You can disparage his defense all you want, there is still no argument to be made that anyone other than Derek Jeter is the best shortstop in Yankees history. It’s not even close. Jeter was excellent for two decades in pinstripes, both on the field and the way he represented the organization off the field, and now the Yankees are set to move forward without him.
In the decade before Jeter, the Yankees went through some really terrible starting shortstops. Bad shortstops are not the only reason the team didn’t go to the postseason from 1982-95, but geez, they didn’t exactly help either. Here’s a look back at the guys who manned the shortstop position in the Bronx the decade before Jeter arrived.
1986: The Five-Headed Monster
Bobby Meacham, who put up a 59 OPS+ as the starting shortstop in 1985 and was in the conversation for the worst everyday player in baseball, started at short on Opening Day in 1986, but Wayne Tolleson started the most games at the position that season (53) after coming over from the White Sox at the trade deadline. Mike Fischlin, Paul Zuvella, and Dale Berra all started 15+ games at short as well. Tolleson had an 85 OPS+ and was the best of the lot. Overall, the Yankees got a .227/.295/.283 (75 OPS+) batting line with zero homers and more caught stealings (eleven) than stolen bases (six) out of their shortstops in ’86.
1987: Tolleson, then Meacham
Tolleson started the year as the everyday shortstop but eventually lost the job to Meacham because he hit .236/.318/.261 (58 OPS+) with one homer in the first half. Meacham put up a very nice .275/.351/.423 (109 OPS+) line with five homers as the everyday guy after the All-Star break. Smash them (and some others) together and the Yankees still received a woeful .229/.306/.277 (72 OPS+) batting line from their shortstops that year.
1988: Rafael Santana
Man, I completely forgot about Santana. He originally came up through the minors with the Yankees, was traded to the Cardinals for reliever George Frazier in 1981, then wound up with the Mets from 1984-87. The Yankees got him from the Mets in a totally forgettable five-player trade in December 1987. Anyway, Santana was the team’s regular shortstop in 1988 and he hit .240/.289/.294 (65 OPS+) with four homers in 148 games. The downward trend continues.
1989-91: The Alvaro Espinoza Era
Following the 1987 season, the Yankees signed Espinoza as a minor league free agent, and he spent just about the entire 1988 season with Triple-A Columbus, where he hit .246/.262/.306 in 119 games. But, because he could play the hell out of the position, the Yankees entrusted him as their starting shortstop in 1989. And again in 1990. Also in 1991 as well. During those three seasons, Espinoza hit .255/.281/.318 (68 OPS+) with seven homers in over 1,500 plate appearances spanning 444 games. His defense was good! But my gosh, that’s 1,500 plate appearances the club just threw away those years.
1992: Andy Stankiewicz
Randy Velarde started the year at shortstop but Stankiewicz, who spent the 1990-91 seasons with Triple-A Columbus, got the job in early-June and hit .268/.338/.348 (94 OPS+) with two homers in 116 games. It was by far the best stretch of his career. Velarde, Mike Gallego, and Dave Silvestri also saw time at short in 1992. The amalgam of shortstops hit .248/.317/.331 (99 OPS+) on the season. Compared to 1986-91, this was like getting All-Star production at short for New York.
1993: Spike Owen
I remember thinking Owen was a baddest mofo around when I was kid because his name was Spike. The Yankees signed him as a free agent during the 1992-93 offseason because he’d just hit .269/.348/.381 (107 OPS+) with the Expos, then Owen hit .234/.294/.311 (66 OPS+) in pinstripes, which was much more in line with the rest of his career. The Yankees traded Spike to the Angels after the season and he put up a 118 OPS+ with the Halos. Go figure. Gallego and Velarde also saw a decent amount of playing time at short in 1993 and they all somehow combined to hit .268/.330/.372 (103 OPS+). That’s good!
1994: You Say Gallego, I Say Gallago
Gallego was the primary shortstop during the strike-shortened 1994 season with Velarde and Kevin Elster — Elster managed to go 0-for-20 on the year — also seeing time at the position. Gallego hit .239/.327/.359 (81 OPS+) with six homers and the Yankees received a .231/.308/.367 (91 OPS+) line out of their shortstops overall. At least Gallego could play defense. Not too many of these pre-Jeter shortstops could say that.
1995: Tony Fernandez
Finally, a brand name. Fernandez made a name for himself as a slick fielder/just good enough hitter with the Blue Jays in the 1980s. He bounced around a bit in the early-1990s before landing with the Yankees as a free agent. Fernandez was 33 at the time and coming off a 106 OPS+ with the Reds in 1994, then, in 1995, he hit .245/.322/.346 (75 OPS+) with five homers in 108 games in pinstripes. Velarde played a bunch of shortstop while Fernandez was hurt in May — that’s when Jeter got his first taste of the show — and overall these guys hit .246/.321/.352 (95 OPS+) with seven homers on the year.
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From 1986-95, the decade before Jeter, Yankees shortstops combined to hit .241/.296/.314 (80 OPS+) with 37 homers in nearly 6,000 plate appearances. That’s a decade of futility. In fact, you can go back even further than that. Before Jeter in 1996, the last Yankees shortstop to qualify for the batting title with even a 100 OPS+ was Roy Smalley in 1983 (126 OPS+). The pre-Jeter years were ugly at shortstop, folks. Let’s hope the post-Jeter years are better.