Baseball will never be just about the numbers. The characters, the on-field action, and all of the drama wrapped up into a baseball game are what always draws us in. Those factors will never change.
This doesn’t mean that the numbers aren’t important, though. Our understanding of the numbers is what forms our perception of a player. As the statistical age keeps evolving and conversations keep getting elevated, we are given the gift of appreciating players who may have been overlooked during their playing days.
The 1980s were an exciting time in Major League Baseball. There was power, even bursts of power like the “rabbit-ball” 1987 season. There were pitching-rich years, stolen bases, bunts, hit-and-runs ... it was, in a word, fun.
We didn’t understand some of the more important statistics like we do today. While there is always going to be debate about WAR and “all of those advanced metrics” (as some broadcasts like to generalize), we’ve at least learned that on-base percentage is one of the most important, basic statistics in the sport. We know that wRC+ is far more accurate way to measure a player’s production than RBI. Had we known that in the ‘80s, many more players would’ve been appreciated.
Ron Hassey may have been one of those players, at least during his brief time in pinstripes.
Hassey was never a star; he was, however, an underrated offensive catcher during an era that didn’t see too many offensive catchers. He only played in pinstripes for 156 games over a season and a half; heck, he wasn’t even technically on the roster the entire time (more on that later). That brief jaunt was marked with some above-average play and the type of disfunction that only the ‘80s Yankees could provide.
Hassey was drafted in the 18th round of the 1976 draft by Cleveland, and two years later, he made his MLB debut. The left-handed hitting catcher didn’t come with a defensive catcher label and he didn’t hit for much power. He did have a strong arm and got on base at a high rate.
From 1978 through 1983, Hassey averaged 87 games played per season and a .273/.347/.377 triple slash with 12 doubles and 4 home runs. He wasn’t a very discerning hitter at the plate, averaging 30 walks per year, albeit while keeping strikeouts to 26. Despite the lack of a defensive reputation, Hassey would throw out over 30 percent of runners in five of those six seasons. He led the league in caught stealing percentage, throwing out an incredible 56 percent of runners in the split-season 1981.
During the 1984 campaign, Hassey was involved in one of the more famous trades of the decade, as he was sent to the Cubs along with Rick Sutcliffe and George Frazier for Joe Carter, Mel Hall, and Don Shultze. He played just 19 games for the Cubs and wasn’t on the 1984 playoff roster (Sutcliffe was the real star there). During the winter, Hassey was traded to the Yankees in a package that included Rich Bordi, Henry Cotto, and Porfi Altamirano for Brian Dayett and Ray Fontenot.
As with all things ‘80s New York Yankees, Hassey’s tenure with the Yankees was as bizarre as it could get. The bizarre part had nothing to do with Hassey’s play. He actually put up two of the best seasons of his career during the 1985 and 1986 seasons.
In 1985, Hassey paired with Butch Wynegar to form a productive platoon. The backstop appeared in 92 games and hit .296/.369/.509 with a career-high 13 home runs. He added 16 doubles, 28 walks, and struck out just 21 times. His wRC+ was 141, third-best on the team behind Rickey Henderson and Don Mattingly.
Had Hassey posted enough plate appearances to qualify for the league leaders, his wRC+ would have ranked 14th-best in Major League Baseball and first among catchers. Hassey and Wynegar combined for a more-than-commendable 4.4 fWAR and help a Yankees team full of stars to win 97 games and be one of the best teams in Major League Baseball history to miss the playoffs.
Here’s where the bizarre kicks in.
In December of 1985, the Yankees traded Hassey along with Joe Cowley to the Chicago White Sox for Britt Burns, Glen Braxton, and Mike Soper. Burns was the big get as he was pegged as the next ace, coming off of an 18-win season with a 3.73 FIP along with a career-high 18.7 strikeout rate. He was just 27 and the Yankees were in need of a young starter. Alas, Burns came with a hip condition that eventually cost him his career. He never threw a pitch in a Yankees regular season game or any MLB game again. It appeared the Yankees were duped.
Two months later, the White Sox and Yankees made another trade. This time, the Yankees sent Glen Braxton, Neil Allen, and Scott Bradley to the White Sox in exchange for Chris Alvarez, Eric Schmidt, Matt Winters, and ... Ron Hassey.
In a span of two months, the Yankees traded Hassey away, only to trade for him once again. To their credit, he would start out his second season as a Yankee quite well. In 64 games, he hit .298/.381/.466 with 14 double and 6 home runs, and yet despite that great start, the Steinbrenner Yankees couldn’t help themselves.
Bizarre would kick in again.
On July 30th, the Yankees and White Sox struck yet another deal (the front office evidently had a terrific relationship with Chicago GM Roland Hemond). The White Sox reacquired Hassey along with Carlos Martinez for Ron Kittle, Joel Skinner, and Wayne Tolleson, who went to the Bronx. Hassey excelled for the White Sox for the remainder of the 1986 season, slashing at a .353/.437/.500 rate. For the entire season, he compiled a career-best 143 wRC+.
Hassey’s Yankees career concluded with 156 games played, a .297/.374/.491 slash line along with 30 doubles and 19 home runs in 458 at bats. The Yankees would struggle to find an offensive catcher for the next half-decade until Mike Stanley came on board.
Hassey finished his career as a platoon player for the Oakland A’s during the late ‘80s. He was a member of their championship team of 1989, although he didn’t play in the World Series. He appeared in the 1988 and 1990 World Series, totaling 31 postseason at-bats and a postseason career mark of .323/.439/.452. During his run as the A’s backup, he became Cy Young Award winner Bob Welch’s personal catcher during a memorable 27-win season.
Ron Hassey also has the distinction of catching two perfect games during his career. He was behind the plate in Cleveland for Len Barker’s gem in 1981, and Dennis Martinez’s perfecto a decade later in 1991 as a member of the Montreal Expos. He retired after that ‘91 campaign and coached for the next two decades.
The Yankees, like most teams of that time period, didn’t value on-base percentage. While Ron Hassey will never be discussed as an all-time great, his career .340 on-base percentage ranks 117th-best all-time as a catcher. Further, Butch Wynegar, Hassey’s Yankees platoon mate, is actually higher on the all-time catcher on-base percentage leader board, ranking 78th. The Yankees had a veteran tandem behind the plate who gave positive value.
Instead of holding on to that for a few more years, they traded Hassey away—three times to the same team—and endured a half decade of non-production at catcher. (Don Slaught would come the closest to being competent during that time).
If Hassey had played during this era, he would’ve been valued much more by teams. By comparison, only six catchers posted an OBP over .340 during the 2022 season; the environment was a little different this past year with a league-average OBP of .314 compared to the .324 mark of 1977-91, but the point stands: Hassey’s offensive skill set would absolutely have had a place on more teams’ rosters.
Like many other names who passed through the pinstripes of the ‘80s, Ron Hassey’s brief time was marked by severe disfunction in the organization that was quickly cratering towards the bottom of the league standings.