Rudy May Day

In 1980, Rudy May had a terrific season for the New York Yankees. He led the league in ERA, FIP, WHIP and strikeout to walk ratio. He came in third among all American League pitchers in WAR. But he did not receive a single Cy Young Award vote. Of course, those were the days before anyone thought anything about WAR and FIP and K/BB ratios. All the writers knew was that Steve Stone went 25-7. Two Yankee teammates of May that year also received votes in Cy Young voting, Tommy John and Goose Gossage. Rudy May‘s season was pretty much overlooked.

It is only through hindsight with the measuring tools we have now that we can truly appreciate the season Rudy May had in 1980. May pitched in 41 games, 17 as a starter and 24 in relief. He still compiled 175.1 innings that season. His final record was 15-5. He completed three of his starts, threw a shutout and chipped in three saves. He did it all and still wound up with a 2.46 ERA. And even though he was tagged with the loss, May pitched the best-pitched game for the Yankees in an ALCS swept by the Royals.

In Rudy May’s 17 starts in 1980, he went 10-3 with a 2.52 ERA. In his 24 relief appearances, he went 5-2 with three saves and a 2.34 ERA. He had a .602 OPS against as a starter and a .611 OPS against as a relief pitcher. And though he was a left-handed pitcher, he was no LOOGY and compiled 57.2 innings in his 24 relief appearances. As a spot-starter, he was not a bullpen blaster and pitched 6.89 innings per start. He did it all. And he did it all well.

In 1980, Rudy May was in his second stint as a Yankee. He pitched for the Yankees for the stretch run in 1974, a full season in 1975 and started the 1976 season with them before being traded to Baltimore. The Yankees got him back in 1980 and he finished his career with the team for the next four years. Only the last season, at the age of 38, was he ineffective.

The sad thing about the facts in the last paragraph is that he was sandwiched around the Yankees’ World Series years of 1976 to 1978. He missed his chance at two rings during those years. He did get to one World Series in 1981 with the Yankees and pitched three times in relief with good effectiveness in a losing cause as the Dodgers took that series.

All in all, Rudy May pitched parts of seven seasons with the team and those seasons were the best of his sixteen year career. He went 54-46 during his tenures with the Yankees with an ERA of 3.12. He started 102 games for the Yankees and relieved in 82 more. He completed 30 of his 102 starts with five shutouts. In relief, he saved seven total games for the Yanks and finished 41 games. He was the ultimate swing-man.

While in the employ of the team from the Bronx, he had a 120 ERA+, an FIP of 3.04, a WHIP of 1.183 and only gave up 0.5 homers per nine innings. 12.1 of his career compilation of 20.8 WAR was compiled while with the Yankees.

It’s not like he did not have other good years with other teams. He went 18-14 with the Orioles in 1977 and went 10-3 for the Expos as a swing-man in 1979. He finished his career with a record of 152-156, four games under .500 largely because of the beginning of his career with the then California Angels–soon after that team’s entry as an expansion team. His record with the Angels in seven seasons was 51-76. That means that the last nine seasons of his career, he went 101-80.

There are many Yankee fans that remember Rudy May fondly. As one of those, I found it very cool when he recently followed me on Twitter. When I thanked him for his follow and told him how I remembered his 1980 season, his answer was very modest: “Thank you for the recognition, but was not anything to compare with some of the greatest lefthanders.” 

Rudy May was not one of the greats, so perhaps he is correct there. But he was very good, especially for the Yankees. His post season body of work all occurred with the Yankees and he pitched six times in that capacity for 19.2 total innings. His WHIP in those games was 1.119 with 6.9 K/9 to only 1.8 walks per nine.

He was just one of those solid, professional players that become cogs on teams and are often under-appreciated. He should have gotten some votes in the 1980 Cy Young voting. His contributions that season were important and should not be overlooked.  The Yankees sure could use a Rudy May today.

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.