Over the next couple days, we are going to be wrapping up our Top 100 Yankees series. You might not know the exact order, but you can probably piece together who will be appearing in the final few places at this point.
I’m somewhat stating the obvious, but this list has comprised the Top 100 Yankees, which obviously focuses more on what they did on the course of their Yankee career. There have been a couple other guys who made the list and had long—and in some cases—Hall of Fame-worthy, careers elsewhere, besides their good runs in the Bronx. Were we ranking the best baseball players who happened to ever play for the Yankees, someone like Rickey Henderson would have a good argument for the top 5-10, opposed to the still-commendable No. 40 he ended up on the basis of solely his Yankee career.
That got me thinking about that type of player, but specifically about the ones that didn’t get any shine as part of our Top 100. Using FanGraphs WAR, I found the five players with the highest fWAR who had stops with the Yankees, but didn’t quite crack our list. Some were good with the Yankees but simply didn’t play there for long enough to get serious Top-100 consideration on most lists. Some were just average to below-average in a brief Bronx run after a long successful career elsewhere. Let’s take a look.
(As mentioned, I took anyone who made our actual Top 100 off, in case you’re wondering where the likes of Henderson, Reggie Jackson, and others are.)
5. Johnny Mize (68.1 career fWAR, 4.1 with Yankees)
Mize was one of the best hitters in baseball from 1936-49, doing his best work with the Cardinals and Giants. He had pretty much done it all in baseball by 1949 ... except win or even appear in the World Series.
After not living up to his usual standards to start the 1949 season with the Giants, they opted to see him, and Casey Stengel’s Yankees decided to take a chance on the 36-year-old. The move paid off swimmingly as Mize would go on to help the Yankees win five World Series titles over the next five years as he continued to put up good numbers at the plate as a bench bat/role player, with a knack for coming through in big moments.
4. Paul Waner (74.8 fWAR, 0.0 with Yankees)
Paul Waner, New York #Yankees. Waner played his last career game #OTD in 1945 at Shibe Park, walking as a pinch-hitter in the 8th, his only appearance that season, ending a 20-year #HOF career. 3x batting champ & ‘27 MVP, he totaled 3,152 hits, 6th all-time at retirement #Pirates pic.twitter.com/RtLyXded3H— Behind the Bag (@behindthebag) April 26, 2020
Five years before the Mize move, the Yankees tried a similar one with “Big Poison.” This one did not lead to ideal results, unless you’re an Immaculate Grid Rarity Score enthusiast.
Seventeen years after his great 1927 season, where he led the Pirates to an NL pennant and World Series matchup against the Yankees, the Bombers picked up Waner as a bench bat late in 1944, when their roster choices were affected by the height of World War II. He went just 1-for-7, although the team did retain him for 1945. However after just one plate appearance — where he drew a walk — Waner decided to retire.
3. Phil Niekro (78.1 fWAR, 4.8 with Yankees)
In the midst of some frustrating seasons in the 1980s, the Yankees signed the 45-year-old knuckleballer Niekro in 1984 as they looked to improve on a third-place finish the previous year.
While he couldn’t quite help them back to the top of the AL East, Niekro was solid for the Yankees in 1984 and ‘85, making an All-Star Team in the first of those years. In 1985, he made a bit of history in pinstripes, by winning his 300th game while a member of the team. He overlapped with his brother, Joe, at the end of ‘85, and while Phil moved on, Joe pitched for New York through June of ‘87.
2. Gaylord Perry (100.1 fWAR, 0.9 with Yankees)
Perry could be a bit of a Yankee antagonist at points with his theatrics and antics surrounding the accusations (and the reality, to be honest) of him doctoring the baseball and throwing a spitball. However, the Yankees decided to bring in the veteran as they were battling the Orioles for the AL East in 1980.
Overall, Perry’s numbers in his brief run with the Yankees are below average, though he did throw a gem against the Orioles in his Yankee debut, which helped them eke out the division crown. Ultimately, he wouldn’t appear in the team’s ALCS loss to the Royals.
1. Randy Johnson (110.5 fWAR, 7.3 with Yankees)
Johnson helped deliver two of the Yankees’ most heart-breaking playoff exits in 1995 and 2001, and owner George Steinbrenner had coveted him for years. So they finally did decide to acquire him in an attempt to bounce back from some stuff that allegedly happened in 2004.
The Big Unit’s tenure — especially in 2005 — wasn’t terrible, but Johnson wasn’t quite the intimidating dominant ace he had been at pretty much every other stop in his career to that point. His bad playoff starts in ‘05 and ‘06 didn’t help, either, as New York failed to get back to the ALCS with Johnson on board (let alone the Fall Classic). For whatever reasons you want to ascribe, he just didn’t work out with the Yankees, and ahead of the 2007 campaign, they ended up trading him back to the same Diamondbacks team they had gotten him from in the first place.
Others that also go into this category but just didn’t quite crack the top WARs include Tim Raines, Dazzy Vance, Lee Smith, and others.