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.

Advertisements




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 »





Guest post: Tom Buttry reflects on his life (and last night) as a Royals fan

1 10 2014
Tom Buttry, right, with his brothers, Joe, left, and Mike, visiting the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1989.

Tom Buttry, right, with his brothers, Joe, left, and Mike, visiting the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1989.

I’m enjoying this year’s post-season as much as if the Yankees were playing. The reason: All three of my sons are Kansas City Royals fans, dating to my days at the Kansas City Star and Times, when I would take the boys to ballgames. I tried to turn them into Yankee fans, but utterly failed. They fell hopelessly in love with the team they kept seeing on the field. Well, the past quarter-century-plus has been kinder to Yankee fans than Royal fans, but the boys remained loyal KC fans, even though we all moved away.

So I am celebrating with them as the Royals get their first taste of post-season play since 1985, our first season in Kansas City. The boys and I exchanged multiple messages — text messages, tweets, Facebook messages — through last night’s incredible game.(They’re all grown men now, but still my boys, especially when we’re watching baseball.) Mike was at the game the best he’s ever seen. Tom sent me a guest blog post today. Below is Tom’s explanation of why last night’s game was so special, with minimal editing from me (I even left his excessive use of asterisk footnotes in place). I’ll add a comment or two at the end. But first, here’s Tom Buttry:

I’ve been wondering all day today why something as trivial as one game of baseball can make me so so gleeful for so long. Why I stayed so excited last night that I had a hard time falling asleep, but am still be able to walk around with a grin on my face and a spring in my step all day today. Why I am being so self-indulgent in sharing these thoughts and why I’m willing to rub salt in the very fresh wounds of any A’s fans who might read this. But here goes nothing.

As a kid I’d regularly go to Kansas City Royals games with my dad.  Despite his being a Yankees fan*, he loves baseball too much to pass up the opportunity to regularly watch games, and in the days before he could follow the Yankees on the MLB package, he went in with some co-workers on Royals season tickets. From there, my two older brothers, my mom and I took turns going to games with him. In other words, I got to see a lot of Royals games from a very young age.

Sometimes the whole family would go, but most of the games I saw, it was just me and my dad.  I know it’s cliche, but it was really a formative bonding experience with him.  I’d be excited because I’d get to stay up late, spend time with him, get a cheap plastic mini-baseball helmet full of soft serve and sprinkles and see this team and these players I was absolutely falling in love with on a regular basis. I’m sure my dad was also thrilled to spend time with his kids in a way he could really have fun with, rather than seeing the same cartoon or reading the same book for the 100th time, even if I made him take me on too many runs for snacks or to the bathroom.

It was at these games that dad taught me to groan every time the Royals bunted the ball** and shout “HE STRUCK HIM OUT!” when the Royals got a big K***.   He also snagged a foul ball for me after the guy behind us dropped his cup of beer trying to get it, and would tell me all about the great players I was seeing.

One game I distinctly remember happened April 7, 1989**** against the Boston Red Sox. An exciting, fireballing rookie named Tom “Flash” Gordon blew a lead for the Royals, and in the bottom of the ninth we were down three with Lee Smith coming in to close the game. My dad explained to me that Smith was one of the best closers in the game and it would be tough for the Royals to come back from such a big margin against him.  A few minutes later, the Royals loaded the bases and George Brett rocketed a line drive that cleared the bases, tying the game and forever cementing his status as my favorite Royal. A few batters later we scored the final run,***** and I celebrated with my Dad, letting him know that I knew they were going to win. That season the Royals won 92 games, but before the Wild Card existed, a loaded Oakland A’s team kept them out of the playoffs.

On July 6, 1991, my heart got broken in a game against the Oakland A’s when Danny Tartabull hit three home runs, but the Royals still had somehow fallen behind before the ninth inning and had the heart of their lineup coming up against Dennis Eckersley. I reminded dad about the Lee Smith game, and perhaps hoping I was a good luck charm, he seemed slightly more optimistic about my predictions of an upcoming Royals comeback, even though we were up against an even better closer. Down two, with one runner aboard and two outs, Brett stood at the plate as the tying run with Tartabull in the on deck circle as the winning run.  With a thunderous crack, Brett lined another rocket into the outfield, but this time right at the center fielder, ending the game without giving Tartabull the chance to make baseball history and win the game.

From the time I remember living in Kansas City, the Royals were always good, but never good enough to make the playoffs.****** We had legends like George Brett, superstars like Bo Jackson, and were truly relevant. The two games I just described represent particularly noteworthy episodes from a huge series of childhood memories that I will always cherish.# The only thing I really missed as a kid was the chance to see the Royals in the playoffs.

In the intervening years my family moved away from Kansas City, the Royals have stunk and have been next to impossible to see on television, which further complicated following them over the course of 162 games a year. While I never gave up on the Royals and put up with a lot of trash talk for continuing to support such a lousy team when it would have been so easy to bolt for better teams at nearly any point, it is safe to say that the Royals had slipped behind my favorite football and basketball teams in terms of my attention.

Then came last night.

Seeing the excitement and energy at Kauffman Stadium brought back powerful memories. Crunching peanut shells under my feet (something I still do almost every time I go to a ballpark). The helmet bowls of soft serve. Kauffman’s gorgeous fountains. The giant Midwestern insects buzzing around the light towers. The smell of cheap beer. And something new: the roar of a crowd that has finally seen their support of this team validated.

I’ve always been an intense sports fan, but watching the game last night was something different. Instead of the caveman-like bellowing I do for a Kansas City Chiefs game, or alternating fast rhythm and cavalcade of timeouts of a Marquette basketball game, I was standing on my feet nervously shuffling back and forth, turning my cap inside out for good luck, pouting on the couch when things were bad, jumping, yelping and laughing with joy every time the Royals did something good. I never even thought to grab a beer until my fiancée asked me if I wanted one.  In short, for one night, I was a kid again. For 29 years I had been waiting for this very moment, and I managed to turn back time to enjoy it. And oh my goodness, what a game to turn back time for.*******

I don’t know if the Royals have a magical run in them.  For one night, Eric Hosmer did a passable George Brett impersonation.  However, the incompetence of Ned Yost will probably catch up to us at some point.********  But this one game created that childhood memory that I had always been missing.  And that is why I am still so deliriously happy.

Let’s go Royals!

* While under almost all circumstances being the progeny of a Yankees fan should be a great source of shame for the entire family, it is semi-mitigated by the fact that my dad was an Air Force brat and the Yankees were the only team he could follow no matter where in the world he was living.  He also taught my brothers and me the #1 lesson of being a real sports fan: that you always stick with your team no matter what (no amount of cajoling from his three sons ever got him to nudge the Royals past the Yankees).

** Something that happened a lot last night.

*** Also something that happened a lot last night.

**** The dates and a few specific facts come from Baseball-Reference.com, but the bulk of the next two paragraphs are my actual recollections. In fact, I was really shocked by how accurate my memories were the first time I dug around on Baseball-Reference trying to find particular Royals games I went to, with these two being the standouts.

***** Baseball-Reference says it was Bob Boone who drove in the winning run. Somehow he doesn’t stick out as much as George Brett.

****** My family moved to Kansas City in time for their World Series run in the fall of 85, but I was barely three years old and don’t remember a thing of the Royals from back then.

******* Oh, and getting back at the A’s for keeping what had previously been the best Royals team I can remember out of the playoffs and ruining Danny Tartabull’s big game also felt pretty good.

******** Seriously, Ned? A double steal with Billy “The Slowest Man in Professional Sports” Butler and Hosmer?  Four sacrifice bunts? Bringing a rookie starter on one day’s rest out of the bullpen with two on and nobody out?

# Since this is an extra self-indulgent aside, I’ll put it at the very bottom. I also really enjoyed singing along to Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” which the Royals would regularly play between innings when I was a kid and dancing to Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” when the Royals would win.

Dad comments: 

    • Tom loved “Minnie the Moocher,” running around our family room chanting “Hodie, Hodie.”
    • How is Lee Smith not in the Hall of Fame? He was a Yankee only eight games, but might deserve a post here someday.
    • I missed a Steve Balboni grand-slam homerun once while in the restroom with Tom.
    • Watching George Brett play for parts of seven seasons was an absolute treat.
    • I ranted quite a bit myself last night in our living room and on Twitter about Yost wasting outs on bunts, prompting someone to tweet me a link to this tweet:
  • At the time, it seemed like a lot of money we spent on tickets, parking, and all those peanuts and helmet sundaes. But the experiences I gave my sons were priceless.