Short-term winning Yankee pitchers

The history of the New York Yankees is littered with pitchers who put together a winning percentage of .600 or better because the Yankees have won so many games over the team’s history. There is Whitey Ford, Ron Guidry, CC Sabathia, Mike Mussina, Roger Clemens, Orlando Hernandez, Andy Pettitte and even Don Larsen, to name a few. But what about those pitchers who only pitched a season or two for the team and yet had very good success? After setting some criteria, there were nine that are featured here today.

The criteria was this: The pitcher had to make at least fifteen starts, but less than forty. They had to have an ERA+ of 100 or better to be at least league average or better. And they had to have a .600 winning percentage or better. With that set as the parameters, nine pitchers came into focus and are listed below by rWAR:

Jack McDowell: Jack McDowell was a first round draft pick by the Chicago White Sox in 1987. He would have three great seasons for the White Sox from 1991 to 1993 where he was in the top ten in voting for the Cy Young Award. He won the award in 1993 for his 22-win season.

McDowell had one season to go to become a free agent and the White Sox traded him to the Yankees for Lyle Mouton (the player named later) and Keith Heberling, a promising young pitcher who flamed out early in the minors and never made it to the big leagues.

In McDowell’s one season for the Yankees, 1995, and he was arguably the Yankees best pitcher that season. He went 15-10 with a 118 ERA+ and led all Yankee pitchers in rWAR. Unfortunately, he made two starts against the Mariners in the playoffs and pitched poorly, losing both games. The Yankees let him walk. That was pretty much a good thing because McDowell’s career washed out after that.

Joe Cowley: Joe Cowley signed with the Atlanta Braves in 1976. After toiling for the Braves in the minors for eight seasons (with a brief cup of coffee in the Majors), he was granted free agency and signed with the Yankees after the 1983 season. See his picture as a Yankee here.

Pitching for the Columbus Clippers in early 1984, Cowley went 10-3 for the Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate. The Yankees called him up to make an emergency start on July 16. The Yankees won the game, 9-8 but Cowley only pitched five innings and did not factor into the decision. He would pitch four games in relief, winning one and losing one and had one “hold.”

The Yankees put him in the rotation on August 3 and he won eight straight decisions! He would finish the season at 9-2 making him 19-5 overall for the season.

Cowley was given a rotation spot in 1985 and went 12-6. That was the year the Yankees fired Yogi Berra and gave Billy Martin one more shot at it. The Yankees won 97 games that season, the closest they came during the 80s to a playoff spot.

Cowley was traded after the 1985 season to the White Sox for three minor league players who did not amount to anything. He had a decent season in 1986 for that team and they in turn traded him to the Phillies where he bombed out and was finished in baseball at the age of 28. Was he another Billy Martin casualty?

Joe Cowley, in his brief Yankee career went 21-8 with a 104 ERA+.

Jon Lieber: Lieber was originally drafted by the Royals (second round) but they traded him to the Pirates before he reached the Majors. He pitched five nondescript years for the Pirates before they traded him to the Chicago Cubs. He had a decent five-year run with the Cubs and was a solid starter for them. But he missed the entire 2003 season with injury and became a free agent.

The Yankees signed him to a one-year deal and it was a good signing. He gave the Yankees a solid season in 2004, going 14-8 with a 3.71 FIP. He was the only reliable starter at the time of the playoffs and pitched three times in that post season. He pitched very well for the Yankees in those three starts, but we will not discuss that playoff season any further.

Lieber left after the 2004 season and signed a contract with Phillies where he pitched for three seasons. Only his first one there was good. His last season was with the Cubs in 2008.

John Candelaria. The Candy Man had a long, nineteen year career where he won 59.2% of his decisions and had a 3.41 ERA. He compiled 40.1 rWAR for his career putting him strongly in the Hall of Very Good. His tenure with the Yankees was brief and was during the turbulent 1980s so few might remember him today.

The Yankees signed Candelaria as a free agent before the 1988 season and he pitched very well that season despite the Yankees finishing fifth in the division. He went 13-7 with a 3.38 ERA (3.20 FIP) in 24 starts. He had two shutouts and completed six games that season. He even pitched one game in relief and picked up a save.

He started the 1989 season at 3-3 and wasn’t doing as well but after ten appearances, was traded to the Expos for Mike Blowers. Blech. Candelaria was only used in relief by the Expos, a role he would adopt for the rest of his career. He finished his Yankee career at 16-10.

Don Gullett. You have to wonder how Gullett would have fared with today’s modern medicine and treatments. He was a highly successful pitcher who won 68.5% of his career decisions and five World Series rings between the Reds’ Big Red Machine years and the Yankees two-year reign in 1977 and 1978.

But he could not stay healthy and flamed out at the age of 27. His two Yankee seasons were his last and when they could get him on the mound, he won. Gullett gave the Yankees thirty starts over those two seasons and would go 18-6 in his Yankee career. He was 14-4 in 1977 and was a huge part of the Yankees’ season that year.

Unfortunately, Gullett pitched three times for the Yankees in the 1977 post season and pitched poorly, losing two of those starts. You have to wonder what might have been…

Dutch Ruether: Walter Henry “Dutch” Ruether was another pitcher with Reds and Yankees ties, but pitched for the Yankees 51 years before Gullett. Ruether had a brilliant season for the 1919 Reds and went 19-6 with a 1.82 ERA and then won a game in the World Series (yes, the Black Sox series) as the Reds won the championship. He had another terrific season for the Reds in 1920 and then they inexplicably traded him to the Brooklyn Robins for Rube Marquard, a once brilliant pitcher whose best days were behind him.

Ruether would have decent seasons for the lowly Robins who then traded him to the Washington dutchSenators. He pitched well there for a year and a half before that team traded him to the Yankees in 1926 for the stretch run. Ruether made five starts down the stretch in 1926 with mixed results. He then lost his one start in the 1926 World Series the Yankees lost to the St. Louis Cardinals.

He would have a much better season in 1927 as he went 13-6 in 26 starts for that great Yankees team. His ERA that season was 3.38, good for a 115 ERA+. He did not pitch in the 1927 World Series as the Yankees swept the Pirates in four games. Strangely, Dutch Ruether was done and never pitched again in the Majors. Perhaps it was not that strange. Ruether was a Californian and as such, he pitched the rest of his professional career in the Pacific Coast League, which paid well back then.

Ruether not only had a .625 winning percentage as a short-term Yankee, but finished with a .591 winning percentage for his career.

Vito Tamulis: Vitautris Casimirus “Vito” Tamulis is probably the most obscure name on this list. He pitched one game in 1934 and then spent a large part of the 1935 season with the Yankees. Both of those seasons featured Yankee teams that came in second place.

In his one game in 1934, he had a dream MLB debut and on September 25, 1934, he shut out the Philadelphia Athletics with a seven-hitter.

In 1935, Tamulis would pitch 30 times, nineteen of them starts. He would finish the season at 10-5. He vitohad three shutouts and nine complete games. His ERA wasn’t great, however.

Tamulis got sick after the 1935 season and never pitched again for the Yankees. In fact, he would not pitch in the Majors again until 1938 when he had three decent seasons for the Brooklyn Dodgers (again with a winning percentage better than .600). He would fade into obscurity after that. For a somewhat interesting read on Tamulis, go here.

John Montefusco: “The Count” was a colorful figure and is another pitcher who ended his career with the Yankees. He had bright moments during his career that started with the San Francisco Giants but very few of his twelve seasons saw him stay healthy the entire way. One of those seasons were 1982 and 1983 where the first year and most of the second were spent with the San Diego Padres.

The Yankees were in a bit of a pennant race in 1983 (that fizzled in the end) and at the end of August acquired Montefusco from the Padres for what later turned out to be Dennis Rasmussen and Edwin Rodriguez. The Yankees got Rasmussen back a year later in a trade that ended Graig Nettles‘ career as a Yankee.

Montefusco gave the Yankees exactly what they wanted in that 1983 stretch run. He made six starts and went 5-0. The following season, Montefusco could not stay healthy and only made eleven starts the entire season and went 5-3. His final two seasons of 1985 and 1986 were filled with many days on the DL and very few appearances. But The Count’s 10-3 record as a Yankee starter get him into our list.

Doc Ellis: As colorful as Montefusco was, he does not hold a candle to Doc Ellis, one of the most colorful and scandalous players to ever play in the Majors. His one full season and three short starts the next season for the Yankees in 1976 and 1977 were terrific, but brief. The trade that brought Ellis, Ken Brett and Willie Randolph to the Yankees for Doc Medich was probably one of the best trades the Yankees ever made.

Doc Ellis went 17-8 for the 1976 Yankees with an ERA of 3.19. 1976 was the year that the Yankees got back to the World Series for the first time since 1964. Ellis helped get them there. And he pitched a brilliant game against the Royals in the ALCS to help get the Yankees past that team to the World Series. But, alas, his one start in the World Series went badly as the Big Red machine swept the Yankees in four games.

Ellis was off to a very good start after three games with the Yankees in 1977 but must have worn out his welcome by then and he was traded along with two other players to the Oakland A’s for Mike Torrez. Torrez worked out pretty well for the Yankees in 1977.

Ellis made seven really bad starts for the A’s and then they sold him to the Rangers, where he had a very good rest of the season. However, that was his last hurrah as he was never again an effective pitcher in the Major Leagues.

And that’s the list of short-term Yankee winners. There are sure to be others missed by the narrow criteria set here. But these nine pitchers had brief but shining moments from a team that made a lot of pitchers look good.

William Tasker grew up in Bergenfield, New Jersey but has lived in New England since 1975 and in the far reaches of northern Maine since 1990. Tasker is the author of nine (non-baseball related) books and, besides writing here for three years, has written for his own site at www.passion4baseball.blogspot.com since 2003.