An ode to The Bull

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(photo by Otto Greule/Allsport)

As we near the end of Retro Week at RAB, I thought I’d take a look at one of the unsung heroes of the early-90s Yankee teams, a man who seemed to go entirely underappreciated despite putting up several very strong pinstriped campaigns: the immortal Danny Tartabull.

Tartabull, born to Cuban parents in San Juan, Puerto Rico, was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the third round of the 1980 amateur draft. He turned in two productive seasons in Rookie and A-ball, but struggled a bit after being promoted to the Reds’ AA affiliate. Following the 1982 season, he was selected by the Mariners as a free agent compensation pick, according to Baseball-Reference. Apparently teams could do that back in the day.

However, “struggled” is probably a bit unfair — he only really struggled by virtue of the fact that he managed a .774 OPS at AA after a .954 the year prior in Single-A. Additionally, it should be noted that Tartabull walked eighty-nine times in 126 games at AA and had an IsoD of .139, so even though his BA and SLG declined rather precipitously, his batting eye was outstanding and remained that way throughout his career.

He spent the 1983 season rediscovering his power stroke, and finally got a taste of the show in 1984, receiving 24 plate appearances for Seattle at age 21 at the end of the season. It all seemed to come together for Tartabull the following year, as he spent the 1985 season utterly annihilating AAA to the tune of a .300/.385/.615 line over 546 PAs, during which time he clubbed forty-three home runs and won the Pacific Coast League MVP.  Tartabull was rewarded with a September call-up for a second-straight year and hit to a Jesus Montero-esque .413 wOBA over 69 PAs.

Tartabull stayed in the bigs for good, breaking camp with the Mariners in 1986 and posting a robust .361 wOBA during his first full season in the Majors. After the season the M’s shipped Tartabull (along with reliever Rick Luecken) to Kansas City for starter Scott Bankhead, outfielder Mike Kingery and reliever Steve Shields. Shields only lasted one season in Seattle and was out of baseball after 1989; Kingery posted an exactly league average year in 1987 but was a decidedly below-average hitter for the majority of the remainder of his career; while Bankhead turned in two strong seasons and two injury-shortened campaigns in Seattle before leaving as a free agent in 1991.

Unfortunately for Seattle, Tartabull absolutely killed it in Kansas City, turning in a .392 wOBA  (145 wRC+) from 1987-1991, which was the fifth-highest wOBA in all of baseball during that five-year period. The Bull parlayed his outstanding production into a big-time contract with the Yankees, who signed the then-29-year-old to a five-year, $25.5 million deal which made him the fifth-highest-paid player in baseball at the time.

Interestingly, the Yankee 1991-1992 offseason apparently bore some striking similarities to this past winter’s. From YES’s own Jack Curry in a January 7, 1992, story in The New York Times:

After two months of offseason lethargy and front-office chaos, the New York Yankees emerged Monday with a $25.5 million free-agent outfielder and a suddenly voracious appetite for the trade market.

In a quick move that surprised fans and baseball people alike and reminded many people of George Steinbrenner`s previous spending sprees, the Yankees signed slugger Danny Tartabull to a $25.5 million contract just after midnight on Monday.


But by making a splash in the free-agent market and promising Monday that more roster changes were imminent, the Yankees indicated that their club philosophy had been altered and additional transactions are expected before spring training.

Now that Tartabull is signed, the Yankees have a surplus of outfielders, and Michael will almost certainly try to peddle Jesse Barfield for a pitcher or a third baseman.

Michael is reluctant to trade Roberto Kelly, who is very marketable. Mel Hall is a left-handed hitter, and that makes him valuable at Yankee Stadium, especially if the Yankees get a right-handed-hitting third baseman, such as Montreal`s Tim Wallach.

The Yankees ended up holding onto Barfield, who played one more season in pinstripes (putting up a heinous 21 OPS+ in 105 PAs) before retiring, and Curry wound up being a year early on Kelly, who of course was famously traded after the 1992 season for Paul O’Neill.

For his part, Tartabull lived up to his contract during his first two years in the Bronx, posting an outstanding .397 wOBA in 1992 — 4th-best in the American League that season — and a very good .376 in 1993. His production dipped some in the strike-shortened 1994 — a .358 wOBA in 470 PAs — but he really fell off in 1995, hitting to a paltry .321 wOBA through 59 games before the Yankees shipped him out to the A’s for Ruben Sierra.

All in all, Danny Tartabull was a pretty solid Yankee, posting a .370 wOBA (127 wRC+) during his three-and-a-half seasons in pinstripes. However, he was arguably only the third-best hitter on the team during that time frame, despite getting paid as if he were the best, and this — along with his precipitous decline from 1994-1995 — is presumably why he’s seemingly never been all that fondly reminisced by Yankee fans. Well, except for my brother, who is very likely the only person in the world with a customized “TARTABULL 45” name-and-number tee. (Yankee fans familiar with the all-time SNES classic, 1994’s Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball, also likely have warm memories of Tartabull, who was an absolute BEAST in that 16-bit classic).

Still, a closer look at his pinstriped career reveals a player who was pretty much the ideal Yankee — Danny Tartabull got on base with the best of them, posting a terrific 16% BB% (he finished his 14-year career with a 13.1% BB%; for reference Alex Rodriguez has an 11% career BB%, though he’s also played four more seasons) that helped fuel an excellent .372 OBP; and he hit for power, posting a .221 ISO and .473 SLG. So in essence, Tartabull was basically Nick Swisher, with even more walks and a touch less power.

Tartabull was traded to the White Sox for the 1996 season and had a reasonable bounceback year with a .353 wOBA, which he then parlayed into a one-year deal with the Phillies. Tartabull played in all of three games for the Phils in April of 1997 before fouling a ball off his toe which somehow caused him to miss the remainder of the season. Tartabull retired after the season, culminating a largely underrated career in which he swatted 266 bombs and posted a very respectable .377 wOBA and 132 wRC+.

Despite the apparent mutual dislike between Tartabull and the Bronx — he was quoted as saying “I feel like I’ve been released from jail” following being traded for Sierra — the statistician in me is happy to have had him on the Yankees, especially as the team began to emerge from the darkest period in franchise history.

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  • gc

    Did you see that guy? He just gave me the finger! Middle finger, straight up, at me! AT US!!!

    • GardnergoesYardner

      Nobody gives us the finger! We are Yankees!

      • art vandelay

        you gonna eat that last donut ?

        • George Costanza

          Use a knife and fork.

  • Opus

    According to the air date, Costanza “fixed his swing” in September 1994. Reverse Midas touch you got there George.

  • Dan

    I loved Tartabull. Had a poster with him, Boggs, and Mattingly on it. I appreciate him even more now that I understand OBP and SLG are more important than BA. Like you said, the original Nick Swisher.

    • Garcia

      I had that poster as well (or a different one with those three on it), and attempted to take it with me to college. Alas, it didn’t survive the dismount from the wall. Thank you for reminding me of it.

  • CapitalT

    Is it bad when a baseball player insists on taking a 2-week vacation every summer? That is how I remember the bull.

    I do admit that the numbers are better than I remembered.

    • Cris Pengiucci

      Shit, your handle could have been mine!!! Should have thought of that before you!

      I remember liking Tartabull, but as others have stated here, I don’t remember him being that good. Perhaps it was the last 2 years or perhaps it was his attitude. Either way, during his time, it became more enjoyable to be a Yankee fan again. Good times! (well, better times anyway.)

  • JGS

    Fact: Tartabull is still the only player to ever hit 30+ homers in a Royals uniform more than once.

    • vin

      Wow, that is insane.

    • I am not the droids you’re looking for…

      Incredibly hard to believe the Brett didn’t do this.

  • Will (the other one)

    I was early in elementary school during Tartabull’s tenure in the Bronx, and it just so happened that our rec fields actually backed up to his (expansive) backyard, separated just by a narrow strip of trees. Every now and then, when the school would schedule a Fun Run or a picnic, those of us friends who were into baseball would find an excuse to sneak back into the woods to the Bull’s fence and see if we could catch a glimpse or give him a shout. We never did, but that didn’t stop us from idolizing him like he was some sort of hometown hero; I guess it’s really for that reason that I still remember Tartabull’s time in pinstripes fondly.

  • Darren

    Tartabull was the original A-Rod, hitting a ton of meaningless homeruns in the 8th inning of lopsided games after striking out at a crucial moment in the 5th. Or he’d have 10 home runs at the All Star break and then pile up the numbers once the Yankees were out of the playoff hunt. That’s why nobody liked him.

    And of course, George signed him as a direct reaction to the Mets signing Bobby Bonilla.

    • pat

      And like Arod’s his “reputation” is unearned and stupid to begin with.

      .272/.365/.475 for his career in “Late + Close” situations
      .277/.392/.501 w/RISP

      Those aren’t bad at all.

      And for good measure Arod in the same situations-
      .272/.371/.529 Late + Close
      .300/.401/.542 w/ RISP

      • Darren

        You and your silly numbers.
        You can’t tell me that Scooter any my 19 year old impression of tartabull was wrong! ;)

        Can you find the splits of before All Star break and after, at least for home runs?

  • gageagainstthemachine

    I was a huge Dave Winfield fan growing up, so I remember the Tartabull signing as being a major event as I felt like he reminded me of the Winfield mold at the time (I was 10 or so). I know he was a decent Yankee, but as a Winfield fan waiting for the next prolific slugger in the Bronx, I was let down. Luckily, the Core Four (+ Bernie), O’Neill and the rest of the dynasty came along right as I was entering the age to truly appreciate the Yankees and their glorious history and completely restored my faith. Those late 80’s – early 90’s were rough years to be a fan (which I’ve been since birth, no joke). Maybe Tartbull was the bridge to keep me hanging on until that time came? Who knows…

  • Garcia

    I still own Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball and fire it up more frequently than my girlfriend appreciates. I believe the stats in that game are from the 1993 season. Since the lady is a Mets fan, we’ll have some epic Subway Series battles. Tartabull has been a thorn in her side, blasting many a bomb off washed up Gooden and the immortal 1-16 Anthony Young. I also broke the pre-PED single season HR mark with Tartabull in that game with 63, only to be eclipsed by the 79 I would hit with Kevin Maas in a subsequent season. Tartabull was “T. Bambino” and Maas was “L. Harlem.” Still one of my favorite games, and the Bull achieved Jeremy Roenicke in NHL ’94 status in it.

  • Guy

    My fondest memory of Danny Tartabull came in September 1992. I was living in Maryland at the time and my neighbor, a big Orioles fan, scored a couple of tickets to the (then) brand new Camden Yards. This is when the Orioles were actually a good team and they sold out all the time. The Yankees were struggling through another sub .500 season but in this game they crushed the Orioles 16-4 and Tartabull had the night of his career getting 5 hits, including two homers and knocking in 9 runs. Great fun to watch, but not for my neighbor….

  • moonimus

    Didn’t he have another monster game like that against the Seattle or the White Sox. I was sitting in the bleachers that day and there was a HUGE argument with some of the Bleacher faithful and this fiery, older Latina lady was wagging a finger and insisting that Danny Tartabull was a nice person. Hahaha. I think he had 12 rbis or something like that. I could be remembering that wrong but that’s the first time I heard him being called reTartabull.

  • jsbrendog

    after 4 years of seeing the yankees lose EVERY game I went to at yankee stadium i finally saw them win one.

    in fenway. with tartabull hitting a monster double off the green monster and a hr. eff you 1993 clemens!

  • Don W

    I’m guessing Tartabull didn’t win the International League MVP because Calgary is in the Pacific Coast League. :)

  • Andrew518

    Was always a Tartabul fan. He hit a walk off double to score my idol Donnie Baseball against the White Sox in ’92, my first game at the stadium.