Baseball fans are in a tough stretch right now: It’s winter and there’s an MLB lockout. Football was a nice distraction for some, but that’s over. Hockey and basketball playoffs don’t start for awhile. Even soccer matches that would interest a casual fan are months away. Maybe it’s best if we relive some great all-time seasons from Yankees players and ride the nostalgia and fond memories toward a more optimistic sports outlook.
That sounds like a good idea, but I’ve done that a lot lately. As a counter suggestion, what if we embrace the doldrums and look at the absolute worst individual seasons by Yankees at each position? Just one season from each position that would make a fan think “How did that player make it through the year?”
Let’s set some criteria: I’ll start with WAR, as it’s the most comprehensive measurement, but in cases where it’s close, I’ll use other criteria that will likely be more subjective. I do my best to be detached and objective, but I’m human and I can’t promise that my frustration with certain players won’t rise to the top (or sink to the bottom, depending on your perspective). In those cases, I’ll try to be honest enough to admit it if called on it.
Also, we’ll define a season as at least 100 games played with more than two-thirds at the position for position players, minimum of 20 starts with 75 percent of all appearances as starters for starting pitchers, and 30 relief appearances for relievers. This way, we’ll eliminate players whose performance was so substandard that they came and went in a hurry. We want players who were regulars, or at least close to it, for a full season of ineptitude.
Enough of the preamble. Let’s embrace our despondence and get to the worst individual seasons from Yankee players at each position, starting with position number one on the scorecard, working our way through nine, and then finishing with a relief pitcher and DH.
Starting pitcher: Andy Hawkins, 1990
Monk Dubiel had himself a rough season in 1945 so this was a tough call, but Andy Hawkins gets the nod here. To be clear, Andy Hawkins’ 1990 season is the pick, because Andy Hawkins in 1989 certainly could have been the pick as well.
In the 1990 AL, 46 pitchers made at least 25 starts and Hawkins finished 44th among them in WAR (-1.0) FIP (5.12) ERA (5.37) ERA+ (74), and winning percentage (.294). We’ll give him a break on that last one because the 1990 Yankees were a horrid team that year, which necessitated sending Andy out there 26 times over the season. Historically, the Yankees have had 323 individual seasons in which a pitcher has made at least 25 starts and thrown at least 150 innings. Hawkins’ 1990 season ranks 322nd in WAR, 320th in ERA+ and 311th in ERA — right in the depths of the cellar.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can shake our heads in amazement, but nothing was more amazing than the fact that Hawkins threw a no-hitter that season. Well, he started and finished the game without allowing a hit over eight innings, but the rule was changed a few years later that stipulated no-hitters need to be nine innings. In case you forgot, he only threw eight innings because the game ended after the Yankees batted in the top of the ninth – because they lost.
Catcher: Joe Girardi, 1997
Joe Girardi certainly earned himself some goodwill with Yankees fans and with the organization over the years as a player and a manager. Yet it wasn’t goodwill so much that got him through 1997 as the starting catcher as it was simply that Jorge Posada wasn’t Jorge Posada quite yet.
I would say that Girardi’s bat was non-existent in 1997, but it would have been better if it were literally non-existent. At least if he wasn’t holding anything he wouldn’t be able to make weak contact and may have at least drawn some more walks and HBP. His 69 OPS+ and single home run in 433 PA were not only the lowest in the American League that season among catchers but were also the lowest in Yankees’ history for a catcher (minimum 400 PA).
Of course, catchers’ value typically comes from what they do behind the plate, and unfortunately, Girardi wasn’t particularly good there either. He was just about league average for catchers according to FanGraphs’ comprehensive defensive metric and was a tick below league average in throwing out base stealers. Although not awful, his defense wasn’t enough to save him from making our list (unlike Chris Stewart in 2013 and Bob Geren in 1990).
First Base: Johnny Sturm, 1941
After an 88-win season and a third-place finish in 1940 (embarrassingly bad for the team in that era). the Yankees parted ways with light-hitting first baseman Babe Dahlgren, and looked for an upgrade in 25-year-old rookie Johnny Sturm. They didn’t get one.
It’s hard not to feel bad for a player who had one major league season and that one season ended up on this list, but there’s just no way to sugarcoat Johnny’s season. Johnny’s -1.9 WAR and OPS+ of 58 are not only the lowest in Yankees’ history among first basemen by a large margin but were also worst in the AL in 1941, as was his slugging percentage.
The only upside was that the Yankees won 103 games and the World Series while being led by several future Hall of Famers, so hopefully not too many people noticed Sturm’s play. Regardless, the Yankees moved on from him after the season and despite playing four more seasons in the minors, would never play in MLB again.
Second base: Bobby Richardson, 1965
If you thought that Andy Hawkins throwing a no-hitter in the season that was the worst from a Yankees’ starting pitcher was odd, you’d better buckle up, because matters are about to get very odd.
Similar to Hawkins, Richardson’s best competition for this honor is himself, as his 1961 and 1965 seasons are the two worst by WAR for Yankee's second basemen who meet our criteria. He was a fondly remembered Yankee, but outside of the 1960 World Series and a brief surge in 1962, he just couldn’t hit. In 1961, Richardson was so ineffectual that he had 706 PA predominantly out of the leadoff spot and scored a grand total of 80 runs on the season. (Reminder: The Nos. 3 and 4 batters on that team combined for 115 home runs.)
Yet that wasn’t bad enough to make our list. In 1965, 221 position players took the field in the AL and 213 of them produced more WAR than Richardson’s -1.0 despite Richardson playing in 160 games. His 74 OPS+ was the second-worst among batters to qualify for the AL batting title and his WAR, OBP, SLG, and SB success rate were all the lowest among AL second basemen as well. Since I’m already piling on, even though I’m not sure how much stock I give in defensive WAR in 1965, he was second-worst among AL second basemen in that category too.
Perhaps most interestingly, (I told you things would get odd) despite all of the above, Bobby Richardson was an All-Star in 1965, won the Gold Glove award, and finished 20th in the AL MVP balloting. It was a different time.
On that note, let’s call it a day. Check back tomorrow for part two, where we’ll finish out our team with at least one pick you won’t like.