One of the more interesting aspects of discussing baseball records is applying context. For example, Roger Maris’ then MLB and still Yankees record of 61 long balls came in an expansion season, but that doesn’t denigrate what he did as he obviously was a great hitter who had a great season. Conversely, Mel Stottlemyre’s 20 losses in 1966 is a post-integration single season-high for the Yankees, and Tim Leary made a good run at it in 1990, finishing with 19 losses. Yet both pitchers posted FIPs that were better than league average in their seemingly awful seasons, which weren’t really awful after all.
For today’s conversation of some of the more inglorious Yankees single-season records, we have examples of both. Some of the stats are a little misleading without context, as very good players who had very good seasons are now etched in infamy. Conversely, there are two examples of when the numbers are what they appear to be – players who simply performed poorly – even after context is applied. With that in mind, let’s take a look at four inglorious Yankees single-season records.
Balks: John Candelaria, 12, 1988.
John Candelaria was a very good and largely underrated pitcher during the 1970s and 80s. As a 6-foot-7 hard-throwing left-hander with a nasty slider and a relatively low release point, Candelaria was somewhat of a prototype for the Randy Johnsons and Andrew Millers that would follow. Unfortunately, a confluence of circumstances in 1988 would thrust Candelaria in the wrong direction in Yankee history, and land him in the record book.
In 1988, the National and American Leagues still had separate umpiring crews, so although Candelaria was a veteran in 1988, he’d been in the NL for most of his career. Perhaps a lack of familiarity between the umpires and Candelaria was a factor, but what is not in question is that in 1988 the umpires decided what baseball needed was more balks. After calling balks on American League pitchers 137 times the previous season, the umpires stopped action with balk calls 558 times in 1988. Although it affected all pitchers*, the umpires found issue with Candelaria most often calling him for a franchise-record 12 in 1988. (Despite having only 14 called on him in the other 18 seasons of his career combined.) In spite of the umpires, Candelaria had an otherwise great season for the Yankees, posting a 3.20 FIP when the league average was 3.92 and a K-BB% of 15.3 percent when the AL average was 6 percent.
(*There have only been eight instances in which a Yankees pitcher has balked four or more times in a single season – five of them were in 1988.)
GIDP: Dave Winfield, 30, 1983.
Dave Winfield bore some similarities to Giancarlo Stanton in the sense that he was essentially a line drive hitter who just hit the ball so hard many of the line drives carried over the outfield wall. There’s not much to nitpick with that approach, but it will result in many hard grounders as well - which, if you’re a very large right-handed hitter who takes a very aggressive swing, making a quick exit from the batter’s box difficult, you’re going to hit into your fair share of double plays as well. That was the case for Stanton last season when he led the team with 22 GIDP, but fortunately for him fell far short of Winfield’s 1983 mark of 30.
As you would expect, Winfield had himself a great 1983 season regardless, posting a 138 OPS+ over 664 PA with some impressive counting numbers as well, earning himself a Silver Slugger award in the process - his third in a five consecutive season stretch that ended with a Silver Slugger award for him. Yet I’m sure he was curious why both Willie Randolph and Ken Griffey Sr. (who batted first and second most often in front of Winfield’s three spot in the order) chose that year to have the fewest stolen base attempts in a season up to that point in their careers, with Billy Martin as their manager no less. Speaking of stolen base attempts…
Caught stealing: Doc Cook, 32, 1914.
You’re likely thinking what I was thinking when I started the writing process for today’s chat: A high number of caught stealing may be misleading, as, in order to be thrown out a lot, you need to be running a lot, and if you’re running a lot, you’re likely a good baserunner. Heck, even Rickey Henderson was thrown out a league-leading 18 times in 1986 to go with his 87 stolen bases.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case with Doc. Doc ran his team out of an inning 32 times in 1914 while only successfully stealing a bag 26 times. That’s a 45 percent “success” rate if you’re scoring at home, and if you’re wondering even by World War I era standards that was pretty bad, as the AL average was 55 percent in 1914.
Before we pile on Doc too much, it must be noted that the 1914 Yankees would never be confused with the Murderer’s Row teams that would follow in the next decade. When the team posts an anemic .287 SLG and an 81 OPS+ for the season, it’s hard to blame Doc for his obvious “Why not?” approach to base stealing.
Batters hit by pitch: 19, A.J. Burnett, 2010.
You likely remember A.J. Burnett as I do: A talented pitcher who could be maddeningly inconsistent, at times commanding a great breaking ball and a hard, tailing fastball, at other times commanding absolutely nothing. In his first season in pinstripes, he was more of the former and was a key contributor to the Yankees' 2009 championship, posting a 4.5 bWAR on the season. Unfortunately, by 2010 he had become far more of the latter and opposing batters had the bruises to show it.
Even for a guy who once threw a nine-walk no-hitter, hitting 19 batters was wild even for Burnett’s lofty standards, as his previous season high for plunks had been 12. The very high number of HBPs wasn’t an aberration with regards to his overall performance in 2010, as he was simply awful in all regards, allowing 301 baserunners in 186.2 innings of work. The good news for all involved was that by 2011, Burnett greatly reduced the number of pitches thrown into batter’s boxes. The bad news is that he accomplished that by mastering the 58-foot curveball, which led to a franchise single-season record of 25 wild pitches.
(Author’s note: For HBP, I only used post-live ball-era seasons. Hit batters were far more common in the early 20th century than they were as the game evolved.)
Again, context is always a factor with records. Despite the ignominy, Candelaria and Winfield had very good seasons that helped the Yankees – Cook, and Burnett not so much. I think we can agree that given the way the game has changed philosophically, Cook’s 32 caught stealing record is safe. Perhaps with some poor luck, Stanton can make a run at Winfield’s double-play record. Finally, although I highly doubt any current Yankees pitcher will amass double-digit balk totals in a season, it would sure be fun watching Nestor Cortes Jr. do it.