The 5 best third basemen in Yankee history

7 04 2016

This continues a series on the best Yankees at different positionsToday: third base.

1, Alex Rodriguez

When I ranked the Yankees’ best 50 starting pitchers, I decided that use of performance-enhancing drugs wouldn’t be a major factor. I would rank players based on their performance as Yankees, and if two players were even in that ranking, the player who wasn’t tainted by drug use would get the nod. But I wouldn’t totally discount a player based on PED use. So Roger Clemens ranked 16th among Yankee starters.

I’m taking the same approach with position players. I love Graig Nettles and I don’t like Alex Rodriguez. But I’m ranking them by performance as Yankees. Each has played 11 years for the Yankees (Nettles played more games at third base, but A-Rod has played over 1,000 games there). Rodriguez has better Yankee stats in virtually every offensive category. He won two MVP awards as a Yankee, both at third, and Nettles’ best showing in MVP voting was fifth place in 1977. A-Rod’s a seven-time All-Star as a Yankee, Nettles five.

As a Yankee, A-Rod led the league in homers twice, RBI once, runs scored twice, slugging three times and OPS once. Nettles led the league in homers once.

A-Rod’s post-season hitting has been awful most of the time, but Nettles wasn’t a great post-season hitter most of the time either. Nettles was a better fielder, but A-Rod has to rank first here.

2, Graig Nettles

Of course Nettles ranks second. I’ve noted before that he belongs in the Hall of Fame. He would have a few more than his two Gold Gloves if he hadn’t had the misfortune to start playing when Brooks Robinson won that award every single year. Nettles’ Game Three defensive performance in the 1978 World Series was as good a post-season game as any fielder ever had.

Despite overall weak hitting in the post-season, Nettles sizzled in the 1981 American League Championship Series, going 6-for-12 with 9 RBI in just three games and being named MVP. He was a defensive, offensive and leadership anchor for the Yankees’ 1976-81 run that included two world championships, two more A.L. championships and a fifth division title. He’s an easy choice for No. 2 here.

And, if I were going to discount A-Rod’s achievements because he’s a drug cheat, I’d need to discount Nettles for loading his bat with Super Balls.

3, Red Rolfe

Red Rolfe baseball card image from Wikimedia

Red Rolfe was an All-Star four of his 10 seasons (all with the Yankees), winning five World Series. He led the league with 213 hits, 139 runs and 46 doubles in 1939, his best season and the Yankees’ fourth straight as champions.

He topped .300 four seasons as a Yankee and hit a solid .284 in six World Series, emerging as champions in five of them.

The Yankees have done alright with Ivy League players. Lou Gehrig went to Columbia, Rolfe to Dartmouth. Rolfe also coached at Dartmouth and in the professional Basketball Association of America. He managed the Tigers for parts of three seasons (including a second-place finish behind the Yankees in 1950) and part of a fourth.

4, Wade Boggs

Wade Boggs played his best years in Boston, but was an All-Star and .300 hitter the first four of his five seasons as a Yankee. The last of those four All-Star seasons, 1996, Boggs won his only world championship, celebrating on horseback.

5, Scott Brosius

Scott Brosius gets the fifth spot on this list, based on four seasons that all ended in the World Series, three of them with victories and one with a Game-Seven, ninth-inning loss. He won an All-Star selection and a Gold Glove for the Yankees, and in the post-season he hit eight homers and drove in 30 runs. His two homers in Game Three of the 1998 World Series, including a three-run eighth-inning blast with the Yankees trailing 3-2, helped him win the World Series MVP.

The rest

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.

As I mentioned in my post on second basemen, Gil McDougald would rank ahead of some of these players on a list of all-time best Yankees. But he kept switching positions. He was Rookie of the Year (in 1951) and an All-Star (in 1952) playing primarily at third. But he played more games at second (599) than at third (508). That’s almost as many games as Brosius played at third for the Yankees, but Brosius was better in the World Series, hitting .314 to just .237 for McDougald.

Joe Sewell is actually in the Hall of Fame, but that’s primarily for his decade at shortstop for the Indians, not for his final three years, playing third base for the Yankees, 1931-33. The same is true of Wade Boggs (except that he stayed at third base), but he played longer for the Yankees and was stronger at that stage of his career than Sewell.

Hall of Famer Frank “Home Run” Baker finished his career for the Yankees, after earning his Dead-Ball-Era nickname for the Philadelphia A’s, leading the league four straight years in homers, without ever hitting more than a dozen. He started only four years for the Yankees and, in an age of inflated batting stats, topped .300 only once for the Yankees. And he never led the league in any batting category for the Yankees.

Robin Ventura played only one full season, 2002, with the Yankees, but he was an All-Star, hitting 27 homers and driving in 93 runs.

I really liked Clete Boyer when I was young, and he’d have won some Gold Gloves except that he played third base in the American League in the era of Brooks Robinson (he did win one after being traded to the Braves). He played longer for the Yankees (eight years, seven as a starter) than Brosius or Boggs, but they were better hitters by far.

Joe Dugan hit better than Boyer in his seven years with the 1920s Yankees, but I still rank Boggs and Brosius higher.

It does seem odd not to have any Yankees from the 1920s, ’50s or ’60s on this list, but I think I have the right top 5.

Aaron Boone had a better special moment than any Yankee third baseman, but didn’t even play a full season for the Yankees. And even in the post-season, he hit just .170. But one of those hits will live forever in Yankee fans’ memories.

Which team has been best at third?

We don’t have a clear winner for the team with the best tradition at third base.

The Red Sox (Boggs and Jimmy Collins) and Orioles (Robinson and Cal Ripken Jr., who played 675 games at third) are the only teams that were the primary teams for two Hall of Fame third basemen. The Pirates have Hall of Famer Pie Traynor and Bill Madlock, a four-time batting champ. The Cubs had Hall of Famer Ron Santo and Madlock. The Braves had Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews, certain Hall of Famer Chipper Jones and MVPs Bob Elliott and Terry Pendleton.

Without researching the other third basemen on any of these teams, I’d guess the Braves probably have the strongest tradition. But the Yankees are a contender and probably no worse than third or fourth.

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 third basemen.

If a player is in the Hall of Fame (Boggs), belongs there (Nettles) or would be a Hall of Famer if not for scandal (A-Rod), that carries considerable weight with me.

Boggs, Sewell and Baker joined the Yankees late in their Hall of Fame careers, but only Boggs was still playing at a Hall of Fame level (if in a bit of decline). Sewell and Baker weren’t nearly as good in their Yankee years.

If two players were dead even at a position for the Yankees, I would have moved the one with the better overall career ahead. I think Boggs was a bit ahead of Brosius as a Yankee, but his total career made that decision easier.

I value both peak performance and longevity, but peak performance more. A-Rod’s MVP’s and league crowns helped secure the top spot on the list.

I rank players primarily on their time with the team, but Rolfe is the only career Yankee on this list. Except if I needed a tie-breaker, I don’t count Boggs’ years with the Red Sox, Nettles’ with the Indians and Padres or A-Rod’s with the Mariners and Rangers.

Post-season play and championship contributions matter a lot to me. All the contenders for the fifth spot contributed to multiple champions, but Brosius played the best in the World Series. A-Rod’s poor post-season play might have dropped him to second place if Nettles had been closer in regular-season offensive performance.

Special moments matter, too. Nettles’ stellar defensive plays in the ’78 World Series and Brosius’ memorable 1998 homer helped seal their rankings. If Boone had played a few good years for the Yankees, his special moment would have pushed him onto the list.

Who was the best?

Rankings of Yankees by position

Starting pitchers

Catchers

First base

Second base

Shortstop

Left field

Center field

Right field

Designated hitter

Relief pitcher

Manager

Other rankings of top Yankee third basemen

Uncle Mike’s Musings

Bleacher Report’s Harold Friend

ChristopherJ

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.