Classic Yankees: Mel Stottlemyre

New York Yankees Mel StottlemyreUnfortunately, not all Classic Yankees had a wealth of postseason experience (and, if I ever do a “Classic Highlander”, you know that there would be none there unless that Highlander made it to the postseason elsewhere!)

Cubs great Ernie Banks never played in a postseason game. None. At least Don Mattingly got in a couple. The same for Mel Stottlemyre.

When Stottlemyre came up to the Yankees in 1964, no one would have believed it if you had said that he would make it to the 1964 World Series, but no more after that. But that is precisely what happened.

When Stottlemyre made his debut on August 12, 1964, the Yankees were sitting in third place, 3 ½ games back. Stottlemyre went 9-3, 2.06 down the stretch to lead the Yanks to their fifth straight pennant. His ERA+ was 177. I don’t know why he didn’t get any ROY votes, but even with his late arrival, Stottlemyre got MVP consideration, finishing 25th in the voting.

In that major league debut, which Stottlemyre won, Mel pitched a CG victory, giving up 3 R, 2 ER. He was backed by four Yankees HRs in the 7-3 win, one each by Roger Maris and Clete Boyer, and two by Mickey Mantle. Mantle’s first HR was hit to straightaway CF at the old Stadium. Stottlemyre saw Mantle fling his bat away in disgust, and then amazingly watched as CF Gene Stephens kept backing up…all the way to the 461 mark in CF. Mantle’s blast cleared the 461 sign and the 20’ fence! It was said to have gone 502 feet. Stottlemyre’s reaction, upon seeing Mantle fling his bat and then in seeing where the ball went was something like, “if that isn’t far enough for him, what is?” Later that season, on September 26th, Stottlemyre helped himself by going 5 for 5 at the plate.

The 22 year old rookie had developed into an ace in a hurry. In the 1964 WS, he had to be the ace. Whitey Ford developed arm trouble while pitching in Game 1. It would be the last WS game Whitey would pitch in. Upon getting knocked out, Whitey’s arm was dead with a circulatory problem. Some at the time thought he was having a heart attack when they took his BP. The Yanks lost that Game 1, but Stottlemyre out pitched Bob Gibson in Game 2 to even the series. Mel gave up three runs on seven hits in his CG victory. Mel went up against Gibson again in game 5, and this time got a ND, giving up 2 R, 1 ER in 7 IP. The Yanks went on to lose the game in 10 innings. Stottlemyre then started Game 7 on just two days of rest, going up against Gibson yet again. Ford’s arm troubles, along with Berra losing faith in Al Downing, forced him to choose Mel or Downing for Game 7 (Jim Bouton won Games 3 and 6). Mel ran out of gas though, giving up 4 R in 3 IP and taking the loss (Downing gave up 3 runs in relief of Stottlemyre, and didn’t get anyone out). Mel would never pitch in another postseason game. In his only postseason, Stottlemyre went 1-1, 3.15.

As the dynasty collapsed in 1965, Stottlemyre emerged into a star, winning 20 games. On July 20th of that year, Stottlemyre hit an inside-the-park grand slam at the Old Stadium. He was 20-9, 2.63, ERA+ 129. His 18 CG and 291 IP led the league. He was an All-Star who finished 14th in the MVP voting.

Stottlemyre had a tough year in 1966 as the Yanks dropped to dead last. He went from being a 20-game winner to being a 20-game loser, going 12-20, 3.80, ERA+ just 87 and leading the league in losses. Still, with the Yanks being so bad, he was named to the All-Star team.

In 1967, Mel went 15-15, 2.96, ERA+ 105. Yankee Stadium, with its dimensions, was good to pitchers, and Mel’s ERA in this pitching-rich period (note despite the 2.96 ERA the ERA+ was just 105) would be good. Unfortunately for him, the team couldn’t hit much and his record didn’t coincide with his ERA. Mel was known for his sinkerball and for getting groundouts. You may say that he was the Chien Ming Wang of his day. Not a strikeout pitcher, Stottlemyre threw 303 innings in 1969 and struck out just 113. In 1973, he pitched 273 innings and struck out just 95.

Mel became a 20-game winner in back-to-back seasons, 1968 and 1969, making it three times in his career that he achieved the feat. In 1968, he went 21-12, 2.45, ERA+ 117 and was once again an All-Star. He finished 10th in the MVP voting. The writers were probably acknowledging his fine season in winning 21 for a team that collectively hit a Yankees’ record low of just .214.

1969 saw 20-14, 2.82, an ERA+ of 124. As I stated, 303 IP. His 24 CG led the league. Once again, an All-Star. 18th in the MVP voting.

Mel went 15-13, 3.09 in 1970 when he made his fifth and final All-Star team. His ERA+ was 115. In 1971, the ERA+ was a 114 as Mel went 16-12, 2.87.

He had an off-year in 1972. He led the league in losses with 18, going 14-18, 3.22. How rich of a pitching era was this? 3.22 sounds great, doesn’t it? The ERA+ however, was just 92. 100 is average. This was the last of the pre-DH years in the AL. You can see how much of a premium runs were in 1972. The 92 means that the average ERA was 2.96.

Another year, another good ERA, another .500 record. 1973 saw Stottlemyre go 16-16, 3.07. ERA+ 120.

In 1974, Stottlemyre was just 32. He went 6-7, 3.58, ERA+ 99. Average. On June 11th of that year, Stottlemyre felt something as he pitched against the Angels. He had given up four runs in 3+ innings. Stottlemyre would pitch in just one game after that—he pitched two innings of relief, giving up two runs, vs. Boston on August 4, 1974. He had torn his rotator cuff. At that time, there weren’t the surgical procedures of today. Even today, often it’s a career-ender. Although Stottlemyre tried to come back, his career was over.

From 1965-1973, the least amount of innings Stottlemyre threw in a season was 251. He was a workhorse. It caught up with him. During this time period, Stottlemyre averaged 37 starts and 272 innings a year. 17-14, 2.98, ERA+ 111. He threw 40 career shutouts. He finished his career with an ERA of 2.97, going 164-139, ERA+ 112. Amazingly, he never received a single CYA vote.

In his book, Now Pitching for the Yankees, former Yankees PR director Marty Appel recounts asking third base coach Dick Howser, soon after the Yankees got Catfish Hunter, who he thought was better, Hunter or Whitey Ford. “Stottlemyre was better than both of them,” was the answer Howser gave.

Mel was born ten years too late. Imagine if he’d have pitched from 1954-1964 instead of 1964-1974. Imagine if he had Mantle in his prime and not in his decline. Imagine Yogi Berra, not Jake Gibbs catching him (although he did get Thurman Munson later). Imagine Maris at his peak, not his decline, rather than Steve Whitaker, Curt Blefary or Ron Woods in the OF.

As a hitter, Stottlemyre hit .160 with 7 HR. Two of his sons, Mel Jr., and Todd, made it to the majors in their own right.

After retirement, Stottlemyre went into coaching. He was the pitching coach for the 1986 WS Champion Mets and was there for ten years. He then spent two years with the Astros as their pitching coach.

When Joe Torre became manager of the Yankees in 1996, he named Mel Stottlemyre as his pitching coach. As a guy who remembered watching Mel pitch in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, I applauded the move. Mel was coming home. I also knew of the success Mel had as a pitching coach and hoped it would translate over. Mel was the Yanks’ pitching coach from 1996-2005, and in that timeframe the Yankees went to six World Series, winning four of them. He served as a pitching coach for Seattle after leaving the Yankees.

Stottlemyre, along with Willie Randolph, are the best known players to have worn #30, now worn by David Robertson.

Stottlemyre lost one son at the age of 11 to leukemia, and was diagnosed with multiple myeloma himself but has been in remission for a decade or so. He is 69 years old.

Stottlemyre ranks 7th on the all-time Yankees’ list for victories. Only Whitey Ford and Red Ruffing threw more innings as a Yankee. Besides not being a strikeout pitcher, Mel ranks #7 in Yankees’ history in that category. He’s 4th in GS, 8th in CG, and his 40 shutouts are tied for 2nd—five behind Whitey Ford. Unfortunately, due to the weak clubs he played on, Mel has the lead in one other category—most career losses by a Yankees pitcher.

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