The 5 best left fielders in Yankee history

8 04 2016

This continues a series on the best Yankees at different positions Today: left field.

Left field has been a place to visit more than a place to stay for the Yankees. I list the five best, but they won’t necessarily be the five you were thinking of. And the discussions of criteria and the outfielders who didn’t make the list may be more interesting than the five best (at least beyond number one).

This position could not be a sharper contrast between the Yankees and the Red Sox, who had Hall of Famers (Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Rice) defending the Green Monster from 1940 to 1986, each of them owning the position and playing more than 1,500 games in left (Williams and Yaz each topped 1,900).

The only Yankee Hall of Famer on this list actually played more at another position and will be a surprise to many here (he doesn’t even make either of the left-fielder lists I linked at the end of this post). But I don’t bar players from being on the top-5 list at multiple positions. Lots of other Yankee Hall of Famers played left field, but not long enough or well enough to make this list. More on them later.

1, Babe Ruth (really)

I was surprised to learn that Babe Ruth actually played 1,048 career games in left field (almost as many as the 1,132 games he played in right). He played 891 left-field games for the Yankees. Baseball-Reference.com doesn’t have complete breakdowns of his offensive performance by position.

He started 132 of his 152 games in 1921 in left, and he led the league that year in homers (59), RBI (168), runs (177), walks (145), on-base percentage (.512), slugging (,846), OPS (1.359) and total bases (457). His .378 batting average was third in the league. No Yankee left fielder ever had a better season.

In 1926, Ruth played 82 games in left field, 68 in right and two at first base. No need for all the numbers, but he led the American League in the same stats that year, too. In his epic 60-homer season of 1927, Ruth played more in right field than left, but still played 56 games in left.

I actually had this list completed and looked Ruth up to list first in the section of Hall of Famers who didn’t make the list, presuming he played a few games here. But when I noticed how many games he played, I had to figure out where he belonged. And he belongs at the top. Even though left field wasn’t his primary position, he played enough to nail down the top spot here. No Yankee left fielder ever played better.

2, Charlie Keller

Charlie Keller played left field for 874 games, scattered over 13 seasons, all with the Yankees. I almost didn’t give “King Kong” this slot because he played over 100 games in left only four seasons. But I favor peak performance over longevity, and Keller’s peak was strong and his longevity looks stronger on closer examination. After splitting time between left and right his first two seasons (including the first of five All-Star selections in 1940), Keller became the starter in 1941. He was the left-field starter except for missing the 1944 season and most of 1945 to military service until a slipped disc sidelined him after only 45 games in 1947. (He still made the All-Star team that year.) He never returned to his star form after back surgery. For an eight-year stretch, he was playing important time in left field for the Yankees, except when in the military. He’s one of only two Yankees to command the position that long.

Keller’s performance in those eight seasons was stellar: three 100-RBI seasons, three 100-run seasons and three 30-homer seasons, scattered over five seasons. He led the American League in walks in 1940 and ’43.

In four World Series (three of them as champions), he hit .306 with five homers and 18 RBI in 19 games.

3, Roy White

Roy White was the Yankees’ longest-serving left fielder by far, 1,521 games at the position. He played left field from 1966 to 1979, spending his whole career with the Yankees. Nine of those seasons, he played more than 100 games, including starting every game in left in 1973.

In the rankings by other bloggers at the end of this post, White ranks first in one and eighth in another, an indication of how difficult it is to rank the Yankees’ left fielders. I think third reflects his longevity as well as the consistent quality of his play.

His patience through some grim Yankee seasons was rewarded with championship seasons three of his final four years (World Series championships in 1977-78 and an A.L. championship in ’76). White played well in the post-season, particularly the 1978 World Series, when he hit .333 (8-for-24) with nine runs scored, a homer, four RBI and two stolen bases. If Bucky Dent hadn’t been so hot, White might have been the Series MVP.

White was good, but not great, with the bat and the glove and on the basepaths. I gave Keller the edge because he had more great seasons, but White had more good seasons. He never hit .300 for a full season, but four times hit in the .290s and had a .271 career average. He never hit more than 22 homers, but hit 10 or more in eight seasons and had 160 for his career. He was in double figures in stolen bases every full season he played, with a peak of 31 in 1976 and 233 for his career. He never reached 100 RBI in a season, but had nine seasons of 50 or more, peaking at 94 in 1970 (one of his two All-Star seasons). He led the league with 104 runs scored in 1976 (one of two 100-run seasons) and in walks with 99 in 1972. Never spectacular, but solid for more than a decade.

4, Hideki Matsui

As noted above, I generally favor peak performance over longevity, and Hideki Matsui was a better hitter than White, with four 100-RBI seasons and a high of 31 homers, three 100-run seasons and two .300 seasons. But White’s huge advantage on the basepaths and in longevity gave him the edge for No. 2. Matsui was a Yankee just seven years, to 15 for White, and started in left field only four of those years.

If his 2009 World Series MVP performance had come as the left fielder instead of the DH, I might have pushed Matsui up a notch, but he’ll have to settle for third place. Johnny Damon played left field, even in the three games in Philadelphia (Matsui pinch-hit in all three games).

5, Bob Meusel

Bob Meusel played left field more than any other position, 626 games for the Yankees. But he alternated between left and right, and never actually played 100 games in left in any single season. But he was a heck of a hitter, playing lots and regularly in left. In 1925, when he played 88 games in left, 44 in right and 27 at third base, Meusel led the American League with 33 homers and 134 RBI (one of five 100-RBI seasons). His batting average in 10 Yankee seasons was .311, and left field was his primary position seven of those seasons.

As you’ll see shortly, greater Yankees played in left field, but they didn’t play there as long or as well as Meusel, even though he wasn’t anchored in left.

Other Hall of Fame Yankee left fielders

In addition to The Babe, at least seven Hall of Famers played left field for the Yankees, but all are known better for playing at other positions and/or for other teams:

Dave Winfield played in left his first three seasons as a Yankee, 1981-3. He was No. 5 on this list until I learned how much Babe played in left. Winfield was an All-Star all three left-field seasons and topped 100 RBI in both full seasons (’81 was shortened by a strike). He also won two Gold Gloves. I could have moved Winfield ahead of Meusel based on playing much more in left all three seasons than Meusel played in any season. But Meusel played almost 300 more games in left and played better in the post-season. And Winfield’s best Yankee years came in right field.

I presumed Rickey Henderson would be in the top five and maybe even top the list. But I was surprised to see that he played only one full season in left for the Yankees. I was remembering incorrectly that his center field hitch was pretty short. But it was the full 1985 and ’86 seasons. And ’85 was easily Henderson’s best season as a Yankee.

Joe DiMaggio played more games in left field (64) than center (55) his rookie year, before becoming the Yankees’ regular center fielder.

Mickey Mantle ballMickey Mantle played left field mostly in 1965.

Earle Combs, another center fielder, played 215 games in left.

Yogi Berra played 148 games in left, 81 of them in 1961, when it was his primary position.

Enos Slaughter earned his Hall of Fame perch in his years with the St. Louis Cardinals (playing mostly right field). But late in his career, he played 100 games in left for the Yankees, spread across four seasons playing part-time.

By the way, I checked and Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson and should-be Hall of Famer Roger Maris played left field for the A’s but never for the Yankees.

I’m going to guess that Willie Keeler appeared in left field sometime, though Baseball-Reference.com doesn’t break down his outfield appearances by position. The Hall of Fame lists right field as his primary position. The Yankees were the Highlanders then, and I’m focusing on actual Yankees here.

The rest

Two Yankees who belong in the Hall of Fame also played left field:

Also playing left field (almost 50 games) for the 1990s Yankees was Darryl Strawberry, a former National League home run leader who appeared headed for Cooperstown before cocaine addiction sidetracked his career.

I was thinking Johnny Damon might have a shot at the fifth spot on the list, but he played mostly center for the Yankees. His only full-time season in left for the Yankees was 2009, a good season, but not good enough to move him onto the list. I think Damon’s shot at Cooperstown rested on reaching 3,000 hits, but he retired at 2,769.

Brett Gardner could push his way onto this list in a few years. He’s been the Yankees’ primary left fielder for four seasons (plus 2013 in center) and his hitting is improving. He led the league with 49 steals in 2011, but he isn’t the hitter Meusel was.

I thought Lou Piniella might make the fifth spot on this list (he’s fifth on both of the lists linked at the end of this post). But as I did my research, I found that he never started 100 games in left field in a season.

Gene Woodling's autograph on a ball belonging to my son Tom.

Gene Woodling’s autograph on a ball belonging to my son Tom.

Gene Woodling started 100 or more games in left field four straight championship years for the Yankees (1950-53), but he never played more than 125 games for the Yankees, never hit 20 homers or drove in 70 runs. He hit .300 a couple times and led the league with a .429 on-base percentage in 1953. On longevity, he deserves consideration for the fifth spot, but he was never a full-time player. He was one of Casey Stengel’s platoon players.

David Justice played only 59 games in left for the Yankees.

Chad Curtis hit two homers in the 1998 World Series, but didn’t play left field long enough or well enough (except in that World Series) to push his way onto the list, even with my bias in favor of post-season play.

Chuck Knoblauch moved to left field after his defensive troubles at second base started.

Even Jose Canseco played four games in left for the Yankees. And a lot of Yankee left fielders played way more than that, but I’m not going to list them all here.

Other left-field traditions

As I noted at the top, the Red Sox had three straight Hall of Fame left fielders covering most of four-plus decades, except the breaks for Williams’ military service. Throw in Manny Ramirez and Mike Greenwell, and the Red Sox clearly have the best tradition in left field.

The St. Louis Cardinals (Joe Medwick, Stan Musial for 929 games, Lou Brock), Pittsburgh Pirates (Fred Clarke, Ralph Kiner, Willie Stargell) and Washington Senators/Minnesota Twins (Goose Goslin, Heinie Manush and 471 games of Harmon Killebrew) also had three Hall of Fame left fielders. The A’s have two (Henderson and Al Simmons). The Yankees’ left-field tradition might rank somewhere between fifth and seventh, if not 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 left fielders.

If a player is in the Hall of Fame (Ruth) or belongs there (Howard and Raines), that carries considerable weight with me. If Howard had played left primarily or Raines had played for the Yankees in his prime, they would have made the list, probably second place.

I value both peak performance and longevity, but peak performance more. That’s why Ruth and Keller, who didn’t play as long in left as White, ranked ahead of him. Measures of peak performance, such as MVP awards and leading leagues in important stats, will move a person up my list. All the other left fielders together didn’t lead the league in important stats as Yankees as many times as Ruth did.

Few ballplayers actually matter in the broader culture beyond baseball, but Ruth did and that counted for him, too.

I rank players primarily on their time with the team, so Keller and White stand out not just for their strong careers, but because all their time was spent with the Yankees.

Time at the position is important, too. Winfield missed the list because he played only three seasons in left field. Look for him on my right field list.

Post-season play and championship contributions matter a lot to me. Winfield made one post-season for the Yankees and hit 1-for-22 in the 1981 World Series. George Steinbrenner’s “Mr. May” shot was cruel and unwarranted, but all the people on the list played well in the post-season and contributed to Yankee championships.

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, if Winfield or Henderson had been tied with someone, their years with the Padres, Blue Jays, A’s, etc. would have pushed them ahead.

Special moments matter, too. Ruth had a few of those.

Your turn

Rankings of Yankees by position

Starting pitchers

Catchers

First base

Second base

Shortstop

Third base

Center field

Right field

Designated hitter

Relief pitcher

Manager

Other rankings of Yankee left fielders

Uncle Mike’s Musings

Christopher J151515

Source note

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





The 5 best second basemen in Yankee history

5 04 2016

This continues a series on the best Yankees at different positions. Today: second base.

1, Tony Lazzeri

I tried to talk myself out of Tony Lazzeri at second base, because I kept wanting someone to be better. He’s not even a top 10 all-time second baseman. But he’s a Hall of Famer (albeit from the ’20s and ’30s when that was easier than any time since). And he played second base 12 years for the Yankees. Willie Randolph played 13 and I loved Randolph, but Lazzeri had more hits, homers and RBI as a Yankee, and a higher batting average.

Lazzeri topped 100 RBI seven times and scored more than 100 runs twice (Randolph never topped 100 in either category). Lazzeri topped .300 in batting five times, including a .354 performance in 1929. He was a bona fide member of Murderer’s Row and clearly the best Yankee second baseman ever, somewhat to my surprise.

He anchored the Yankee infield for five world-champion teams, bridging the Ruth and DiMaggio years. This is an easier call than I anticipated.

2, Robinson Canó

I also expected Robinson Canó to rank lower on this list. I was surprised to see he had played nine years as a Yankee, but not surprised to see that he topped 100 RBI three times, scored 100 runs four times and hit over 200 Yankee homers. I don’t know if he’s going to make the Hall of Fame, or if he should, but he got his career off to a Hall of Fame start playing in New York.

He also earned two Gold Gloves with spectacular, if not always consistent, defense. I tried to push the other guys on this list above Canó because he kind of disappointed me with his post-season play (he was awful in the 2009 World Series and hit only .222 in 51 post-season games). But his regular-season play pushed him up here and even gained him consideration for No. 1.

3, Willie Randolph

I moved Randolph into third place because he played the position strongly on offense and defense for the Yankees for 13 years. He was great at drawing walks (1,005 for the Yankees, including a league-leading 119 in 1980). I think Randolph illustrates that I don’t argue for Hall of Fame election for every good Yankee player. Yes, he was better than some 1920s infielders in the Hall of Fame, but they don’t belong there and neither does he.

Lou Whitaker and Frank White were better contemporary second basemen in the American League. But Randolph was a cornerstone of the Yankee champions of 1976-81, when they won two World Series, two more A.L. championships and a fifth division title. He was a six-time All-Star and absolutely belongs on this list.

4, Joe Gordon

Joe Gordon had to wait a while to get into the Hall of Fame not just because of anti-Yankee bias and the voters’ bias in favor of longevity. He also had to wait because he was the odd beneficiary in 1942 of the writers’ bias against Ted Williams. Gordon had an outstanding year: hitting .322 with 18 homers, 103 RBI and great defense for the pennant-winning Yankees. But Williams won the Triple Crown that year: .356, 36, 137. Williams also led the league in runs (141), walks (145), total bases (388), on-base percentage (.499!), slugging (.648) and OPS (1.147). You know what Gordon led the league in? Strikeouts (95) and grounding into double plays (22). It was probably the most ridiculous MVP vote in history when the Baseball Writers’ Association of America voted Gordon the MVP over Williams. But that wasn’t Gordon’s fault.

He didn’t have Hall of Fame career numbers, but he sacrificed two prime years to serve in the military during World War II. And he was an All-Star five straight years before going into the military and four straight years after coming back. How many players who were All-Stars nine straight seasons aren’t in the Hall of Fame? And it probably would have been 11 if the war hadn’t interrupted his career.

Gordon would rank ahead of Randolph based on his full career, but he played only seven years for the Yankees (he was traded to the Indians after the 1946 season for Allie Reynolds, who should join him in the Hall of Fame).

Gordon hit well in only two of his six World Series, but he helped the Yankees to four world championships and the Indians to their last title, in 1948.

In another interesting swap, Gordon went from the Indians to the Tigers in 1960 for Jimmy Dykes in a rare trade of managers.

5, Bobby Richardson

EPSON MFP image

My autographed photo of Bobby Richardson

Bobby Richardson may have the biggest disparity between regular-season hitting and World Series hitting of anyone who played substantial World Series time. He was a good player, making seven All-Star teams, leading the league with 209 hits in 1962 and finishing second to Mickey Mantle in the MVP vote that year. But he was only a .266 career hitter, with 34 homers and 390 RBI in 12 seasons, all with the Yankees.

In October, though, Richardson was something special. He set hitting records that still stand in three different World Series:

  • In 1960, he drove in a record 12 runs, also scoring eight and hitting two triples and a grand slam (tying a record he still shares; no one has hit a second World Series grand slam). His 11 hits were one short of the record. He was the only World Series MVP ever from a losing team.
  • In 1961, his nine hits tied a record for a five-game series that he still shares.
  • In 1964, he set a record that he still shares with 13 hits in a World Series.

Bobby Richardson StoryHe hit only 4-for-27 in the 1962 World Series, but that Series is still best remembered for his spectacular Game Seven catch of a Willie McCovey line drive, with Matty Alou on third with the tying run and Willie Mays on second with the winner. While his stellar hitting in other Series was far better than his regular-season hitting, the defense was no surprise: 1962 was the second of five straight Gold Glove seasons for Richardson.

Who else in World Series history set offensive records in three series and made a Series-saving defensive play in a fourth, all in a five-year stretch? If you were compiling an all-time World Series team, Richardson has to be your second baseman.

I’ll disclose a bias here: Richardson was my childhood baseball hero, even above Mickey Mantle. I met him in the 1970s, when he came to a baseball event in Stanton, Iowa, and I was an editor in nearby Shenandoah. That’s where I got the autographed photo.

The rest

Billy Martin's autograph on a ball belonging to my son Mike.

Billy Martin’s autograph on a ball belonging to my son Mike.

I tried to get Billy Martin onto this list, but he played only seven years (three playing 100 or more games) for the Yankees. His only All-Star season was 1956. He hit .333 in World Series play, had a spectacular game-saving catch of his own and still shares the record for 12 hits in a six-game World Series (1953).

Alfonso Soriano was spectacular in three years at second for the Yankees, leading the league in 2002 with 209 hits, 128 runs and 41 stolen bases (not to mention 39 homers and 102 RBI). But he played second base for the Yankees for just two years. And he was mostly horrible in the post-season, striking out 11 times against the Red Sox and nine times against the Marlins in the 2003 post-season. He didn’t play long enough at second for the Yankees or well enough in October to push Richardson off this list.

Chuck Knoblauch had a career to compare with some of the players on this list, if you count his Twin years, and he hit well for the Yankees and contributed to three World Series titles (plus a fourth with the Twins). But you just can’t overlook the throwing problems (26 errors in 1999 and 15 in part-time play in 2000) that forced the Yankees to move him to left field.

Speaking of throwing problems, Steve Sax had two All-Star years at second base for bad Yankees teams. Sax’s throwing problems were years earlier with the Dodgers. He played well at second for the Yankees, but not long enough to rank in the top five.

Gil McGougald's autograph (along with Hank Bauer's, Ed Lopat and Eddie Madjeski.

Gil McGougald’s autograph (along with Hank Bauer’s, Ed Lopat and Eddie Madjeski.

Gil McDougald might lead a list (if I ever make one) of Yankee utility players. He played his full 10-year career for the Yankees, making five All-Star teams. But he can’t rank very high at any position, having played 599 games at second, 508 at third and 284 at shortstop. He had only five seasons with 100 or more games at any one position, two at third base, two at second and one at shortstop. If you were ranking all-time Yankees at all positions, he might pass up some people on this list, but not just ranking second basemen.

Jerry Coleman was an All-Star in 1950, but played only 572 games at second base. He topped 100 games in only four of his nine seasons, all with the Yankees. He’d rank below McDougald both as a second baseman and a utility fielder.

With bigger stars all off to war in 1944-45, Snuffy Stirnweiss led the American League twice each in hits, runs and stolen bases and in 1945 added titles in batting, slugging and OPS. But he wasn’t as good with the major leagues at full strength. His only All-Star year, 1946, he played more at third base than second. He was a significant contributor to the 1947 champions, but became a part-time player after that.

Luis Sojo deserves special mention. In parts of seven seasons with the Yankees, he did not play 100 games in a season even once, so he was never more than a part-time player. But Yankee fans will always appreciate his clutch 2000 post-season (9 RBI in 14 games). Similarly, Brian Doyle never played even 40 games in a season for the Yankees. But when Randolph was injured for the 1978 post-season, Doyle hit .391. He was 7-of-16 with 3 RBI and 4 runs in the World Series, a pretty good place to play the best baseball of your career.

I also must mention Horace Clarke, who followed Richardson at second base. He anchored the position from 1967 to 1973, horrible years for the Yankees. He was a good fielder but a bad hitter. I call the drought between the 1964 and 1976 World Series teams the “Horace Clarke years,” which probably isn’t fair to him. But the Yankees weren’t very good then, and neither was he.

Other teams’ second base traditions

The Yankees are not a contender for the best tradition at second base. The Cardinals (Rogers Hornsby, Frankie Frisch, Red Schoendienst) and Cubs (Johnny Evers, Billy Herman, Ryne Sandberg) both were the primary teams of three Hall of Fame second basemen, including someone who’d make most top-10 lists (Hornsby, Frisch, Sandberg). And the Cubs got Hornsby for an MVP season and three more years.

The White Sox (Eddie Collins and Nellie Fox), Indians (Nap Lajoie and Gordon), Reds (Joe Morgan and Bid McPhee), A’s (Collins and Lajoie) and Giants (Frisch and a year of Hornsby) each matched the Yankees with two Hall of Fame second basemen.

I haven’t researched this deeply enough to be confident with rankings (that might be a future post), but I see the Cubs at No. 1 here and the Yankees about fifth.

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 second basemen.

If a player is in the Hall of Fame (Lazzeri), that carries considerable weight with me.

I value both peak performance and longevity, but peak performance more. Canó didn’t play at second for the Yankees as long as Randolph, but Canó’s peaks were higher.

I rank players primarily on their time with the team, so Lazzeri and Richardson stand out not just for their great careers, but because all their time was spent with the Yankees.

Frisch made it to Cooperstown and had Hall of Fame seasons for both the Giants and Cardinals, so he counts heavily for both teams, but not as heavily as Sandberg does for the Cubs, because he played most of his career and all of his great seasons in Chicago.

Time at the position is important, too. If Soriano had stayed with the Yankees and moved to left field (as he did when he moved to the Nationals in 2006, two years after the Yankees traded him to the Rangers), his performance in left field would only be a tie-breaker, not a big factor.

Post-season play and championship contributions matter a lot to me. I should add that I don’t consider those to be the same thing. Lazzeri contributed to five Yankee world championships, to three for Richardson, so that’s an advantage for Lazzeri. However, Richardson played better in the post-season (Lazzeri was good, but you don’t find him among all-time leaders, let alone record-holders, in World Series batting).

If two players were dead even at a position for the Yankees, I moved the one with the better overall career ahead. For instance, Gordon’s play for the Indians (and his Hall of Fame election) helped me place him above Richardson for fourth place.

Special moments matter, too. If someone had been tied with Richardson on other factors, that catch to save the 1962 World Series would have given Richardson the final spot on the list.

Who do you think is best?

Rankings of Yankees by position

Starting pitchers

Catchers

First base

Shortstop

Third base

Left field

Center field

Right field

Designated hitter

Other rankings of Yankee second basemen

Uncle Mike’s Musings

Tyler K. Patterson, Fan Graphs

Andrew Mearns, Pinstripe Alley

ChristopherJ

Source note

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





A team of the best who played for Yankees and Royals

28 10 2014

Decades ago, the Kansas City A’s and New York Yankees made so many trades the A’s were derided as a Yankee farm team. The Yankees and Royals haven’t made as many trades, but still have shared a lot of the same players.

Since I usually blog here about the Yankees, but have been blogging about the Royals this month, I’ve compiled a team of the best players who played for both teams (most of them not involved in trades between the two teams).

Catcher: Don Slaught. Slaught barely missed the Royals’ world championship year. He caught 124 games for the 1984 division champions, but was traded to the Texas Rangers in a four-team deal that brought Jim Sundberg to Kansas City. After three years in Texas, Slaught was the starting catcher for the Yankees in 1988 and ’89, two fifth-place seasons.  This isn’t a strong position, but Slaught started for both teams. Fran Healy had a couple mediocre years as the Royals’ starter, but was just a sub for the Yankees.

First base. Steve Balboni was a feast-or-famine slugger for the Royals who had his best year in the Royals’ 1985 championship year, with 36 homers, and led the league in strikeouts that year with 166 (he had 146 hits). Known as “Bye Bye” Balboni in the Yankee farm system, he had no chance of winning the first base job away from Don Mattingly. Balboni became “Bonesy” in Kansas City, where his homers are remembered fondly, but not as fondly as the single that eventually became the tying run (Onix Concepcion pinch-ran) in Game Six of the 1985 World Series. Read the rest of this entry »