Today we have the second and final part of our short series looking at the worst individual seasons by Yankees at each position. If you missed it and want to catch up, or if you need to review the criteria we’re using, you can read part one here. Otherwise, if you’re ready , let’s get right to it:
Third Base: Mike Pagliarulo, 1988
From 1985-1987 Mike Pagliarulo was a good defensive third baseman with power for the Yankees, averaging 26 home runs per season over that stretch. Yet in 1988, he was none of the above and had the worst season a Yankees’ third basemen has ever had.
During the season, among AL third basemen “Pags” finished dead last in WAR (-0.8), batting average (.216), and OBP (.276). Among the 87 players across all positions who played in as many games as Pagliarulo did in 1988, only one produced fewer WAR. In Yankees’ history, our criteria have been met 99 times in franchise history for third basemen – Pagliarulo’s 1988 WAR is the lowest by a good margin, while his batting average is the second-lowest and his OBP the third lowest.
This is a tough one because Pagliarulo was popular with the fans and was fun to watch despite some of the limitations in his game. Things got better for him, however, as he went on to win a World Series ring with the Minnesota Twins in 1991. Matters are going to get tougher for us in a few minutes, however …
Shortstop: Pee-Wee Wanninger, 1925
Tony Kubek did his darndest to join his 1965 double play partner Bobby Richardson on this list, but as horrid as Kubek’s season was that year, 5-foot-7, 150 pound Paul Louis “Pee-Wee” Wanninger gets our vote.
After waiving the ineffectual Everett Scott, the Yankees gave the shortstop job to the 22-year-old rookie Wanninger in late April 1925. I don’t know if “from the frying pan into the fire” was an expression in 1925, but that certainly was the case in moving from Scott to Wanninger.
59 players played at least 100 games in 1925 and Pee-Wee finished dead last in both WAR and OPS+ with -1.8 and 43, respectively. Although defensive metrics weren’t great in 1925, neither was Pee-Wee’s defensive play as he posted the worst dWAR among AL shortstops in 1925 as well.
Among players who called the Bronx their baseball home, Pee-Wee’s WAR and OPS+ are both franchise-worst among shortstops, as was his .256 OBP. The Yankees traded him to St. Paul of the American Association at year's end, although he would make it back to the big leagues for a brief stint in 1927 with two other teams. Having had the misfortune of playing on the Yankees when Lou Gehrig was only 22, and the Babe was a little under the weather, the least we can do is honor him, almost a century later.
Left Field: Duffy Lewis 1920
Duffy Lewis was a pretty good player for Boston early in the 20th century, but by the time he was traded to the Yankees for a gentleman named Slim Love in 1919 he had lost a step or two. By 1920, Duffy had lost more than that and had the worst season a Yankees’ left fielder has ever had.
Among the 80 seasons from Yankees’ left fielders that meet our criteria, Lewis posted the lowest WAR with -0.8 and the lowest OPS+ with 70. In 1920, Lewis didn’t seem able to adjust to the new baseball that his contemporaries enjoyed hitting as he finished dead last in WAR, OPS+, runs, hits, doubles, triples, walks, OBP, and SLG among AL left fielders. Heck, he was even caught stealing eight times in only 10 attempts.
For his sins, Duffy was banished to the Washington Senators after the 1920 season, where he’d end his career in 1921. Despite his horrid 1920 season, and although he may not have known it at the time, he had a first-person seat to witness Babe Ruth change the game forever.
Center Field: Bernie Williams, 2005
I ask you to join me in clenching fists, grinding teeth, and just getting this out of the way: Bernie Williams’ 2005 season was the worst a Yankees’ center fielder has ever had. Bernie had some monster seasons playing in center field in Yankee Stadium, but at the risk of sounding like the old scouts in “Moneyball,” in 2005 the legs were gone, the arm was gone, and the bat speed just wasn’t there.
For some perspective, of the 99 seasons from center fielders in team history that fit our criteria, only two ended with negative WAR – and Bernie’s 2005 WAR of -1.6 was far worse than Omar Moreno’s -0.1 in 1984. Bernie’s 85 OPS+, .250 batting average, and .321 OBP were all among the 10 worst among in a single season for a Yankee center fielder, and most damaging was that the legs and arm made him a liability in center field. It’s hard to put a player as great and beloved as Bernie Williams on this list, but it had to be said.
Right Field: Bud Metheny, 1944
A case could be made for Hall of Famer Wee Willie Keeler’s 1907 season here, but I’d prefer to stick with Yankees seasons, not Highlanders. Héctor López’s 1965 season certainly could have made the cut without much protest as well, but he wasn’t on the field as much as Bud Metheny was in 1944 and therefore couldn’t do as much damage to his team’s chances. As a result, Arthur Beauregard Metheny’s 1944 campaign is our pick here.
Of the 85 seasons in which the Yankees’ regular right fielder played in at least 100 games, Metheny’s 1944 WAR of -0.5 was behind all but Keeler’s in 1907. Additionally, his batting average, OBP, SLG, and OPS+ are all also in the bottom 10 in Yankees’ history for right fielders for a single season.
As Bud only played from 1943-1945 when rosters were dynamic, to say the least, one might argue that maybe he was a little out of his depth. Perhaps he wouldn’t have been in the major leagues at all if baseball wasn’t losing players to the military, and maybe we can cut Bud some slack with that perspective. Of course, the counterpoint is Bud was one of many players in the AL who may have only been there due to many regular big leaguers serving in the armed forces. With that context, maybe he could have done better than near the bottom of the league of most important offensive categories – he did not.
Although 1944 was rough, Bud did win a championship with the Yankees in 1943 alongside Hall of Famers Bill Dickey and Joe Gordon. That more than makes up for making our list today.
Relief Pitcher: Wilcy Moore, 1933
You may not remember that Wilcy Moore was the most valuable pitcher by WAR on the 1927 Yankees. As a 30-year-old rookie, Moore made 38 relief appearances along with 12 starts for the team that many consider the best of all time, leading the American League in ERA, ERA+, saves, and hits allowed per nine innings. Now, if you thought Andy Hawkins’ “sort of” no-hitter during his awful 1990 season was odd, or if Bobby Richardson making the All-Star team and earning MVP votes in his hideous 1965 campaign made you raise your eyebrows, get ready: By WAR, Wilcy Moore had both the best and the worst season for a Yankees’ relief pitcher in their history – because in 1933 he put up batting practice level performance.
Of the 287 pitcher seasons with a minimum of 30 relief appearances, Moore’s 1933 opponents’ OPS+ and ERA both rank below the fifth percentile while his WAR ranks dead last in that group. Although there weren’t many relievers in 1933 who appeared in 30 or more games, Moore finished dead last in WAR, ERA, ERA+, and opponents’ OPS+.
Designated Hitter: Steve Balboni, 1990
A case could be made for Jorge Posada’s 2011 season when he was on the wrong side of 40, but “bye-bye” Balboni gets the nod here. Balboni came up as a highly regarded prospect for New York in the early 1980s and had productive seasons in Kansas City, winning a World Series as the Royals' everyday first baseman and cleanup hitter on the 1985 champions. Yet by the time he returned to the Yankees on the homestretch of his career, they were awful and he certainly played his part.
Among designated hitters in Yankees’ history with a minimum of 100 games played, Balboni’s -0.5 WAR, 34 RBI, 25 walks, .192 batting average, and .291 OBP are all single-season franchise worsts. Although his counting stats certainly took a hit as a right-handed power hitter in what was then a Yankee Stadium with a cavernous left field, a 94 OPS+ as a DH is tough to sugarcoat.
That ends our two-part series looking at the worst single seasons by position in Yankees history. We’ve learned that little-known players can have very bad years and very good players have made us cringe for a season as well. We also learned that the 1965 Yankees and 1990 Yankees were tough to watch, which I can confirm from personal experience with regard to 1990. Finally, it’s certainly not a knock on each player’s ability as all of the players mentioned were far better at baseball on their absolute worst day than you and I ever were on our best day. It’s just an interesting discussion to have until we have actual games again, fingers crossed.