Don Mattingly may well be one of the most underrated Yankees of the past half-century, especially among casual baseball fans, or fans of non-Yankee teams. The heart of the Bronx Bombers during the World Series-less 1980’s, Mattingly’s excellence is overshadowed by the Core Five and their playoff success, as well as his own injury-hastened exit from baseball.
Given that the Yankees won more games in the 1980’s than any other team in baseball, it’s reasonable to think that if the Wild Card existed during the prime of Mattingly’s career, the Yankees would have made the playoffs at least a couple times. Mattingly’s legacy could be very different if he just had a few chances to make noise in the postseason. Alas, we can never know what would have happened, but playoff success – or lack thereof – shouldn’t take away from just how good Mattingly was at his best.
Yes, we’re profiling Mattingly as the latest installment in our modern day free agency series. Making his MLB debut at the age of 21 in 1982, after being drafted out of high school in Indiana, Mattingly would have been a free agent after his age-28 season in 1988. The output of his first seven seasons is staggering, as he had an MVP season in 1985, an even better season in 1986 where he finished second in MVP voting, and two other top-10 finishes. If you believe, like me, that a six-win season represents a truly elite year, well, Don had three of those and a 5.7 bWAR season all in a row.
Mattingly was legitimately one of the best players in baseball at the time of his hypothetical free agency, having accrued 29.1 bWAR through his debut to the end of 1988. Who can we think of as modern comps, and what were they worth in their free agency? To the Play Index!
Mattingly is in really, really good company here. We have a possible Hall of Famer in Carlos Beltran and two guys who would fall just short, but were excellent players through their careers, Jason Giambi and Lance Berkman. Perhaps fittingly, Mattingly’s own career accomplishments fit right in line with these three – he’s got a better Cooperstown case than you’d think, but probably does fall just short of the honor.
Still, we’re looking at six or seven seasons and probably close to $120,000,000 as total compensation. Berkman signed an extension with Houston but almost certainly would have been worth more as a free agent, so his contract does drag down the numbers a bit. Funnily enough, Giambi and Mattingly were crazy close, separated by just a tenth of a win, and while Mattingly wasn’t quite as good a hitter, he was a much better defender and would have been a year younger at the time he hit the market.
Unlike the last installment in this series, where Paul O’Neill would have been a laughably valuable contract because of his late-career success, Mattingly’s deal probably wouldn’t have produced the same level of surplus value. His back issues began to flare up in 1990 and would plague him for the rest of his career, eating away at his time on the field and effectiveness when he was playing. From the day he became a full-time player in 1984 to the end of 1989, Donnie Baseball averaged 153 games a season. From 1990 to the end of his career in 1995, even after adjusting the strike-shortened 1994 season, he would average 133 games a year.
Playing almost 15% fewer games a year, coupled with the age-related decline and injury, meant that Mattingly never returned to his MVP form of the 80’s. It’s entirely likely that had he signed a seven-figure deal as a hypothetical free agent, it would have been seen as a bust, which should only serve to highlight just how little control professional athletes have over their own legacy. Even Mattingly’s personal postseason drought could have ended if not for the 1994 strike, as the Yankees had the AL’s best record at the time the season was called off.
Don Mattingly still enjoys, deservedly, a warm embrace from Yankee fans. He was the bright spot in a dark decade of baseball, the last great Yankee star before the dynasty, and a player on a Hall of Fame track before being cut down by his own body. He’s still underrated by most non-Yankee fans, but if he were on the market today, with the talent and pedigree of his younger days, it’s hard to imagine teams wouldn’t be champing at the bit to land him.