This past Tuesday we began compiling our Yankees’ “Dream Team” lineup comprised of the best single seasons from a Yankee player at each position. Today, we’ll fill in the rest of the lineup card, and as I promised you on Tuesday, there may be a surprise or two in store for us.
For a complete review of the criteria we’re using, and to see the first four players who made the cut, you can read part one here. The important reminder for today is that for a position player to qualify at a particular position, 67 percent of the player’s games started need to be at that position during the season. We covered numbers one through four on the scorecard positions on Tuesday, so now let’s get to five through nine, then DH and relief pitcher.
Third Base: Alex Rodríguez, 2007
“Which season from Álex Rodríguez, 2005 or 2007?” was the only question to answer here, as Graig Nettles is the only other Yankee third baseman to reach seven WAR in a season (posting an AL league-leading best 8.0 in 1976). A-Rod posted identical 9.4 WAR seasons in ’05 and ’07, his two MVP campaigns with New York, and almost identical OPS+ with 173 and 176 respectively.
As I alluded to in part one, I’ll use randomness as a deciding factor where necessary, as I’m of the mind that although good fortune isn’t a controllable skill, it is a factor in team wins and losses, and it is a factor in separating great seasons from even greater ones. In 2007, Rodríguez had 19 more runs, 26 more RBI, and 6 more long balls than he did in ’05, so it looks as if not only was his performance otherworldly, the Gods of baseball randomness were on his side as well.
Rodríguez’s 2007 totals in WAR, runs scored, homers, RBI, SLG, and OPS+ are all the best ever by a Yankee third baseman, and his 54 HR and 156 RBI are MLB records for anyone on the hot corner.
Shortstop: Derek Jeter, 1999
The best individual season from the best shortstop in franchise history makes this a relatively easy choice. Jeter was the best shortstop in MLB in 1999, leading the position in WAR, OPS+, runs, hits, triples, walks, and OBP. More importantly for today’s discussion, he re-wrote the Yankees’ record book for shortstops. His 1999 totals in WAR (8.0), OPS+ (153), hits (219), batting average (.349), OBP (.438), and SLG (.552) are all franchise records for shortstops and he narrowly missed in setting the standards for walks (91) and RBI (102) as well.
As an added bonus, Jeter was electric in the playoffs as well. He hit .375/.434/.542 in 12 games as the Yankees went a dominant 11-1 en route to a second straight title.
Left field: Babe Ruth, 1921
In full disclosure, I must admit I was disappointed that Brett Gardner’s 7.4 WAR 2010 season isn’t the choice here. Unfortunately for Brett, not only was Ruth’s 1921 season one of his best, it was his only season as a Yankee in which 67 percent of his starts were as a left fielder.
Writing that 1921 was one of Ruth’s best seasons should suffice for today’s discussion, but just for fun let’s look at it this way: In 1921 Ruth hit 59 homers, drove in 168, scored 177, posted 457 total bases, and drew 145 walks — that’s the only time in MLB history those numbers have been reached in one season. If you prefer rate stats, he posted a .378/.512/.846 triple-slash line with a 239 OPS+ and that’s the only time those numbers have been reached in a single season. Gardner should wear his silver medal in this category with much pride.
Center field: Mickey Mantle, 1956
In the toughest call in formulating our dream team, the 1956 version of the Mick slightly edges out the 1957 version. The WAR is almost identical (11.3 in 1957 to 11.2 in 1956) but similar to our A-Rod discussion earlier, the counting stats of the 1956 Mantle – 11 more runs, 18 more homers, and 36 more RBI than in ’57 – give that season the edge. Although admittedly, pointing out that those numbers might partly be the result of AL pitchers avoiding him more in 1957 would be fair, as he was issued 34 more free passes in ’57.
Regardless, 1956 also featured Mickey’s Triple Crown season in which he not only led the AL in BA, HR and RBI but he led all of baseball in those categories – in addition to leading all of MLB in runs, SLG, OPS+, and total bases as well (not to mention his fourth World Series ring). Mantle set some pretty high standards for Yankee center fielders and gave us some options for our “Dream Team”, but it’s tough to top the 1956 season, even for him.
Right field: Babe Ruth, 1932
In what’s likely to be the most controversial choice on our “Dream Team”, Ruth’s 8.5 WAR 1932 season slightly edges out Aaron Judge’s 8.0 WAR 2017 campaign. If you’re wondering, yes, Ruth did have numerous seasons in which he played more games in right field than any other position as a Yankee, but 1932 was his only full season in which 67 percent of the games he started were as a right fielder. The Babe moved back and forth between the corner outfield spots more often than you realized – OK, more often than I realized, anyway.
If you feel I should have weighed the level of competition of the era more with my right field choice as I did with second base, and yelled “All Rise!” I wouldn’t argue with you. Yet let’s not act like this is a charitable nod to Ruth for something he didn’t earn. 8.5 WAR may not be “Ruthian”, but the then-37-year-old put up a monster season in 1932, certainly good enough to make our team.
In ’32 — the “Called Shot” championship season — Ruth finished second in the AL to only Jimmie Foxx in WAR, OPS+ (201), homers (41), and SLG (.661), while leading the league in walks (130) and OBP (.489). As far as Yankee history goes, his 201 OPS+ in 1932 has only been exceeded by himself, Lou Gehrig, and Mickey Mantle in a single season in team history.
Designated hitter: Don Baylor, 1983
Don Baylor was signed as a free agent prior to the 1983 season specifically to be the Yankees’ everyday DH and he certainly delivered. WAR is obviously hard to accumulate as a DH, but not only is Baylor’s 3.5 WAR in 1983 the highest for a Yankee in a season, his 138 OPS+ and .303 batting average are also tops in team history (minimum 470 PA). Baylor also displayed his running speed — one of the more underrated aspects of his game — in 1983 as well, setting single-season records in doubles (33), triples (3), and stolen bases (17 with a 71 percent success rate) for a Yankee DH.
Although I mentioned that getting into “Honorable Mentions” for each position would drag us a little off-topic, I’m guessing the DH position raises the most questions in that regard. To that end, I’ll add that the only other Yankee DHs to top both 3 WAR and 130 OPS+ in one season were Baylor again in ’84, and Giancarlo Stanton in 2021. Jack Clark with 130 OPS+ in 1988 and Alex Rodríguez with three WAR in 2015 both came very close.
Relief pitcher: Mariano Rivera, 1996
There’s no debate about who the best Yankee relief pitcher of all time is, but there was plenty of competition for the best single-season among Yankees’ relief pitchers. For some perspective, Sparky Lyle posted 3.7 WAR out of the pen in 1977 and won the AL Cy Young award — the Yankees have had nine different relief pitchers either equal or exceed that WAR in a single season. Yet Rivera’s 5.0 total in 1996 stands at the top, and with due respect to Rich Gossage (1982) and Joe Page (1949), it would be very hard to argue Rivera’s ‘96 season was not the best in Yankees’ history by a reliever.
It’s difficult to fairly compare relief pitchers from different eras as usage patterns have varied greatly over the decades, but it can be noted that Rivera is the only Yankee reliever to exceed a 30-percent strikeout rate prior to 2011 when rates became significantly higher. He’s also the only Yankees’ reliever to exceed a 30 percent strikeout rate while throwing more than 90 innings in a season.
Compared to his contemporaries, in ’96 Mo led AL relief pitchers in WAR, innings pitched, opponents’ OPS+, FIP, and opponents’ SLG. He also finished second in K%, K%-BB%, opponents’ BA, and OBP all to Troy Percival — who threw 33.2 fewer innings than Rivera. His K% of 30.6 percent was just short of double the AL average, and the 22.6-percent K%-BB% was more than three times better than the AL average. His 0.2-percent home run rate wasn’t only minuscule compared to the league average of 3.2 percent but was also his career-best.
It’s fitting that the best reliever of all time closes out our Yankees “Dream Team.” As I said in part one, we certainly could have played with the criteria and gotten different results in a few cases, but although my criteria was admittedly random, I think it was fair. Regardless, I’d feel fine going into a baseball battle with these 11 player seasons versus any other franchise’s “Dream Team.”