Yankees among the best almost everywhere but starting pitcher

21 09 2015

Look around the baseball diamond, and at nearly every position, a Yankee was one of the best ever. But not at starting pitcher.

We say that pitching wins championships, and the Yankees through the decades have had excellent depth in good starting pitchers, and sometimes great starting pitchers. But none of the all-time greatest starting pitchers spent most of their careers with the Yankees.

The only Yankee pitcher you might see on a list of the 10 best starters ever is Roger Clemens, and his best years were with the Red Sox. Clemens won 20 games only once in his six Yankee years. His Yankee years wouldn’t rank him among the best Yankee starters ever, let alone among baseball’s best. (For purposes of this discussion, I’m dealing with actual performance, not trying to decide whose achievements to discount because of suspicions about use of performance-enhancing drugs.)

If you expand your best-ever list to 20 or 25, Whitey Ford usually gets a spot, but Yankees remain notably absent, or low, from any best-ever discussion of starting pitchers. And they’re prominent in such discussions at nearly every other position.

At six positions, at least one Yankee is either the best ever or one of two to five stars contending for the top spot:

Catcher

Yogi Berra often loses the best-catcher-ever debates to Johnny Bench, but he’s always in the discussion. With three MVP awards and more championships than anyone, plus still-impressive offensive numbers, Yogi figures prominently in discussing best catchers ever. And Yankee Bill Dickey would be on anyone’s top-10 list, maybe even top five.

First base

Lou Gehrig wins most best-ever arguments at first. Albert Pujols appeared on his way to challenging Gehrig, but he hasn’t maintained his greatness. Miguel Cabrera has a shot, but Gehrig remains a pretty strong No. 1 at first base.

Shortstop

While most people might rank Honus Wagner, Cal Ripken Jr. or Ozzie Smith ahead of Derek Jeter, the Yankee has to be in the discussion of best shortstops. And I made a strong case for him being the best. Ernie Banks or Alex Rodriguez might round out a top-five list, though both moved away from shortstop, which cuts into their all-time consideration at the position. (A-Rod doesn’t count as a Yankee here, since he moved to third base in New York.)

Center field

Willie Mays might top most greatest-ever lists in center, but two Yankees, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, would be on most top-5 lists.

Right field

The greatest-right-fielder argument is pretty much a two-man conversation: Yankee Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron. If you went with a top five or 10, Yankees Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield be in the discussion and Roger Maris probably should be.

Closer

Of course, the greatest relief pitcher ever was a Yankee, Mariano Rivera. And Goose Gossage would rank high on any list of the best ever.

At two other positions, top contenders spent key prime years with the Yankees:

Third base

Mike Schmidt is an easy call as the best ever at third base. But if you set aside the drug issue, A-Rod certainly belongs in the best-ever consideration at third base. His time at shortstop (1,272 games, vs. 1,181 at third) is the biggest issue keeping him from making all-time best a two-man debate, since Schmidt played his whole career at third base.

Counting the whole career, Schmidt’s 548 homers, three MVPs and eight home-run crowns are pretty even with 664 homers, three MVPs and five home-run crowns for A-Rod. So you’d give Schmidt the edge because of his 18 seasons at third and 10 Gold Gloves. A-Rod won two Gold Gloves as a shortstop, but none at third.

Even if you toss out his shortstop years, no other third baseman matches A-Rod’s two MVPs at third. You could add Eddie Mathews, George Brett, Wade Boggs (who joined the Yankees for five solid seasons), Chipper Jones and Brooks Robinson into the discussion if you want, but A-Rod, even on just half his career, merits at least top-five consideration. And Yankee Graig Nettles might be top 10, too.

Left field

Rickey Henderson fits into the left-field discussion though his years elsewhere are part of the argument, similar to Clemens with starting pitchers and A-Rod with third basemen and shortstops.

Rickey played only four and a half seasons for the Yankees, but they were prime seasons. He led the league in runs three times and stolen bases four times for the Yankees (counting the partial season, when he led the American League in both, playing 65 games for New York and 85 for Oakland). Henderson’s best years for runs scored (146), homers (28) and RBI (74) all came in pinstripes. While Rickey played more for the A’s and had some of his best seasons there, his Yankee years are a big part of his standing among the best left-fielders ever.

And he’s easily in the top five left-fielders, joining Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Carl Yastrzemski and Barry Bonds in that discussion. And, if you choose your team by batting order, he clearly beats out Pete Rose as the best lead-off hitter ever. (In fact, Yankees would compete for, if not win, the best at nearly every slot in the batting order, too.)

So that’s eight positions where at least one player with important Yankee years is among the five or fewer best players ever. Only two other positions, besides starting pitcher, don’t have prominent Yankees in contention:

Second base

An argument about the best second baseman ever might have the widest disagreement about rankings, including who would be number one. Rogers Hornsby, Jackie Robinson, Joe Morgan, Roberto Alomar, Eddie Collins, Napoleon Lajoie and Ryne Sandberg would be contenders. Maybe Rod Carew, if his time at first base doesn’t push him out of the top consideration. Tony Lazzeri and Joe Gordon are Yankee Hall of Famers, but I don’t think many would place them among even the top 10 second basemen (I wouldn’t). Charlie Gehringer, Frankie Frisch, Nellie Fox and Craig Biggio, maybe more, could beat the Yankees out. Robinson Canó might push his way up to the top five or 10 eventually, but he’s not there yet, and he’s left the Yankees.

Designated hitter

The Yankees, like most American League teams, haven’t settled into a single DH year after year for any extended stretch. Some great hitters such as Reggie Jackson and Don Baylor have DH’ed for the Yankees, but no one great consistently for an extended time (Jackson never topped 100 games in a season as DH for the Yankees; Baylor DH’ed 128 or more games every year with the Yankees, but was only there three seasons).

A debate about the best DH ever might come down to David Ortiz, Frank Thomas and Edgar Martinez, perhaps with consideration for spots down the list for Paul Molitor, Hal McRae, Harold Baines, Chili Davis (who spent his last couple years with the Yankees) and Baylor (for his DH’ing for several teams).

Multiple-position players

If you want to eliminate A-Rod from third-base consideration (or shortstop) because of his split time, perhaps you consider who were the greatest players to spend several years at multiple positions. A-Rod and Pete Rose might face off for the top spot here, perhaps joined by Carew, Banks, Biggio, Robin Yount, Harmon Killebrew and a few others. (I wouldn’t include people who played multiple outfield positions in such a list and wouldn’t include outfielders who shifted to first base, unless they spent several years both places.)

Starting pitchers

But at starting pitcher, you can’t find someone who played primarily for the Yankees who’s 0n anyone’s list of the 10 best.

Still, a lot of great and good pitchers have taken the mound regularly (or even briefly) for the Yankees. I’ll share some facts and observations about these pitchers in a series of posts unfolding over the next few weeks (perhaps interrupted by posts about this year’s post-season).

Also in this series

Other posts in this series on Yankee starting pitchers:

Source note: Unless otherwise noted, all statistics cited here come from Baseball-Reference.com.

Correction invitation: I wrote this series of blog posts over several months, mostly late at night while unable to sleep while undergoing medical treatment. I believe I have fact-checked and corrected any errors, but I welcome you to point out any I missed: stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com. Or, if you just want to argue about my opinions, that’s fine, too.

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19 responses

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