The best Yankees team ever assembled by individual seasons

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sport

Of all the fantastic seasons in Yankees history, which by position would help the Yankees comprise their greatest team?

Over at CBS Sports, Matt Snyder kicked off a series they're doing on the "All-Time Single-Season Team" for each of the 30 franchises around Major League Baseball. The idea is simple, but brilliant: if a team could take one single-season performance from a player at each position throughout its franchise history, how good would the team look? This experiment has been done before, but it's interesting regardless. Snyder began the CBS Sports series with a look back at the Cubs' All-Time Single-Season Team, but because I'm impatient and am very curious to see who they come up with for the Yankees, I decided to review the Yankees' great seasons and pick who I think would be on this team.

As Snyder noted in his original post, this exercise is quite subjective, so it's highly likely that my team will differ from the team that CBS Sports will choose. (Update: here.) With all that being said, here's who I would pick for the Yankees' All-Time Single-Season Team:

Catcher

Bill Dickey, 1937

Statistics: 140 G, .332/.417/.570, 35 2B, 29 HR, .442 wOBA, 147 wRC+, 48% CS%, 6.7 fWAR, 6.2 rWAR

Right off the bat, the Yankees' incomparable history of success behind the plate creates a tough decision. In 8,649 games, Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Thurman Munson, and Jorge Posada combined for 1,483 doubles, 1,109 homers, 231.7 rWAR, 47 All-Star teams, five AL MVPs, and two Hall of Fame selections. That's a 162-game average of 27 doubles, 20 homers, and 4.3 rWAR, tremendous production from the catcher's position. I believe baseball historian Donald Honig once said that trying to pick Ty Cobb's greatest season was like choosing Picasso's greatest work of art. It's nearly impossible, and I echo that sentiment when trying to determine which catching season was greatest in Yankees history. Munson's 7.2 rWAR in '73 was the highest in Yankees history, no regular Yankees catcher has ever exceeded Posada's 157 wRC+ in 2007, and Berra has three MVP seasons, not including arguably his career-best season in '56 that was overshadowed by Mickey Mantle's Triple Crown. (And how could we forget Chris Stewart's 2013? [Easily.])

However, the honor of greatest overall single season by a Yankees catcher goes to Dickey, who played out of this world during the second of four consecutive championship seasons for the Yankees in 1937. His offensive numbers were better in '36, when he hit .362/.428/.617, but his '37 season gets the nod since it was in 38 more games and 136 more plate appearances. Yes, it was during one of the liveliest offensive decades in baseball history, but Dickey's numbers are eye-popping anyway and he complemented them with superb defense. Yogi once said of Dickey's tutoring of his defensive prowess that "Dickey is learning me his experience." The latter sure had significant experience, as few catchers in baseball history have been as good as Dickey, who was excellent as always in '37. With Dickey behind the plate, the Yankees also had arguably the best pitching staff in baseball in '37, led by Lefty Gomez and Red Ruffing.

Dickey is somewhat forgotten when considering the greatest catchers in baseball history, but his '37 campaign was probably the best of any catcher on the most successful catching franchise in the game.

First Base

Lou Gehrig, 1927

Statistics: 155 G, .373/.474/.765, 52 2B, 18 3B, 47 HR, .540 wOBA, 209 wRC+, 12.5 fWAR, 11.8 rWAR

Don Mattingly, Tino Martinez, Jason Giambi, and Mark Teixeira have all had pretty fantastic seasons at one point or another for the Yankees. Hell, only one MLB first baseman in the past 84 years has ever had more hits than Donnie Baseball's Yankees record 238 in '86, a 7.2 WAR year that also included a Yankee record 53 doubles. In Yankees history though, one first baseman stands alone, far above the rest: Hall of Famer and All-Century starter Lou Gehrig. Staring at his FanGraphs page is pure baseball eye candy.

Picking one season of Gehrig's is a challenge; there's his AL record 184 RBI '31 season wherein he hit..341/.446/.662 and led the league in homers for the first time, and there's also his Triple Crown '34 campaign, when he set a career-high with 49 homers and posted a 10.7 fWAR year. How does one do better? The answer comes from Gehrig's season on perhaps the greatest team in baseball history: the 1927 Yankees, Murderers' Row. The 24-year-old had an excellent 7.0 fWAR season in '26, but '27 was considered his true breakout, the season when someone finally gave the previously incomparable Babe Ruth some competition for the title of best hitter in baseball. They were the most devastating 3-4 combination baseball had ever seen, and Gehrig's phenomenal numbers earned him the AL MVP.

A list of first basemen to ever exceed Gehrig's wOBA, wRC+, or WAR statistics from '27: { }

Gehrig's '27 campaign was not only the greatest first base season in Yankees history, but almost certainly the best ever posted by a first baseman in the long history of baseball.

Second Base

Robinson Cano, 2012

Statistics: 161 G, .313/.379/.550, 48 2B, 1 3B, 33 HR, .394 wOBA, 149 wRC+, 7.7 fWAR, 8.5 rWAR

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Yeah, we're not over Cano. Might not ever be. Robbie's seasons from from 2010-13 were easily among the elite second base seasons in franchise history, and his 2012 was the best of them all. Hall of Famers Tony Lazzeri and Joe Gordon had some outstanding years that could have easily made this team prior to Cano's prime, but with Cano's comparable numbers combined with impressive defense give him the nod over them. The fact that Cano has to face a much more widespread pool of talent plays a role, too. If Alfonso Soriano could have played a lick of defense in his monster 2002-03 seasons, he would have been close.

Cano reached career-highs in doubles and homers while posting the highest rWAR ever posted by a Yankee second baseman in a non-wartime season (sorry, '45 Snuffy Stirnweiss). His all-around game was outstanding, and he was on fire in September with a .999 OPS and 17 extra-base hits as the Yankees completed a successful run to the AL East division title. How four of the 28 AL MVP voters left him off their ballots entirely is beyond me.

Shortstop

Derek Jeter, 1999

Statistics: 158 G, .349/.438/.552, 37 2B, 9 3B, 24 HR, 19 SB, .428 wOBA, 156 wRC+, 7.4 fWAR, 8.0 rWAR

Phil Rizzuto won a deserved AL MVP in 1950 for a 6.7 rWAR breakout season wherein he reached 200 hits and was brilliant as ever on defense. He remains the only Yankees shortstop to take home the MVP, but if a certain Mr. Jeter timed his best years a little better, he could have taken home multiple MVPs. He finished in the top three for AL MVP with superb seasons in '98, 2006, and 2009, losing out on '06 honors by a mere 14 points to Justin Morneau (teh RBIz and all that). As it stands though, Jeter's '99 campaign was better and reigns supreme as easily the greatest season by a shortstop in Yankees history.

Prior to the season, Jeter went to arbitration with the Yankees for the first time and won his case, earning him a $5 million deal. The Yankees told him that since he won, they would be expecting him to hit for a little more power than he had in years past. The future captain delivered with career-highs in hits (219), homers, total bases (346), batting average, OBP, slugging, wOBA, wRC+, and WAR. He consecutively reached base in the first 53 games of the season, a Joe DiMaggio-type streak of superb play that set the tone for a standout year. There's no way that Ivan Rodriguez deserved to win the MVP over Jeter that year.

Third Base

Alex Rodriguez, 2007

Statistics: 158 G, .314/.422/.645, 31 2B, 54 HR, 24 SB, .445 wOBA, 175 wRC+, 9.6 fWAR, 9.4 rWAR

A-Rod came out swinging in '07 after an up-and-down performance in '06, and from day one, it was clear that A-Rod's 2007 would be one to remember. He set a MLB record with 14 homer in April, a 1.297 OPS month that portended what was to come that year. A-Rod became the first Yankee to top 50 homers in a season since Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle both did in that magical '61 season; no righthanded hitter had ever achieved such a mark in pinstripes. He led the league with 143 runs scored, 54 dingers, 156 RBI, a .645 slugging percentage, a 1.067 OPS, 376 total bases, and both WAR totals. A-Rod guided the Yankees to the Wild Card and became the youngest player to reach 500 career homers along the way and was a near-unanimous pick for AL MVP (keep on fighting the good fight, random two writers who voted for the Tigers' Magglio Ordonez; one was unsurprisingly from Detroit).

Somewhat surprisingly, A-Rod's 2005 MVP campaign was very close to his '07 season in some numbers: .321/.421/.610, .436 wOBA, 174 wRC+, 8.8 fWAR, and an equal 9.4 rWAR. Close, but no cigar. It will be impossible to forget A-Rod trashing AL pitching all year long in 2007.

Left Field

Babe Ruth, 1921

Statistics: 158 G, .378/.512/.846, 44 2B, 16 3B, 59 HR, 17 SB, .575 wOBA, 224 wRC+, 13.9 fWAR, 12.9 rWAR

Adding Ruth to the team in left field is a bit of a concession since I don't want to repeat players and there are far more other impressive seasons by Yankees in right field than left field. Since '21 was one of three seasons in which Ruth played more than 50% of his games in left, that's where this season belongs. Ruth might have had slightly better overall seasons in some of '20 (.598 wOBA, 239 wRC+), '23 (231 wRC+, 14.0 rWAR, 15.0 fWAR), or '27 (60 HR), and I think '20 might have been his greatest overall work. Fortunately, he blessed Yankees fans with this gem of a '21 season in left field, so it's hard to lose sweat over picking the '21 Bambino in left field for this team instead of the '20 Bambino in right field.

For the third year in a row, Ruth broke the single-season home run record with 59, a mark that has been exceeded just twice in American League history in the 93 years since then. His numerous doubles and triples also helped him shatter George Sisler's total bases record of 388 set the year before. The Sultan of Swat reached a staggering 457 total bases in '21, an unbelievable mark that still stands as the major league record. Ruth only had an OPS lower than 1.200 in one month all year long; in August, he hit a whopping .449/.578/.929, and in September he finished strong with a .353/.453/.784 finale. The Babe's perpetually hot bat propelled the Yankees to a 40-20 finish to the season, which was enough to win the AL pennant by four and a half games over Cleveland. It was the first of 40 pennants to date in franchise history, and Ruth was obviously an extraordinary part of the team's triumph. The man was amazing.

Center Field

Mickey Mantle, 1956

Statistics: 150 G, .353/.464/.705, 22 2B, 5 3B, 52 HR, 10 SB, .498 wOBA, 202 wRC+, 11.5 fWAR, 11.3 rWAR

It had to be "the Mick" in '56. Rickey Henderson deserved the MVP in '85 for a nigh-10 win season in center (a big reason Mattingly had so many RBI that year was Rickey always being on base), and "the great DiMaggio" posted some truly remarkable seasons, most notably his famous 56-game hitting streak, 181 wRC+, 9.8 fWAR MVP season of '41. Yet Mantle at his greatest has a strong argument as the greatest center fielder in the history of baseball. After a few seasons of building toward excellence and winning three World Series titles, Mantle ascended to the top of the game in '56 by winning the Triple Crown, the last Yankee to do so.

Going beyond the mere basic stats of the Triple Crown though, Mantle thoroughly dominated baseball in '56. outpacing MLB fWAR runner-up Duke Snider by a full four wins. Basically, the difference between a fantastic player and the legendary Mantle that year was a highly regarded player like Moose Skowron or Gil Hodges. The only center fielder to ever top Mantle's 11.3 rWAR was Ty Cobb's 11.4 rWAR season in 1917, and that in a very different style of baseball (not to mention 0.1 WAR is not really a difference at all). In fact, the only center field season to ever top Mantle's 210 OPS+ was Mantle himself the very next year! Yes, Mantle had a 221 OPS+ thanks to a ridiculous .512 OBP, but despite the advancements there, Mantle's '56 still takes the cake due to his advanced slugging (Mantle hit 18 more homers in '56 than '57). We might never see a Yankee as outstanding as Mantle ever again, and it's scary to think of how good he could have been if not for his aggressive hard-drinking lifestyle and debilitating leg injuries.

Right Field

Roger Maris, 1961

Statistics: 161 G, .269/.372/.620, 16 2B, 4 3B, 61 HR, 366 TB, .424 wOBA, 162 wRC+, 7.1 fWAR, 6.9 rWAR

Something crazy to ponder: through A-Rod, Ruth, Mantle, and Maris, this Yankees team has 226 homers from just four players. Maris's homer binge in '61 had to find a way onto this squad, and it just barely gets the nod over his previous MVP season of '60. That year measures a hair better by WAR than '61, but since the difference is so slim, his 39-point boost in slugging percentage, 12-point boost in wOBA, and 25 extra high-caliber games played are enough to make '61 the preferred season.

Enough has been written and even produced on video in an HBO special about Maris's tumultuous season and the ridiculously unfair stress put upon him by the media and the fans simply for doing his job that I don't have to go into it. Ultimately, he finished with an unforgettable season and the single-season home run record. In the 53 years since then, not a single American League player has come within two homers of the league record.

Designated Hitter

Jason Giambi, 2002

Statistics: 155 G, .314/.435/.598, 34 2B, 1 3B, 41 HR, 335 TB, .440 wOBA, 175 wRC+, 6.6 fWAR, 7.1 rWAR

For the DH, I could cheat and just choose a previously unmentioned player who had an incredible season at another position, like DiMaggio's '41, Henderson's '85, or Mattingly's '86. However, to classify the best DH season in Yankees history, I wanted to keep it authentic. Therefore, I only searched players who spent a significant time serving as a regular DH during a season. The "Giambino" started roughly 40.6% of his games in 2002 at DH and was absolutely incredibly for the Yankees that year, so he fits the bill. If I queried players who started over half their games in a season at DH for the Yankees, the level would have taken a hit to '92 Danny Tartabull, a later, one of Don Baylor's seasons, a lesser Giambi campaign, or 2009 Hideki Matsui. Since Giambi's 2002 was far and away better than them all and he made a fair amount of his starts at DH, he is worthy of the nod.

People seem to forget just how good Giambi was during his eight seasons in the Bronx, especially early on. Since the days of Mantle, only two sluggers have hit at least 40 homers in back-to-back season: 2002-03 Giambi and 2011-12 Curtis Granderson. Giambi's '02 was far better than his '03 though, as it was before his batting average and slugging percentage took dips, perhaps due to the allure of the short porch. Nonetheless, Giambi's big bat propelled the Yankees to 103 wins and a fifth straight AL East title. His patience at the plate and potent power from that year is everything you could for from a DH.

Starting Rotation

1) Ron Guidry, 1978
2) Jack Chesbro, 1904
3) Lefty Gomez, 1937
4) Russ Ford, 1910
5) Whitey Ford, 1964

Statistics:

'78 Guidry: 25-3, 1.74 ERA (47 ERA-), 2.19 FIP (59 FIP-) 273.3 IP, 248 K, 0.98 WHIP, 8.8 fWAR, 9.6 rWAR
'04 Chesbro: 41-12, 1.82 ERA (65 ERA-), 2.11 FIP (78 FIP-), 454.7 IP, 48 CG, 0.94 WHIP, 8.3 fWAR, 10.2 rWAR
'37 Gomez: 21-11, 2.33 ERA (53 ERA-), 3.13 FIP (73 FIP-), 278.3 IP, 25 CG, 1.17 WHIP, 7.7 fWAR, 9.4 rWAR
'10 R. Ford: 26-6, 1.65 ERA (63 ERA-), 1.88 FIP (69 FIP-), 299.7 IP, 29 CG, 0.88 WHIP, 6.8 fWAR, 11.0 rWAR
'64 W. Ford: 17-6, 2.13 ERA (61 ERA-), 2.45 FIP (65 FIP-), 244.7 IP, 2.1 BB/9, 1.10 WHIP, 6.5 fWAR. 6.7 rWAR

The starting rotation for all-time single-season team is unsurprisingly stacked, and I had to leave some terrific seasons to close out the rotation. The first three seasons were must-haves; Guidry, Chesbro, and Gomez's peak seasons were some of the greatest in the history of the game. Gator's unbelievable '78 and Chesbro's mind-boggling numbers in over 450 innings in '04 are oft-remembered throughout Yankee lore, though history has forgotten just how good "Goofy" Gomez was in his prime. Even in a high-offense decade, he dominated the American League for years; his '34 8.2 rWAR campaign just barely missed the list.

The final two rotation spots were trickier, but both Fords were well-deserving. No one remembers Russ Ford since he pitched during the Deadball Era and some dark seasons in then-Highlanders history prior to the acquisition of Babe Ruth. He was also a flash in the pan, as he emerged out of nowhere in 1910 to post the highest season by rWAR in Yankees history, in his rookie season, no less! That right arm didn't have much mileage left on it though; after another standout season in '11, he declined to merely good in '12 and mediocre in '13. By '15 at age 32, his brief seven-year career was at an end in the soon-to-be-defunct Federal League. Nonetheless, his bonkers 1910 deserves to be remembered.

I very nearly left off the greatest pitcher in Yankees history from this rotation. Whitey Ford had a pattern of simply being consistently great rather than posting eye-popping seasons like the previous four pitchers. The '61 campaign in which he went 25-4 earned him the then-MLB-wide Cy Young Award, but in retrospect, the season wasn't actually that remarkable. Even only going down slightly in terms of traditional stats to ERA, his 3.21 mark was only good for 10th in the league. Instead, I elected his '64 season, his final great hurrah on the last of the 1921-64 dynasty teams. Manager and former batterymate Yogi Berra needed Ford to be every bit as superb as he was that year to help the Yankees come from behind in August to win a fifth straight AL pennant, and the "Chairman of the Board" responded with a flourish, ending the year with a 2.15 ERA in his last 10 starts. His ERA- and FIP- were far better than league average that year, and WAR underrates how excellent he was that year.

(A very bummed apology to '97 Andy Pettitte, '75 Catfish Hunter, and 2001 Mike Mussina for not being able to find spots in this rotation for them.)

Bullpen

1) Mariano Rivera, 2008 (closer)
2) David Robertson, 2011
3) Goose Gossage, 1982

Statistics:

'08 Rivera: 1.40 ERA (32 ERA-), 2.15 FIP (51 FIP-) 70.7 IP, 0.76 BB/9, 0.67 WHIP, 3.3 fWAR, 4.3 rWAR
'11 Robertson: 1.08 ERA (26 ERA-), 1.84 FIP (45 FIP-), 66.7 IP, 13.50 K/9, 1.13 WHIP, 2.6 fWAR, 4.0 rWAR
'82 Gossage: 2.23 ERA (56 ERA-), 2.13 FIP (53 FIP-), 93.0 IP, 9.87 K/9, 0.98 WHIP, 3.5 fWAR, 4.5 rWAR

Like Snyder, I only selected three spots in the bullpen. As much as I wanted to clone Mariano Rivera and use three of his seasons, I won't. Thus, his ridiculous setup season in '96 is not included, and neither is his near-Cy Young campaign in 2005. It's astonishing how good he was the final season of Yankee Stadium though. Opposing hitters managed a laughable 10 OPS+ against his cutter, he walked just six batters all year long, and he recorded 39 saves in 40 attempts, a near-perfect 97.5% conversion rate. Vintage Mo.

There can only be one Mo, and his setup year in '96 is still probably the greatest setup season in franchise history (if not MLB history), but D-Rob gave him a run for his money in 2011. He worked past control problems to become a nearly-unhittable strikeout machine; he was the first reliever to strike out 100 batters for the Yankees since Mo in '96. He gave up just eight earned runs in 2011 and one measly homer.

I picked a Gossage season over Sparky Lyle's memorable '77 AL Cy Young-winning campaign because the numbers were just better all-around. Goose struck out far more hitters with his blazing fastball, and his WHIP was far lower as well (0.98 vs. 1.20). Even though Lyle pitched more innings, Gossage was worthy of a spot. If his '81 season had not been incomplete due to the midseason players' strike, that season would probably have made the point moot since he had a minuscule 0.77 ERA in 46 2/3 innings, but I did not include it due to the weirdness of the split-season cutting into an already-small sample size. Consideration was also given to "Fireman" Joe Page's '47 and Dave Righetti's '86 (who?), but I am extremely comfortable with the three pitchers in the bullpen.

***

So that's my all-time single-season Yankees team. I am quite interested to see what CBS Sports comes up with through their research. Who would be on your team?

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