Thoughts following Greg Bird’s shoulder injury

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

We have to interrupt Retro Week for a no good, very bad reason. Greg Bird will undergo surgery to repair a torn right labrum in his shoulder later today, the Yankees announced yesterday. Although Bird was not projected to be on the Opening Day roster, he is still an important piece of the organization, and chances are his absence will be noticeable in 2016. I have thoughts.

1. Bird missed a month with a right shoulder strain in Double-A last summer and the Yankees acknowledged in yesterday’s press release this injury is a “reoccurrence of a right shoulder injury sustained in May of 2015.” It’s fair to wonder whether the Yankees missed the injury in May or underestimated the severity, but I don’t think that’s the case. Bird hit well in the minors after returning and he mashed in the big leagues, swatting eleven homers in 46 games. There was no indication his shoulder was an issue.  The injury could have worsened due to the wear and tear, plus this is one of those things that could have been exacerbated as he ramped up his weightlifting in the weeks leading up to Spring Training. (Brian Cashman told Chad Jennings this popped up within the last ten days or so.) It sucks. Injuries happen.

2.. The long-term effect of the surgery is a legitimate concern. It is Bird’s right shoulder, so his front shoulder when hitting, and several players have lost power after having surgery on their front shoulder in recent years. Brian McCann, Matt Kemp, and Adrian Gonzalez are the three most notable examples. Here’s a really quick graph I whipped up:

McCann Kemp Gonzalez ISO

Y+1 is the first year after the player had surgery. Y+2 is the second year after surgery. Y-1 is the year before surgery. Got it? McCann’s power numbers actually held steady before and after the surgery, but both Kemp and Gonzalez suffered significant power hits. Gonzalez has never really regained his pre-surgery power either. Kemp needed a full year to bounce back. So these three represent the three possible outcomes: Bird comes back fine (like McCann), Bird gets back to normal after a year or two (like Kemp), or Bird never gets back to where he was (like Gonzalez). The injury stinks for 2016. I’m much more concerned about the long-term impact.

3. The injury changes the outlook of Mark Teixeira‘s impending free agency, doesn’t it? Before Bird got hurt it was pretty easy to assume the Yankees would simply let Teixeira walk next offseason, and maybe make him the qualifying offer depending on his production. The shoulder injury has made Bird a big question mark for 2017. No one knows what to expect from him following surgery. Suddenly re-signing Teixeira to a short-term deal doesn’t seem so far-fetched. There’s still an entire season that has to play out before we can seriously talk about the Yankees re-signing Teixeira, and by then we’ll have much more information. About Bird’s rehab, about Teixeira’s ability to produce, all sorts of stuff. Point is, Bird’s injury increased the odds of Teixeira returning to the Yankees in 2017 by some amount. I’m not sure how much exactly, but by some amount. (At the very least, the Yankees will need a capable Plan B at first base in 2017 behind Bird.)

4. I couldn’t tell you how many people I saw suggesting the Yankees sign Pedro Alvarez after the news yesterday. Bird was not going to be on the MLB roster and chances are Alvarez is not looking to take a minor league contract. Alvarez wasn’t a great fit for the roster anyway because he’s essentially a platoon DH. The opportunity for playing time in the Bronx has increased only slightly because Bird’s injury doesn’t open up a big league roster spot. Now, if Teixeira were to get hurt in Spring Training, then it would be different. Hopefully that’s not the case. Right now the Yankees lost a depth player, not a 2016 MLB piece. Alvarez still is not any kind of solution unless he’s willing to go to Triple-A. (Cashman did confirm the Yankees will look for first base help on a minor league contract. Maybe Ike Davis?) That’s where the roster hole is right now. In Scranton. Maybe this will push the Yankees to sign Juan Uribe, who has first base experience. That would be sweet. It would also mean spending money.

5. Dustin Ackley was and still is the backup first baseman on a day-to-day basis. Whenever Teixeira needs a day off his feet or whatever. The real issue is the Yankees no longer have someone who can step in to play first base should Teixeira go down for several weeks, which he has done a few times in recent years. Maybe Ackley’s late season power surge is real and he can be that long-term fill-in. History suggests that is not the case though. Eric Jagielo has been traded, so he’s no longer an option. The first base security blanket is gone, and given Teixeira’s propensity to get hurt, that could potentially be a big problem in 2016. Bird was a piece of Grade-A depth at a position where the Yankees figure to need that depth at some point this coming season.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

6. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I’d like the Yankees to give Alex Rodriguez some time at first base in Spring Training so he could play the position once in a while during the regular season. Not everyday or even once a week, but every so often, just to increase his versatility. Having a player who is incapable of playing the field really hurts roster flexibility. I don’t expect the Yankees to give A-Rod any time at first base — or third base, for that matter — in Spring Training. They’ve made it pretty clear he is a DH and a DH only at this point of his career. Too bad. Maybe they’ll give Rob Refsnyder some reps at first base. What else are they going to do with him?

7. Last week I went through the projected Triple-A Scranton roster in an attempt to figure out who fits where, and based on the available players, Tyler Austin looked likely to get stuck in Double-A. The Bird injury opens up first base with the RailRiders and could create regular playing time for Austin. (Brian Cashman told Brendan Kuty they’re not planning to play Austin at first, for what it’s worth.) The 2016 season is basically Austin’s last chance to carve out a future with the Yankees, and if he’s able to show something offensively at Triple-A and handle first base — he’s played the position a bunch in his career, that shouldn’t be a problem, the concern is his bat — he could step in as Bird’s temporary replacement, both in 2016 and possibly 2017 if he needs time to get back to normal.

8. Possible silver lining: more playing time for Gary Sanchez. The Yankees could give McCann more regular reps at first base, freeing up time behind the plate for Sanchez. The service time benefit of sending Sanchez to Triple-A for 35 days is too great to ignore — 35 days in the minors in 2016 equals control of Sanchez’s age 29 season in 2022 — and I’m still on board with sending him to the RailRiders for a few weeks. But, once Sanchez is with the big league team, maybe McCann sees a little more time at first base, especially if Teixeira is nursing some kind of injury. I’m grasping at straws here. There’s nothing good about a young player like Bird undergoing major surgery. Make no mistake, his injury is very bad for 2016 and potentially beyond, regardless of whether Sanchez sees more playing time.

Yankees claim Ronald Torreyes, designate Lane Adams for assignment

(Darin Wallentine/Getty)
(Darin Wallentine/Getty)

This is not a joke: the Yankees have claimed infielder Ronald Torreyes off waivers from the Angels, the team announced. Outfielder Lane Adams was designated for assignment to clear a 40-man roster spot. Two weeks ago the Yankees claimed Adams and designated Torreyes. Baseball transactions are a flat circle.

Torreyes, 23, has gone from the Astros to the Blue Jays to the Dodgers to the Yankees to the Angels to the Yankees within the last eight months. The Yankees originally acquired him from the Dodgers in a minor trade involving lefty Tyler Olson and minor league infielder Rob Segedin last month. The Angels claimed him off waivers last week.

I guess this means I can go back to being irrationally excited about Torreyes? He hit only .262/.310/.348 (82 wRC+) in 464 plate appearances split between Double-A and Triple-A last season, but he’s a year removed from a .298/.345/.376 (90 wRC+) line in 519 Triple-A plate appearances. Torreyes makes contact, can play all over the infield, and is a high-energy guy. Seems like a potentially useful piece.

Adams, 26, hit .275/.342/.436 (115 wRC+) with 16 home runs and 31 steals in 140 games split between Double-A and Triple-A last year with the Royals. He appeared in six big league games in 2014. (Torreyes appeared in eight with the Dodgers in 2015.) The Yankees have plenty of Triple-A outfielders but most are lefty hitters. Adams is a righty.

The Yankees announced earlier today Greg Bird will miss the 2016 season due to shoulder surgery, and I suppose it’s possible the injury is tied to the Torreyes claim. Dustin Ackley is the backup first baseman right now, and if they need to play him first for an extended period of time, they’ll need infield depth to cover second base, hence Torreyes.

Monday Night Open Thread

Did you enjoy the first day of Retro Week? I always forget how much fun it is until I start researching and writing the posts. I’m hoping to do a Retro Week themed mailbag on Friday, so if you have any old school questions, particularly relating to the 1996 season, send ’em to RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com. Thanks in advance.

Here is your nightly open thread. The NHL is still in their All-Star break but the Nets are playing, and there are a few college basketball games on the schedule as well. Discuss those games, Retro Week, or anything else right here.

Picking Up Kenny Rogers

The following post was originally published on February 9th, 2012, as part of the original Retro Week. It fits nicely with our celebration of the 1996 Yankees, so I’m re-posting it now, unabridged. Enjoy.

(Cataffo/NY Daily News)

The Yankees have had a number of pitching contracts go bad for them over the years, but few went as poorly as Kenny Rogers. They signed the southpaw to a four-year, $20M contract after the 1995 season, pairing him with Jimmy Key, David Cone, and Andy Pettitte. It didn’t work out of course; Rogers pitched to a 5.11 ERA in 52 starts, nine relief appearances, and 324 innings in pinstripes before being traded to the Athletics for Scott Brosius after the 1997 season.

Rogers did get a ring out of his time in New York, though it was no thanks to him. He put 20 men on base in seven playoff innings across three starts in 1996, allowing eleven runs. Despite that, the Yankees won all three of his starts because the rest of the team picked him up. Just how did they do it? Let’s recap…

ALDS Game Four @ Rangers (box)
Although this was Rogers’ first career postseason start, he did make his playoff debut in relief during Game Two a few days earlier. The Yankees and Rangers were tied at four in the 12th inning when Texas put men on the corners with two outs against Graeme Lloyd and Jeff Nelson. Then-manager Joe Torre brought Rogers out of the bullpen to face the lefty swinging Will Clark, and he promptly walked him on four pitches. Brian Boehringer then came in to clean up the mess.

The Yankees were leading the best-of-five ALDS two games to one when Kenny got the ball in Game Four, back home where he started his career in Texas. He managed to pitch around a Pudge Rodriguez single and a Juan Gonzalez walk in the first, but Dean Palmer opened the second with a double to right-center. Mickey Tettleton singled him in, though he was erased at second when Mark McLemore beat out a double play ball. McLemore came around to score on Pudge’s single later in the inning. Rogers needed 40 pitches to put six men on base and allow two runs in the first two innings. Torre had seen enough, and that was the end of his day.

Boehringer replaced Rogers in the third and made things slightly more difficult. Juan Gone led off with a homer, then McLemore singled in another run a few batters later. Down four-zip, the offense started to chip away. Four of the first five batters in the top of the fourth reached base, with Cecil Fielder and Mariano Duncan each singling in a run. Bobby Witt had been chased from the game, but Derek Jeter drove in the third run with a ground ball off Danny Patterson. Boehringer started the fourth, but allowed the first two batters to reach base. David Weathers replaced him, and got out of the jam with a strikeout and a double play.

Bernie Williams tied the game with a leadoff homer in the fifth, and the score stayed that way until the seventh. Weathers had retired eight of the nine men he faced, throwing a full three innings thanks to the double play. Fielder singled in the go ahead run off Roger Pavlik in the top of the seventh, then it was Sandman time. Mariano Rivera threw a perfect seventh and a scoreless eighth (he did walk Warren Newson, however) while Bernie padded the lead with a solo homer in the ninth. John Wetteland slammed the door for the save, giving the Yankees the series win. The bullpen, particularly Weathers, stepped up to keep the Rangers at bay so the offense could mount a comeback after Rogers’ short start.

ALCS Game Four @ Orioles (box)
Up two games to one in the best-of-seven series, Rogers got the ball in Baltimore with a chance to give the Yankees a commanding lead or let the Orioles back into the series. Bernie gave him some breathing room with a two-run homer in the top of the first, but Kenny wasn’t having any of that. He walked Brady Anderson to open the bottom of the first, then Todd Zeile singled to put men on the corners. Rafael Palmeiro cut the lead in half with a sac fly.

(AP)

Darryl Strawberry took Rocky Coppinger deep to open the second, and Rogers managed to throw a 1-2-3 inning in the bottom half. The Yankees went down in order in the third, but Chris Hoiles led off the bottom half with a solo shot to make it 3-2. Rogers allowed three of the first four men he faced to reach base in the third, but he danced around trouble with a strikeout and a ground ball. Paul O’Neill’s two-run homer made it 5-2, but Rogers was intent on giving it back. He walked Cal Ripken Jr. to open the fourth, then moved him to second with a wild pitch. Pete Incaviglia singled to put men on the corners with none out, and out of the dugout came Torre with the hook. Rogers put seven men on base and threw 72 pitches in three innings plus two batters.

Weathers came in to clean up the mess, but he didn’t do the job. B.J. Surhoff singled in Ripken, then Hoiles plated a run with a ground ball. Once again, it was a one-run game. Two more ground balls ended the inning. The Yankees and O’s traded zeroes for the next three innings with Weathers, Lloyd, and Rivera each doing the job on the mound. The offense broke it open with a three-run eighth inning thanks to Fielder’s run-scoring ground out and Strawberry’s two-run homer. Rivera loaded the bases on three singles to open the bottom of the inning, but he struck out Hoiles and Anderson before getting Zeile to popup on the infield to dance out of danger. Wetteland again closed the door in the ninth to give New York a 3-1 series lead. The bullpen completely shut the door after Weathers allowed the two inherited runners to score, and the lineup simply out-slugged the O’s the rest of the way.

World Series Game Four @ Braves (box)
Unlike the previous two rounds, the Yankees were down two games to one in the series when Rogers got the ball for Game Four in Atlanta. The Braves blew the Yankees out in Game One and shut them out in Game Two, but David Cone got them back in the series with a big Game Three performance. Rogers was intent on keeping the Yankees out of it, it seemed.

The first inning and top of the second went by without a baserunner, but Fred McGriff changed all that with a homer to lead off the second. Rogers then walked Javy Lopez. And then he walked Andruw Jones. Then Jermaine Dye hit a fly ball to right that moved Lopez to third. Jeff Blauser pushed a run across with a bunt single, then pitcher Denny Neagle sac bunted the runners to second and third. Both came around to score on Marquis Grissom’s double to center. Just like that, it was four-zip Atlanta.

Rogers escaped the inning with a ground ball, but Chipper Jones and McGriff opened the third with singles. That was the end of Kenny’s day. Joe Torre replaced him with Boehringer, after he’d surrender four runs on seven baserunners and 52 pitches in two innings plus two batters. Boehringer allowed one of the runners to score on a sac fly before retiring the next two hitters. Three innings into the game, the Yankees were down 5-0.

Neagle was carving the Yankees up, so the score remained 5-0 into the fifth inning after Boehringer mixed in a perfect bottom of the fourth. Boehringer was pinch-hit for in the top of the fifth, which brought Weathers to mound in the bottom half. He struck out Mark Lemke but walked Chipper and balked him to second. The Crime Dog was put on first base intentionally, but Andruw doubled in a run after Lopez struck out. Down 6-0 in the game and 2-1 in the series, the Yankees had four innings to make a comeback.

It all started in the very next half inning with an innocent little leadoff single to right by Jeter. Bernie followed with a walk to put two men on, then Fielder drove in both guys with a single and some help from Dye’s error. Charlie Hayes followed that with a single to drive in Fielder. Just like that, the Yankees had cut the lead in half and chased Neagle from the game. The Yankees couldn’t do any more damage that inning even though Torre emptied his bench, pinch-hitting Paul O’Neill and Tino Martinez for Joe Girardi and Weathers. That forced Jim Leyritz into the game at catcher.

Jeff Nelson came out of the bullpen to replace Weathers and threw a perfect sixth. Mike Bielecki was the third and final pitcher Braves manager Bobby Cox used in the sixth, and he stayed on to throw a scoreless seventh. Nelson went back out for his second inning, and tossed up another zero while pitching around a McGriff walk. Cox went for the kill in the eighth, bringing in hard-throwing closer Mark Wohlers for the two-inning save.

It all started with a swinging bunt, a dinky little chopper from Hayes that hugged to third base line to open the eighth. Strawberry singled into the 5.5-hole to put two men on with none out. Duncan followed up with a ground ball, but Atlanta was only able to get the force at second when Rafael Belliard booted the double play ball. That brought Leyritz to the plate, and that’s when this happened…

Tie game. Rogers was officially off the hook. Rivera, Wohlers, and Lloyd pitched the game into the tenth inning, and the Yankees eventually won when Steve Avery loaded the bases with a walk, a single, and an intentional walk. Pinch-hitter Wade Boggs drove in the go-ahead run when Avery walked his third batter in his last four tries. An error allowed the Yankees to tack on an insurance run, and Wetteland close the door in the bottom half to knot the series up at two. The rest, as they say, is history.

* * *

It took pretty much everything the Yankees had to survive Rogers’ three awful postseason starts (and one awful relief appearance). The offense had to combine timely hits with brute power, the bullpen had to soak up a ton of innings with little wiggle room, and even lady luck had to show her pretty face from time to time. Rogers put the club in some serious holes, but the Yankees always managed to climb out of them. It still blows my mind.

Greg Bird to miss 2016 following right shoulder surgery

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

Well this is bad. Greg Bird will miss the entire 2016 season following right shoulder surgery, the Yankees have announced. He has a torn labrum and will have the procedure tomorrow. Bird missed about a month with a shoulder strain in the minors last year and felt it again during offseason workouts, the team confirmed.

Bird, 23, was scheduled to start the 2016 season in Triple-A since the Yankees have Mark Teixeira at first base, Alex Rodriguez at DH, and Carlos Beltran as a backup DH. Given the fragility of those players, there was a good chance Bird would get plenty of big league playing time anyway. That won’t happen now.

Since being drafted in 2010 Bird has dealt with ongoing back issues, which caused him to move from catcher to first base. The shoulder is relatively new as far as I know. Last season was the first time he had trouble with it. Obviously a torn labrum is very serious, especially since it is his throwing shoulder and front shoulder when hitting.

Front shoulder injuries are known to sap power even after the player is healthy. Brian McCann, Adrian Gonzalez, and Matt Kemp all had front shoulder surgeries in recent years and needed almost a full year to get back to where they were before going under the knife. Bird is close to an offense-only player. And loss of power would be bad news.

Service time rules are tricky but I’m fairly certain the Yankees can’t option Bird at this point. That means he’ll accrue a full year of service time sitting on the big league DL next summer and burn one of his six years of team control. Not ideal, but dems the breaks.

The Home Run That Started A Dynasty

Welcome to Retro Week. Baseball news is slow this time of the offseason, so we’re going to look back at the good ol’ days this week. Since this is the 20th anniversary of the 1996 Yankees, we’re going to focus on them. Hope you enjoy.

(Getty)
(Getty)

The date is October 22nd, 1996. The Yankees are down two games to none in the World Series. The Braves had just marched into Yankee Stadium and outscored the home team 16-1 in Games One and Two. They had 19-year-old Andruw Jones, 24-year-old Chipper Jones, and a rotation led by future Hall of Famers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz. The series was shifting to Atlanta for three games.

And yet, despite having all that stacked against them, the Yankees were about to begin a dynasty. A home run by Bernie Williams, six gutty innings from David Cone, and stellar bullpen work gave the Yankees a much-needed win in Game Three. But, in Game Four, the Yankees were down 4-0 after two innings, 5-0 after three innings, and 6-0 after five innings. It was bad. Real bad.

The Yankees rallied though. The first four batters of the sixth inning reached base to push across three runs and halve the deficit. An error by Jermaine Dye in right field helped spur the rally. With his team holding a 6-3 lead after seven innings, Braves manager Bobby Cox could smell the blood in the water. His Braves were six outs from a commanding three games to one lead in the World Series. Cox went to closer Mark Wohlers for the six-out save.

“I don’t think the (decision) was that difficult,” said Cox after the game. “He was so well-rested, he could go two easy and still be able to come back (in Game Five). I’d have been stupid if I wouldn’t have done that.”

One of the biggest and most important rallies in Yankees history — that’s not hyperbole, right? — started with what amounted to a swinging bunt. Charlie Hayes greeted Wohlers with a first pitch infield single to start the eighth inning. That ball hugged the third base line and stayed fair. Darryl Strawberry, who was playing right field because Paul O’Neill was nursing a hamstring issue, sliced a single to left field to put runners on first and second with no outs.

The Yankees were in business. They also caught a huge break. Mariano Duncan pulled a tailor made double play ball to shortstop Rafael Belliard, who bobbled the grounder and was only able to get the force out at second. Instead of having a runner at third with two outs, the Yankees had runners at corners with one out. The tying run was still at the plate, and up came Jim Leyritz.

These days almost every team has a few relievers who can throw 95-96 mph, maybe even 98-99. Back then it wasn’t nearly as common. Wohlers lived in the 95-99 mph range and he was one of the hardest throwers in baseball. He didn’t pitch to a 2.60 ERA (167 ERA+) with 190 strikeouts in 142 innings from 1995-96 by accident. Wohlers threw serious heat, and Leyritz had his heat timed.

Mark Wohlers Jim Leyritz1

The first pitch was a 98 mph fastball that Leyritz just missed. He fouled it straight back, the universal sign the hitter had the pitch timed, but simply failed square it up. Leyritz knew the scouting report and was newly into the game — it was his first at-bat after entering the game in the sixth, after Tino Martinez pinch-hit for Joe Girardi — so his bat was quick as it was going to get.

Mark Wohlers Jim Leyritz2

Leyritz had just missed the first pitch fastball and both Wohlers and catcher Eddie Perez knew it. Rather than try their luck again, they went to the slider, and Wohlers missed high. It would not be the first time he missed high with a breaking ball in the at-bat. The count was even at one ball and one strike. I remember wanting to puke and thinking this might be the Yankees’ last best chance to tie the game and get back into the series.

Mark Wohlers Jim Leyritz3

Another high slider. Wohlers was arguably the best fastball pitcher in the league at the time, yet with a backup catcher who had an 86 OPS+ during regular season at the plate representing the tying run in the World Series, he threw back-to-back sliders to fall behind in the count 2-1. Perez was on board too. Wohlers did not shake him off. Arguably the best fastball pitcher in the game seemed afraid to throw his fastball.

“I think Wohlers is going to the breaking ball too much,” said FOX announcer Tim McCarver, who was the starting catcher for two World Series winning teams during his playing days. “This situation right here — this is a (game on the line) situation — if you get beat, you get beat on your best pitch. Not your third best pitch.”

Mark Wohlers Jim Leyritz4

Wohlers went back to his No. 1 pitch after falling behind in the count, and Leyritz again fouled it off. He swung like he was cheating fastball, which he was. Leyritz later admitted he was looking fastball the entire at-bat. Had Wohlers thrown either of those two sliders in the zone earlier in the at-bat, Leyritz likely would have taken it for a called strike. He was sitting dead red.

Mark Wohlers Jim Leyritz5

Back to the slider in the two-strike count. This slider was much better than the first two though. It was down and on the outer half. A true strikeout pitch. Leyritz was way out in front but still able to pull it foul to stay alive. He was in protect mode with two strikes. He had to gear up for the high-90s gas but also respect the slider because Wohlers had thrown him two already.

“I called a fastball, but Wohlers said no,” Perez would later say to Joel Sherman, recalling the sixth pitch of the at-bat. “And I was good with that. I really wanted a slider, too, but a good slider. I wanted the slider down and away. Wohlers wanted to throw the slider because he thought he was going to throw a better slider.”

So, for the fourth time in a six-pitch at-bat, Wohlers threw Leyritz a slider. It was not a good slider like Perez wanted. It was not down and away. It up and out over the plate like the first two, except this one hung up long enough for Leyritz to recognize the spin and square it up. The result was a highlight I will never get tired of watching.

“I was looking heater all the way, and he hung a slider. I adjusted,” said Leyritz to reporters after the game. “I was very surprised. Maybe because I fouled two pitches straight back he thought I was right on his fastball. I definitely wasn’t looking slider. I was sitting on a fastball but the pitch hung.”

The three-run home run, which only barely cleared the left field wall at the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, tied Game Four at 6-6. The Yankees battled all the way back thanks to some good luck — Dye’s error in the sixth, Belliard’s bobble on the potential double play — and thanks to Wohlers staying away from his best pitch in a crucial situation. The Yankees would go on to win Game Four in ten innings and knot the series up at two games apiece.

“It was a tough ballgame. The loss should be put on my shoulders. I blew it. I get paid a lot of money to shut them down and I didn’t do it,” Wohlers said to reporters later than night. “This doesn’t surprise me because we’re playing a quality team. It’s a frustrating loss, but I’ve had a few of them in my career. We’ll put this behind us as quickly as possible.”

More than a few times over the years I’ve found myself wondering how things would have turned out had Wohlers not hung that slider and Leyritz not tied the game. Would the Yankees have still won the World Series? Would they still have gone on to win four titles in five years? The Yankees were knocked out of the postseason in soul-crushing fashion in 1995. How would George Steinbrenner have reacted to losing the 1996 World Series too?

I have a hard time believing things would have turned out so well for the Yankees from 1996-2000 had Leyritz not hit that home run. That homer tied the game, helped tie the series, and help start a dynasty. It was, unquestionably, one of the biggest hits in franchise history given everything on the line. It completely changed the course of not one, but two franchises. The Braves were on the verge of a dynasty at that point. Then suddenly, with one swing, the Yankees were poised to dominate baseball.

1996 Mariano Rivera: From Career Crossroads to the Best Relief Season of the Last 30 Years

Welcome to Retro Week. Baseball news is slow this time of the offseason, so we’re going to look back at the good ol’ days this week. Since this is the 20th anniversary of the 1996 Yankees, we’re going to focus on them. Hope you enjoy.

(Getty)
(Getty)

Heading into the 1996 season, the Yankees weren’t quite sure what they had in 26-year-old Mariano Rivera. He had a solid yet generally unspectacular minor league career after signing out of Panama in 1990, and he made his big league debut in 1995 with ten starts and nine relief appearances. Rivera had a 5.51 ERA (84 ERA+) in 67 innings that year.

There was an open spot in the rotation going into the 1996 season, but George Steinbrenner‘s affection for ex-stars and needling the Mets meant Doc Gooden got the job out of Spring Training, not Rivera. Gooden joined the returning David Cone and Jimmy Key, the up-and-coming Andy Pettitte, and the free agent signee Kenny Rogers in the starting staff.

Rivera was good enough for the big league team and, at age 26, another assignment to Triple-A didn’t make sense. Not after he finished the 1995 season with solid work in relief. Rivera was in the bullpen with an undefined role to start that 1996 season, which is often the case for players who are not yet established. John Wetteland was the closer and the setup crew included Jeff Nelson and Bob Wickman.

New manager Joe Torre eased Rivera into action — seven of his first nine appearances came with the Yankees trailing — and it wasn’t until Rivera threw a no-hitter that he began to earn more trust. A no-hitter spread across three appearances, that is. On April 22nd, Mariano entered the sixth inning of a game the Yankees were leading by three, and he threw three perfect innings against the Royals.

Four days later Torre brought Rivera into a game with the Yankees trailing the Twins by four. Three more hitless innings followed and the Yankees came back to win the game thanks to a Bernie Williams grand slam. Torre went to Rivera for three innings again just two days later. Mo again did not allow a hit, enabling the Yankees to come from behind for the 6-3 win.

“Only one day off with three innings the other day, it was big for us. We’re knowing him a little bit more. If we don’t have to use him as many innings, he may be able to work on a regular basis for us,” said Torre to Jack Curry following Rivera’s third straight appearance of three hitless innings. “From last year, I keep a lot of confidence in myself,” said Mo to Curry. “I can throw with no doubts. I just do my job.”

Rivera’s no-hit streak did not stop there. He threw two hitless innings two days later and another two hitless innings three days after that. All told, Rivera went 49 batters and 15 innings between hits early in that 1996 season. Only 13 of those 49 batters hit the ball out of the infield. Thirteen struck out. Just like that, Mariano had entered Torre’s Circle of Trust™.

Being trusted by Torre meant working a lot, and Rivera thrived under the big workload. Following the no-hit streak, Rivera threw multiple innings 31 times in 50 appearances the rest of the season, including at least two full innings 26 times. His June workload makes Dellin Betances look babied by comparison:

Date Tm Opp Rslt Inngs Dec IP H R ER BB SO ERA BF W.P.A.
Jun 2 NYY @ OAK W,11-4 7-8 H(7) 1.1 2 2 2 0 1 1.42 7 0.073
Jun 4 NYY TOR W,5-4 7-8 H(8) 2.0 2 0 0 1 2 1.35 9 0.343
Jun 7 NYY @ DET L,5-6 7-8 BS(1) 2.0 2 1 1 0 3 1.50 8 -0.064
Jun 10 NYY @ TOR W,5-3 7-8 H(9) 2.0 2 0 0 0 2 1.43 8 0.158
Jun 16 NYY CLE W,5-4 6-8 H(10) 2.2 3 1 1 1 5 1.54 12 0.104
Jun 21 (2) NYY @ CLE W,9-3 6-8 3.0 3 1 1 0 5 1.63 12 0.074
Jun 25 (2) NYY @ MIN W,6-2 6-8 H(11) 3.0 1 0 0 1 5 1.54 11 0.228
Jun 28 NYY BAL L,4-7 7-9 L(3-1) 2.1 4 3 3 2 2 1.96 12 -0.237

“He’s our most indispensable pitcher,” said Torre to Curry at midseason. “Especially with Cone and Key out and our bullpen the way it is. He gives me protection. I’m not moving him. I can use him three times in five days. I can’t do that if I start him.”

June was not Rivera’s best month so Torre did scale back on his workload a bit. Mo made only six appearances in the span of 18 days from June 28th to July 16th, thanks in part to the All-Star break. He was limited to one inning in four of those six appearances as well. As dominant as he was, Rivera needed a little breather at midseason, and Torre gave it to him.

The Yankees started the second half with a 52-33 record and a six-game lead in the AL East thanks in no small part to Rivera, who emerged as a dominant bullpen force that often single-handedly bridged the gap between the starter and Wetteland. Mariano was not an All-Star but he took a 1.80 ERA and a 0.95 WHIP into the break. He threw 60 innings in the fist half, which is a full season’s workload for relievers these days.

The AL East lead swelled to 12 games by the end of July, but that did not last. The lead dwindled to four games by the end of August and only 2.5 games by September 11th. Rivera was needed more than ever up to that point, and he gave the club 32.2 innings in 21 appearances in the final 52 games of the season. He allowed six runs (1.65 ERA) — four of which were in one game — while striking out 45 and holding opponents to a .179/.232/.214 batting line.

Thanks to a 19-2 rout of the Brewers, the Yankees clinched the AL East on September 25th, in Game 157. Rivera threw nine innings and appeared in seven of the previous 14 games as Torre pushed for the division title. Mariano finished the season with a 2.09 ERA (240 ERA+) in 107.2 innings. His 130 strikeouts were then a franchise record for a reliever. At 5.0 bWAR, it is the most valuable relief season of the last 30 years, since Mark Eichhorn racked up 7.4 WAR in 157 innings in 1986.

As expected, Torre leaned on Rivera heavily in the postseason. Mo threw four hitless innings against the Rangers in the ALDS, four scoreless innings against the Orioles in the ALCS, and he allowed one run in 5.2 innings against the Braves in the World Series. The end result: 14.1 innings, 15 base-runners, ten strikeouts, one run. Opponents hit .196/.268/.235 against him that October. Rivera threw two hitless and scoreless innings in the Game Six win over Atlanta to clinch the World Series title.

Following the season Rivera finished third in the Cy Young voting behind Pat Hentgen and Pettitte. He finished 12th in the MVP voting. The crazy thing? Mariano was not yet throwing his trademark cutter at that point. He was a fastball-slider pitcher in 1996. It wasn’t until the following season that he picked up the cutter. As the story goes, Rivera learned the pitch while playing catch with Ramiro Mendoza.

Rivera was a mystery heading into that 1996 season. He was at a career crossroads at age 26. That’s the age when a lot of guys become afterthoughts if they’re not yet established at the MLB level. The Yankees nearly traded Rivera in Spring Training and even though they held onto him, he did not have a defined role. It took a 15-inning no-hit streak to grab a late-inning role, and once Mo grabbed it, he held on for nearly two decades.

“He basically made my career in ’96 when we came up with the formula of pitching the seventh and eighth inning,” said Torre to David Lennon in 2013. “It was remarkable what we had with him.”