The 5 best right fielders in Yankee history

12 04 2016

This continues a series on the best Yankees at different positionsToday: right field.

Right field is another position where the Yankees have been loaded with talent throughout their history. They didn’t have the string of long standout tenures that New York had in center field or catcher, but the excellence and depth has probably been stronger in right than any position other than those two.

1, Babe Ruth

Babe Ruth leads both my left field and right field lists. I was surprised by the left-field choice, but I knew from the time I started thinking about this series that he was the automatic and only choice in right field. He played 1,132 games for the Yankees in right field and it was his primary position every year for the Yankees except 1921, ’22 and ’26.

Ruth led the league in homers eight times as a right fielder, including the 60-homer season in 1927. Throw in five times of his seven times leading the league in runs scored, two of his four RBI titles and his only batting title, and Ruth’s right-field years far surpass everyone else who played the position for the Yankees. And I’m not done: He led the league nine times in walks, seven times in on-base percentage, seven times in slugging and eight times in OPS playing primarily in right field.

Ruth is arguably the best player in the history of the game still today. His single-season and career home run records finally fell, but he still holds the records for career slugging and OPS. He changed the game like no one else has, swinging for the fences and introducing the long ball to baseball.

Not only did he dominate his league in hitting like no one before or since, but he was a standout pitcher for the Red Sox before his dominant hitting moved him to the outfield. While some people have both pitched and played an every-day position in the majors, do one else has even been good at both roles, and Ruth was great. The likely second-best player to do that was Lefty O’Doul, who won only one game. Ruth had back-to-back 20-win seasons and led the American League in ERA and shutouts. Is there any other baseball niche, however small, with a more dramatic gulf between the best ever and the second-best?

The only reasons to diminish Ruth’s achievements are that he played before baseball integrated, so he didn’t play against the nation’s or world’s best players, and he hit long before relief specialists made late-inning at-bats more difficult.

Throw in that he was an extraordinary character, and that he actually played a fair amount in left field, and I feel completely comfortable listing Ruth at the top of my lists for both right field and left field. I’m making lists at each position, not making an all-time Yankee team. And Ruth tops the lists at each position.

2, Roger Maris

EPSON MFP image

My Roger Maris card

Roger Maris wins the second spot over two Hall of Famers who played right field for the Yankees in their prime. As I’ve noted again and again, Maris belongs in the Hall of Fame. But his placement here is based on performance, not bias. None of the right fielders below him on this list won a single MVP award, let alone back-to-back awards, as Maris did in 1960-61. None of them set a single major record, let alone held one for 37 years.

Maris led his league as a Yankee in homers, RBI (twice), slugging, runs and total bases. Neither of the Hall of Famers behind him on this list led his league in a major stat more than once for the Yankees.

No one else on this list had an HBO movie about his career highlight (Billy Crystal’s 61* is about Maris’ successful chase of Ruth’s single-season home run record).

The next two right fielders got the Cooperstown moments that Maris deserved and still has not received. But Maris was better than either as a right fielder for the Yankees. But he has to be second here to Ruth. While he broke one of The Babe’s cherished records, he didn’t match Ruth’s incredible career for the Yankees.

3, Reggie Jackson

Reggie Jackson gave the Yankees five strong years in right field, leading the league with 41 homers in 1980 and driving in 100 or more runs twice.

He was pretty even with the No. 4 right fielder in regular-season offensive production. But he wins the No. 3 slot based on his post-season play: 2 homers (three in the clinching game), 8 RBI, 9 hits, 10 runs and the MVP award in the 1977 World Series. He slacked off to 2 homers and 8 more RBI on 9-for-23 hitting in 1978. Jackson hit .300 or better for the Yankees in five post-season series and hit 12 homers. Jackson truly earned his “Mr. October” nickname, and I almost moved him past Maris based on post-season performance. But Maris had a sizable advantage in regular-season play as a Yankee.

4, Dave Winfield

Dave Winfield, like Reggie, played five years in right field for the Yankees (plus three in left). Winfield won three Gold Gloves and topped 100 runs four of his right-field years. He was an All-Star every year. His .340 batting average in 1984 was second to teammate Don Mattingly in the American League.

It wasn’t Winfield’s fault the Yankees didn’t make the playoffs after his disappointing World Series in 1981. I was glad to see him finally get a World Series ring (and drove in three runs) with the Blue Jays in 1992.

5, Paul O’Neill

Paul O’Neill played fewer games for the Yankees than Tommy Henrich and Hank Bauer: 1,406 for Bauer, 1,284 for Henrich, 1,254 for O’Neill. You could go with any of the three here. All three played the vast majority of their games in right field.

Henrich has the advantage in All-Star appearances: five (to four for O’Neill and three for Bauer). I give the nod to O’Neill because he was the best hitter: four straight seasons with 100 or more RBI (Henrich had one, Bauer none); a batting championship, .359 in 1994 (one of his six straight .300 seasons, more than Henrich and Bauer combined); 185 Yankee homers (to 183 for Henrich and 158 for Bauer), 1,426 Yankee hits (to 1,326 for Bauer and 1,297 for Henrich).

O’Neill was as solid in the post-season as Henrich and Bauer, though Bauer led the group in championship contributions, playing a role in seven World Series titles to four each for O’Neill and Henrich.

As good as Henrich and Bauer were, I think O’Neill is the clear choice here. And that’s not even counting his Seinfeld appearance.

The rest

Hank Bauer's autograph on a ball belonging to my son Tom.

Hank Bauer’s autograph on a ball belonging to my son Tom.

Henrich lost three prime years to military service during World War II. Bauer was a stalwart for the Yankees dynasty of the 1950s, but also contributed to the ’60s dynasty, going to the Kansas City A’s in December 1959 in a seven-player trade that brought Maris to the Yankees.

Hall of Famer Willie Keeler deserves mention here. But he was a Highlander, not a Yankee, and his best years were in the National League, before joining New York at age 31.

Gary Sheffield was an All-Star two years in right field, and finished second for the 2004 MVP, but he only played two full years for the Yankees.

Ichiro Suzuki, a certain Hall of Famer, was past his prime when he joined the Yankees in right field in 2012, but turned in two-plus solid seasons.

Nick Swisher gave the Yankees four strong years in right, including the 2009 championship season.

Lou Piniella played 277 games in right field, but it was never his primary position.

Other right-field traditions

The Yankees clearly have the strongest tradition in right field. The Tigers also have three Hall of Famers in right (Al Kaline, Sam Crawford and Harry Heilmann) and the Pirates have two (Roberto Clemente, Paul Waner) plus an MVP (Dave Parker). But no one can match the Yankees’ traditions of greatness here.

Ranking criteria

I explained my criteria in the post on first basemen, so if this seems familiar, it’s because I cut and pasted that explanation here, then adapted it for right fielders.

If a player is in the Hall of Fame (Ruth, Jackson, Winfield) or belongs there (Maris), that carries considerable weight with me.

I value both peak performance and longevity, but peak performance more. Measures of peak performance, such as MVP awards and leading leagues in important stats, will move a person up my list. Maris didn’t play right for the Yankees as long as O’Neill, Henrich or Bauer, but his back-to-back MVP seasons pushed him well ahead of them.

Few ballplayers actually matter in the broader culture beyond baseball, but Ruth, Maris and Jackson all did and that helped them seal the top three spots. And, if the performance measures among O’Neill, Henrich and Bauer had been dead even, the Seinfeld appearance might have broken the tie for O’Neill.

I rank players primarily on their time with the team, and no one on this list played exclusively for the Yankees (this list and DH will be the only teams without any Yankee lifers). Henrich played only for the Yankees, but the others played long enough or well enough that they all ranked ahead of him.

Time at the position is important, too. Winfield might have passed Jackson if he hadn’t played three seasons in left field.

Post-season play and championship contributions matter a lot to me. Those were important positive factors for everyone on this list except Winfield.

This factor didn’t play into any of these decisions, but if two players were dead even at a position for the Yankees, I would have moved the one with the better overall career ahead. For instance, Jackson’s years with the A’s and Angels, Winfield’s years with the Padres and Blue Jays or O’Neill’s years with the Reds might have broken a tie.

Special moments matter, too. Ruth, Maris and Jackson all got credit for those.

Your turn

Rankings of Yankees by position

Starting pitchers

Catchers

First base

Second base

Shortstop

Third base

Left field

Center field

Designated hitter

Relief pitcher

Manager

Other rankings of Yankee right fielders

Uncle Mike’s Musings

Source note

Unless noted otherwise, statistics cited here come from Baseball-Reference.com.

 

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13 responses

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