Mailbag: Who is the Best NYY Middle Reliever of All-Time?

Happy Monday, folks. Another week without baseball or even any baseball news. Love that for us! To hold us over, let’s do a mailbag, shall we? A bunch of fun questions this week tackled below. As always, if you’d like to be included in a future edition, send us your questions to viewsfrom314@gmail.com. We choose our favorites each week and answer them on Mondays.

To the questions!

Jesse Asks: I looked back over Brett Gardner’s career recently and noticed a couple remarkable things about his 2010 season: He finished with 7.4 bWAR, good for fifth in the AL, but he wasn’t listed on a single MVP ballot. He also had a higher OBP (.383) than SLG (.379) that year. My questions are (1) is this the best season ever by a player with zero points in the MVP voting, and (2) is this the best season ever by a hitter with a higher OBP than SLG?

I love this question. It’s really creative one and it illustrates how Brett Gardner had an often under appreciated career. In 2010, the season in question, Gardy hit 277/.383/.379 (105 OPS+) in 150 games. He posted 3.6 bWAR in that season, just for context. Anyway, to answer both questions, as you can imagine, I turned to Baseball-Reference’s Stathead for help.

Unfortunately, for the MVP question, I was unable to sort by seasons in which a player received or didn’t receive an MVP vote. Perhaps there’s a way, but it eluded me. That said, there is an answer out there on the internet in the form of a 2012 blog post on the topic. That will obviously be a bit outdated, but the point remains: no, this was not the best season ever by a player with no votes in the MVP race. As of 2012, that distinction belonged to Roberto Clemente’s 1968 season, in which he hit .291/.355/.482 and logged 8.2 bWAR without receiving a vote. Even though the list is a bit old, I’m very, very confident that Clemente is still the top dog here. We’d have heard about it otherwise. (In any event, check out the post – very cool, if unsurprising, results to the original query.)

The second question was a lot easier for me to answer. Stathead has an easy way to search seasons in which a player has posted a higher OBP than SLG. Turns out, there have been 41,270 seasons matching that criteria. To get to the spirit of the question, though, I refined it a bit to include only the modern era (1900-2021) and limited it to players who qualified for the batting title. There have only been a hair more than 2,000 such seasons under that criteria. I also sorted by oWAR, because I felt that was also an interesting angle. (Defense is sort of irrelevant for this discussion.)

So, was Brett Gardner’s the best of the bunch? No, and not even close. That belongs to Eddie Collins, who had 4 of the best 10 seasons on the list none better than his 1912 campaign. He hit .348/.450/.435 and posted 8.2 oWAR for the Philadelphia Athletics that season. Other notables in the top 10 – most of this list is pre-WWII – include Rickey Henderson in 1980 and Willie Randolph, also in 1980. Other modern figures include Chone Figgins and Chuck Knoblauch, further down. Gardner’s season ranked 185th in this category. Still, a fun query with some fun results.

Kevin Asks: Who is the Yankees’ greatest middle relief pitcher of all time?

Another fun question here, and another one that involves some Stathead searching. For this, I did a simple search involving all NYY relievers (defined as 95% of their appearances coming in relief) with fewer than 10 saves as a Yankee. It’s imprecise, but feels to be a fair approximation for “middle reliever.” These were not pitchers who got the 9th inning with any regularity. I sorted by WAR, just as a proxy. The results here are hilarious. Here are the top 15:

RkPlayerWARSVFromToGIPERAFIPK%BB%ERA+
1Tom Gordon7620042005159170.12.383.0224.80%7.80%185
2Jeff Nelson6.49199620033313113.473.6424.50%12.60%136
3John Habyan4.31019901993164213.23.163.1716.70%6.70%129
4Brian Bruney3.51200620091531443.254.621.10%14.40%140
5Boone Logan2.91201020132561763.383.6326.90%9.80%126
6Neil Allen2.711985198866171.13.624.0612.70%8.20%112
7Scott Proctor2.2120042011198237.14.515.1618.50%10.00%99
8Adam Ottavino2.12201920209784.22.763.4630.70%13.30%160
9Dave LaRoche1.801981198352983.123.4913.50%6.60%122
10Mike Myers1.702006200711771.12.94.3914.00%8.50%157
11Chasen Shreve1.6220152018180174.23.924.9926.40%11.70%109
12Kyle Farnsworth1.6720062008181170.14.334.722.40%9.70%104
13Lucas Luetge1.51202120215772.12.742.8425.90%5.00%157
14Kerry Wood1.502010201024260.693.3928.70%16.70%631
15Chris Hammond1.512003200362632.863.2517.20%4.20%155

That is quite a list, and it only gets funnier the further down you go. I strongly encourage everyone to check it out. Now, to answer the question, I think it’s pretty clearly Jeff Nelson. He pitched in the most games (311) on the list across the longest period (8 seasons) with the most success (4 WS victories, 7 pennants). He stands a cut above everyone else but Flash Gordon, who was obviously dominant across two seasons with outrageous usage.

Flash may have been the more dominant pitcher in a shorter period, but when you factor in everything else, Jeff Nelson is the answer to the question. I doubt that surprises many fans who remember the glory days.

Jonathan Asks: Why did the Yankees protect Britton?  He isn’t going to be available until the very end of 2022 at the earliest, and typically pitchers returning from Tommy John surgery need some time to round into competitive form.  Doing so could cost them someone they couldn’t protect on their 40 man roster for the Rule 5 draft.

They didn’t really have a choice, unless they wanted to eat his salary without any possibility of him helping the team. The Yanks owed him $14 million either way. That suggests that either: 1) they think there’s a chance that he can come back next year, even if unlikely, and/or 2) they were unable to find a suitable salary dump trade. I’d guess both. I am not counting on Britton to come back at all next season and be a contributor, but the Yankees were on the hook for the salary anyway. To them, at least, that must have been worth the risk or the loss of someone in the Rule 5 draft. (Most of those guys don’t amount to much anyway.)

Aaron Asks: Am I being paranoid if Hal’s antics disturb me? He was in favor of lowering the luxury tax threshold, and now, the team seems awfully quiet. Given the upcoming talks, that is really concerning. It also makes me wonder if the Yankees are wary of another long big contract (Verlander was a one year offer) because Hal wants to ensure he can get back under the line (maybe even a lowered one) ASAP after 2022. This also means either not extending Judge, and possibly allowing the team to go into the season with holes still in the roster to maintain a minimum on expenses (wasting what could be the last potentially strong year of the current window). And for all the excuses about the Yankees not being able to spend big due to the penalties, Hal seems awfully keen to expand the system the prohibits the Yankees from utilizing their financial muscle.

No, you’re not being paranoid. But it’s also important not to get pre-mad, either. The offseason isn’t over yet – it’s suspended – and there are still big fish out there. The Yankees can and likely will still make a big signing and most likely even a trade. I’m as frustrated as anyone by their inactivity thus far, but we don’t know what’s gone on behind the scenes yet and I don’t think it’s fair to slam them just yet. (Be prepared to slam them soon, though.)

As for the other end of the question, I get it. I really do. It’s incredibly off-brand for a Steinbrenner to take a “lower the threshold” position. (This references the reporting of Lindsey Adler at The Athletic.) It’s pathetic, embarrassing, and shameful given the Yankees’ stature and financial power. We should not be afraid to call it what it is.

That said, it is not surprising. Steinbrenner is an owner with interests as an owner. That means saving money, reducing financial penalties, and maximizing his team’s profitability. There are clear ways to do that, and that’s exactly what he’s going in these negotiations. He is acting in his and his peers’ self-interest. That is precisely what we should expect him to do as an actor in these negotiations, and it’s good to keep that in mind as the players and owners go through this whole song and dance.

At the end of the day, though, we’ll have to see what the Yanks do once free agency resumes and we have a new framework in place. It is certainly not paranoid to think they’ll fall short, though. A bit premature, perhaps, but definitely not paranoid.

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9 Comments

  1. dasit

    without the save disqualification, mariano would be 3rd on the list based on 1996 alone
    also, no love for ramiro mendoza?

  2. MikeD

    The definition of a “middle reliever” is a bit hard to, well, define, particularly across generations. For example, Ron Davis was never the Yankees closer for a season, but he served as the setup man and middle-inning reliever to Rich Gossage. In 1980, Goose basically pitched 100 innings as the closer, and Davis pitched 131 innings as his setup man/middle reliever. The definition created here basically eliminates most relievers prior to the creation of the one-inning closer in the 1990s, because prior to that you’d have a couple relievers handling the duties that would be dispersed amongst three or four relievers today. That also meant someone like Davis would get awarded saves for pitching three innings, but he didn’t become a full-time closer until he arrived in Minnesota and became the Twins closer, and while there also fathered a future MLB 1B’man named Ike. Over a three-year stretch, he was 27-10, 2.93 ERA in 290 innings for the Yankees, with a 6.1 rWAR and an All-Star selection. He’d have eclipsed Nelson in WAR if not for 1/3rd of the 1981 season being eliminated, and might have also eclipsed Gordon.

    So no issues with the attempt here. It’s an interesting question, but maybe a better one would simply be who is the best reliever who wasn’t a closer. That will expand the list out to not only Davis, but D-Rob when he was a setup man for a number of years, Betances, etc. It will still be weighted more heavily toward the recent years as more innings are coming from the pen, but it also won’t limit this to simply someone we might try to tag as a “middle reliever,” which is difficult to establish as bullpen roles have changed so much over the years.

  3. Thanks for the great response, although I think excluding dWAR kind of defeats the point. That’s largely what made Gardy’s 2010 season so special in the first place.

    Also, I think your answer contains a typo that changes the whole context of the answer: He had 3.6 oWAR in 2010, not 3.6 bWAR.

    Anyways, thanks again. I had no idea about that Clemente season. Interesting!

  4. Coolerking101

    How is Chad Green 2017-18 not make this list!?!?!?!?

  5. Jack Helmuth

    Oh, and as for Britton, don’t forget the likelihood of the Yankees getting back much of his salary from insurance. You can’t get that money back if you cut him.

  6. Jack Helmuth

    Oooh, I’m not sure I’d leave Betances off the “middle reliever” list just because he happened to pick up a few saves (three year stretch of 9, 12, and 10) while Chapman was injured (or whatever). I would guess his 5 year stretch of dominance warrants very high placement on this list, no? Or am I getting the definition of “middle reliever” wrong?

    • DZB

      Good point about Betances.
      Also, fun to see Ottavino on the list

      • MikeD

        It would have been even more fun to see Garrett Whitlock and his 3.0 WAR make the list this year as a Yankee. 🙂

  7. Steven Tydings

    Kerry Wood putting up 1.5 rWAR in two months for the 2010 Yankees was pretty absurd. Great one-and-done Yankee.

    Also, shouts to Kevin for asking the hard-hitting questions. I wish I’d asked that middle reliever question.

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