at age 29. Three years later, he was given a somewhat permanent spot in the rotation and, as he would for much of his career, made the most of it; his 16-5 record in 1942 earned him a spot in that year’s All-Star Game, where he pitched four scoreless innings and took credit for the AL victory. But Chandler enjoyed his career year one season later, dominating the AL with a 20-4 record (including five shutouts) and a 1.64 ERA that was the league’s lowest since the end of the deadball era. His success continued into the World Series, clamping down on the opposing Cardinals with two complete-game wins—allowing just one run in the process. For his efforts on the year, Chandler became the first and, still, only Yankees pitcher ever to be bestowed with MVP honors.
Chandler enlisted into the military early in the 1944 season and returned to major league action at the tail end of the 1945 campaign; against full-strength opposition in 1946, he won 20 games for the second and last time, going 20-8 with a superb 2.10 ERA as he turned 39 years of age.
Waite Hoyt (1921-30)
Like Ruffing and Pennock, Hoyt was given away to the Yankees by the Red Sox and greatly profited from solid offensive support and his own increased efficiency on the mound.
A part-time performer for two years with Boston, Hoyt had yet to establish himself when he joined the Yankees in 1921 at age 21, but he quickly emerged as a force in the rotation by recording a 19-13 record and 3.09 ERA; in the Yankees’ eight-game loss to the New York Giants in that season’s World Series, Hoyt prominently stood out by tossing 27 innings without allowing an earned run—losing the game that clinched the series for the Giants when an unearned tally against him resulted in the contest’s only score. Hoyt would go on to furnish a career 6-3 record for the Yankees in World Series action with an excellent 1.62 ERA; although Ford holds the all-time mark for most consecutive scoreless innings in Fall Classic annals, Hoyt threw 34 straight frames without allowing an earned run.
Hoyt peaked at the height of the Yankees’ first wave of glory in the late 1920s, earning 22-7 and 23-7 records, respectively, in 1927 and 1928. In addition, he relieved in 11 games during the 1928 season and saved eight games, leading the AL.
After a run-in with manager and former pitching mate Bob Shawkey in 1930, Hoyt was dealt away and became a virtual major league transient for the next the decade, playing for five different teams with sporadic results. He was 157-98 for the Yankees and 80-84 elsewhere, leading him later to admit, “The secret to the success of pitching is getting a job with the Yankees.” After his retirement from the game in 1938, Hoyt became a long-running (and long-winded) play-by-play announcer for the Cincinnati Reds through the 1960s.
Mel Stottlemyre (1964-74)
Perhaps the unluckiest man ever to don Yankee pinstripes, Stottlemyre had the misfortune of starting his career in the mid-1960s just as the Yankees began a rare, prolonged slip into obscurity—and was done 10 years later, on the eve of the team’s long-term revival under George Steinbrenner. If not for his presence, the dark days of the Yankees would have been even blacker.
For a few months at the end of the 1964 season, Stottlemyre did get a fleeting taste of Yankee glory, debuting late in the year with a 9-2 record and 2.06 ERA in 13 appearances for the AL champs; he got two starts in that year’s seven-game World Series, outdueling Cardinals ace Bob Gibson in Game Two. It was the only postseason he would ever participate in.
In his first full year of 1965, Stottlemyre won 20 games for the first of three times as the Yankees began their disintegration; over the next nine years, he would be the team’s big-time workhorse, averaging 272 innings—but often struggled to break even in the win-loss column because of tepid support from his offense. As a result, he twice led the AL in losses, including 20 in 1966. By the time the Yankees began their ascent back to the top in the mid-1970s under Steinbrenner, Stottlemyre suffered a rotator cuff injury and was done pitching at age 32.
Though not a great hitter, Stottlemyre had moments of brilliance at the plate. In his rookie season of 1964, he knocked out five hits in one game, and a year later became the first pitcher in 55 years to hit an inside-the-park home run.
Stottlemyre would eventually collect a trove of World Series rings when he returned to the Yankees in 1996 and began a decade-long tenure as the team’s pitching coach, helping to season Rivera, Pettitte and other hurling standouts in the Bronx.
Ed Lopat (1948-55)
Few pitchers looked less intimidating—and more infuriating—to opponents than Lopat, who thrived on slow-speed “junk” pitches. After Ford, Lopat became the most consistently successful component of the New York rotation during the Casey Stengel era.
Nicknamed the Junkman for his mass assortment of everything but the fastball, Lopat once summed up his style: “Never the same pitch twice, never the same place twice, never the same speed twice.” It all worked out in New York, where over seven full seasons with the Yankees he compiled an impressive 109-51 record, won the 1953 ERA title with a 2.42 mark (to go with a 16-4 record) and won 20 games for the only time in his career when he finished at 21-9 in 1951. Stengel, who never overworked his pitchers, protected Lopat even more after arm troubles developed in 1952—restricting the southpaw to one start every seven days for the rest of his time in the Bronx.
Lopat pitched exceptionally well when the heat was on; in seven World Series starts for the Yankees, he was 4-1 with a 2.60 ERA and three complete games. And he so frustrated the Cleveland Indians—the Yankees’ most prominent opponent of the time and for whom Lopat had a career 30-6 record—that maverick Indians owner Bill Veeck finally decided to hold “Beat Eddie Lopat Night” in Cleveland for a 1951 game against the Yankees and Lopat, giving out rabbits’ feet to those in attendance. The Indians won the game.
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