Most fans of the New York Yankees can rattle off numerous seasons of excellence by any of the legends to ever play for the team. Babe Ruth, 1921. Lou Gehrig, 1934. Joe DiMaggio, 1941. Mickey Mantle, 1956. Derek Jeter, 1999. Alex Rodriguez, 2007. The list goes on and on. These were some of the finest seasons in the history of baseball, and it's unsurprising that they are so fondly remembered.
However, these fantastic seasons have overshadowed some terrific years by other players who were Yankees as well. They might not have been stars, but they had campaigns worthy of recalling in the many years after. Yet they have fallen by the wayside in the memories of most Yankee fans. Let's give them the moment of honor they deserve with this list of the most underrated seasons by position among forgotten players in Yankee history. The criteria will be fairly simple--if the player is not honored in Monument Park or destined for that location, then he is eligible.
Mike Stanley, 1993 (.305/.389/.534, .401 wOBA, 147 wRC+, 26 HR, 5.2 fWAR)--When Stanley was allowed to depart to the rival Boston Red Sox after the Yankees' first playoff season in 14 years, fans were in an uproar. While this reaction might seem surprising for a guy who did not come up through the system and spent just four years with the team (398 games), the step down in offense from Stanley to successor Joe Girardi was immense. Stanley did not have a great defensive reputation, but that '93 season really stuck in the minds of Yankee fans. Stanley snatched the starting job from incumbent Matt Nokes, then thrashed American League pitching with a season that would easily fit into the season-by-season ledger of fellow slugging catcher Mike Piazza. In '93, the Yankees were in the playoff mix for the first time in five years, and they had Stanley to thank in part for that.
Tino Martinez, 1997 (.296/.371/.577, .396 wOBA, 141 wRC+, 44 HR, 5.5 fWAR)--Curiously, the best season of Tino's Yankee career came in the only season of his first run in New York that the Yankees failed to make the World Series (discounting his return in '05 as a part-time player). The defending champion Yankees were eliminated by the Cleveland Indians in a hearbreaking five-game Division Series, but it was hard to blame Tino for the Yanks coming up short. In an alternate universe where Ken Griffey, Jr. had already decided to force the Seattle Mariners to trade him to his hometown Cincinnati Reds, Tino might have carried home AL MVP honors in '97. Alas, he finished second to Junior, who deservedly won it with arguably the best season in a Hall of Fame career. Still, Tino's 40-homer season was the first by a Yankee in 17 years, a surprising drought for a team known as the "Bronx Bombers." Adding to the fun, he became the first Yankee to win a Home Run Derby with his victory at Jacobs Field in the '97 All-Star festivities back when the contest was done in daylight and didn't drag on deep into the night. '97 was disappointing after the fun of '96, but at least we got to see Tino at his best.
Snuffy Stirnweiss, 1945 (.309/.385/.476, .404 WOBA, 148 wRC+, 8.8 fWAR)--Ah, the Ballad of George "Snuffy" Stirnweiss. Declared "4-F" and ineligible to be drafted into the military, he instead rose to prominence as Hall of Famer Joe Gordon's replacement at second base for the Yankees in the World War II years. He was all over the AL leaderboard in both '44 and '45 while the majority of the Yankees struggled and went consecutive seasons without a World Series appearance for the first time in a decade. In both seasons, Stirnweiss finished behind Detroit Tigers ace Hal Newhouser for AL MVP honors, but he sure had a good case for the award. He won a batting title, led the league in slugging and wRC+, unheard of for a second baseman. It's really a toss-up between either of his two seasons in the wartime era; however, Stirnweiss was never up to snuff after the war. He stayed in the lineup after the war ended and Gordon returned by moving to third base, but Stirnweiss's hitting went down sharply with the better pitchers back on the mound. His career ended not long after and he died far too young at age 39 in a train crash. Poor Snuffy. Phil Rizzuto always credited Stirnweiss for calming him after the Yankees cut "the Scooter" in '56, preventing Rizzuto from lashing out against management and causing animosity between him and the team that would have probably prevented him from becoming the team's longtime broadcaster. Holy cow, indeed. Speaking of that '56 season...
Gil McDougald, 1956 (.311/.405/.443, .384 wOBA, 131 wRC+, 5.5 fWAR)--My goodness, was Gil McDougald an underrated player. Eat your heart out, Michael Young. The man played well defensively all around the infield, knew how to get on base, and was a key cog on five World Series championship teams. It was he, not Mantle, who won the '51 AL Rookie of the Year award, and his versatility was crucial to his platoon-happy manager, Casey Stengel. He had never played shortstop in the majors prior to '56, but Stengel asked him to step in at the position when Rizzuto continued his decline. It turned out that playing short fit McDougald just fine, and he had perhaps his best season at the plate in '56 as well. He only played in 120 games, but the reason for that can be pinned on Stengel's constant tinkering with the lineup. Mantle was the easy MVP choice thanks to his Triple Crown season, but McDougald surprised by finishing seventh in the balloting. Perhaps if casual fans took a closer look at his season, they would not be so shocked.
Graig Nettles, 1976 (.254/.327/.475, .364 wOBA, 136 wRC+, 32 HR, 8.3 fWAR)--Fun fact: Graig Nettles has a career fWAR of 71.8 and a career rWAR of 62.8. Another fun fact: Graig Nettles finished just 10 homers shy of 400, led the AL with 32 in the Yankees' return to the Fall Classic in '76, and slugged 250 in his Yankee career (10th in team history). Not-so-fun fact: Graig Nettles is not a Hall of Famer, nor has he ever really been in a discussion for the honor. I think I could be persuaded that Nettles was not deserving of Cooperstown despite good hitting and tremendous defense over a 22-year career, but it kind of baffles me that he's not even briefly considered in discussions. The third-base position is pretty barren in Cooperstown, anyway. Meanwhile, Mr. Nettles frequently had All-Star seasons like his All-Star '76, yet the writers never seemed to consider him the fantastic player that he was. Hell, Nettles probably deserved that '76 AL MVP more than his friend and teammate, Thurman Munson. Nettles's greatness at third was often overshadowed by contemporaries Mike Schmidt and Brooks Robinson, and that hardly seems fair. It's not his fault he played in the same era as probably the greatest fielding third basemen in the history of the game. At least give him a plaque in Mounument Park, Yankees. Sheesh.
I'll be back later with the most underrated Yankee seasons by outfielders and pitchers.
Did I ironically ignore more deserving underrated seasons? Let me know.