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The 1990 Yankees infield and a perfect storm of inadequacies

A story about a Yankee unit that underperformed to a shocking degree.

Major League Baseball Archive Photo by Louis Requena/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Nothing is ever so bad that it can’t get worse. It’s fair for us to groan about a 99-win team’s inability to beat the Houston Astros, but sometimes, when scrolling through Baseball Reference for article ideas, you stumble upon the page of a 1990s Yankees team, and realize you don’t know pain.

The 1990 Yankees finished with 67 wins and 95 losses, in seventh place in the AL East. Manager Bucky Dent was fired in early June, before he could complete a full year on the job, leaving the club with an 18-31 record, and his replacement, Stump Merrill, showed there is only so much one can do without the manpower, also boasting a below-.500 record (49-64).

New York Yankees
Stump Merrill

I’m not here to bash a lousy team from a generation or two ago. Something in particular caught my eye about this club, and it goes well beyond a lack of talent.

The infield for that 1990 team is a statistical anomaly. The only redeemable hitter with at least 200 plate appearances on that team (playing an infield position) was Kevin Maas. The first baseman, who on many occasions spelled an oft-injured Don Mattingly, went on a Cinderella run out of nowhere to put up a 150 OPS+ on limited time, and finished runner-up in the Rookie of the Year voting.

That would be the highlight of Maas’ career, who after a full season with league-average numbers in 1991, played parts of three seasons before retiring.

As far as the rest of the Yankees’ infield, five other hitters had at least 200 PA that year:

  • Don Mattingly (.643 OPS)
  • Steve Sax (.641) OPS
  • Alvaro Espinoza (.530 OPS)
  • Jim Leyritz (.688 OPS)
  • Randy Velarde (.594)

All of these players were awful in 1990. But the interesting part is that other than Alvaro Espinoza, all of them had, to some extent, rather solid MLB careers, and none of them were in the last year of their career, dragging it out after a steep decline. This wasn’t supposed to be a historically terrible infield, at least with these players at this particular stage of their careers, and yet.

Mattingly is a case apart, as we all know of his talents, but throughout an injury-riddled career, 1990 was the season in which his back issues most affected his final stat line, with a long DL stint in the middle of the year. However, even in subsequent years in which he was still dealing with these issues, Mattingly was able to put up much better offensive numbers, and that .643 OPS was by far and away the worst of his career.

Sax had a long and pretty good MLB career, winning a Rookie of the Year award with the Dodgers and making multiple All-Star games. This putrid campaign came sandwiched between two very good years in New York, in which he hit above .300, and had a 113 and 110 OPS+ in 1989 and 1991, respectively.

Velarde and Leyritz split time at third with neither doing much to hold down the job* despite the other’s struggles, but both went on to have very fruitful MLB careers. Leyritz remained a part-time starter with the Yankees until the end of the 1996 season, running a .274/.372/.452 good for a 117 OPS+ over 398 games. Velarde produced 25 rWAR over the course of a 16-year tenure in the bigs.

*Leyritz’s 1990 campaign is probably most remembered for one unfortunate moment out in the sunny Comiskey Park left field during Andy Hawkins’ no-hit bid.

Alvaro Espinoza is the only outlier in this group, in terms of delivering a year in line with what his career numbers were. The Venezuelan light-hitting shortstop got a three-year run with the Yankees, at a time of scarcity at the position for the Yanks, but beyond that, played really only one full year with Cleveland before bouncing around a couple of places.

The 1990 version of the New York Yankees was never going to be a World Series contender, but it probably shouldn’t have been as bad as it was, with many solid big leaguers delivering what ended up being the worst year of their careers. Sometimes, a team that has actual talent just comes up completely empty.