Top 20 Yankees of all-time according to WAR

October 9, 2012 1 Comment »
Top 20 Yankees of all-time according to WAR

I don’t know nearly enough about the “guts” of WAR to know whether it’s great, good, bad, pitiful, or somewhere in between. This IS NOT an article to discuss the merits of Wins Above Replacement (WAR), it’s an article to try to help put WAR in some context and to hopefully understand it better.

Below is a list of the Top 20 Yankees as ranked by their Wins Above Replacement while in pinstripes (according to baseball-reference.com). As a fan who has written about baseball history quite a bit, I’m going to comment on the rankings at each slot to see if they jibe with what I would think they might be, based on my own view. Of course, I bring my own unique point of view to the subject, and I didn’t SEE all of these players play, but I’ve done a fair amount of research and study of baseball history, and I feel like I can comment on the rankings.

As a result, I hope this exercise helps illuminate the WAR stat and how it might shape our views on players, based on our biases and in relation to more traditional statistical tools.*

20. Don Mattingly, 39.8

Not surprised that Mattingly rates in the top 20, even considering his short career, but I am a bit surprised about some of the players that are ahead of him, like Combs, who is generally accepted as one of the weaker center fielders in the Hall of Fame. But, that’s one of the features (or failings, depending on your POV) of WAR – it gives bonus points to players who man important defensive positions. Mattingly was a first baseman and DH for pretty much his entire career. In looking back at Donnie Baseball’s career I am a bit surprised that he only had four seasons in which he was a great ballplayer. The rest of his career was borderline All-Star quality, especially for a first baseman. I watched him play, and I remember thinking that he was very good for a few years, but that he was never scary good like George Brett or Mike Schmidt or even Jim Rice.

19. Earle Combs, 40.0

One of six Yankees on this list who were part of the late 1920s and 1930s teams, Combs would be considered the weakest of them all, in my opinion. WAR confirms it for me. I would bet that most Yankee fans would think he was less of a player than Mattingly, whether it be peak or career. But Combs had nine seasons where his OPS+ was at least 120 (that’s 20% above LG AVG). Look at a photo of Earle and tell me he doesn’t look like Greg Evigan of B.J. and The Bear fame.

18. Graig Nettles, 41.0

I would have thought Nettles would rate much higher. I always liked him, so that might be why. I’m a sucker for third basemen who do the hidden things that author Bill James taught us about in his Baseball Abstracts: draw walks, hit for extra-base power, field. Nettles was the first third baseman I saw who had fantastic range to his left and routinely seemed to cut off grounders that shortstops would normally get. I am really shocked he rates below White, Munson, and Guidry, all of whom were his teammates.

17. Roy White, 43.0

It’s fashionable to call White “underrated” – and in fact I can email you 3-4 articles from The Sporting News from the 1970s that mention White and use the word “underrated” a lot. When I did my player rankings he kept coming up ahead of Jim Rice, no matter how I tweaked the formula. When I emphasized park effects, White would be ahead of Rice. When I de-emphasized career and emphasized peak performance, Rice nudged real close or even surpassed Roy, but White wasn’t far behind at all. It doesn’t seem like Roy White could possibly have had a more valuable career than Jim Rice (44.3 WAR), but it’s quite possible he did when you factor that Jim Ed was a DH for a long time. By the way, White was almost an exact match for Lou Whitaker as an offensive player.

16. Thurman Munson, 43.3

My other favorite player on the Yankees in the 1970s, Munson was really good. In case you’re wondering, his 43.3 WAR comes from an 11-year career. If he hadn’t gone down in that plane in August of 1979, we could assume he would have had a fairly typical career track for the final 5-6 years of his career. That would probably mean 10-15 more WAR and place him in the Yankee top 10.

15. Tony Lazzeri, 44.7

There are three Yankee second basemen with at least 30 WAR and then there’s Lazzeri with his 44 and Randolph over 50. When I think of the great Yankee second basemen I think of Joe Gordon first, then Randolph, followed by Lazzeri and the rest. That’s pretty much right, because Gordon averaged about 6 WAR per year in his six seasons as a Yankee, while Poosh ‘Em Up Tony put up a mark of 3.7 per in 12 seasons. Gil McDougald and Robinson Cano (fast moving his way to the Top 20) are the other 2B with at least 30 WAR as Yankees.

14. Ron Guidry, 45.4

I guess I’m surprised that Guidry is only about 5 WAR behind the top starting pitcher on this list, Whitey Ford. But Ford had five seasons in which his ERA+ was over 140, while Gator has three, all early in his career. Guidry should have won the AL MVP in ’78, in my opinion. I wanted to say that so I could get Jim Rice into this comment too.

13. Andy Pettitte, 45.8

I don’t have much to say about Pettitte, who according to my Yankee fan friends has no chance of making the Hall of Fame considering his admission of steroid use.

12. Bernie Williams, 45.9

He seemed overrated to this fan who saw him play most of his career. But it’s appropriate, to my mind, that WAR rates him well below the Holy Trinity of Yankee center fielders and ahead of Combs and Bobby Murcer (25.5 WAR as a Yankee). Bernie was as responsible as any other player for the Yanks being 6-1 in the ALCS when he was with the club – he had 19 extra-base hits and 33 RBI in 41 games during that round of the playoffs.

11. Alex Rodriguez, 49.8

The best way to measure ARod against the Yankee legends is to boil his WAR down to a per 162 games average. His is 6.4 (and spiraling), while Ruth’s was 10.3, Gehrig’s was 7.8, Mantle’s was 7.5, DiMaggio’s 6.9,  and Berra’s was 4.9. At least aesthetically, there are similarities between Rodriguez and Dave Winfield, who was also castigated for not being a clutch player. Where Winfield was hated by Yankee fans because he wasn’t Reggie, ARod is resented because he’s not Jeter. Winfield posted a WAR/162g of 3.6, in case you’re wondering.

10. Whitey Ford, 50.6

According to WAR, the best starting pitcher in Yankees history. I can swallow that. The absence of Hall of Famers Jack Chesbro, Lefty Gomez, Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock, and Red Ruffing on this list shows how suspect their inclusion in Cooperstown is. For the most part, those guys won a crap load of games because they were on great teams, and as a result the voters awarded them a plaque and immortality. That’s a generalization, of course, but appropriate for the last four in that group.

9. Willie Randolph, 51.7

Why hasn’t anyone started a Willie Randolph for the Hall of Fame campaign? He was a better player than Phil Rizzuto (according to WAR and any other stat you might want to use), he played on four Yankee pennant winners, and he was adored by their fan base. Maybe it would help if he was a popular broadcaster for a few decades. Assuming Cano plays his 30s in a Yankee uniform, he should pass Randolph on this list for second basemen, and possibly supplant Gordon as the best second sacker to ever be cloaked in pinstripes.

8. Bill Dickey, 52.4

I didn’t expect Dickey to rank this high, mostly because I look at his stats and see a lot of high average seasons, but not much else. But upon closer examination, his 15-25 homers per season during his peak are pretty damn good because back then 20 HR was an impressive total. He also walked more than he struck out and must have been (according to WAR) a good defensive catcher. His dWAR (Wins Above Replacement earned by his defense) was always positive in every one of his 17 seasons. It’s not clear that he wasn’t as good as Berra, but more on that later.

7. Mariano Rivera, 52.7

Pretty amazing that a relief pitcher who pitches only 69 innings and faces about 270 batters per season, ranks this high in a counting stat that is supposed to measure overall performance. To me, it’s the most embarrassing ranking by WAR of the list. Rivera is great – the best reliever I’ve ever seen – and almost anyone who is honest about it has to admit he’s the best to ever come out of the bullpen,  but you mean to tell me that Mo’s career has been almost as valuable as Berra’s – a catcher who was a key part of about 12 World Series teams? I don’t buy that, based on the sum of his contribution as a reliever. Based on the 270 batters faced per season, that’s about nine starts for a starting pitcher. Even if ALL of the innings Rivera pitched were very crucial for the Yanks, I can’t see how a guy who pitches the equivalent of nine starts per season for 17-18 years has had a better career than say, Whitey Ford or Bill Dickey.

6. Yogi Berra, 56.2

Berra’s career WAR is higher than that of Dickey, his predecessor, by about 4 wins. But Dickey had a better WAR per 162g of 5.3 to 4.9. It’s really a toss up, in my opinion, as to who was the best catcher in Yankee history.

5. Derek Jeter, 69.3

Jeter contributes 4.3 WAR per 162g and he’s still humming along. However, and this is a part of WAR I wonder about – he gets “credit” for being a shortstop even if he’s obviously one of the worst defensive shortstops in baseball. Yes, dWAR “subtracts” WAR from him for his lack of range, but there’s still a positional adjustment. Someone who lives and breathes WAR is invited to explain to me how that makes sense. Seeing as how Jeter is now getting only about 2 WAR per season, if the Yankees move him to another position (say left field), he would be basically a marginal major league player, at least according to this stat. If he somehow keeps getting that 2 WAR per, he could skip past Joltin’ Joe, but he has no chance of getting any higher on this list.

4. Joe DiMaggio, 75.1

A difference of 30 WAR between him and Mantle is pretty large, even after you give Joe more credit for losing years to the war (lower-case). His 6.9 per 162g average is behind that of Mantle (7.5), but I have to believe that if 28, 29, and 30-year old DiMaggio had been in a Yankee uniform instead of Army olive drabs, he would have had some of his best, if not his best seasons. Like with Berra and Dickey, the choice between DiMaggio and Mantle is a matter of choice, and most likely taste. If you want regal, royal grace, you take The Clipper; if you want the tape-measure homering good ol’ boy, you go with Mantle.

3. Mickey Mantle, 105.5

I presume WAR ranks him this close to Gehrig because he played center field. No arguments here, besides, I have always thought Mantle could have been the greatest Yankee after The Bambino.

2. Lou Gehrig, 108.5

Even if we give Gehrig another three years at his level of play before he found out he had the disease, he wouldn’t catch up to the Babe. Gehrig was already slowing down, whether due to his illness or to the normal performance dip that comes with age we’ll never know. But when you’re hitting .340 every year with a ton of power and then all of a sudden the next season you hit .295 with 16 fewer extra-base hits, I’d speculate that he was a sick man in 1938 and still managed to hit 29 homers. That’s pretty incredible.

1. Babe Ruth, 138.2

So he was the best Yankee of all-time, that’s not big news – he was the best player of all-time. Another way to look at it, through the eyes of WAR, is that Ruth’s Yankee career was twice as valuable as Jeter’s. Think about that. That makes me appreciate how great Ruth was in a way that relates it to my era. Put three Ron Guidry’s in your starting rotation for 14 years and you get what Babe Ruth meant to the Yankees, roughly.

——— NOTES ———

1. For the record, I’m not a SABRmetrician, nor am I a Luddite when it comes to baseball numbers. I devoured the Bill James’ Baseball Abstract for the better part of a decade like most other hardcore baseball fans in the 1980s. I have assisted, though in a very modest way, in helping fine-tune the database that fuels websites like baseball-reference.com. I have attempted to rank the greatest players of all-time using many different formulas. I have in the past been drawn to stats like Thomas Boswell’s Total Average, which tries to weight offensive contribution for not only hitting but also baserunning, as well as OPS and OPS+, which does not factor baserunning at all, but does (in the case of the latter) account for ballpark effects. I don’t know crap about ballpark effects, and they seem very odd to me. One season the Oakland Coliseum is a pitcher’s park, the next it’s a hitter’s park. That baffles me, but I am willing to concede that others who spend time on it know what they’re doing. Just as I can’t draw out a schematic to show you how a combustion engine works, but I can drive my car to the farmer’s market. Having said that, it’s important I think, to reveal that I rely heavily on stats that are normalized to their league. For example, in my player rankings on this site, I looked at OPS and Total Average as they compared to the league average during the specific player’s career. It seems to me that if Ernie Banks has an OPS that’s 22% better than his league average, that means he was a better offensive player than Vern Stephens, who has a figure of 119. Of course, then comes defense. But let’s leave that for another note.

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One Comment

  1. Mike November 30, 2012 at 12:22 PM - Reply

    Your Derek Jeter comment about WAR and positional adjustment vs. defensive runs. Jeter as a SS gets +.75 WAR. Last year, he had -1.4 defensive WAR. If you moved him to LF, he would take a -1.5 WAR positional adjustment hit. So if he was an average LF, he would lose 0.85 WAR. Positional adjustments are done because offensive contributions at certain positions is much more scarce to obtain. A SS who hits like Jeter is much more difficult to find than a LF who hit like Jeter. Jeter was 3rd among qualified SS in wRC+ (one of the better offensive measurements). His 117 wRC+ would be only 11th in LF.

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