Charlie Keller, 1941 (.289/.416/.580, .450 wOBA, 161 wRC+, 33 HR, 8.2 fWAR)--In the previous post, I discussed infielder Gil McDougald and how he was great but forgotten. Keller is the "Uber" version of McDougald, a much better player than McDougald ever was who was probably the greatest primary left fielder in the history of the team. Yikes. The war interrupted his career in the middle of its prim, and he fell victim to injuries after one last great hurrah in '46. It's a damn shame, too. Playing in the shadow of the otherworldly Joe DiMaggio in '41, Keller had his finest season. The 24-year-old nicknamed "Kong" had a career-high in homers and simply kept getting on base. One could make a very good argument that Keller was the best player in baseball that year aside from Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, and it took some of the most iconic seasons in baseball history to surpass Keller. It's just a shame fans could not enjoy Keller's prime for very long.
Bobby Murcer, 1971 (.331/.427/.543, .430 wOBA, 177 wRC+, 25 HR, 7.4 fWAR)--Many modern fans simply know Murcer as a former broadcaster who sadly passed away from brain cancer in 2008. They heard tales of his playing days as Mickey Mantle's successor in center field and how much he loved hitting into the right field short porch. Murcer's playing career is definitely worth further study though. In his prime, he was one of baseball's finest players and a fearsome threat at the plate. His '71 campaign was arguably better than his more famous 33-homer '72 season (.292/.361/.537) since his triple slash statistics were higher. He led the league in OBP, OPS, and wRC+ and was named to the first of five consecutive All-Star teams. The Yankees missed the playoffs for the seventh straight season, but it was by no means Murcer's fault. Though he was not Mantle, he was a fine player by himself who should not have had to constantly be compared to the all-time greats.
Dave Winfield, 1988 (.322/.398/.530, .408 wOBA, 157 wRC+, 37 2B, 25 HR, 5.5 fWAR)--I wish, wish, wish that I could put Paul O'Neill's phenomenal 1994 (.359/.460/.603, .450 wOBA, 177 wRC+) in this position. Alas, due to the Players' Strike, Paulie was limited to only 104 games. There's no way of knowing whether he would have kept it up over the rest of the season--for instance, Andrew McCutchen was at .363/.423/.610 on August 11th this year (18 years to the day of O'Neill's final game in '94), and McCutch finished 2012 at .327/.400/.553. So jumping to the next great full season, the future Hall of Famer Winfield turned in a fantastic final hurrah in his last full season as a Yankee. His performance had dropped down to merely good levels for a player of his caliber from 1985-87 as he aged into his mid-thirties. However, he recovered in '88 to turn in arguably his best season as a Yankee in '88, even better than his 30-homer seasons earlier in the decade. Only two players in the league had a higher wRC+ than the athletic star--40/40 club founder Jose Canseco and batting ace Wade Boggs, who was in the sixth of seven straight 200-hit seasons. '88 was the end of an era of sorts for the Yankees, who fell into an under-.500 malaise for five years after that. Don't be fooled by the fifth-place finish--it was a five-team race for the AL East among the Yankees, Red Sox, Brewers, Tigers, and Blue Jays, and the Yankees only finished 3.5 games behind Boston. It was the last contending team until Gene Michael resurrected the Yankees, and Winfield kept the Yankees afloat.
Spud Chandler, 1943 (20-4, 253 IP, 20 CG, 1.64 ERA, 50 ERA-, 2.30 FIP, 68 FIP-, 1.9 BB/9, 2.48 K/BB, 6.8 fWAR)--I'll be honest, I came up with the idea for this post with the plan to remind the public of a forgotten Ford in Yankees history--Russ Ford. One could make a decent case that his rookie season of 1910 was the greatest such campaign in the history of baseball's premier franchise. Although he faded from the major league scene within a few years, a recent SABR study unsurprisingly decided that he would have won the 1910 AL Rookie of the Year had the award existed. Well, after adjusting for era, I cannot in good conscious give the lesser Ford this title. Mr. Spurgeon "Spud" Chandler was just better than him in both '46 and '43. The latter might actually be the best pitching season in team history behind Ron Guidry's 1978 (and probably Jack Chesbro's 1904, but I have personally heard much more about Chesbro's '04 than Chandler's '43, so Spud gets the nod). Many players were already in the military for '43, but not quite to the extent that they were over the next two years. Nonetheless, Chandler's MVP season and the Yankees' tenth World Series title remains an overlooked chapter in the team's history. Chandler is still the only Yankee pitcher to ever be named league MVP, and he put the team on his back while leading them to their fourth straight AL pennant and seventh in eight seasons. To cap his tremendous season, he allowed just one earned run to the St. Louis Cardinals in two World Series complete games as the Yankees avenged their five-game loss to St. Louis in '42 with a five-game victory in '43 (Chandler threw a shutout in the Game 5 clincher). Had the award existed, he almost surely would have received a World Series MVP to add to his trophy case from '43 as well. Here's to you, Spud.
Sparky Lyle, 1977 (72 G, 137 IP, 26 Sv, 2.17 ERA, 55 ERA-, 3.18 FIP, 80 FIP-, 2.17 BB/9, 2.6 fWAR)--Believe it or not, I very nearly put David Robertson's ridiculous 2011 on here, but for the sake of history, we'll go with Sparky. To address the elephant in the room first though--he absolutely did not deserve a Cy Young Award (or a sixth-place AL MVP finish) for a season in relief. That trophy probably belongs in the trophy case of either Dennis Leonard or Frank Tanana. That is not a slight on Lyle's season at all, though. It was phenomenal, and he was used in true "fireman" situations as relievers used to so frequently before Tony La Russa and Dennis Eckersley encourage their contemporaries to make that role extinct. Armed with a devastating slider, Lyle pitched at least two innings in 34 of the 72 games he appeared in that year, and at least three innings on 14 occasions. Lyle's total amount of innings pitched in '77 remains the most for a pitcher with no starts in team history. It was a symbol of how versatile he truly was, and like the aforementioned Chandler, he also excelled in the playoffs. He pitched four of the five games in the ALCS victory, blanking the Kansas City Royals for 5.1 innings in Game 4 and saving the pennant clincher before tossing 3.1 shutout innings in World Series Game 1 to earn the victory in a tight 12-inning win. The Yankees won their first championship in 15 years, and his 1.29 ERA in 14 playoff innings were crucial to that title. Bizarrely, Steinbrenner decided to reward Lyle for this fantastic season by replacing him at closer with free agent Goose Gossage. It ended up working out for the Yankees because Lyle was never the same after '77 and Gossage had a Hall of Fame career, but it was still a pretty raw deal for Sparky. As Graig Nettles (also on the underrated list) said, he "went from Cy Young to Sayonara."
As I asked a few days ago, did I ironically ignore more deserving underrated seasons? Let me know. Also, vote in the poll for the most underrated season in Yankees history.