Growing up, my local Little League had two All-Star games (as I suspect many other Little Leagues did). The first was for the best players from each team. The second was for pretty good players who weren’t as good as the first batch, but who apparently deserved some recognition anyway. Was I in that second group of players? You better believe it. And I’m fine with that. Really, I’m fine…I’m fine.
There’s nothing wrong with being just a tier (or several, really) below elite. That is true of Little League and it’s true of the Yankees’ pantheon. Epic poems have been written about the Yankees’ all-time greats, and rightly so. But what about the other guys? Don’t they deserve to bask in the historical limelight too?
I think they do, so I decided to make a list. Making lists is good, especially in prolonged periods of physical isolation. And so here we are, about to embark on my version of the Yankees’ all-time lineup, with one important caveat: no Hall of Famers allowed.
That part should be fairly self-explanatory: who’s the best of the rest? But there are a few other rules governing this exercise. I won’t, for example, being choosing anyone who is still active, or who hasn’t yet been voted on by the Hall of Fame (deftly circumventing any question about Alex Rodriguez). I’ll also be selecting my squad based on the best single seasons in pinstripes, so short-term excellence will be rewarded over longevity. There’ll be nine lineup slots to fill including DH. I won’t necessarily adhere strictly to outfield positions. If two of the top outfielders under the single-season rubric are center fielders, then so be it. They’re both in. I’ll also choose my DH from the best remaining bat, not necessarily from guys who played at DH. You can stop reading now, Steve Balboni. You’re not making the cut.
Here we go:
Catcher – Thurman Munson
1973: 147 G, 20 HR, 74 RBI, .301/.362/.487, 142 OPS+, 7.2 bWAR
Even if we allowed Hall of Famers on this list, Munson would still have this spot locked up. His 1973 season was the best single season a Yankees catcher ever put up, measured by bWAR. The raw production numbers may not be eye-popping compared to the current offensive environment, but the 142 OPS+ gives a sense of how good he was relative to the league. At age 26, Munson also put up the best defensive season of his career, winning the first of three Gold Gloves. He’d go on to win the AL MVP in 1976, but make no mistake, this was peak Munson.
First Base – Don Mattingly
1986: 162 G, 31 HR, 113 RBI, .352/.394/.573, 161 OPS+, 7.2 bWAR
Mattingly’s 1986 season was right smack in the middle of his career peak and it was simply enormous. Coming off the heels of an AL MVP award in 1985, this year represented his greatest vintage (though he finished second in MVP voting). Damn that pesky back, Donnie! (And get rid of those sideburns.)
Second Base – Willie Randolph
1980: 138 G, 99 R, 151 H, 30 SB, 119 BB, .294/.427/.407, 133 OPS+, 6.6 bWAR
Technically, the top two seasons by a Yankee, Hall of Fame or not, belong to Snuffy Stirnweiss. The problem is they came in 1944 and 1945, during World War II when many of the league’s best players were serving overseas. That leaves Willie Randolph, who was a sparkplug for the late ‘70s and ‘80s teams. Look at that walk total! If you look at his career, Randolph has a sneaky strong Hall of Fame case.
Shortstop – Roger Peckinpaugh
1919: 122 G, 89 R, .305/.390/.404, 123 OPS+, 6.3 bWAR
Peckinpaugh must have been a heck of a defender! I kid, but not really. The 123 OPS+ he posted in 1919 was by far a career high, so this year was as good as the bat got. But the glove was consistently good. Unfortunately for Ol’ Peck (that’s just what I call him), he left the team after the 1921 season, right when the Babe Ruth-powered rocket ship was getting ready to leave the atmosphere.
Third Base – Graig Nettles
1976: 158 G, 32 HR, 93 RBI, .254/.237/.475, 135 OPS+, 8.0 bWAR
Nettles is another ‘70s-era Yankee with a strong Hall of Fame case. His 1976 season was his best, combining power with stellar defense. He’d win his only two Gold Gloves in the years directly following, but according to defensive WAR, this year tops them both.
Left Field – Roy White
1970: 162 G, 109 R, 22 HR, 94 RBI, 24 SB, .296/.387/.473, 142 OPS+, 6.8 bWAR
Talk about a sneaky great season. White contributed across the board in 1970 and followed it up with a comparable season in 1971 as well, representing his career peak. (Interesting side note: Brett Gardner’s 2010 surpasses White’s best.)
Center Field – Bobby Murcer
1972: 153 G, 102 R, 33 HR, 96 RBI, .292/.361/.537, 169 OPS+, 8.2 bWAR
Fans between 30 and 45 probably know Murcer best as a lovable, if goofy, broadcaster who’d be mic’d up during Old Timers Day, getting batting tips from Jason Giambi. Those even younger may not even know him at all. But his 1972 season represents the best that any non-Hall of Fame outfielder has put up for the Yankees. He needed no tips then.
Right Field – Roger Maris
1960: 136 G, 39 HR, 112 RBI, .283/.371/.581, 160 OPS+, 7.5 bWAR
OK, I know what you’re thinking. Why not 1961? That was, of course, the year Maris broke Babe Ruth’s home run record with 61 dingers. But, if WAR is to be believed, 1960 was even better, bolstered by his strongest defensive season. Regardless of whether you choose ’60 or ’61, Maris makes the cut. (Another interesting side note: Aaron Judge would be in this lineup if not for the restriction on active players, shifting Maris over to left.)
DH – Jason Giambi
2002: 155 G, 41 HR, 122 RBI, .314/.435/.598, 172 OPS+, 7.1 bWAR
That Giambi started off his Yankee career so strongly and ended it so frustratingly can warp fans’ perception of his time in the Bronx. He was a monster in 2002 and a pretty damn good hitter for much of his time in pinstripes.
So there’s my list. By all means, make your own. Perhaps we’ll tackle pitchers in the near future.