Classic Yankees: Dave Righetti

In the most previous Classic Yankees, I wrote about Luis Arroyo and Joe Page, two Yankees who at one time held the single season saves record (Page set it in 1949, it was tied in 1953, Arroyo broke it in 1961; Arroyo’s record was tied in 1964, broken in 1965). The saves statistic didn’t become official until 1969.

Now to complete the “trilogy.” In 1986, Dave Righetti set the record with 46, a record that stood for a few years until Bobby Thigpen saved 57 for the 1990 White Sox (the record is now 62 by K-Rod with the 2008 Angels).

Dave Righetti wound up with 252 saves in his career. It’ll always be a mystery whether he could have won 200 games.

For Righetti started his career as a starter. After the 1978 season, the season when, according to Graig Nettles, Sparky Lyle went from “Cy Young to Sayonara,” Lyle was traded to Texas. One player coming to the Yanks in that ten-player trade was a young lefty still a few weeks away from his 20th birthday—Dave Righetti.

Righetti started three games for the 1979 Yankees, going 0-1 with an ERA of 3.63. In 17.1 IP, he struck out 13, but walked 10.

He spent all of 1980 in the minors.

Righetti came back to the Yanks in 1981, and won the Rookie of the Year award in that strike-shortened season, going 8-4, 2.05, ERA+ 174. He led the league in adjusted ERA, H/9 and K/9. He led the majors in HR/9, giving up just one tater in 105 1/3 IP.

Righetti was the MVP of the 1981 ALDS vs. the Brewers, going 2-0 with an ERA of 1.00. In game 2, he pitched six shutout innings, striking out ten. He came out of the bullpen in Game 5, gave three innings of one-run middle relief, and got the win.

Righetti then won the pennant-clinching game for the Yanks, tossing six shutout innings in Game 3 of the ALCS.

Righetti then ran into that year’s other wunderkind in the WS, getting a no-decision in Game 3 to Fernando Valenzuela and the Dodgers. He went two innings, gave up 3 runs (3-run HR by Ron Cey), 5 hits, 2 walks and 1 K. Righetti was relieved in that game by George Frazier, and we all know the George “Down Goes” Frazier story of that World Series (Frazier lost three games, this one being the first of those three losses).

Little did the 22-year old Righetti know that as a player, he’d never reach another postseason. After all, that 1981 WS appearance marked the fourth for the Yanks in six years (1976-1981).

In 1982, Righetti went 11-10, 3.79, ERA+ 105. Control problems marred his season as he led the AL in walks. He also led the league in k/9.

In 1983, Righetti set a couple of milestones. On July 4, 1983, he tossed a no-hitter against the Boston Red Sox, striking out Wade Boggs for the last out. It was the first no-hitter by a Yankees pitcher since Don Larsen’s perfect game in Game Five of the 1956 World Series.

Righetti won 14 games that year. His ERA was 3.44. His ERA+ was 113. He was 24, turning 25 at the end of November.  He tossed 217 innings. He already was a solid 2 or 3 starter, and it seemed like he would soon take over as “ace” from Ron Guidry, who was entering his mid-thirties.

Little did anyone know that those 14 wins would mark Righetti’s career high—and not because of anything Righetti did wrong.

After the 1983 season, there were changes. Major changes. Billy III was over, and Yogi II was about to begin. Most importantly, Rich “Goose” Gossage left the Yanks. The free agent signed with San Diego. Soon, he would be joined by Graig Nettles, who was “banished” to SD after his book Balls came out. As with Lyle’s The Bronx Zoo, telling tales out of school was verboten. Nettles and Gossage would have the last laugh in 1984, as the Padres reached the World Series. That laugh ended when Goose gave up a huge HR to Kirk Gibson in Game Five of that World Series—the capper that clinched the championship for the Tigers.

But the Yanks needed a closer. Having just signed Phil Niekro, who was 45 during the 1984 season, figuring that they had enough starting pitching behind he and Guidry, the Yanks moved Righetti to closer. Think the recent Joba decisions were controversial? Think back. This decision certainly was, especially when the 1984 Yankees got off to a 36-46 start. Here Righetti was the closer, but in many games early on was useless, because there was nothing to close. The Yanks did rebound in the second half (51-29), but the Tigers blew everyone out of the water with a 35-5 start on their way to winning it all. Righetti wound up 5-6, 2.34, ERA+ 163, with 31 saves.

He wasn’t your typical closer. He didn’t have that “one pitch” like Rivera’s cutter or Gossage’s fastball. He could use his fastball, or his slider. A bit different from what you see today.

In 1985, it was different. After the all-too-quick firing of Berra (and the beginning of Yogi’s 14 year exile from Yankeedom) , the Yanks played well under Billy IV, but not well enough. In that pre-wildcard era, 97 wins was two wins too few. They finished behind Toronto, who won 99. Righetti was 12-7, 29 saves, ERA 2.78, ERA+ 146. He tossed 107 innings.

In 1986, Righetti set the record with 46 saves. 8-8, 2.45, ERA+ 168. He was named to the All-Star team, finished 4th in the CYA voting, and 10th for the MVP. But the Yanks finished second in the A.L. East again.

The biggest problem on those teams was starting pitching. Guidry did win 22 in 1985, but there wasn’t depth in the rotation. Phil Niekro went 16-8 in 1984 and 16-12 in 1985, but he was in his mid-forties. Dennis Rasmussen won 18 in 1986. But Ray Fontenot, Joe Cowley, John “the Count” Montefusco, Ed Whitson, Joe Niekro…not to mention the impatience shown with Jose Rijo, Bob Tewksbury, and Doug Drabek and the “quick fixes” of a Rick Rhoden or John Candelaria later on… in hindsight, you wonder what could have been had the Yanks kept Righetti in the rotation and got a capable closer to replace Gossage. It’ll always be an unanswered question. We’ll never know.

Righetti was an All-Star for the second and final time in 1987, but the Yanks were starting a skid that wouldn’t be straightened out until 1993—after Righetti was gone. Righetti pitched decently from 1987-1990 for the Yanks, but the ERA wouldn’t be below 3.00. In 1987 he went 8-6, 3.51, ERA+ 127 with 31 saves. Not a bad record, but we are spoiled by Mariano Rivera and his eleven seasons UNDER 2.00. God forbid Mo put up a 3.51 this year. Everyone would be screaming that it’s time for him to go.

1988 saw “Rags” go 5-4, 3.52, ERA+ 114, 25 saves.

1989 saw the team have a losing season for the first time since 1982. Righetti was 2-6, 3.00 with 25 saves, ERA+ 129.

1990 would mark Righetti’s last year with the Yankees. They hit rock bottom, finishing with the worst record in the A.L. Righetti went 1-1, 3.57, 36 saves, ERA+ 113. After years of closing, it would have been difficult to stretch “Rags” out to start again, but oh, how painful it was in 1989 and 1990 watching the likes of Tim Leary, Andy Hawkins, Dave LaPoint, Chuck Cary, Walt “Terrible” Terrell, Clay Parker and Greg “life is a” Cadaret start.  Whenever Righetti came in, the thought was “what could have been.”

Righetti went 74-61, 3.11 as a Yankee, with 224 saves and an ERA+ of 127.

A native of San Jose, CA, Righetti went home for 1991, signing with the San Francisco Giants. Although just 32, 1991 would mark his last really good year. He went just 2-7, but saved 24 games while posting an ERA of 3.39 (ERA+ 106).

In 1992, Righetti once again was 2-7, three saves, but his ERA ballooned to 5.06, ERA+ 66. He started four games—his first starts since 1983.

1993 saw an excruciating end to the season. In that last pre-wildcard year, the Giants had a nine-game lead over the Braves around the All-Star Break, but couldn’t hold it. Despite winning 103 games, there was no playoffs for them, since they lost the final game of the season while the Braves won. 103 wins, but one game behind Atlanta. Righetti struggled again, going 1-1, 5.70, one save, ERA+ 69.

In the strike year of 1994, Righetti hit rock bottom, going 0-1, 10.18, ERA+ 47 for Oakland and Toronto. 20 games, 20 1/3 innings.

His final year was 1995. In nine starts and one relief appearance for Toronto that year, Righetti was 3-2, 4.20, ERA+ 108.

For his career, Righetti wound up 82-79, 252 saves and with an ERA of 3.46. ERA+ 114.

We’ll never know what may have happened had Righetti remained a starter. 200 wins? 20 game winner? Cy Young Award?  Who knows?

In four postseason games, three starts, he was 3-0, 2.12.

Righetti was the first pitcher ever to pitch a no-hitter and later lead the league in saves. Later the feat was duplicated by Dennis Eckersley . Righetti still owns the AL record for saves in a season by a lefty reliever.  Righetti broke Sparky Lyle’s record for saves by a lefty reliever. This record would later be broken by John Franco (all Wikipedia).

Righetti has been the Giants’ pitching coach since 2000. He finally got a World Series ring in 2010 when the Giants won it all.

“Rags” broke in wearing Jim Bouton’s old number, 56, but is most famous for wearing #19 as a Yankee. Righetti is 53 years old.

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7 Responses to Classic Yankees: Dave Righetti

  1. Keena says:

    Thanks, enjoyed the article. I am too young to have seen him play but he sounds like he was a great pitcher.

  2. DSRG says:

    Great article. Since you covered Rags, next Classic Yankee article should be his teammate Pags – Mike Pagliarulo. I started watching the Yanks as a kid in 1983. It’s still mindboggling that they couldn’t win a pennant with Mattingly, Winfield, Rickey Henderson, and Willie Randolph in the order. That’s what a lack of starting pitching will do to a team.

  3. Matt_DC says:

    Rags was a roller coaster. He drove my Dad crazy. It seemed like he never had a 1-2-3 save – he would get runners on base and somehow pitch out of it. Definitely one of my favorite all time Yankees.

  4. Hugh says:

    I watched him close a lot when staying in NY with my aunt that summer. I loved him but he was variable to say the least. Typically, he would blow the first two guys away with high heat then walk the next one if you were lucky, or three if you weren't. He never stopped trying though, and, as I say, I loved to watch him pitch and felt really bad for him when he was subjected to the usual sorry excuse for support that struggling players get from their "supporters" in New York!

  5. Mike Sommer says:

    Brian Fuentes just got save #200, making him the sixth lefty to record 200 saves. One of the five others, of course, is Righetti. The six? Franco, Wagner, Myers, Righetti, Lyle and Fuentes.

  6. Rick Ford says:

    Righetti was awesome. But if he was a starting pitcher in 1985, Yankees maybe don't sign Ed Whitson and make Brian Fisher or someone else the closer, they could have easily won the pennant that year. He was just as good as Guidry and ten years younger. They wasted his arm, he should have been throwing 220 innings a year at least.

  7. Linda says:

    Number of legend from the history are having the great game and making unbreakable records in their career. I like that awesome cool essay service sharing about sports that is quite thoughtful for me because I live to watch baseball and search for the history and legends of baseball.

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