The 5 best first basemen in Yankee history

4 04 2016

Last year I wrote a series about Yankee starting pitchers that included a ranking of the top 50 starting pitchers.

That series was interrupted by the death of Yogi Berra, which prompted a post on the Yankees having a far greater tradition at catcher than any other team (I didn’t actually rank the top Yankee catchers initially, but I’ve added a ranking to make the post fit into this series).

So I thought then I should open this baseball season (Yankees open this afternoon against the Astros) by going around the diamond, reviewing the Yankees’ tradition at each position and ranking the top five Yankees. I’ll review the top five, then review where Yankees rank among other teams in our tradition at that position (catcher’s not the only one where the Yankees are the best). Then I’ll explain my ranking criteria. Today: first base.

1, Lou Gehrig

The best first baseman in Yankee history is an easy call: Lou Gehrig, probably the best first baseman in baseball history.

Gehrig leads all Yankee first basemen in career homers, RBI, hits, runs, batting, slugging and nearly every important statistical category, and has the best single-season totals in several categories, too. He’s the only first baseman in the Hall of Fame who was primarily a Yankee. He’s the only Yankee first baseman to win a Triple Crown. And then there’s the consecutive-game streak. He led his league more times in homers (three times) and RBI (five) than all the other Yankee first basemen combined. And on and on. This is an easy call.

2, Don Mattingly

Don Mattingly is clear choice for No. 2 on this list. With 13 years as the Yankees’ starting first baseman, he’s second only to Gehrig and second in most career or single-season offensive categories, too. He’s the only Yankee first baseman other than Gehrig to win an MVP award or lead the league in batting, RBI or hits. In baseball history, only Keith Hernandez has more Gold Gloves at first base than Mattingly’s nine. Though not primarily a home run hitter, Mattingly holds or shares the records for most grand slams in a season and most consecutive games with a homer.

As I’ve noted before, Mattingly was superior to most of his contemporaries who are in the Hall of Fame. Only the Hall of Fame voters’ biases in favor of longevity and against Yankees are keeping him out of Cooperstown.

3, Tino Martinez

Here’s where the choices get a little murkier. Tino Martinez, Chris Chambliss, Jason Giambi and Mark Teixeira each played the position for the Yankees for seven years, and Moose Skowron played it for nine. Skowron has the most All-Star selections for the Yankees (5), Giambi the most homers (209), Teixeira the most Gold Gloves (three) and Chambliss hit the walk-off homer that made the Yankees American League champions in 1976 after a post-season absence of 12 years.

But I go here with Martinez, who led the group with Yankee RBI (739) and stacks up well with the rest in most other hitting numbers. Only Skowron could match Tino’s four world championships with the Yankees. Only Teixeira, with league-leading totals of 39 homers and 122 RBI in 2009, almost matched Martinez’s best season (44 homers and 141 RBI in 1997). Both Teixeira and Martinez finished second in MVP voting their best Yankee years.

And Martinez had some pretty special post-season homers, too.

4, Moose Skowron

Skowron’s regular-season stats don’t stand out among the other competitors here. But damn, he hit eight World Series homers (tied for seventh all-time) and drove in 29 RBI (sixth). Championship performance means a lot to me.

5, Mark Teixeira

I give Teixeira the nod here, based on that 2009 season (and his role in returning the Yankees to championship status that year). Chambliss won two world championships with the Yankees and Giambi had a nice run without any World Series titles. But Tex is a little better than either of them in my view. Plus he’s still playing, with plenty of opportunity to move up to third or fourth on this list.

The rest

My autographed Joe Pepitone card

My autographed Joe Pepitone card

Joe Pepitone, who played eight years at first for the Yankees and was a three-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner, and Wally Pipp, who played 11 years before losing his job to Gehrig, are the best Yankee first basemen I haven’t mentioned yet.

Joe Collins started at first base for the Yankees of the 1950s, but was never an All-Star, never hit 20 homers or drove in 100 runs (or even 60) and never hit .300. He contributed to five Yankee championships, but hit only .163 in World Series play. I’m not sure I’d include him on a list of 10 best Yankee first basemen.

Several Yankee first basemen had their best years with other teams: Hall of Famer Johnny Mize, Felipe Alou, Bob Watson and Giambi. Center fielder Mickey Mantle spent his final two years at first base.

Hal Chase’s SABR biography by Martin Kohout calls him the “most notoriously corrupt player in baseball history,” so I’m not going to dwell on him here. He was also a New York Highlander (before they became the Yankees), and I’m ranking the best Yankees.

Grand slams

You don’t want to face a Yankee first baseman with the bases loaded.

Gehrig held the career record for grand slams with 23, until he was finally passed by Alex Rodriguez (who, I should note, has played first base for the Yankees in two games). Giambi, with 14 grand slams, makes the top 20 all-time. Martinez, with 11, and Teixeira, with 10, are also on the all-time leaders list.

As noted before, Mattingly shares the record of six grand slams in a season with Travis Hafner (an Indian most of his career, including when he set the record, but he finished as a Yankee, exclusively as a DH).

Martinez, Pepitone and Skowron all hit World Series grand slams.

Who has the best first-base tradition?

While the Yankees likely have the best first baseman ever, I don’t think I can claim they have the best tradition of any team at first base. The best tradition would probably be the Giants or Cardinals.

Johnny Mize's autograph on a ball belonging to my son Mike.

Johnny Mize’s autograph on a ball belonging to my son Mike.

The Giants have had six Hall of Fame first basemen: Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Bill Terry, Johnny Mize, George Kelly and Roger Connor. The Cardinals have had four Hall of Fame first basemen: Cepeda, Mize, Jim Bottomley and Stan Musial (who mostly played outfield, but played more than 1,000 games at first, more than at any outfield position, and he played primarily at first in his 1946 MVP season). Add certain Hall of Famer Albert Pujols and Mark McGwire, who had Hall of Fame numbers but is being kept out of Cooperstown because he used performance-enhancing drugs. Each team also had some pretty good first basemen in the Skowron-Martinez range who won’t make the Hall of Fame: Hernandez, Bill White and Jack Clark for the Cardinals (Clark played longer for the Giants, but was an outfielder then), Will Clark and J.T. Snow for the Giants, to name a few.

Even if you concede my point that Mattingly belongs in the Hall of Fame, and count Bottomley and Kelly as among those marginal players from the 20s who don’t belong in the Hall, both the Giants and Cardinals were the clear leaders here. I’d probably give the edge to the Cardinals, but I could go either way here. The Yankees are contending for third place with the A’s, Tigers and Cubs.

Ranking criteria

If a player is in the Hall of Fame (Gehrig) or should be (Mattingly), that carries considerable weight with me.

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

Cepeda and Mize both made it to Cooperstown and had Hall of Fame seasons for both the Giants and Cardinals, so they count heavily for both teams, but not as heavily as Gehrig and Mattingly, who spent their whole careers for one team, or McCovey, who had all his great seasons as a Giant, though he didn’t finish up in San Francisco. Mize doesn’t get as much credit in Yankee rankings for being in the Hall of Fame, because he didn’t play like a Hall of Famer for the Yankees.

I value both peak performance and longevity, but peak performance more. If Martinez, Skowron and Teixeira had played as long at first base for the Yankees as Mattingly, his MVP award and league titles in batting, RBI, hits and doubles still would have given him the second spot on this list.

Few ballplayers actually matter in the broader culture beyond baseball, but Gehrig did and that counted for him, too. C’mon, Gary Cooper played him in a classic movie, “Pride of the Yankees,” and the disease that killed him is known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Time at the position is important, too. Musial played great years at first base. Mantle didn’t. A-Rod doesn’t get consideration based on just two games at first.

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. Martinez and Skowron both contributed to four Yankee World Series championships, so they’re dead even in the first level of championship contributions. But Skowron also contributed to three American League champions who didn’t win the World Series and Martinez played on one, so Moose gets a bit of an advantage there. Skowron also hit eight homers in the World Series, to just three for Martinez. But I still credit Martinez for his nine total post-season homers. I give Skowron the edge in post-season play, since he didn’t have the opportunity to play extra rounds. If Martinez didn’t have a sizable advantage in regular-season play (five 100-RBI season to none for Moose), Skowron would have moved ahead of him based on championship contributions and post-season play. But championship contributions and post-season play were sizable advantages that pushed Moose ahead of Teixeira, Giambi and Chambliss.

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, Teixeira’s great seasons with the Rangers (or Giambi’s with the A’s) would be a tie-breaker if either had been tied with another player based on Yankee years.

Scandals are a secondary factor here. I didn’t eliminate Giambi from consideration because of his use of performance-enhancing drugs. But if I were ranking a top 10, the combination of Giambi’s drug use and Chambliss’ clutch homer would have offset Giambi’s stronger regular-season performance, so Chambliss would be sixth.

Special moments matter, too. If Chambliss were dead-even with someone based on other criteria, that 1976 pennant-winning homer would push him ahead. Look for Bucky Dent to rank a notch or two higher than he otherwise might when I rank the shortstops.

How would you rank them?

The free version of Polldaddy doesn’t let me ask you to rank them. I’ll be surprised if anyone seriously disagrees with me on the first pick. But I thought I’d do a poll with each post in this series, so tell me whether you agree with the Gehrig poll or prefer someone else:

Rankings of Yankees by position

Starting pitchers

Catchers

Second base

Shortstop

Third base

Left field

Center field

Right field

Designated hitter

Other rankings of Yankee first basemen

Steve Goldman of Bleacher Report

Uncle Mike’s Musings

Source note

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

 

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Yankee starting pitchers with the greatest teammates: Bullet Joe Bush and Mike Torrez

17 10 2015

This continues my series on Yankee starting pitchers.

Bullet Joe Bush and Mike Torrez didn’t spend long with the Yankees (or many teams). But they pitched well for New York. And they have two of the most amazing groups of teammates of any players in major league history.

This is perhaps the oddest post in this series, but it’s a topic that has fascinated me for years: the coincidence of players’ intersecting careers. And since two of the players with the most awesome collections of teammates in baseball history were briefly starting pitchers for the Yankees, I couldn’t resist. I think these two might have the best teammate collections. Or two of the best three.

Bullet Joe Bush

New York Yankees

Bullet Joe Bush

Wikimedia photo

Bush pitched three solid years for the Yankees, going 26-7 in 1922, 19-15 in ’23 and 17-16 in ’24. His Yankee teammates included Hall of Famers Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Earle CombsHome Run Baker, Waite Hoyt and Herb Pennock.

The Yankees were managed by yet another Hall of Famer, Miller Huggins.

Another Yankee teammate, Lefty O’Doul, might have made the Hall of Fame if he had started out playing the outfield. He was a fellow pitcher of Bush’s with the Yankees at age 25, but O’Doul was an unremarkable pitcher, going 1-1 and getting only one start in four years with the Yankees and Red Sox. He finally made it back to the majors as an outfielder in 1928 at age 31 and won two batting titles, hitting .398 in 1929 and .368 in 1932. His .349 career batting average is the fourth-highest of all time, behind Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby (both Bush teammates, as you’ll see shortly) and Shoeless Joe Jackson.

O’Doul might be second to Babe Ruth among players who both pitched and played other positions in the major leagues. Which tells you how great Ruth was. O’Doul was an awful pitcher who revived his career by moving to the outfield. Ruth was a Hall of Fame pitcher who was such a great hitter they had to play him every day.

Philadelphia A’s (second time)

In his final year, Bush was lucky to play with the most amazing collection of offensive talent I’ve found in any team, the 1928 Philadelphia A’s (I wrote a story on this team for Baseball Digest back in the 1980s). Unfortunately, most of this talent wasn’t in its prime, so the A’s finished second that year, behind the Yankees. But these were Bush’s Hall of Fame teammates that year: Cobb, Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Cochrane, Eddie Collins, Tris Speaker, Al Simmons and Lefty Grove. (Speaker, along with Cobb, Hornsby and O’Doul makes four of the top six all-time leading batters who played with Bush. Throw in Ruth and Bush played with five of the top 10.) Read the rest of this entry »





Yankee starting pitchers in the Hall of Fame: Ford, Gomez, Ruffing, Pennock, Hoyt, Chesbro

22 09 2015

This continues my series on Yankee starting pitchers.

Six starting pitchers who threw mostly for the Yankees have been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Whitey Ford

One of my prized autographs

One of my prized autographs

Whitey probably doesn’t rank high enough on lists of greatest pitchers ever.

You don’t have to win 300 to rank high among the best pitchers ever. Sandy Koufax didn’t make it to 200 wins, and some consider him the best ever. Others who didn’t make it to 300 who rank high on best-ever lists include Bob Gibson, Bob Feller, Pedro Martinez, Juan Marichal and Jim Palmer. Of course Satchel Paige belongs on any greatest-pitchers list, and he pitched 18 seasons in the Negro Leagues before being allowed to pitch in the majors.

But you’ll seldom find the winningest pitcher in World Series history, and the pitcher with the third-highest career winning percentage, on anyone’s top-20 list.

The highest ranking I could find for Ford among all-time pitchers was 17th by Bleacher ReportFansided ranks Whitey 20th all-time and Ranker.com places him 21st, Bill James 22nd, The Baseball Page 25thHardball Times 36th (Red Ruffing ranks 21st on this list) and Ford didn’t get a mention in ESPN’s Hall of 100 (which includes more than pitchers).

If Cy Young Awards had been given out by league for his full career, Ford might have won three of the trophies. He won the Cy Young for all of baseball in 1961 and lost to Koufax in 1963. If one award had been given out for each league (that started in 1967), Ford and Camilo Pascual would have dueled for the American League honors in ’63. Ford led the league in wins, winning percentage, starts and innings pitched. Pascual was second in wins and led the league in strikeouts and complete games (Ford was fourth and sixth in those categories). Pascual ranked third and Ford seventh in ERA. ERA champ Gary Peters won 19 and tied Ford for fourth in strikeouts, but probably wouldn’t have contested Ford and Pascual for the Cy Young.

Yankee bias in voting wasn’t as strong then as now (Elston Howard was the fourth straight Yankee that year to win the MVP; only four times have Yankees won MVPs in the 51 seasons since, though they have won 12 American League pennants in that time). I think Pascual had a strong case, but Ford should have edged him for the 1963 AL Cy Young Award.

Voting for an AL Cy Young Award in 1955 also would have been close. Ford led the league with 18 wins and 18 complete games and was second in winning percentage and ERA and fourth in strikeouts. He threw back-to-back one-hitters. ERA champ Billy Pierce won only 15 games and strikeout leader Herb Score won 16. Bob Lemon and Frank Sullivan tied Ford with 18 wins, but neither of them pitched better than Ford in other important statistical measures. That’s probably another AL Cy Young Ford would have had (the award started the next year).

Ford also might have won a fourth Cy Young Award in 1956, when he finished third and was the only AL pitcher to receive votes for the award, won by the Dodgers’ Don Newcombe. Ford won 19 games that year and led the league in ERA (2.47), winning percentage. I think Score, with 20 wins, second to Ford in ERA and leading the league in strikeouts and shutouts, would have won the Cy Young if the AL had one, but it might have been close. (It’s worth noting that Ford also had a save that year, making his sole relief appearance on June 20 against the Tigers, bailing Johnny Kucks out of an eighth-inning jam, leading 4-1 with two men on.)

After a stellar 9-1 rookie season in 1950, Ford served two years in the military before returning to go 18-6 in 1953. Another two years and perhaps 25-30 more wins might have pushed him higher on the all-time-best lists, but still would have left him well short of 300.

It seems odd to say that the Yankees’ best pitcher ever was underrated, but Ford truly was.

Lefty Gomez


Gomez illustrated three leading biases of the baseball writers who control the keys to Cooperstown: They’re biased against the Yankees and in favor of longevity and they place no value on post-season performance (or they’d have to let more Yankees in).

Gomez peaked at 46 percent of the writers’ votes, but finally made the Hall of Fame in 1972 on a Veteran’s Committee selection. As with Bernie Williams, you simply can’t imagine a football or basketball player who played as critical a role on a championship dynasty not making the Hall of Fame. But Lefty had to wait a long time.

Here are his Hall of Fame credentials:

  • A 6-0 record in World Series play. That’s tied for fifth in career World Series wins, and no one ahead of him or tied with him is undefeated. He might have won more World Series games (or finally lost one), but his Yankees swept three World Series.
  • He anchored the Yankee pitching staff for a dynasty that won six world championships, including four in a row from 1936 to 1939, a record at the time.
  • Four 20-win seasons (each with 11 or fewer losses).
  • In 1934, he led the league with 26 wins, an .839 winning percentage, 2.33 ERA, 25 complete games, six shutouts, 281.2 innings pitched and 158 strikeouts. He was third in the MVP voting and certainly would have won a Cy Young Award if the prize went back that far.
  • He won pitching’s “Triple Crown” again in 1937, leading the league with 21 wins, a 2.33 ERA and 194 strikeouts. He definitely would have been a two-time Cy Young winner.
  • He led the league twice more in shutouts and one more time each in strikeouts and winning percentage, leading the league in some key stat in five different seasons.
  • He’s 25th all-time in winning percentage, at .649.
  • He was a seven-time All-Star.

So why did Gomez wait so long to get into the Hall of Fame? Well, beyond the Yankee thing, he played only 14 seasons, winning only 189 games (very few pitchers get into the Hall of Fame with less than 200). Of the Hall of Fame pitchers with fewer than 200 wins, only Koufax, at .655, had a better winning percentage.

If any Yankee starter was a better pitcher than Ford, it was Gomez.

Red Ruffing

Hall of Fame election rules were different in Ruffing’s day. He made it to Cooperstown in 1967 on his 15th time on the writers’ ballot, in a run-off election (which I hadn’t heard of before).

A Ruffing/Gomez comparison illustrates the writers’ preference for longevity over peak performance. Ruffing pitched 22 years and won 273 games, amassing substantially higher career totals than Gomez in wins, strikeouts, complete games and shutouts.

But Gomez was the better pitcher. Ruffing actually lost 20 games in two different seasons with the Red Sox, before blossoming as a Yankee. Gomez’s career winning percentage was 101 points higher, his ERA nearly half a run lower. Each had four 20-win seasons, but Gomez led the league in wins twice, to only once for Ruffing. Gomez peaked at 26 wins, Ruffing at 21. Ruffing never led the league in winning percentage or ERA. He led the league once each in strikeouts and shutouts (Gomez led in both three times). The only notable category where Ruffing led the league that Gomez never did was in home runs allowed.

Except for longevity, Gomez was the better pitcher in every respect. But he didn’t go into the Hall of Fame until five years after Ruffing.

Don’t get me wrong: Ruffing was a great pitcher and a bona fide Hall of Famer. He won 20 or 21 games for each of those four straight championship teams. He would have been a contender if they’d had a Cy Young Award in 1938 (so would Gomez), but young Bob Feller probably would have won.

Gomez and Ruffing have to be the best 1-2 starting punch over a sustained period in Yankee history, maybe baseball history. From 1931 to ’39, they averaged a combined 36 wins a year and topped 40 three times. In that stretch, they were 11-1 in World Series play and won five world championships.

For comparison, Hall of Famers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine (who both went into Cooperstown on the first ballot) averaged a combined 35 wins a year their best nine years together and topped 40 twice. They were 4-4 in World Series play in that stretch and won one championship.

Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale averaged 35 wins a year over their best nine years together and topped 40 three times. They were 7-6 in World Series play and won three championships.

Christy Mathewson and Joe McGinnity were teammates in a time of much higher win totals, but they didn’t pitch together for nine years, and won one World Series.

Who else was a better 1-2 punch for longer than Ruffing and Gomez? Their long waits to get into the Hall of Fame were perhaps the first examples of the anti-Yankee bias in voting.

Herb Pennock

Gomez and Ruffing played in the prime of Lou Gehrig, the twilight of Babe Ruth and the dawning of Joe DiMaggio‘s career. Their own greatness might have been discounted because of they greatness of their teammates. Herb Pennock and Waite Hoyt faced a similar situation, pitching in the prime of Ruth, Gehrig and the Murderer’s Row Yankees.

Pennock and Hoyt were great, but not as dominant as Gomez and Ruffing. Pennock and Hoyt were helped much more by their team than the later duo and didn’t stand out as much as pitchers.

Pennock had 241 wins, about midway between Gomez and Ruffing. But he won 20 games only twice and rarely led the league in anything: winning percentage (.760) in 1923 and shutouts (5) in 1928. He never would have been a lock for the Cy Young Award and seldom a contender.

I wouldn’t be outraged if Pennock hadn’t made the Hall of Fame. Among retired Yankee pitchers, Tommy John, Ron Guidry and Allie Reynolds certainly have stronger cases to be in Cooperstown, maybe Andy Pettitte and David Cone, too.

But Pennock was elected to Cooperstown in 1948, 11 years after becoming eligible.

Waite Hoyt

The difference between Hall of Fame selection for Hoyt and Pennock is as baffling as the difference between Gomez and Ruffing, but for different reasons. Instead of the clearly better pitcher having to wait longer, you have two nearly identical pitchers. Pennock was elected by the writers, while Hoyt had to wait (pardon the pun) 20 years longer, entering the Hall in 1969, elected by the Veteran’s Committee. He never got more than 19 percent of the writers’ vote.

It’s not as baffling as the fact that Kirby Puckett and Don Mattingly had nearly identical careers, but one is a Hall of Famer and the other will probably never get in (unless he makes it as a manager). But it’s close.

Here’s how close to identical Pennock and Hoyt were:

  • Pennock won 241 games, Hoyt 239.
  • Pennock started 419 games, Hoyt 425.
  • Each won 20 games in a season twice.
  • Each won 16 to 19 games in a season five times.
  • Pennock’s ERA was 3.60, Hoyt’s 3.59.
  • Pennock struck out 1,226 batters, Hoyt 1,207.
  • Pennock pitched 11 years for the Yankees, Hoyt 10. They both pitched by far their best years for the Yankees and overlapped from 1923 to 1930.
  • Each also pitched for the Red Sox and A’s. (Hoyt also pitched for the Giants, Dodgers, Pirates and Tigers.)
  • Pennock pitched 3,572 innings, Hoyt 3,762.
  • Pennock pitched 22 seasons, Hoyt 21.
  • Pennock pitched for four World Series champions, Hoyt for three.
  • Each led the league once in winning percentage and shutouts (Hoyt also led once in wins).
  • They were even similar batters, Pennock .191 with 103 RBI and Hoyt .198 with 100 RBI.

I’m not going to do as much research on this as I did in proclaiming Gomez and Ruffing the most dominant pitching duo, but I feel pretty confident saying their careers were closer to identical than any other pair of Hall of Fame teammate pitchers. Maybe more similar than any other pretty good pitchers.

A few numbers had bigger gaps than the ones listed above, but were still pretty close: Hoyt lost 20 more games, 182 to 162. Pennock also had the advantage in shutouts, 35-26, and complete games, 249-226. Pennock was probably a shade better, but you simply can’t find a reason that one guy got into Cooperstown 20 years after the other.

Ratings systems that I checked put Hoyt ahead of Pennock, 95 to 123 in the MLB EloRater and 94 to 92 in Hall of Fame Monitor and 118th to 143rd among starting pitchers in JAWS.

Pennock’s biggest advantage over Hoyt was in World Series play, where he was 5-0 and Hoyt 6-4. But if World Series play mattered, why was Gomez waiting so long to get into Cooperstown?

Hall of Fame voting is just strange and unexplainable. In fact, Hoyt and Pennock may be the exceptions to the consistent anti-Yankee bias in Hall of Fame voting. They certainly had better careers than some pitchers in the Hall of Fame, and similar pitchers of their day made it to Cooperstown. But they might be the best (only) examples of Yankees who made it into the Hall of Fame based on the strength of their teammates.

Still, I think they belong in Cooperstown. They were the best pitchers of a team often regarded as the best ever. Several dynasties with fewer championships than the Yankees of their days sent a pitcher or two to the Hall of Fame. (More on that in a later installment of this series.) Murderer’s Row deserved a couple pitchers there.

Jack Chesbro

I’m not sure Jack Chesbro belongs in a discussion of Yankee Hall of Famers. His last year, 1909, they were actually the New York Highlanders. And he predates the first of the championship dynasties.

But let’s give the old guy his due: Chesbro was one hell of a pitcher, back when pitchers threw one hell of a lot.

Check out this line for his 1904 season: He led the league with 41 wins, a .774 winning percentage (only 12 losses), 51 starts, 55 games (the guy started 51 times and still came out of the bullpen!), 48 complete games and 454 2/3 innings pitched. Those totals for wins, starts and complete games are the best figures for any pitcher since 1900. And innings pitched are second only to Ed Walsh. And Chesbro had a 1.82 ERA that year. Pitchers were dominant back then, but that was ridiculous. He won 15 more games than anyone else in the league.

His other best seasons were with the Pirates.

Of course, you can’t pitch like that forever. He retired after 11 seasons with a record of 198-132.

No question that guy belongs in the Hall of Fame.

Bob Lemon

Lem did all his pitching for the Cleveland Indians, so he doesn’t really belong in this list. But he’s a Hall of Fame pitcher who managed the Yankees to the 1978 World Series championship, so I thought he deserved a mention.

Read about other Yankee Hall of Famers

These pitchers, of course, are not all the Yankee starters in the Hall of Fame. Coming posts will review the Yankees’ 300-game pitchers (all of whom threw primarily for other teams) and other Hall of Famers who made it to Cooperstown mostly on their pitching for other teams.

Other posts in this series on Yankee starting pitchers:

Source note: Unless otherwise noted, all statistics cited here come from Baseball-Reference.com.

Correction invitation: I wrote this series of blog posts over several months, mostly late at night while unable to sleep while undergoing medical treatment. I believe I have fact-checked and corrected any errors, but I welcome you to point out any I missed: stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com. Or, if you just want to argue about my opinions, that’s fine, too.

Style note: The Hall of Fame has had various committees and rules through the years to elect players who were passed over by the Baseball Writers Association of America as well as umpires, managers, executives and other baseball pioneers. I am referring to them all in this series as the Veterans Committee unless the specific context demands reference to specific committee such as the current era committees or the Special Committee on Negro Leagues. Baseball-Reference.com has a detailed history of the various committees.

 





Yankees among the best almost everywhere but starting pitcher

21 09 2015

Look around the baseball diamond, and at nearly every position, a Yankee was one of the best ever. But not at starting pitcher.

We say that pitching wins championships, and the Yankees through the decades have had excellent depth in good starting pitchers, and sometimes great starting pitchers. But none of the all-time greatest starting pitchers spent most of their careers with the Yankees.

The only Yankee pitcher you might see on a list of the 10 best starters ever is Roger Clemens, and his best years were with the Red Sox. Clemens won 20 games only once in his six Yankee years. His Yankee years wouldn’t rank him among the best Yankee starters ever, let alone among baseball’s best. (For purposes of this discussion, I’m dealing with actual performance, not trying to decide whose achievements to discount because of suspicions about use of performance-enhancing drugs.)

If you expand your best-ever list to 20 or 25, Whitey Ford usually gets a spot, but Yankees remain notably absent, or low, from any best-ever discussion of starting pitchers. And they’re prominent in such discussions at nearly every other position.

At six positions, at least one Yankee is either the best ever or one of two to five stars contending for the top spot:

Catcher

Yogi Berra often loses the best-catcher-ever debates to Johnny Bench, but he’s always in the discussion. With three MVP awards and more championships than anyone, plus still-impressive offensive numbers, Yogi figures prominently in discussing best catchers ever. And Yankee Bill Dickey would be on anyone’s top-10 list, maybe even top five. Read the rest of this entry »





Tommy John paved the way to Cooperstown for John Smoltz

24 07 2015

When John Smoltz is inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this weekend (deservedly), who’s the first guy he should thank in his acceptance speech?

Not Bobby Cox or Leo Mazzone or Greg Maddux or Tom Glavine or Chipper Jones or his high school coach or any other teammate, coach or manager who helped his career. Those can come later. Smoltz should thank Tommy John, who’s still awaiting his call from Cooperstown.

As I noted in a post about Roger Maris, the actual name of the museum where Smoltz will be enshrined is the Hall of Fame. 

I often use stats to bolster arguments for inclusion in the Hall (and documented two years ago that John’s achievements were statistically better than most of the pitchers already in the Hall of Fame). But stats shouldn’t be the only factor in Hall of Fame selection. I do think fame should be a factor in considering a player. Or change the freakin’ name.

Here’s how famous Tommy John is: They named a surgery for him. I can think of only one other player whose name is similarly famous in baseball and medicine, and he is in the Hall of Fame: Lou Gehrig.

As I noted in another earlier post, if your name means comeback for dozens of pitchers who have suffered injuries that formerly would have ended their careers, you’re exceptionally famous.

Before Smoltz injured his elbow, he was nowhere near reaching the Hall of Fame (but well on his way). He had pitched 12 major league seasons, won a Cy Young Award in his only 20-win season and won 157 games. He had led the league once in wins, twice in strikeouts and never in ERA.

That’s not going to get you into Cooperstown, or even keep you on the ballot long. He had a sterling 12-4 post-season record, but as I’ve noted before, if post-season performance counted for anything in Hall of Fame voting, we’d see more Yankees there (see my posts about Bernie Williams or about the Yankees being only third in Hall of Fame).

When he injured his arm, Smoltz didn’t have nearly as strong a case for the Hall of Fame as Jack Morris, who outlasted Smoltz in the one of the best-pitched World Series games ever and one of the best Game Sevens ever.

Morris will make the Hall of Fame someday, but the writers never gave him more than 68 percent of the vote (you need 75 percent to be a Hall of Famer) in his 15 years on the ballot. (Players snubbed by the writers get a later chance through committees honoring players from different eras.)

But Tommy John Surgery (that link is to WebMD, not Wikipedia, but the surgery has its own Wikipedia page, too) saved Smoltz’s career. He came back from the surgery (and more than a year off) to pitch 11 more years. He was the National League’s best closer for a three-year stretch, leading the league in saves with 55 in 2002 and following that up the next year with 45 saves and a 1.12 ERA.

Then Smoltz did something that’s unique in baseball history: He went from being a dominant starter to being a dominant reliever to being a dominant starter again. Only Dennis Eckersley can approach Smoltz’s achievement in both roles, but Eck was never as good a starter as Smoltz and once he went to the bullpen, he stayed there. And Eck never faced as serious an injury.

Smoltz had three more strong years as a starter, including leading the NL with 16 wins in 2006.

He was a four-time All-Star before Tommy John Surgery and a four-time All-Star after. And he’s rightly a first-ballot Hall of Famer. And the pitcher who pioneered that comeback trail never reached 32 percent of the vote from the biased buffoons in the Baseball Writers Association of America.

Another Wikipedia page lists more than 70 players (more than 60 of them pitchers) who have undergone Tommy John Surgery. Smoltz is the only Hall of Famer in the group, but some other pitchers have returned from the surgery to continue impressive careers: A.J. Burnett (who had three good years for the Yankees and won a 2009 World Series game, all post-surgery), Chris Carpenter, John Lackey, Joe Nathan, Adam Wainwright, Jake Westbrook, Kerry Wood (who had a brief Yankee stint).

Brian Wilson‘s brilliant career was bracketed by two Tommy John Surgeries: his first injury ended his college career at Louisiana State University (where I now teach) and he saved 172 major league games and became a World Series hero before his second injury. He returned after the second surgery and had a decent year and a half for the Dodgers, but was unable to return to his dominant form.

It’s too early to know how great young pitchers such as Matt Harvey, Yankee Ivan NovaJoakim SoriaStephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann will be, but clearly some of the best arms in the game have been repaired by Tommy John Surgery. If you’ve enjoyed watching baseball in the past 40 years, you’ve probably been a fan of multiple players who followed John’s comeback trail (or tried to; it’s still a serious injury and a difficult trail and not everyone comes back).

Tommy John was not the surgeon who saved these careers (the late Frank Jobe developed the surgery). But he was the first pitcher to take the risk of letting a doctor transplant a tendon from his right wrist into his left elbow, creating a new ligament to replace the one he had torn.

Before John, that injury meant your career was over. And John had a promising one. He blew out his elbow at 31 in his 12th season. He had led the American league in shutouts with the White Sox in 1966 and ’67 and made his first All-Star team in ’68. With a 16-7 record for the Dodgers in 1973, he led the National League with a .696 winning percentage.

In 1974, John was one of the most dominant pitchers in the NL (his 13-3 record again gave him the league’s best winning percentage again that season) when he tore a ligament in his elbow, pitching against the Montreal Expos on July 17. The Dodgers would make it to the World Series without him. At that point, he had only 124 wins and no shot at the Hall of Fame. He appeared to be another good pitcher whose career ended with a torn elbow ligament.

But Tommy John didn’t give up. He underwent groundbreaking surgery, persevered through a daunting rehabilitation and blazed the trail for John Smoltz and the others who would follow.

After sitting out a season and a half to rehabilitate his new elbow, John was an even better pitcher than before. He won 20 games three times after surgery (Smoltz only did that once in his whole career) and reached 288 career wins, plus six more in the post-season. The only pitcher being kept out of the Hall of Fame with more wins is Roger Clemens, and that’s because of suspicion about performance-enhancing drugs.

Even sitting out the whole 1975 season, John pitched for 26 years. That rebuilt elbow pitched until he was 46 (I saw his last win against the Royals in 1989).

I think John will make the Hall of Fame, maybe the next time the Expansion Era Committee considers players spurned by the writers. The era committees include Hall of Fame members. I hope Smoltz gets a seat on the Expansion Era Committee. Who better to make the case for the guy who paved the path to Cooperstown for Smoltz?

(The Expansion Era Committee may eventually correct some of the worst anti-Yankee bias of the writers. Most of the egregious writer snubs of the era were Yankees: Maris, Ron Guidry, Thurman Munson and, of course, John. Several others, including Morris, deserve consideration. But no eligible player left out of the Hall from that era has a stronger case than John, and I expect at least him and Maris to make it someday.)

Tommy John belongs in the Hall of Fame based on his achievements on the pitching mound. And he certainly belongs in the Hall based on his fame.

Others in the 2015 Hall of Fame class

I blogged in January about my observations on all four members of this year’s Hall of Fame class:

  • Smoltz, who got two of his four post-season losses (and only one win) in World Series appearances against the Yankees.
  • Randy Johnson, a former Yankee pitcher, but more notably the primary reason the Yankees lost a memorable World Series.
  • Pedro Martinez, a rival Yankee fans loved to hate in his Red Sox days. He was only 1-4 against the Yankees in the post-season.
  • Craig Biggio, who had no notable history with the Yankees, but made his only World Series appearance as a teammate of former Yankees Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte.

All four are deserving and I’m glad to see them honored this weekend.

Source note: Unless otherwise noted, statistics in this post come from Baseball-Reference.com.





Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera: best teammate tandem ever

28 09 2014

As Derek Jeter takes his final curtain call today (in Fenway Park), one more observation about a way in which he leaves as one of baseball’s best ever: He was half of baseball’s longest-running greatest-ever teammate tandem.

Jeter, baseball’s greatest-ever post-season hitter, and Mariano Rivera, baseball’s greatest-ever reliever and post-season pitcher, played together for an incredible 19 seasons, both coming up in the 1995 season and playing together as Yankees until Rivera’s retirement last year.

Their results were unmatched since the Yankee dynasty of 1949-64: They won five World Series together, two more American League championships and missed the post-season together only in 2008 and 2013, Rivera’s last season. Thursday night, Jeter played only the second game in which his team was eliminated from post-season play. Neither man ever played on a team with a losing record.

Who are the other longest-running teammate pairs who were the very best ever (not just among the best ever) at something (or at least the best ever when they retired)?

Some of their closest competitors would be Yankee tandems: Read the rest of this entry »





Derek Jeter: secure among Yankee legends, strong case as best shortstop ever

9 07 2011

Derek Jeter’s place in Yankee history is secure. He has reached the upper echelon where you really don’t rank the players. They are just the Yankee immortals: Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra, Jeter, Rivera. Those seven are clearly the top tier: each holding amazing records, each winning multiple world championships, each a Yankee legend, each playing all or most of his career as a Yankee, each one of the best ever at his position.

All the other Yankee greats — Roger Maris, Whitey Ford, Reggie Jackson, Don Mattingly, Ron Guidry, Thurman Munson, Lefty Gomez and so on — start a rung below those seven.

And it’s pointless trying to rank those top seven: How do you rank DiMaggio’s hitting streak or Mantle’s World Series homers or Gehrig’s consecutive-game streak behind anyone? But Babe has to be first, doesn’t he? And you can’t compare Rivera’s late-inning dominance with all these hitters. And no one won more World Series than Berra, whose masterful handling of the pitching staff again defies comparison. No, it’s a seven-way tie for first place as the greatest Yankee ever. No one gets dethroned at the top of this list, they just make room for another legend.

If you want to figure where Jeter ranks all-time, consider his standing among all the great shortstops of baseball history. More specifically, is he the greatest shortshop ever? Now, that’s a debate worth having, especially the day that he topped 3,000 hits with an amazing 5-for-5 day. Read the rest of this entry »