When we look back at the 1996 Yankees in another ten years, we might be looking at a team that had six Hall of Famers on the roster. Wade Boggs has already been inducted into Cooperstown, and both Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera will inevitably join him one day as well. Tim Raines and Andy Pettitte could get in too. Ditto Jorge Posada, who appeared in eight games throughout the 1998 season. (Mostly in September.)
The 1996 Yankees had, at the very least, three Hall of Famers and three others who deserve serious consideration for Cooperstown. And not one of them was in the prime of their career in 1996. Boggs and Raines were both 38 that season, and the other four guys were kids in their early-20s who had yet to play a full big league season and establish themselves at the MLB level.
The 1996 Yankees were not a team of stars. Their biggest name players at the time were David Cone, Jimmy Key, John Wetteland, Doc Gooden, Paul O’Neill, Kenny Rogers, Boggs, and Raines. Cecil Fielder and Darryl Strawberry joined the club at midseason. Bernie Williams was the only position player to reach 4.0 bWAR and he was at exactly 4.0 bWAR. Pettitte and Rivera were the only pitchers to eclipse 3.5 bWAR.
What the 1996 Yankees had was depth. There were good at everything. Offense, defense, pitching, base-running, they could do a little of everything. And that’s what you need to win the World Series. The magic formula is being good at everything, which is much easier said than done. The 1996 Yankees were good at everything.
The Yankees had one below-average hitter in their lineup from Opening Day through Game 162: defense-first catcher Joe Girardi. At the very least, they were getting average production from every other position on the field by the end of the season.
Ruben Sierra and Gerald Williams were replaced by Fielder (108 OPS+) and Strawberry (112 OPS+) at midseason. Raines (114 OPS+) often platooned with Williams anyway, though Williams picked up more total plate appearances in left field. Boggs did not hit for power but he hit for average and got on base. Even at age 38, the dude could hit.
With Fielder and Strawberry in tow, the Yankees went to the postseason with a quality hitter everywhere but behind the plate, and naturally both Girardi (triple in Game Six of the World Series) and Jim Leyritz (three-run homer in Game Four) had huge hits in October. Raines gave them a quality hitting tenth man, so to speak.
The 1996 Yankees had eight players with a 100 or better OPS+ (min. 200 plate appearances), the most in MLB. Boggs just missed making it nine. And yet, their team leader in OPS+ (Bernie) ranked only 31st out of 147 players who qualified for the batting title. Their second best hitter (O’Neill) ranked 47th.
The Yankees were not an offense reliant on one or two players. Superstars are good, but depth is important, and one through eight the 1996 club put together quality at-bats and produced. After adding Fielder and Strawberry, the Yankees scored the sixth most runs in baseball in the second half.
There’s no great way to measure defense. Not even today. There are better ways today, but I wouldn’t consider any exact and only a handful are even close to reliable. For what it’s worth, the 1996 Yankees had nine players appear in 54+ games and post 0.0 defensive WAR or better, sixth most in MLB. That means they had nine average or better defenders (relative to their position) play at least one-third of the season. Their only really excruciatingly bad defender was Strawberry, from what I remember. Bernie and Jeter were adequate at that point of their careers. Maybe I’m completely off base here. Correct me if I’m wrong.
The Yankees went into that 1996 season with two starters you could have considered sure things. They re-signed Cone and he was one. Rogers was the other — he signed a four-year contract after pitching to a 3.38 ERA (144 ERA+) in 208 innings with the 1995 Rangers. They were the guys Joe Torre was supposed to count on for innings.
The rest of the rotation was filled out by Pettitte, who made 26 starts in 1995, plus Gooden and Key. Doc did not pitch at all in 1995 due to a cocaine suspension and Key made only five starts due to injury. So the rotation was Cone, Rogers, the unproven Pettitte, and two bounceback candidates in Gooden and Key. I’m not sure how many people considered that a championship rotation heading into Spring Training.
Cone, the team’s Opening Day starter was limited to eleven starts by the aneurysm in his armpit. One of those two sure things was gone. Mendoza picked up most of the slack with others like Scott Kamieniecki, Mark Hutton, Brian Boehringer, and David Weathers making spot starts along the way.
The top four starters — Pettitte, Rogers, Gooden, and Key — were all at least average in terms of runs allowed. (Remember when a 5.01 ERA equaled a 100 ERA+? I miss offense.) Cone was excellent in his brief time while Mendoza, who was just a rookie, was pretty crummy. The top four guys plus Cone gave the Yankees 812 innings that were above-average by an okay margin.
In fact, the Yankees got a 4.96 ERA from their starters in 1996, which sounds awful, but it was the sixth best in the league (!). Their 4.56 FIP was third. Adjusted for ballpark, that 4.96 ERA was almost exactly league average. There’s nothing sexy about average or a tick above, but when you have four regular starters like that, it equals wins.
The rotation did not look so overwhelming heading into the season and especially after Cone got hurt, but the top four starters consistently kept the Yankees in games in 1996. And, of course, once the postseason rolled around, Cone, Pettitte, and Key became the go-to guys. The pitching staff shrinks in October.
Bullpen construction 20 years ago was way different than it is right now. Some teams were still sticking with six-man bullpens at the time, lefty specialists were still not a league-wide thing, and the idea of a designated setup man was still relatively new too. The 1996 Yankees basically had a two-man bullpen plus a bunch of other guys for emergencies.
Nine pitchers threw at least 20 relief innings for the Yankees in 1996, and only one (Polley) was left-handed. (Graeme Lloyd came over in August and threw only 5.2 regular season innings in pinstripes.)
Wetteland and Rivera were Torre’s go-to guys. If the Yankees were winning, Rivera entered the game when the starter exited, and he handed the ball off the Wetteland. If that meant Mo had to throw two or three innings, so be it. Relievers aren’t used like that much these days.
Wickman and Nelson were in the bullpen most of the season as well, and I remember calling them Torre’s “only when losing” relievers. When the Yankees were winning or tied in the late innings, it was Rivera and Wetteland. When they were trailing, it was Wickman and Nelson and everyone else. Come postseason team, Lloyd and Weathers in particular were fantastic middle men.
Thanks mostly to Rivera and Wetteland, New York’s bullpen had a 4.10 ERA and a 3.71 FIP in 1996. Both were the best marks in the AL. The bullpen — Rivera and Wetteland in particular — gave the Yankees the closest thing they’d get to star-caliber performance. They were simply pretty good at everything, and that’s the formula they rode to their first World Series title in 18 years.