The Yankees have a long and storied history, filled with championships and Hall of Famers. Today, I wanted to look at who have been the best position players in the franchise's history at each age. There are some surprises, and some quite obvious players.
The youngest position player in team history was Harry Hanson. Hanson debuted as a 17-year-old catcher on July 14, 1913. He is still the youngest catcher in American League history, a record that most assuredly will stand in perpetuity. It was the only game he ever played in for the Yankees and never played in the majors again. He had two plate appearances and never got a hit, though he did throw out one of the two base stealers against him in his three defensive innings. Hanson was a local amateur player in Chicago picked up by manager Frank Chance and brought with the team to St. Louis where he made his debut. He later served in the US Army for 37 years, including both World Wars.
The Yankees have only had four players record a plate appearance in their age 18 season. Only one reached double digits, or a positive WAR, and that was pitcher Ray Keating. He is the second-youngest pitcher in team history, debuting on September 12, 1912. He got 17 plate appearances, producing 0.2 fWAR with the bat, to go with his 0.3 fWAR for the 35.2 innings he pitched. He had a .375/.412/.438, 137 wRC+ line in those 17 plate appearances. He would go on to a seven year (six with the Yankees) career, compiling a 31-51 record with a 3.29 ERA, 88 ERA+, 6.3 fWAR over 751.2 innings.
At age 19, we find our first Hall of Famer and Yankee legend Mickey Mantle. Mantle debuted on April 17, 1951, batting third and playing right field in manager Casey Stengel's lineup - Joe DiMaggio was still in center field. He went one for four, with a run scored and a run batted in. Mantle actually shows up on this list three times, for his age 20 and age 23 seasons. In 1951, as a 19 year old, he hit .267/.349/.443/.792, 116 wRC+, 1.5 fWAR, over 386 plate appearances. That puts him ninth all time in fWAR for 19 year olds. In 1952 as a 20-year-old, Mantle hit .311/.394/.530, with a 158 wRC+ and 6.6 fWAR. In 1955, as a 23-year-old, he hit .306/.431/.611 with a 179 wRC+, and 9.8 fWAR. Mantle finished his career with a .298/.421/.557 batting line, producing a 170 wRC+, 109.7 rWAR and 112.3 fWAR. Surprisingly, he doesn't show up again, due partly to the injuries in the second half of his career, and partly to some true monsters of Yankees past.
While Mantle takes the crown for 19 and 20 year olds, his predecessor was the king of Yankees position players in their age 21 and 22 seasons. Joe DiMaggio debuted as a 21-year-old in 1936, after starring in the Pacific Coast League. He debuted on May 3, 1936, batting third and playing in left field. He went 3 for 6 with a triple, three runs, and an run batted in in his debut. Over his first two years, he hit .335/.382/.624 with a 144 wRC+ and 14.3 fWAR. He finished his career with a .325/.398/.579 batting line, producing a 152 wRC+, 73.5 rWAR and 83.1 fWAR, even with missing three years to World War II. Mantle (4.9 fWAR) and Willie Randolph (4.6 fWAR) almost matched DiMaggio's 5.2 fWAR in his age 21 season. Indeed, going by Baseball Reference's version of WAR, DiMaggio (4.6 rWAR) falls behind both Mantle (5.3) and Randolph (5.0), though DiMaggio has a pretty dominant lead over Mantle in their age 22 seasons, 9.1 fWAR to 6.7 fWAR.
Mickey Mantle had three years with an fWAR over ten: 11.5 fWAR in 1956 as a 24-year-old; 11.4 fWAR in 1957 as a 25-year-old; and 10.3 fWAR in 1961 as a 29-year-old. How did these seasons, or any other seasons from DiMaggio, not make the list? Because as great as they were, the Yankees had two players who were greater: Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. Looking at age 24 through age 39 seasons, these two were the best position player in each of those 16 seasons, four for Gehrig and twelve for Ruth.
The first of Gehrig's four seasons was his age 24 season as part of the 1927 Yankees Murderer's Row lineup. He beats out Mantle in a close race, 12.5 vs 11.5 in fWAR and 11.8 vs 11.3 in rWAR. His second season was his age 27 season in 1930, edging out fellow Hall of Famer Joe Gordon: 9.6 to 8.8 in fWAR and 9.6 to 8.2 in rWAR. He shows up again in 1933 with his age 30 season, beating out Bill Dickey and Curtis Granderson: 7.2 vs 6.7 in fWAR and 6.9 vs 6.2 (Dickey) and 5.4 (Granderson) in rWAR. His final season on this list was his age 34 season in 1937, his last real healthy season before Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis started to take its toll on Gehrig, ending his life four years later in 1941. He edged out fellow age 34 Yankee legend Babe Ruth, 8.5 to 7.8 in fWAR, but fell short of Ruth in rWAR, 8.1 vs 7.7. Over these four seasons (ages 24, 27, 30 and 34), Gehrig totaled 37.8 fWAR with a 188 wRC+ and a .359/.461/.684 batting line. Over his career, he had a .340/.447/.632 batting line, with a 173 wRC+ and 116.3 fWAR.
What can you say about Babe Ruth that hasn't been said many, many times before. The guy was probably the greatest player ever, certainly the greatest hitter ever. He had the best season for any Yankee position player ages 25, 26, 28, 29, 31-33, and 35-39, for a total of 12 seasons. Over those 12 seasons, he averaged 11 fWAR per season and totaled 132.1 fWAR, a figure only beaten by five other players over their entire careers. In those twelve seasons, he hit .356/.496/.726, with a 207 wRC+, with 2113 hits, 553 home runs, 1683 runs, and 1656 runs batted in. A truly dominating stretch by the most dominating offensive player in the game's history.
Ruth left for the Boston Braves after his age 39 season and played one more year. That means that none of the four players that have dominated this list from ages 19 to 39 will make another appearance. However, another Hall of Famer does.
Before that, we get to our trivia question. Who was the most recent player to make this list? Why, it was Raul Ibanez from the 2012 Yankees. Ibanez put up the best age 40 season in team history when he hit .240/.308/.453, good enough to produce 0.9 fWAR and a 102 wRC+ in 425 plate appearances. Ibanez has had a weird career path. He was drafted in the 36th round as a catcher. He didn't play in a hundred games until his age 29 season, as an outfielder with Kansas City. If you look at how many home runs hit in their age 30 season and beyond, Ibanez is currently 26th with 269 home runs. If he matches his projected 30 home runs, he would fall two short of Harmon Killebrew and 22nd place on the age-30+ list. There are only three eligible, non-steroid players ahead of him not in the Hall of Fame: Andres Galarraga, Darrell Evans, and Hank Sauer. Not saying he deserves the Hall, but he has had a great late-blooming career.
Enos Slaughter, the greatest age 40+ hitter in Yankees history, had the best season for a Yankee ages 41-43. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1985, mostly for his work as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals' Gashouse Gang. He spent six seasons as a part-time player with the Yankees, compiling 782 plate appearances through his age 38-43 seasons. Over his age 41-43 seasons, he compiled 2.1 fWAR, with a .251/.355/.390 batting line and a 110 wRC+. He tied with Deacon McGuire for the age 42 season with 1.0 fWAR, but I went with Slaughter because most of his value was from his offense, while McGuire's were from 1906 defensive records in a very small sample size. His age 43 season was actually worth -0.2 fWAR, less than the only other two 43 year old hitters in Yankees history. However, I went with Slaughter because he had 11 times as many plate appearances as the other two players combined.
Only one player ever received plate appearances for the Yankees in their age 44 seasons, with no players doing so afterward. Roger Clemens got two plate appearances as a pitcher during interleague in 2007, his final season. One of the top three pitchers ever, he went 1 for 2 against Rodrigo Lopez and the Colorado Rockies on June 21st.
Below, thanks to Fangraphs, is the table of these seasons. Combined, if they represented a fictional Yankees player - let's call him Johnny Yankee - he would be the greatest player ever. He would collect 4002 hits, 892 home runs, 2916 runs, 2985 runs batted in, a .341/.457/.666 batting line, with a 185 wRC+ and 205.3 fWAR over a 28 year career.