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Discussing the Yankees in ESPN’s Top 100 with David Schoenfield (Part 1)

Where do Yankees greats land in ESPN’s Top 100 players and are they in the right spots?

Babe Ruth Lou Gehrig 1929

ESPN published its Top 100 ballplayers of all-time on Thursday, and unsurprisingly, considering the Yankees’ long history and tradition of success, the Bronx Bombers are well represented. I was originally just going to riff on the where certain Yankees fell on the list, but instead, I had the pleasure of talking baseball with someone who watches even more of it than I do, for longer than I have, in ESPN Senior Writer David Schoenfield.

The Yankees on the list fall into two categories for me: those who spent part of their career with the Yankees but might be equally or better known for their time elsewhere, and those who are certified Yankees Legends. Before I go any further, here are some of the pinstripers who cracked the Top-100. For a full count, go check the list, along with conversations about methodology, snubs, and musings about players who might be too high/low.

Part-time Yankees: Reggie Jackson (#55), Wade Boggs (#45), Rickey Henderson (#23), Roger Clemens (#17)

Yankees Legends: Mariano Rivera (#31), Derek Jeter (#28), Joe DiMaggio (#16), Mickey Mantle (#7), Lou Gehrig (#6), Babe Ruth (#1)

One of the first questions I asked David was about who did the write-ups for each player. As I was preparing for our conversation, I noticed that he did the honors for Rivera, Jeter, DiMaggio, Mantle, and Ruth. He punctured my vision of him pounding on a table in a room with his peers, demanding to wax poetic about our favorite Yankee legends. The truth, that it was random, is much too prosaic for my taste. That said, those write-ups proved a fruitful jumping-off point, as a considerable chunk of our discussion revolved around those Yankees.

What follows is a summary of our discussion on specific players. For a more abstract discussion about comparisons, analogies, methodology, and other baseball musings, tune in for Part Two of our conversation.

Mariano Rivera: One of my first thoughts when I looked at the list was that I don’t know that I would put Rivera that high, due to the particular circumstances of a closer versus a starting pitcher or a position player. So, I asked David his thoughts on Rivera’s placement.

Mo’s greatness is not in doubt. As David made clear in his first sentence describing Rivera, “The greatest reliever of all time — and, unlike every other position, there isn’t even a debate.” In our conversation, he also pointed out that if this list was solely about value, we could all just go look at Baseball Reference’s WAR leaderboard and wrap the whole exercise up. Does Rivera’s ranking ignore WAR? Sure. But everyone knows River’s a top-100 player, so the question becomes where to put him. Would either of us put him that high? Perhaps not, but it is a reasonable place for Rivera to fall.

Derek Jeter: Here again, I wondered if perhaps Jeter was a tad high on the list, although for me it comes down to how we think about his defense. Going solely by oWAR, #28 seems like an eminently reasonable spot for The Captain.

I was not the only one who wondered about Jeter. David mentioned that in conversation with the piece’s editors, the two biggest rankings controversies revolved around Jeter and Ken Griffey, Jr. There was a lot of disagreement about whether each ultimately ended up too high or too low on the list. He also pointed out that it’s hard to ignore Jeter’s championships, even though we generally don’t factor those in baseball the same way we might in discussions of other sports. Shortly after the list came out, he received a text message, angrily wondering how Mike Trout, with his career total of zero playoff wins, could possibly rank above Jeter.

On Jeter’s defense? David mentioned an old article by Bill James that compared video of Jeter’s top 25 defensive plays in a season to those of Adam Everett. There was no comparison. Everett was making plays Jeter could not, especially on slow rollers. Jeter’s positioning and fundamentals hurt him on certain plays. That said, was Jeter as bad as the metrics suggest, or just below average? Ultimately, our guest offered that perhaps Jeter gets hammered too much for his defense.

Joe DiMaggio: I feel like a terrible Yankees fan, because here again I questioned whether The Yankee Clipper is ranked too highly on this list. And that hurts me to admit, because DiMaggio is probably the Yankee who fascinates me the most.

David had my back though, and he pointed out the reasons that #16 is a perfectly logical place for Joltin’ Joe to land. Starting with Joe’s service to his country that cost him his ages 28-30 seasons, prime years. Think about the impact on his counting stats if he has those campaigns. Championships? DiMaggio played in 10 World Series and won 9 of them, at a time when all that mattered was boxing and the World Series. Finally, the legend of DiMaggio is important. David points out that if you go back and read sports writing while Joe was active, everyone idolized him. Yeah, he’s probably not as great as a Willie Mays. But he captured everyone’s imagination at the time. It is okay to factor that into the equation, echoing David’s comment earlier about Rivera. The list is not just a WAR leaderboard.

Babe Ruth: This spot on the list seems about right. But Ruth’s placement still facilitated great thoughts from David on Ruth’s centrality to and importance in baseball history.

David acknowledged that there could be reasons not to put Ruth at #1. The elephant in the room is of course that the Bambino played in a pre-integration era. But at the same time, Ruth changed baseball. His write-up for Ruth perhaps puts it best… “The baseball we watch today is Babe Ruth’s game. Many players make an impact, a few become folk heroes, but nobody changed a sport like Ruth did when he joined the Yankees and transformed baseball into a game of power.”

Furthermore, David pointed out that, with apologies to Michael Jordan, Babe is the greatest icon in American sports history. We are still talking about him more than 100 years after the Red Sox sold him to the Yankees. People who know nothing about sports know who Babe Ruth is. Again. A hundred years later. He pioneered athletes selling products and appearing in films. Perhaps the way to think of him is as the original “Instagram athlete.”

Finally, I finished our chat about specific athletes with a hypothetical. When ESPN does this again in 2032, do any current Yankees crack the top-100? My thoughts, that the only two with a chance are Aaron Judge and Gerrit Cole, seem to mirror David’s. Here are his musings on each.

Aaron Judge: Probably not. He will be playing his age-30 season in 2022… I guess there is a chance. His long-term value is tethered to his health. When it comes to his ability and production per 162 games? Yeah. He has a chance to crack the list. There is also the unique question of how he will age due to his size. He’s pretty good defensively now. But at his size, when do his agility and speed fade? Finally, Judge came up a bit late, meaning his peak window is theoretically a little smaller.

Gerrit Cole: Maybe. Pitchers age a little differently than position players. Max Scherzer, Randy Johnson, and Justin Verlander were all great in their 30s. It is not uncommon for a pitcher to be effective for a long time, so it can certainly happen for Cole. Zack Greinke and Mike Mussina are two other examples. Maybe the big question for Cole is whether he can replicate his 2019 season with Houston. But even if he does not recapture that form, there is still a chance. If he can pitch five or six more seasons at 5.5 WAR and then has a graceful aging curve on the back end of his career, he has a shot. Finally, David pointed out that Cole probably also needs to capture some hardware. A Cy Young or two would go a long way toward boosting his top-100 credentials.

There are the nuts and bolts of our conversation about the Yankees and ESPN’s list of the Top-100 players of all-time. Come back in a couple of days for the rest, as David and I also chatted abstractly about methodologies, comparisons, and thought processes.