The 5 best designated hitters in Yankee history

13 04 2016

This continues a series on the best Yankees at different positionsToday: designated hitter.

The Yankees have never settled on a DH for a long stretch. A guy would hold the position for a year or two, or multiple players will share it during a year. Lots of great Yankees have played DH, but not for long.

1, Don Baylor

Don Baylor was a pretty easy choice to top this list. He won Silver Sluggers two of his three years at DH for the Yankees. His DH seasons for the Yankees weren’t great — no 30-homer seasons, no 100-RBI seasons, only one .300 season. But each year was solid: 21 HR, 85 RBI, .303 in 1983; 27, 89, .262 in ’84 and 23, 91, .231 in ’85. And he led the league in being hit by pitches with 23 in ’84 and 24 in ’85.

Perhaps most important (because, after all, it’s my blog), I got to see him hit grand slams live twice for the Yankees (against the White Sox in the 12th inning of a 1983 game and against the Royals in ’85).

I couldn’t find a YouTube video of Baylor as a Yankee, but I thought another grand slam would be appropriate here.

2, Hideki Matsui

Hideki Matsui was the Yankees’ primary DH for only 2008 and 2009. But he was the World Series MVP in ’09 as DH (he didn’t even play in the field in Philadelphia, pinch-hitting all three games there). No other Yankee DH has been a World Series MVP, so that was a pretty easy call.

3, Danny Tartabull

Danny Tartabull never topped 100 games at DH in a season. But he hit there 88 games in 1993 and 78 in ’94. And he was solid both years, hitting 20 of his 31 homers and driving in 70 of his 102 runs in ’93 as DH. The next year, he hit 13 of his 20 homers as DH. And he got a guest shot on Seinfeld.

I actually did find some Yankee videos of Tartabull, but decided to go with a game when he was a Royal that I saw with my son Tom.

4, Alex Rodriguez

Alex Rodriguez has played third base most of his career for the Yankees, but he was the DH in 2015 (and will be this year), hitting 33 homers and driving in 86 runs. He had one previous season with more than a dozen games at DH.

A-Rod, Matsui and Babe Ruth are the only Yankees on two of these lists. Babe is No. 1 in both left and right field. Matsui is No. 4 in left field. A-Rod is No. 1 at third base.

5, Raúl Ibañez

Given how no one sticks around as the Yankees’ DH, I’m giving the last slot to a guy who didn’t have a full single year at DH or even play a little DH for a few years (the best of the rest of the Yankee DH’s fall in one of those categories). I decided instead to go with a DH with a couple great post-season moments: Raúl Ibañez. He played for the Yankees only in 2012, and DH’ed in only 28 games. But in Game Three of the Division Series that year, Ibañez homered with one out in the ninth inning, tying the game, 2-2. He was pinch-hitting for Rodriguez, who was the DH, and Ibañez stayed in the game at DH. Then he homered again, leading off the bottom of the 12th, to win the game.

Without another DH who had a great year at DH, I’ll go with the one who provided the best post-season memories.

The rest

Jason Giambi never played more than 70 games a year at DH for the Yankees. But he played more than 60 games at DH in four years. He hit 21 homers as a DH in 2006, and probably belongs on the list ahead of Ibañez, but I dropped Giambi off the list because of the combination of Ibañez’s clutch homers, Giambi’s drug use and that DH was his primary position only in one season.

Jack Clark DH’d for the Yankees in 1988 at age 32, hitting 27 homers and driving in 93 runs. That one season nearly got him on this list. He was a rare Yankee to DH for more than 100 games in a season (112).

Chili Davis, one of the best DH’s ever, finished his career with the Yankees in 1998 and ’99, but he didn’t have much left, injured most of ’98 and hitting only 19 homers in ’99.

Rubén Sierra played parts of four seasons at DH for the Yankees, but his peak in DH homers for the Yankees was 13 in 2004.

Steve Balboni was the Yankees’ primary DH for 1989 and ’90 (a two-year run has been rare). With 17 homers each year, and because I was fond of Bonesy in his Royal years, I almost wanted to put him on the list, but he hit only .192 in ’90.

Cecil Fielder played less than two years as the Yankees’ DH, and was well past his prime.

I kind of wanted to include Ron Blomberg on the list, since he was the first DH in major-league history, but he played less than 150 games at DH for the Yankees and wasn’t that good.

Lots of great and good Yankee hitters played a handful of games at DH for a year or a few years, but I didn’t see any of them play long enough or well enough to move onto the list:

  • Reggie Jackson played 135 DH games spread over five seasons. His only season with double figures in homers as a DH was 1980, with 11 homers in 46 games.
  • Dave Winfield, a better fielder than Jackson, never reached even 10 games at DH in a season.
  • Derek Jeter had 73 career games at DH.
  • Don Mattingly played 75 career games at DH.
  • Bernie Williams played 129 career games at DH.
  • Darryl Strawberry played 143 games for the Yankees at DH, spread across five seasons.

Best DH tradition

The Yankees probably don’t rank even in the top half of American League teams in terms of a DH tradition. The White Sox may have the best, with Hall of Famer Frank Thomas, likely Hall of Famer Jim ThomeHarold Baines and Greg Luzinski all DH’ing well for at least a few seasons, many of them prime years.

The Red Sox have perhaps the best DH ever, David Ortiz, plus some pretty good ones: Hall of Famers Carl YastrzemskiJim Rice, Orlando Cepeda and Andre Dawson at the ends of their careers and one to three years each of Baylor, Clark, Manny Ramirez, Jose Canseco and Mike Easler. Without studying closely, I’d guess the White Sox had more prime years from top DH’s, but I wouldn’t argue with someone who thinks the Red Sox are stronger here, based on Big Papi’s longevity and the number of Hall of Famers (even if they were past their primes).

Other teams with DH standouts playing longer than any Yankee DH include at least the Mariners (Edgar Martinez), Royals (Hal McRae), and Indians (Travis Hafner). The Yankees probably aren’t higher than sixth here, and they might be lower.

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 DH’s.

If a player is in the Hall of Fame or belongs there, that carries considerable weight with me, but that’s not a factor with Yankee DH’s who played any substantial time.

I value both peak performance and longevity, but peak performance more. Baylor wins on both counts.

Few ballplayers actually matter in the broader culture beyond baseball, but Tartabull’s “Seinfeld” turn helped him out here.

I rank players primarily on their time with the team, but the Yankees didn’t have anyone play DH for a long stretch.

Time at the position is important, too. I can’t rank Jackson or Winfield high based on their overall greatness, because they didn’t play enough DH.

Post-season play and championship contributions matter a lot to me. Both factors were big for Matsui.

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, A-Rod’s overall career will probably move him ahead of Tartabull sometime this year, presuming he pulls even as a Yankee DH.

Special moments matter, too. They put Ibañez on this list.

Your turn

Rankings of Yankees by position

Starting pitchers

Catchers

First base

Second base

Shortstop

Third base

Left field

Center field

Right field

Relief pitcher

Manager

Source note

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

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