The time period from 1982-94 was one of the worst stretches in Yankees' history — the team didn’t make the playoffs once. Of course, back then, there weren’t three Wild Card spots, so even some good Yankees teams in the ‘80s didn’t crack October. But from 1989-92, the Yankees didn’t finish above .500 in any season, averaging just 72 victories a year and earning their non-playoff status each time.
The 1993 Yankees had some notable differences on the offensive side after struggling to score the previous year behind a fading Don Mattingly. That offseason, they inked Wade Boggs to a three-year deal and traded for Paul O’Neill. 1993 also marked Bernie Williams’ first season as the starting center fielder, as he replaced Roberto Kelly who had netted the Yankees O’Neill. Mattingly even went on to rebound to the tune of a 118 wRC+, his best showing since 1989. But I would argue that none of these notables had a more impressive year at the plate than catcher Mike Stanley.
1993 Statistics: 130 games, 491 plate appearances, 26 home runs, 70 runs, 84 RBIs, .305/.389/.534 triple slash, 148 wRC+, 150 OPS+, 4.9 fWAR, 4.8 bWAR.
Stanley, a native Floridian, played his college ball for the Gators. He played all four years and made the All-SEC team three times, one of just six baseball Gators to do so. Despite his long tenure, he managed an on-base percentage of .479 throughout his college career, a mark that ranked second in school history at the time of his Gator Hall of Fame induction in 2014.
On the basis of that performance, the Texas Rangers made Stanley a 16th-round pick in the 1985 draft. The catcher played in Arlington for six major league seasons in a reserve role, putting up a merely average .251/.348/.352 slash (97 wRC+) over 1164 plate appearances. By Total Zone Rating, his defense graded out as the worst in the league from 1987-91. This was primarily because he caught a paltry 16.5 percent of would-be base stealers, worst among the 65 catchers with at least 1,000 innings behind the plate during that span. Additionally, he tied for 10th in total passed balls despite playing at least 800 fewer innings than everyone ahead of or tied with him.
When the Yankees signed Stanley as a free agent prior to the 1992 season, his bat and glove improved immediately. Backing up Matt Nokes that year, Stanley hit a career-high eight homers in just 207 plate appearances, slugged a career-best .428, and tied his previous high in OBP with a .372 mark. All of this equated to an all-around best 132 wRC+. On the defensive end, Stanley improved his caught-stealing rate to 31.7 percent and tied his career-best in Total Zone at -2. These marks were still below average, but Stanley’s bat more than made up for them.
Stanley’s offensive acumen also gave him the upper hand in the catching timeshare with Nokes heading into 1993. Although Nokes ended up being the receiver for Jim Abbott’s no-hitter that year, Stanley was the one who took the starting job and ran with it, notching career bests in all of the triple-slash categories in addition to wRC+. His first month was up-and-down, but from May through July, Stanley caught fire with a .342/.417/.621 triple slash in 71 games, clobbering 18 home runs.
The Yankees went 48-36 during this time as their hot-hitting catcher helped lead them to their first winning season since 1988. Stanley slowed down a bit in August but picked it up back in September with a .316/.415/.526 final month. Due to his career-high in plate appearances, he shattered his previous bests in most cumulative stat categories.
In a pinch-hitting role on September 18th, Stanley even found a little Yankee Stadium magic when his bottom-of-the-ninth, two-out pop fly got waved off because a fan ran out in the field in the middle of the pitch. Instead of a Red Sox victory, the game continued and Stanley singled. A few batters later, captain Don Mattingly walked it off to capture a stunning victory.
Defensively, Stanley largely maintained his gains in caught-stealing rate, throwing out 30.9 percent of would-be base stealers. His Total Zone stuck at -2, but this was much better on a rate basis given that he more than doubled his innings behind the plate from the year prior. Similarly, he only allowed six passed balls after giving up seven in 1992 despite the difference in playing time. He also set a career-high in fielding percentage at .996, a mark that tied him for third-best in the majors among the 42 players who caught at least 400 innings that year.
As for the 1993 Yankees, while their 88-74 record was nothing to scoff at, the repeat World Series champion Toronto Blue Jays outpaced them for the AL East crown by seven games. The Bombers seemed poised to return to the playoffs the following year, but their 6.5-game lead through 113 contests would end up frozen in time due to the strike. Stanley, for his part, was in the midst of proving that his breakout was no fluke, with a near-identical triple slash and 139 wRC+. He was also having his best season behind the plate, throwing out runners at a 42 percent clip with only three passed balls to boot.
The backstop regressed a bit during his last year in pinstripes, his wRC+ dropping down to 120 and his passed balls climbing back up to 15. But he got to experience the beginnings of the next Yankees’ dynasty and caught their first playoff series since 1981. In 18 playoff plate appearances that year, he homered to go along with four singles and two walks against just one punchout.
Stanley left for the Red Sox the following season, and while his defense regressed further, his offense hung tough. Even after becoming more of a first base/DH type in 1997, he managed three more above-average offensive seasons, mashing 64 homers and slashing .275/.382/.483 in his age 34-36 years (briefly returning to the Yankees in late ‘97 in primarily a DH role).
So while 1993 was the pinnacle for Stanley, his late-career breakout held up on the offensive end. And though he missed the magic of the late-’90s Yankees (as another No. 20-wearing catcher overshadowed his earlier contributions), he carved out his spot in club history by leading the Bombers through the tail-end of one of their worst stretches and guiding them to their drought-defying playoff appearance in 1995.