Something very strange happened this offseason: the Yankees were outbid for a player they have a clear need for (although all teams need players of this caliber). This player is the best second basemen, and one of the top 10 position players, in all of baseball. Of course this player is Robinson Cano, perennial All-Star, Silver Slugger, Gold-Glover and MVP candidate. I do not need to tell you that Robinson Cano is a great baseball player. But I thought it would be interesting, as a matter of reflection to appreciate Cano’s talent/ be slightly depressed watching him rack up his numbers in Seattle, to rank the best second basemen in Yankee history and to determine where Cano fits in.
First, I think it is important to put the five players to be discussed in some historical context. When one thinks about the great “Yankee positions,” second base does not particularly stand out, at least to me. Like most Yankee fans (I imagine), I immediately think of center field (Mantle, DiMaggio), catcher (Berra, Dickey, Posada, Munson), first base (Gehrig) and right field (Ruth). But is this justified? Lets look at the top five fWAR (FanGraphs’ WAR) totals for each position in Yankee history:
Top 5 Total fWAR
*NOTES: (1) Babe Ruth was counted as a right fielder (2) Stats courtesy of FanGraphs.
As we can see, second base places 5th behind the four positions I think Yankee fans most associate with greatness. However, no other team in history has had at least five second basemen accumulate at least 37.1 fWAR, and only one team’s top five (the Reds) beat the Yankees’ top five in total fWAR, albeit barely (220.3 to 216.7). Of course not all teams have been around as long as the Yankees have (and some have been around longer) but you get the idea. Suffice to say, second base has been an excellent position in the history of an organization that has had several excellent positions. So while second base places right around where we would expect in terms of other Yankee positions, it is important to reiterate that (1) the four Yankee positions ahead of second basemen on the aforementioned list are insanely good and include some of the greatest players of all time, and (2) the top five Yankee second basemen, compared to other teams’ top second basemen, are among the best ever.
That being said, here are some stats for my top five Yankee second basemen of all time, in no particular order:
*NOTES: (1) Stats courtesy of FanGraphs; (2) These stats are what each player accumulated as a Yankee only.
Like I said before, this is more or less as good a list of top-five second basemen that any team has. Every player on this list was an above-average hitter that played exceptional defense (except for Cano). The one glaring weakness, with the exception of Randolph, is baserunning. This strikes me as a bit odd because second basemen are typically solid in this aspect of the game. Even still, these are five very, very good ballplayers. Now to the top five:
5. Gil McDougald
Gil McDougald’s inclusion on this list is somewhat dicey because he played all over the infield save for first base (he appeared in 599 games at second, 508 at third, and 284 at short as a Yankee). McDougald is included because 1) he did in fact play most of his games at second, and 2) in my opinion, he is one of the most underrated players in Yankee history. The Rookie of the Year in 1951 (his best season with the bat with a 142 wRC+) McDougald was a five-time All Star and a member of the five Yankee World Series championship teams. A player with his versatility is extremely valuable to any team and the fact that he was making his contributions to an organization in the midst of the greatest dynasty in sports history (1949-1964) is all the more impressive. Throw in his above-average bat and you have one great ballplayer. McDougald does not rank 1st in any of the aforementioned categories but he is the definition of a “jack of all trades” player: he played multiple positions and did everything well.
4. Willie Randolph
Millennials like myself remember Randolph mostly (and quite fondly) from his time as the Yankee third-base coach during the most recent dynasty years (and less fondly as the manager of the Mets), but he had a fantastic playing career in pinstripes as well. Representing the Yankees in four All-Star games (including in 1977, the Yankees’ first World Series title since 1962), Randolph had the reputation as a defensive wizard. The statistics back that assertion up nicely, as his 143.9 Def rating is best among second basemen in franchise history (and his career Def rating of 168.2 is ninth all time among second basemen). Randolph is easily the best baserunner of the five, with a 17.6 BsR (no other player is above -4.5). Randolph was no slouch with the bat either, although his power pales in comparison to the other four players on the list. However, it is known that on-base ability is more valuable than power, and Randolph’s .374 career OBP ranks second. McDougald and Randolph are strikingly similar players (even their fWAR/game is an identical .030) but I decided to rank Randolph higher due to his superior on-base ability.
3. Robinson Cano
The inspiration for this post, Robinson Cano checks in as the third-greatest second baseman in Yankee history. A five-time All-Star and five-time Silver Slugger, Cano’s Yankee career began somewhat randomly during the teams’ terrible start to the 2005 season, and he never looked back. His 126 wRC+ is tops on the list. He also leads in home runs, batting average, and slugging. However, his Def rating of -10.4 is easily the worst on the list (acknowledging that defensive metrics are far less reliable than offensive and base running metrics). Cano has been one of the very best players in baseball the past several years. Neither McDougald nor Randolph could claim such during their playing days. Cano has been top-five in all of baseball in bWAR (Baseball-Reference WAR) in four different seasons, whereas McDougald has two such seasons, and Randolph none. Had Cano signed with the Yankees this offseason, he most likely would have ended up #1 on this list.
2. Tony Lazzeri
Hall of famer Tony Lazzeri checks in at #2. In his 12 seasons as a Yankee from 1926-1937, Lazzeri played less than 123 games only once, hit at least 10 home runs in every season but two (in those two seasons, 1930 and 1931, he hit 9 and 8 home runs, respectively) and had a wRC+ greater than 100 in 11 straight seasons. He also accumulated at least 2 fWAR every year he was with the Yankees. Suffice to say, Lazzeri was a very consistent ballplayer on same great Yankee clubs (including arguably the great of all time, the 1927 squad). His 48.4 WAR is second on the list. Unlike Cano, Lazzeri was not one of the best players in all of baseball during his playing career, but was simply with the Yankees longer and his counting stats reflect as much, giving him a slight edge over Cano.
1. Joe Gordon
Completely disregarding my reasoning for ranking Lazzeri ahead of Cano, I decided to rank Joe Gordon, another of the most underrated Yankees of all time, as the best second baseman in the teams’ history. He, like many big leaguers in the 1940s, missed time (in Gordons’ case, the 1944 and 1945 seasons) to serve in WWII. In 1942 and 1943, Gordon put up 8.8 fWAR and 6.8 fWAR, respectively, and save for a 2.1fWAR season in 1946, bounced right back and put up 6.9 fWAR in 1947 and 7.1 fWAR in 1948. The point of all of this is that Gordon would have, in all likelihood, continued to dominate in the two seasons he missed, but we’ll never know.
Even though his time in pinstripes, and in baseball for that matter, was shorter than it could have been, Gordon did not disappoint when he was on the field. A Yankee for seven seasons, he was an All-Star in six of them (although his 1946 selection is a bit odd. Check out his numbers that year). In those seven seasons he accumulated 40.1 fWAR, an average of 5.7 fWAR per season. This is easily the highest per-season average of any player on this list (Cano is second at 4.1 with the other three each at 4.0). On a fWAR/game basis, Gordon’s .040 is well ahead of the others (McDougald and Randolph are tied for second at .030). He, like Cano, could claim to be one of the best ballplayers of his time, having placed in the top 10 in overall bWAR five times as a member of the Yankees. Gordon was an elite defender, rating second all-time in Def for a second baseman. Randolph barely has him beat in terms of what they did as Yankees, but Gordon’s per-season average of 20.0 Def easily eclipses Randolph’s 11.1. Couple his historic defensive abilities with his great bat (his 121 wRC+ trails only Cano) and you have a fantastic ballplayer and the best second baseman in the teams’ storied history.
So there is my top five Yankee second basemen of all time. What sets Gordon apart from the rest are his per-season averages, but if you place a higher value on longer-term consistency I suppose Lazzeri would be your guy. But no other player did more in a shorter amount of time than Gordon, hence my ranking of him as #1. Honestly, I could be talked into changing this list around in a number of different ways (exlcuding McDougald and including Stirnweiss and flipping Lazzeri and Gordon just to name a couple) but I think the purpose of a post like this is to try and initiate some interesting debate while admiring the careers of past Yankee greats. Like I previously stated, I think second base is an under-appreciated Yankee position, but the organization has had some truly great second basemen in its history.