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.

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Hall of Fame’s ‘Pre-Integration Era’ Committee perpetuates segregation

5 10 2015

Jackie Robinson ended segregation in major league baseball, but not in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The Hall of Fame has a Pre-Integration Committee that considers only white players and contributors from long ago for honors in Cooperstown. But the Hall no longer has a Negro League Committee to consider the stars excluded from “major” league baseball. Those two facts revive and perpetuate the exclusion of a bigoted era that is a shame to the sport and our nation.

I hope this result is unintentional (as many actions with racist results were and are), but that doesn’t make it excusable.

The Special Committee on the Negro Leagues elected the final 17 Negro Leaguers to Cooperstown in 2006. (Outrageously, the committee omitted Buck O’Neil; I suggest reading Joe Posnanski‘s The Soul of Baseball to fully appreciate why O’Neil belongs in the Hall of Fame and how he handled this snub with extraordinary class and grace.)

The end of the Negro League selections might be understandable, if that had been the end of consideration for all pre-1947 major leaguers as well. But the Hall of Fame continues selections through a Pre-Integration Era Committee (whose rules say it considers only “major league” players, managers, umpires and executives).

The Hall of Fame announced its Pre-Integration Era Committee ballot today, including six players (Bill Dahlen, Wes FerrellMarty Marion, Frank McCormickHarry Stovey and Bucky Walters). One of the four nominated for off-field contributions was Doc Adams, who was a great 19th-Century shortstop, in addition to a baseball pioneer. The others on the ballot are executives Sam Breadon, Garry Herrmann and Chris von der Ahe. If the committee elects any of them, none will be alive to enjoy the honor. The committee’s choices, if any, will be announced Dec. 7 at the Major League Baseball winter meeting.

More than half of the 244 total players in the Hall of Fame, 126, are white players who played all or most of their careers before Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. That compares to 29 players elected from the Negro Leagues. Add 25 African Americans who played primarily or exclusively in the major leagues and eight Latino Hall of Famers, and the players from the Segregation Era outnumber minority Hall of Fame players more than 2 to 1. (I’m not going to accept Pre-Integration as the name of this era; I’ll try out some more honest names in this post.)

Adding still more players from the Bigotry Era cheapens the Hall of Fame in two ways:

  1. Whatever their achievements, the “major league” hitters before 1947 didn’t have to face Satchel Paige, probably the best pitcher of his time, and other Negro League pitching stars. And the “major league” pitchers didn’t have to face some of the best hitters of their time, such as Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell. So all of the career statistics and other achievements in baseball before 1947 should be discounted.
  2. At all levels of Hall of Fame selection — the Baseball Writers Association of America voting and second-chance elections by various Veterans Committees — standards were not as demanding of players before integration as they have been since.

Lots of players from recent decades who will never make the Hall of Fame had better careers than players from the 1920s and ’30s who are already in Cooperstown (especially the cronies and teammates of Frankie Frisch, who spent six generous years on the Veteran’s Committee).

Last year the Golden Era Committee, considering players whose prime years fell between 1947 to 1972, rejected all 10 players on the ballot. African American Dick Allen and dark-skinned Cuban Tony Oliva each came up one vote short of election, receiving 11 of 16 votes (75 percent of the vote is required). Other minority players rejected by the Golden Era Committee were Maury Wills, Minnie Miñoso and Luis Tiant.

Each of those players clearly measured up to or surpassed multiple counterparts from the Jim Crow Era who are in the Hall of Fame:

Tony Oliva and Minnie Miñoso

Compare Oliva and Miñoso, both dark-skinned Cuban outfielders who couldn’t have played in the majors before 1947, with six outfielders from the Birth of a Nation Era: Kiki Cuyler, Chick HafeyHarry Hooper, Heinie Manush, Zack Wheat and Ross Youngs. (I focused on 20th-Century players, since 19th-Century statistics are so hard to compare to other eras. And I’m looking only at borderline players who made the Hall of Fame, not automatic selections such as Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb.)

Like Miñoso and Oliva, none of these outfielders from the Back of the Bus Era reached either of the statistical thresholds that ensured Hall of Fame selection prior to the scandals about use of performance-enhancing drugs: 3,000 hits or 500 homers. None of them came close to winning election by the baseball writers: Cuyler, at 34 percent, came the closest of the white players. Hooper and Manush never got even 10 percent of the writers’ vote. Oliva peaked at 47 percent of the writers’ vote and Miñoso peaked at 21 percent, better than all but Cuyler, Wheat and Youngs.

Injuries shortened Oliva’s career. He played 15 seasons, all for the Twins, well below his peak the last five seasons. Miñoso was a Negro League All-Star before reaching the “majors” full-time at age 25. So both Cuban players didn’t have high career totals in the “majors”: 1,917 hits, 220 homers and 947 RBI for Oliva, 1,963 hits, 186 homers, 1,023 RBI and 205 stolen bases for Miñoso.

But both Cubans had more hits than Youngs or Hafey and more RBI than those two players and Hooper. Miñoso and Oliva hit more homers than any of the white players we’re comparing (most of whom played after Babe Ruth popularized the home run and slugging soared). Only Hooper and Cuyler stole more bases than Miñoso (Wheat matched him with 205).

Though the whites played in a time of inflated batting averages (helps not facing pitchers like Paige and Tiant), one or both Cubans had higher batting averages than Hooper, and higher on-base and/or slugging averages than all the white outfielders and one or both of the Cubans had higher OPS numbers than Hooper, Youngs and Wheat.

So in terms of offensive averages and career totals, Miñoso and Oliva were clearly in the same territory as these Hall of Fame outfielders from the Amos ‘n Andy Era.

But when you look at peak performance measures, the Cubans stand out from their white counterparts. Hafey, Manush and Wheat each won one batting championship, while Oliva won three. Manush was the only one of the white outfielders to lead his league in hits (he did it twice). Miñoso led his league in hits once and Oliva led the league five times. Cuyler, Youngs and Manush combined to lead their leagues in doubles four times, the same number as Oliva did by himself. Miñoso did it once. Miñoso led his league three times each in triples and stolen bases. Manush and Cuyler each led their leagues once in triples. Cuyler outdid Miñoso with four league stolen-base titles (easier to do in an all-white league), but none of the other white outfielders led his league in steals. Most of the white outfielders couldn’t match Oliva’s achievements of leading his league in runs and slugging once each.

Miñoso led his league in being hit by pitches an incredible 10 times.

And keep in mind, Oliva and Miñoso were leading integrated leagues of the very best baseball players. All the others led whites-only leagues.

Simply put, at least a half-dozen outfielders from the Lynch Mob era who were comparable or inferior to Oliva and Miñoso are in the Hall of Fame.

Dick Allen

Allen played 807 games at first base, 652 games at third and 256 in the outfield in a career in which his best seasons were played for the White Sox and Phillies. So I will compare him here to eight Jazz Player Era first and third basemen: Jake Bottomley, Frank Chance, George “High Pockets” Kelly, Bill Terry, Frank “Home Run” Baker, Jimmy CollinsFreddie Lindstrom and Pie Traynor. Traynor and Terry were elected to the Hall of Fame by the baseball writers and the rest were chosen by Veterans Committees. (Though I included two players elected by the writers in this comparison, I did not include a few first basemen who were automatic selections.)

Maybe you don’t think of these (Allen’s career totals) as Hall of Fame numbers: 1,099 runs, 1,848 hits, 351 homers, 1,119 RBI and 133 stolen bases. But they used to be. Allen hit more homers than any of those eight Hall of Famers. Traynor was the only player to exceed Allen’s totals in the other four stats, and Bottomley surpassed Allen in runs, hits and RBI. The other five Hall of Famers didn’t match Allen’s totals in most of the five stats I chose (and stolen bases were not Allen’s sweet spot by any stretch; I threw that stat in because these others played in a time of lots of stolen bases, but only half of them stole more than Allen). Lindstrom and Kelly didn’t match Allen in any of the five offensive stats.

Allen played in an era of lower batting averages, so all eight of these Hall of Famers passed his respectable .292 average. But the other percentages all go in Allen’s favor: Only Chance and Terry topped his .378 on-base percentage, and Allen beat all eight of the white Hall of Famers with his .534 slugging percentage and .912 OPS.

So by most of these important career statistics, Allen was easily better than most, if not all, of these corner infielders in the Hall of Fame, including two elected by the writers.

Placing players in the context of their times, Allen led his league four times in OPS, three times in slugging, twice each in homers and on-base percentage and once each in runs, triples, RBI and walks.

Even the two players who were elected by the writers didn’t dominate their all-white leagues offensively as much as Allen dominated integrated leagues. Terry led his league once each in batting, hits, runs and triples. Traynor led his league once in triples.

Baker and Bottomley came the closest of these white corner infielders to matching Allen’s total of 15 league titles in offensive categories, but their combined total just reached 14.

You simply can’t make a case for excluding Allen, an MVP, Rookie of the Year and seven-time All-Star, from a Hall of Fame that includes these eight players at the same positions from the Plessy vs. Ferguson Era.

Maury Wills

I’ll compare Wills to shortstops from the Separate But Unequal Era elected to Cooperstown by Veterans Committees (highest percentage of writers’ vote in parentheses): Dave Bancroft (16), Travis Jackson (7), Joe Sewell (9), Joe Tinker (20), Arky Vaughan (29) and Bobby Wallace (3). Wills, by the way, peaked at 41 percent of the writers’ vote, higher than any of them.

Let’s start with some basic facts. None of those shortstops:

  • Broke an important all-time record (Wills broke Ty Cobb’s single-season stolen-base record of 96 in 1962)
  • Won an MVP award (Wills was the 1962 MVP).
  • Led his league six straight seasons in stolen bases (Wills led 1960-65).
  • Ranks 20th in career stolen bases (Wills stole 586, more than the combined totals of Tinker and Wallace, the leading two white shortstops).
  • Changed the game the way Wills did, accelerating the increase of stolen bases through much of baseball.

Without question, Wills has a niche in baseball fame and achievement that none of these white shortstops can match. They would have to have remarkably better career achievements in other areas to justify their being in the Hall of Fame and Wills being excluded.

So let’s compare their other career stats: None of these players was a power hitter, so we’ll compare Wills to these six shortstops in four areas: runs, hits, batting average and games played at shortstop. None of the six surpassed Wills in all four categories. In runs, batting average and games at shortstop, he’s right in the middle, ahead of three and behind three. Only Sewell and Wallace had more career hits than Wills’ 2,134.

So like Oliva, Miñoso and Allen, Wills has as strong a case for the Hall of Fame, if not stronger, than a bunch of his peers from the Stepin Fetchit Era.

(Wills is the only player we’re discussing here that I saw play live. My mother took us to see the Dodgers play at Wrigley Field in 1963. We got to see Don Drysdale pitch, and the Cubs tagged Wills out on a hidden-ball play.)

Luis Tiant

Since there are 76 pitchers in the Hall of Fame, I’m going to narrow the comparison here by matching Tiant up to the six Hall of Fame pitchers from the No Coloreds Era who are the closest above and below his 229 career wins (their wins follow their names): Herb Pennock (241), Mordecai Brown (239), Waite Hoyt (237), Stan Coveleski (215), Chief Bender (212) and Jesse Haines (210).

By how I chose the list, all are peers of Tiant in career wins, half a little ahead of him and half a little behind. Tiant, with 31 percent of the writers’ vote, did better than four of the other starters. Pennock was the only one of the seven elected by the writers, topping the 75 percent threshold on his eighth year on the ballot. Bender got 45 percent in his best year, Brown 27, Hoyt 19, Coveleski 13 and Haines 8.

Four of these white Hall of Famers had higher winning percentages than Tiant. Haines matched Tiant’s .571 and Hoyt was a few points lower. But in other measures, Tiant holds his own with these Hall of Famers or surpasses them:

  • Tiant had more career strikeouts than any of the six.
  • Only Brown had more career shutouts than Tiant’s 49.
  • Only Coveleski and Brown had more 20-win seasons than Tiant’s four (and none of the others matched Tiant here).
  • Three of the six had higher ERAs than Tiant’s 3.30 and three were lower.
  • Tiant led his league twice in ERA and three times in shutouts. Coveleski was the only one of the six Hall of Famers to lead his all-white league more times in key pitching stats (ERA and shutouts twice each, winning percentage and strikeouts once each).

Why honor a shamed era?

All five of the black players rejected by last year’s Golden Era Committee — three Cubans and two African Americans — were clearly at least as good as and probably better than comparable Whites Only Era players who are in the Hall of Fame.

So why in the world does the Hall of Fame continue to give any consideration to pre-1947 candidates at all? If you haven’t made it into the Hall of Fame 70 years after the peak of your career, you aren’t going to make it and you probably shouldn’t. And if you do make it, you won’t be alive to enjoy it.

Unless a decision on Pete Rose opens the door for players banned for gambling, which shouldn’t allow much, if anyone, beyond Shoeless Joe Jackson, we should be done with Hall of Fame selections of white guys who played before 1947.

Doc Adams, Bill Dahlen and Wes Ferrell are long since dead. Maybe they deserved their Cooperstown moments as much as Frisch’s cronies did, but most players with similar careers to theirs never make the Hall of Fame.

No need to give them posthumous glory when their Shameful Era was so over-honored anyway.

Next: This is the first in a series of posts I am writing about racial disparities in selection to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Tomorrow I will look at the African American and Latino players elected to the Hall of Fame.

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.

Yankee note: This blog usually writes about Yankees. This week I am taking a broader look at continued racial discrimination in baseball, so I didn’t want to disrupt to note Yankee connections in the body of the post. But I’ll note them here: Pennock and Hoyt were mainstays of the 1920s Yankee pitching rotation. Tiant and Coveleski played briefly for the Yankees, both past their primes. Sewell played three years at third base for the Yankees at the end of his career. Schang and Baker played a few years for the Yankees.

Starting pitcher series. I have paused my series on Yankee starting pitchers this week for this series on continuing racial discrimination in election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. The series on pitchers will resume next week.

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

Correction invitation: I wrote this blog post a few months ago late at night, 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 selections, that’s fine, too.

Thanks to newspaper partners

I offered a shorter (less stats-geeky) version of this post to some newspapers. Thanks to the newspapers who are planning to publishing the in print, online or both (I will add links as I receive them):

If you’d like to receive the newspaper version to use as a column, email me at stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com.