Throughout the latter half of the 1990s, the Yankees won without a true left field solution. They used Tim Raines and Chad Curtis, Ricky Ledee and Shane Spencer to try to fill the hole. It was not until 2003 with the arrival of Hideki Matsui that the Yankees had a true left field solution.
Now, as the Aughts came to a close, the Yankees’ left field position is again up for grabs. Johnny Damon is gone, and someone will step in to fill the hole. That is a concern for other posts. Today, as we continue our Yankees By the Decade retrospective, we come to toast the left fielders. The table below is those who made at least 10 appearances in left from 2000-2009.
By virtue of playing time alone, Hideki Matsui is the left fielder of the decade. For a few years from 2003-2007, before his knees gave out, Matsui brought stability to the spot and man, did he hit. Over his 2080 left field at-bats, he hit .291/.371/.475 with 82 home runs and 357 RBIs.
Even with this gaudy counting stats, I’m a little hesitant to flat-out proclaim Matsui the best of the decade. The simple truth is that Matsui’s fielding in left was, for five years, atrocious. He never once put up a UZR better than -1.6, and his combined left field UZR for his time in the Bronx was -57.8. Without Matsui’s big bat, the Yanks would have been in deep trouble in left.
For the 2000s, though, the trend for the Yanks in left focused around a big bat with less emphasis on fielding. Johnny Damon, the successor to Matsui in left, put up nearly identical numbers to Matsui. He hit .301/.372/.484 and sported a better OPS out of left than Matsui did. For the first two seasons, Damon put up positive UZR totals in left, but in 2009, that figure dipped to -9.2. It was ugly for sure.
Before these two stalwarts of the late 2000s, the Yankees tried everyone. The Rondell White era was a misguided attempt to plug a hole left by the end of the Paul O’Neill era. Never able to stay healthy, White signed a multi-year deal with the Yanks, put up some atrocious numbers and was traded for Bubba Trammell. The two-year, $10-million deal White signed was one of the worst of the early 00s.
As the early years of the decade wore on, others came and went. The Yankees tried to put Chuck Knoblauch in the left field spot in 2001 after he couldn’t throw from second to first. They tried Melky Cabrera when Matsui went down with an injury in 2006. They even gave Ruben Sierra 51 at bats in the field during the mid-decade years.
Now, though, the era of Matsui and Damon is over. The Yanks’ DH went west, and the Yanks’ incumbent left field is trying to find some team willing to overpay him in both years and dollars. Maybe Damon will return; maybe Brett Gardner will fill the void. For the Yanks, that left field hole is nothing new, and as the decade ends, we will be Matsui, the man who received just 33 percent of all Yankee LF at-bats, as the position’s best.