A good puzzle can help a rainy day go by quicker, engaging the mind and providing a useful distraction when you’re stuck indoors. And since we’re basically in the midst of one long rainy day, a Yankee-centric puzzle might come in handy for fans missing the game.
Now for generations, countless Yankees fans have toyed with the notion of the franchise’s all-time lineup. Having such a long and rich history lends itself to the exercise, and we’ve certainly engaged in variations of it on this site. So what if we take that question and inject one crucial constraint: none of the players you choose can have overlapped with each other. Want Babe Ruth in your lineup? Great, but then you can’t have Lou Gehrig. Think Mickey Mantle should hold down an outfield spot? Fine, but that means no Joe DiMaggio or Yogi Berra.
So that’s the challenge: not only picking great players, but also ones who fit together to maximize the whole. That raises some tricky tradeoffs: Derek Jeter’s unquestionably the best shortstop in franchise history, but choosing him would preclude you from picking Don Mattingly (with whom he overlapped during brief stints in 1995) as well as Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano. Are two of those guys, even though they had lesser Yankees careers, better than one? You’ll have to figure that out.
A couple of other points on the rules: you’re looking to fill the conventional lineup spots, including one designated hitter (position players only, by the way, as pitchers would add an almost migraine-inducing element to the game, though if you’re inclined, knock yourself out).
How you measure the end result can vary, but for my purposes, I’m aiming to create a lineup with the most wins above replacement (using Baseball-Reference’s WAR model). But it could just as easily be home runs, RBI or any other stat. Customize it however you like. However, only stats accumulated during a player’s Yankees years count, so you can’t be slick and choose Ichiro, who had three seasons with the Yankees, and claim all 59.7 of his career bWAR.
Also, “overlap” is defined as specifically as possible: playing as teammates in at least one game. If a player began a given season but retired in May and another debuted in June of that same year, then they haven’t officially overlapped.
What do you think? Who makes your lineup? I’m going to include my answer and reasoning below, so if you want to spend time puzzling this out for yourself, please do. I think I’ve come up with a strong squad, but I make no claim on it being the definitively best version. Maybe yours can beat it.
Also, I should note that the inspiration for this came from an article I saw on SB Nation’s Chelsea site We Ain’t Got No History, which passed along a similar challenge in the realm of international soccer. Hat tip.
Okay, my lineup below the picture.
Let’s start off with some truly heavy hitters: Ruth and Mantle. I just can’t pass up the bWAR totals, 142.8 for Ruth (remember, just for his Yankees career) and 110.2 for Mantle. But they eat up a large chunk of years: Ruth from 1920-34 and Mantle from 1951-68.
Could you argue that choosing Gehrig would make sense since first base might prove tricky later on and there will certainly be good outfield options on the board? Maybe, but I’m going with the Babe. Mantle’s selection, of course, means that DiMaggio is out, but it also nixes Berra and Elston Howard. That means catcher could be dicey, with Hall of Famer Bill Dickey overlapping with Ruth beginning in 1928. That leads me to add Thurman Munson to the team, eating up the years 1969-79, but adding 46 bWAR.
Now let’s address some infield spots. The Jeter question looms large. I could combine his 71.3 bWAR with an outfielder like Dave Winfield (27.1 bWAR from 1981-90) or Rickey Henderson (an amazing 30.9 bWAR from 1985-89), but I fear it’ll leave me too thin at the corners. I’m going with Mattingly (42.4 bWAR from 1982-95) and A-Rod (54 bWAR from 2004-16). Now, remember when I went over the definition of overlap? Rodriguez played his last game with the Yankees on Aug. 12, 2016 and was unconditionally released the next day. Who made his debut on Aug. 13? Aaron Judge. So I’m taking Judge and his 19.1 bWAR and giving him an outfield spot alongside Ruth and Mantle.
It’s crunch time. Three spots to go and a lot of years burned up. This is why they pay me the big bucks. There’s a huge time gap between Ruth and Mantle and a good player who fits snugly into it could prove to be my lineup’s linchpin. Fortunately, there are two options. Tommy Henrich, who played mostly outfield, but spent time at first as well, accrued 39.2 bWAR during his career. Remarkably, he played from 1937-50, so he comes in just a few years after Ruth and left the game right before Mantle. He could slot neatly into DH. It’s perfect. But there’s someone who I think is even more perfect: Joe Gordon.
The Hall of Fame second baseman accumulated 36.8 bWAR from 1938-46. It’s a slightly lower WAR, but the options are incredibly thin at second and I’d rather fill that before worrying about a DH, so Gordon’s in. By the way, it’s worth noting that both Henrich and Gordon would have been excluded had I chosen Gehrig, so the Ruth decision is even further validated.
I need two more players and I figure it’s time to plumb the depths of the pre-Ruth Yankees for options. Is that you, Kid Elberfeld, who manned shortstop for the then-New York Highlanders between 1903 and 1909, amassing 19.1 bWAR? Why yes it is.
With just the DH spot remaining now, I can literally choose the best bat from the remaining unclaimed years. Of course, I turn to household name Les Nunamaker, who was worth 9.3 bWAR as catcher for the Yankees from 1914-17. Duh.
So there it is. My lineup is worth a cool 479.7 bWAR.
Can you beat it?