Earlier this week, I revisited the best seasons by Yankee veterans aged 35 and up by position. That list had many legends across several decades ranging from Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig to Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada. Today, we’re going to flip the script and review the best seasons from the many young studs the Bombers have had in their franchise’s history.
The criteria will be the same. The player must have played at least two thirds of the season at their respective position. Obviously, the age filter will be slightly different. The focus is on seasons from players ages 23 and under. That gives enough room to not have rookies only. Okay, let’s jump into it.
Starting at catcher, we have one of the most popular Yankees of all time, Thurman Munson. The Yankee backstop was outstanding in his 1970 Rookie of the Year winning campaign at age 23. You can’t ask for more from a rookie catcher: he hit .302 with a 126 OPS+ and stellar defense, good for 5.5 rWAR. To put it into perspective, that is more rWAR than both Buster Posey and Johnny Bench had in their Rookie of the Year campaigns, truly incredible!
There was bound to be a few repeats on this list. It’s no surprise that Lou Gehrig is the one to do it. In his age 23, 1926 season, he was already hitting like a vet in their prime. With a 153 OPS+ and his first top-10 MVP finish, Gehrig accumulated 6.9 rWAR. This was the first glimpse of the Iron Horse the league got a taste of — in the following season, they got the full punch when he won MVP, slugged 47 homers, and delivered an 11.9 rWAR.
Those 1920s Yankees teams were loaded with talent. Everybody always thinks of Ruth and Gehrig, rightfully so, but Tony Lazzeri was a beast at second base. In his age 23 season in 1927, Lazzeri he slashed .309/.383/.482 which was good for a 125 OPS+. 6.4 rWAR in your second full season ain’t too shabby. It’s worth nothing that Willie Randolph had three seasons of over 4.5 rWAR from ages 21-23, but none were quite as good as Lazzeri’s 1927 season.
Third base is the biggest blind spot on this list. While Miguel Andújar had the best offensive season, he was edged out by Andy Carey’s age 22, 1954 season in terms of rWAR. The difference is basically negligible, but Carey actually did more in fewer games, delivering 3.2 rWAR in just 122 games. Another great rookie campaign for a former Yankee.
You probably could’ve guessed Derek Jeter would also appear on this list given his early career success. His 1997 campaign edged out his 1996 ROY campaign by over 1.5 rWAR (3.3 vs. 5.0). Jeter accelerated his career so quickly — in 1996, it was clear the type of hitter he could be. In the following season, the defense was a great addition to the good offense. After these two seasons, the whole package came together even more as Jeter produced four straight top-10 MVP finishes.
Left field provides us another unexpected entry into the young studs the Yankees have featured. In 2006, Yankees universe was beyond excited for Melky Cabrera. A switch-hitting outfielder with great defense … how can you not get ecstatic? With 3.0 rWAR and a 95 OPS+, 2006 ended up being Melky’s best season in the Bronx. To be fair, those skills combined with the production at age 21 are hard to come by. It was impossible to not have high expectations, but unfortunately, Melky’s best years came outside the Bronx.
Center field is easily the most stacked position of any on this list. To highlight that, let’s check out each of Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio’s qualifying seasons. Mantle has four worth noting and DiMaggio has two. At the ages of 22 and 23, DiMaggio had back-to-back stellar seasons with 5.7 and 8.3 rWAR, respectively. That’s impressive, but it’s not quite what we saw from Mickey Mantle. From ages 20-23, here are Mantle’s WAR totals: 6.4, 5.8, 6.9, and 9.5. He was an absolute menace from the jump.
In Bobby Murcer’s return to the big leagues following two years of military service, he had the best season from a young Yankees right fielder. He swatted 26 homers for a 119 OPS+ over 152 games. It’s a massive feat to return to the bigs after two years off and still be a well above-average hitter. Murcer only needed two full seasons until he went on an insane three year run as one of the best hitters in the league.
I was once again surprised to see the success that some young Yankees starters have had over the years, but like what we saw with the veterans, another 1960s starter reigns above all. Mel Stottlemyre threw 291 innings in 1965 with a 2.63 ERA — that’s good for 6.8 rWAR. While his ERA+ wasn’t quite what we saw from the runners up, the innings total was good enough to accumulate the most WAR. No matter the era, 291 innings from a 23-year-old is incredible.
Now for the relievers. You have to remember how exciting it was to see Phil Hughes in 2009. He was crucial throughout the 2009 season as a multi-inning setup man, logging 86 innings of 3.03 ERA ball with 93 strikeouts. At only 23, he followed the classic track many young pitching prospects used to, starting as a reliever and working their way into the rotation. His 2010 debut as a starter was promising, but like Cabrera his best season would come outside of New York. Hughes was an exciting young pitcher for the Yanks and this 2009 season was a special one.
Thanks to Stathead, it’s much easier to remember these great seasons that we’ve covered this week. It’s reminded us of how many fantastic players the Yankees have had no matter the time of their career, era they played in, or what position they played. It’s also reminded us of players we got excited about as a prospect or had the opportunity to appreciate as their career wrapped up. Either way, it was fun to reflect and remember.