When we fans find ourselves in the position we’re currently in (winter, MLB lockout) we often fall on trivia and nostalgia as topics of discussion until the next game arrives. Fortunately for the Yankees, there is no shortage of interesting trivia or nostalgia. To that end, let’s come up with a Yankees “Dream Team” lineup, based on the best individual seasons from Yankees at each position.
Let’s start by setting some criteria. I’m going to lean heavily on WAR and will defer to it in most cases, but in situations in which the single-season WAR totals of two players are very close, I’ll weigh other factors. Era, level of competition, and extent of randomness on numbers will be considered (among other admittedly subjective barometers).
We’ll also define the player’s position as having started 67 percent of their games at the position under discussion (i.e., Jason Giambi logged plenty of games as a DH in his great seasons with the Yankees but never reached 67 percent, so he’s out of the best season from a DH discussion). Although fair, 67 percent is random, and as we’ll see in part two of this series, will come into play with a certain Yankees legend who may have moved around the field more than you realize. For pitchers, we’ll use 90 percent as the cutoff – 90 percent of appearances had to be as a starter or reliever to qualify for each.
Enough of the preamble. Let’s start with position number one in the scorecard and work our way through number nine and we’ll finish with our DH and relief pitcher. Here are the best individual single seasons from Yankees at each position:
Starting Pitcher: Ron Guidry, 1978
After a fantastic rookie season in 1977, Guidry went to a level in 1978 that the overwhelming majority of pitchers will never see. In winning the Cy Young Award, Guidry led AL pitchers in wins, shutouts, ERA, won/loss percentage, FIP, ERA+, opponents’ OPS+, strikeout percentage, K%-BB%, and WAR with 9.6.
Guidry also set single-season franchise records in WAR*, shutouts, strikeouts, won/loss percentage, ERA+, opponents’ OPS+ and strikeouts in a single game with 18 on June 17th against the Angels. To top it all off, he put forth a fine effort in the victorious one-game AL East playoff against the Red Sox at Fenway Park, his third straight outing on three days’ rest. It was a season for the ages for both Gator and the eventual champion Yankees.
*Live ball era when pitchers didn’t throw 454 innings in a season, as Jack Chesbro did in 1904.
Catcher: Thurman Munson, 1973
During a season in which future Cooperstown inductees Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, and Ted Simmons were all playing at a very high level, Thurman Munson was not only the best catcher in baseball, he was the best by a pretty good margin. His 7.2 WAR led all catchers and was almost 2 full wins more than second-best Simmons’.
Munson led all catchers in OPS+, SLG, triples, and was second in Total Zone defense while also throwing out 48 percent of all baserunners trying to steal. I’m sure I don’t need to list some of the great catchers the Yankees have had in their history for you, but as great as they were, none reached seven WAR in a season other than Munson in 1973.
First Base: Lou Gehrig, 1927.
Very likely the least surprising choice on this list, Gehrig was excellent during a breakout season in 1926 but then emerged as an absolute star during the Yankees’ legendary 1927 campaign. This time around, Gehrig led the AL in RBI (173), total bases (447) doubles (52), and won the AL MVP award. As is probably obvious, the reason he didn’t lead the league in most categories was that Babe Ruth was his teammate; 60 homers in a season is hard to top, after all.
Gehrig’s almost comical .373/.474/.765 triple slash, 11.2 WAR, and 220 OPS+ put him in rarified air, as Ruth and Barry Bonds are the only other players to reach those numbers in one season. Gehrig’s 1927 WAR, OPS+, and SLG are still the best ever by an MLB first baseman — no small feat, given the sheer production offered by the position’s all-time greats from Jimmie Foxx to Albert Pujols and everyone in between.
Second Base: Robinson Canó, 2012
With all due respect to the relatives of Snuffy Stirnweiss, who holds the highest two single-season WAR totals in Yankee history with 8.8 and 8.7, I’m going with Canó’s 8.4 WAR season in 2012 here. I don’t think that it’s a stretch to say that separating yourself from your contemporaries and padding stats during the wartime-impacted years of 1944-45 were easier than it was in 2012.
The ascendant Canó was the best second baseman in MLB in 2012 by a wide margin, registering 3.3 more WAR than the next-best, Aaron Hill. In addition to WAR, Canó led all second baseman in hits, doubles, home runs, RBI, BA, OBP, SLG, and OPS+, and was third-best in FanGraphs’ comprehensive defensive metric. His 8.4 WAR in 2012 was higher than Triple Crown winner and MVP Miguel Cabrera, and remains tops at the keystone in franchise history outside of Stirnweiss.
That’s it for today — leave a comment in the comments section letting me know what I got right and wrong and be sure to check back Saturday when I’ll offer up the rest of the lineup. (I can virtually guarantee a surprise or three for you.)