ESPN Stats & Info's Mark Simon takes a deep look into the numbers behind the 114-year history of the New York Yankees in his new book, "The Yankees Index." In this excerpt, he examines the underappreciated role of the setup men who pitched in the shadow of all-time great closer Mariano Rivera.
The bridge to Mariano Rivera spanned 66 pitchers wide but held as steady as the Yankees closer it supported for 17 seasons.
That number, provided by the Elias Sports Bureau, refers to the number of pitchers who got a hold in a game saved by Rivera in either the regular season or postseason.
The two pitchers who originated the role are Jeff Nelson and Mike Stanton. In many cities, they would be easily forgotten, but in New York, there is an appreciation of the greatness of their value.
The standard was set by that pair in 1997, Rivera's first season as full-time closer. The Yankees were coming off a World Series triumph, but Rivera was asked to replace John Wetteland at the back of the bullpen after a standout sophomore season. Nelson, who was a member of the 1996 team, and Stanton, a newcomer who had previously excelled for the Braves, were there to ease the transition.
The pair combined to log 145 1/3 innings, posted a 2.72 ERA, allowed only 103 base hits and tallied 48 holds. They put Rivera in position to succeed as often as possible, as each was successful at getting both right- and left-handed hitters out.
"We told the starters, just go six innings," Nelson said. "We'll piece together the seventh and eighth. We wanted to limit Mariano to just that one inning."
There was talk in spring training that season that Stanton would be given an opportunity to close, but he found a comfort zone in being a setup man, so much so that he set the all-time record for holds with 266 over his 19-season career.
"I must have done the job okay because they kept running me out there," Stanton said.
Stanton and Nelson were more than okay. Each would earn an All-Star selection (though Nelson's didn't come until he left the Yankees and pitched for the Seattle Mariners). They were integral parts of the three consecutive Yankees championships.
"One of the things that I thought was so remarkable about them is that they never accumulated gaudy or 'wow' stats because they essentially shared the bridge role," said Katie Sharp, a 30-plus year Yankees fan and writer for the well-known fan blog River Avenue Blues. "But as a fan watching, you never doubted that they'd get the ball to Mo in the ninth inning with the lead."
Some of their work from that time may be hard to remember, so here's a brief refresher:
The 6-foot-8 Nelson used a funky delivery to put together a streak of 15 straight scoreless outings spanning the 1998 to 2000 postseasons. He was the master of getting the big eighth-inning outs to preserve a lead, doing his best Rivera impersonation to retire some of the top hitters in baseball, like Juan Gonzalez, Miguel Tejada and Greg Vaughn. Nelson has the major-league record for postseason holds with 13, 11 of which came for the Yankees.
Stanton, the lefty who said he pitched as if his hair was on fire, was the pitcher who could be stretched out to go longer than an inning if necessary. In the 1999 and 2000 postseasons, he combined to go 3-0 with a pair of holds and an 0.96 ERA. Stanton got the wins in the clinching games of both the 2000 LDS against the Athletics and World Series against the Mets, games eventually saved by Rivera.
"My approach throughout my career was that my job was to get someone else out of trouble," Stanton said. "And I would jokingly say that (with the Yankees) my job and Jeff Nelson's job were to be the offensive linemen. The thing I prided myself on was one, being available every day and two, inherited runners, getting other guys out of trouble. I had opportunities a couple of times to go somewhere else and be a closer, but I wanted to win more than I wanted to close."
Stanton and Nelson would go eventually, though each would find their way to New York again. Nelson went back to the team he began his major-league career with, the Mariners, in 2001, but returned to the Yankees for their run to the AL pennant in 2003. Stanton departed for the crosstown Mets after the 2002 season and returned briefly in 2005.
Their presence was a part of the Yankees even after they left because of the caliber of their work. They paved the way for others, like Tom Gordon, Joba Chamberlain and David Robertson, to thrive as the game evolved into one in which having multiple high-caliber relievers was a necessity.
"(The most impressive thing) was how they always managed to make a bridge," said YES Network research manager Jeff Quagliata. "There was always somebody out there. It was a bunch of nondescript guys, but they always seemed to get the job done and get the ball to Mo."
The 1990 Reds 'Nasty Boys' combination of Norm Charlton, Rob Dibble and Randy Myers originated that sort of bullpen setup. But the Bridge to Rivera that began a few years later was a longer-lasting symbol of significance.
"It makes you think we may have started something," Nelson said. "The seventh, eighth and ninth innings are sometimes why teams win the World Series now. Fans say I don't know if there will ever be a combination like that again. (I'd like us) to be remembered as the best bullpen in the game. You look at the list of most playoff appearances and it goes Rivera, Nelson, Stanton. I hope that's how it stays forever."
This excerpt from "The Yankees Index" by Mark Simon is printed with the permission of Triumph Books. For more information and to order a copy, please visit www.triumphbooks.com/YankeesIndex.