Every Friday, we will be taking a look back at the career of a critical player in New York Yankees history that doesn’t quite get the recognition they deserve. When looking at the storied history of the Yankees names like Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Derek Jeter quickly come to mind. Today, we will be looking at those players who played a critical role. Simply put, without these individuals, the Yankees wouldn’t have been the Yankees.
This week, we turn our attention to the bullpen. Throughout their history, the Yankees have featured some of the best relievers of all time. Led by unanimous Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera, the team also had the dominant Goose Gossage, Sparky Lyle and Dave Righetti. Recently, the Yankees have been led by Aroldis Chapman, David Robertson, Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller.
When looking at Yankees history, two relievers stand out as critical pieces of the most recent dynasty: Jeff Nelson and Mike Stanton.
Jeff Nelson was born on Nov. 17, 1966, and grew up in Catonsville, Md. He was selected by the Dodgers in the 22nd round of the 1984 MLB draft before he joined the Mariners as a minor league Rule 5 selection two years later. Nelson made his MLB debut in 1992 when he pitched two scoreless innings against the White Sox. Nelson was a fixture in the Mariners bullpen through the 1995 season.
While the Mariners were starting to build an impressive roster, headlined by Ken Griffey Jr. and a very young Alex Rodriguez, the team was looking for pitching help behind Randy Johnson. Meanwhile, the Yankees were looking to upgrade their infield and targeted Seattle’s first baseman, Tino Martinez. The two teams settled on a deal which sent young starter Sterling Hitchcock out West, and Nelson and Martinez to New York.
Despite joining a bullpen with the likes of John Wetteland, Mariano Rivera and Bob Wickman, Nelson led the team by appearing in 73 games in 1996 and averaged 11 strikeouts per 9 innings. In the playoffs, he continued his dominance pitching to a sub-3 era while striking out 12 batters in just over 9 innings. Nelson continued to be an important figure in the Yankees bullpen. The following season, Rivera took over as the team’s closer with Nelson frequently tasked with handling the 8th.
Over the next four seasons, Nelson averaged just under 60 appearances while also being tasked to close games when Rivera needed a day off. With the Yankees, Nelson was perhaps the most dominant in the postseason. As the Yankees won the World Series again in 1998, ’99, and 2000, Nelson did not surrender a run in any World Series game except in one of his three appearances against the Mets.
Following the 2000 World Series, the Yankees let Nelson walk as a free agent as he rejoined the Mariners. He served as Seattle’s setup man for the 2001 season and was selected by Joe Torre to the 2001 All-Star game. Nelson rejoined the Yankees during the 2003 pennant push and again was a key piece in the Yankees bullpen. In the 2003 World Series, he again held the Marlins scoreless across three appearances but the Yankees would lose the series.
After bouncing around for a few more seasons, Nelson called it a career in 2006. In 2019, he rejoined the Yankees in the press box calling a few games against the Mariners in Seattle.
It is difficult to mention Jeff Nelson without fellow reliever Mike Stanton. Originally from Houston, Texas, Stanton made his MLB debut as a member of the Atlanta Braves in 1989. While Nelson had some early successes with the Mariners, Stanton struggled with Atlanta. Despite remaining a crucial piece of the bullpen, Stanton only had one season with a sub-3 era and frequently saw his era over 4. During a miserable 1995 season, the Braves shipped Stanton to the Red Sox for a player to be named later. While Stanton bounced back a bit with Boston, Atlanta went on to win the World Series without him.
Stanton pitched the next couple of seasons with Boston and the Texas Rangers before signing as a free agent with the Yankees prior to the 1997 season.
In 1997, the Yankees were looking to boost their bullpen behind Rivera and Nelson, having lost Wickman and Wetteland. Stanton responded with the best season of his career, throwing a 2.57 era while averaging over 9 K’s/9 innings. Like Nelson, Stanton remained a fixture in the Yankees pen as the team turned into a dynasty.
With the Yankees, Stanton pitched in 20 World Series games and, like Nelson, was always reliable. In over 23 innings, he allowed a total of 4 runs, helping the Yankees win the World Series in 1998, ’99 and ’00. Furthermore, Stanton was dominant during the 2001 season and was also selected by manager Joe Torre to join the American League roster for the 2001 All Star Game.
Stanton joined the Mets for the 2003 and 2004 seasons before rejoining the Yankees in 2005. He pitched five more seasons for five different teams before retiring following the 2007 season at the age of 40.
Importance of Nelson and Stanton
While relievers are critical for a team’s success, they frequently only get remembered for games they lost, unless they are the closer. Nelson and Stanton changed the narrative around relievers and showed the importance of having a strong bullpen. Both were incredibly reliable for bridging the game from the starters to Rivera. Both filled in and saved games when Rivera was unavailable. And both could maintain leads allowing Rivera a full off-day, instead of him warming up as a team starts clawing back in the 9th.