For better and worse, I did not have the opportunity to watch the lightning rod that was the 1994 Yankees. The team was loaded with hitters, finished 70-43, and first in the AL East. While it was quite possible the team could have competed for a title that season and jump started their dynasty a few years earlier, the season was cut short due to a labor strike, leaving the team and the fans to forever wonder whether that could have been a championship year.
That team was unique for many reasons, but the one I want to focus on is their unusually deep crop of catchers. The team had three primary catchers who combined for 47 home runs in 711 plate appearances, a seemingly ludicrous number.
Those three catchers were Mike Stanley, Jim Leyritz, and Matt Nokes. The three were led by Stanley, who had the most productive hitting season with a .300/.384/.545 slash line and a 141 OPS+ in 333 plate appearances across 82 games. Leyritz wasn’t too shabby himself, with a .265/.365/.518 slash line and 129 OPS+ in 292 plate appearances and 75 games. Lastly, Nokes was quite possibly the best third-string catcher of all time, with a .291/.329.595 slash line and 137 OPS+ in 85 plate appearances across 28 games.
To have one catcher who can be any better than an average hitter is a novelty. Two is even more rare. But three? That’s unheard of. Back in the day, when teams would carry three catchers on their roster, the focus for the backups was defense. But these three Yankee catchers were all above average hitters for the entirety of their careers in the big leagues, including multiple seasons as the three-catcher unit with the Yankees.
To put this into context, you can look at Yankee catching tandems from recent seasons. This year, Gary Sánchez had a 99 wRC+, and Kyle Higashioka had a 71 wRC. In the smaller sample 2020, Sánchez had a 69 wRC+ and Higashioka had a 102 wRC+. Sánchez was much better in 2019 with a 116 wRC+, but Austin Romine had a 96 wRC+.
Even if you consider the 2016 season where Sánchez took the league by storm hitting 20 homers in 53 games and add Brian McCann’s 20 homers in 130 games, you still don’t get the 47 home runs that Stanley, Leyritz, and Nokes slugged. The Yankees had two of the best slugging catchers in the game and didn’t even come particularly close to the 194 squad!
Only Wade Boggs and Paul O’Neill were better than the three catchers that season for the Yankees. O’Neill won the batting title, and Wade Boggs won the Silver Slugger award at his position. After that, the club’s catchers propelled the team’s offensive success. The Yankees as a whole hit .290/.374/.462 with a league-leading 118 wRC+, in large part thanks to their backstops. In 2021, for the top offensive lineup to be driven by their catchers would be near-unthinkable.
Looking back, it forces one to reckon with the missed opportunity that was the 1994 season. Between all these great hitting seasons and Don Mattingly’s last above average season, that could have been a truly special Yankee campaign. There are so many teams that never won a World Series that are forgotten, but the ’94 Yankees are one of the most memorable.