MLB records are a huge part of our collective baseball fandom, as there’s always nostalgia involved and conversations about trivia are among the sport’s most popular. Of course, when we’re dealing with a franchise like the Yankees, individual records have played a part in not just baseball history but in the shaping of society. Babe Ruth redefined how stadiums were built due to the records he was setting and four decades later Roger Maris would make history to an extent that a movie would be made about it.
Although when a baseball fan says “61” we all know what they’re referring to, what about single-season records in Yankee history that aren’t as glamorous as 61, or Gehrig’s 185 RBI, or Donnie Baseball’s 53 doubles? There certainly are some impressive ones that don’t get much (if any) attention, so let’s look at a few of those.
Hit-by-Pitches: Don Baylor, 24 (1985)
Don Baylor was hit by pitches 267 times in his career, and in 1985 he was the best pitch magnet the Yankees organization had ever seen. After setting the single-season franchise record the season before, Baylor set out to show New York it wasn’t just luck that got him free passes to first base. Fans tend to have varying reactions when a player gets plunked, but quite often don’t realize how much HBPs can help the team. Baylor’s season OBP was boosted by 43 points by his HBPs (it was .330, and would have been .287 if he’d never been hit).
Speaking of reactions, I’m sure I’m not the only fan who remembers Baylor’s complete inability to have one when he was hit. Whether it was to the low back, the elbow, the knee – it didn’t matter – the man did not flinch, wince, yell, pause, or ever even rub it. Instead, he’d just put the bat down and jog to first.
Chuck Knoblauch, Jason Giambi, and Alex Rodriguez have all made runs at the record but Baylor still sits at the top. That being said, I’d bet the late DH wouldn’t want the Yankees to re-sign Anthony Rizzo, who was hit nine times in only two months with the Yanks last season.
Intentional Walks: Mickey Mantle, 23 (1957)
When Mickey Mantle began his professional baseball career, there were whispers that he was going to be as good and as powerful a hitter as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig had been. After the 1956 season in which Mantle won the AL Triple Crown and posted a 210 OPS+, the whispers were replaced by suggestions to simply stop pitching to him in 1957. He was intentionally given first base 23 times in 1957, which was 17 more times than he’d been intentionally walked in ’56. Combined with many intentional “unintentional” walks, the Mick posted career highs in OBP and OPS+ in 1957 with .512 and 221 respectively.
When opposing managers would rather deal with Mantle on first base and Yogi Berra at the plate than with Mantle in the batter’s box, that’s a pretty telling statement about the fear the Mick put into opposing teams.
Sacrifice Flies: Roy White, 17 (1971)
Roy White was a switch-hitter with power who hit the ball to all fields, which is to say many long fly balls ended up in outfielders’ gloves in the cavernous outfield of the original Yankee Stadium. White’s 17 sacrifice flies in 1971 were the second time he led the league in the category and helped boost his RBI total to 84 on a not very good offensive team. Always known as a humble and reserved man, I’m sure Roy White wouldn’t admit it publicly, but I’d guess that when Danny Cater and his .364 SLG are in the on-deck circle the mindset becomes “just make contact” when there’s a runner on third base.
Singles: Steve Sax, 171 (1989)
This is a harder record to set than most people realize. By definition, if you’re a good hitter, you’re going to hit the ball hard often, which means plenty of extra-base hits. Conversely, if you don’t have a lot of power, defenses know that and can position the outfielders and infielders accordingly, which will cut down on the number of singles. It’s simply not easy to get a lot of hits without a good chunk of them being for extra bases. For example, Don Mattingly holds the Yankees’ single-season record for hits with 238, but 86 of them were for extra bases.
To that end, Steve Sax (or “Saxy” as former Yankees announcer Tom Seaver called him) was certainly underrated in his time in the Bronx. Despite not being a power hitter, he managed a 113 OPS+ in 1989, and although he’d never make anyone forget Willie Randolph defensively, he still put up 4.4 bWAR on the season. Derek Jeter made a run at Sax’s singles record in 2012, but given the way the game has changed philosophically, it may be a while before this one gets broken.
Baserunning runs: Rickey Henderson, 17.4 (1988)
You’re likely thinking two things: First, nobody has ever discussed a single-season record for “Rbaser.” Secondly, if they did the Yankees’ record would certainly be held by Rickey Henderson. If that is what you’re thinking, you’re probably right on the first part, definitely right on the second part.
Fritz Maisel had himself quite a year in 1914, running his way to an 11.4 Rbaser. That stood until Rickey arrived in the Bronx in 1985 and posted a 17.3, then broke his own record in 1988. Books can be written about Rickey’s baserunning alone, so for brevity’s sake, let’s look at just a few of the more ridiculous aspects of his 1988 season.
Rickey stole 93 bases with only 13 caught stealing for an 88-percent success rate, in a season in which the league average was 69%. Keep in mind, he had 239 opportunities to steal that season and he went almost half of the time – opponents knew he was likely running and he still made it essentially nine times out of ten. For further perspective, the Giants’ Austin Slater led the NL in 2021 with an 88-percent success rate and he went 15 for 17 on his attempts.
In 1988, Rickey took an extra-base 54 percent of the time, when the league average was 44 percent, so he was aggressive in all situations, not just steal attempts. Perhaps most amazingly, despite being an aggressive runner and having been on base 254 times in 1988, he was tagged out only 11 times during the entire season. (I started to check how many Yankees in 2021 made more than 11 outs on the bases with a fraction of the aggression, but I stopped because I like myself too much.) Rickey was like that kid in Little League that was so much better than everyone else, the other kids didn’t really have a chance – except Rickey was that way when competing against Major Leaguers.
No, the records above aren’t going to make us forget some of the records that Ruth, Maris, and Gehrig set but they’re pretty impressive nonetheless. They’re also illuminating in some cases in terms of the impact they had on team success, the way players adapted to their circumstances and maybe some players were even better than we realized. Also, as I mentioned, it’s fun trivia so I know that if Rizzo does return to the Bronx you’ll remember this article every time he gets plunked.