Mailbag: Hall of Famers, Judge, Kendrick, Maddux, Bonds

Got 15 questions in the mailbag this week. They’re a mix of Retro Week questions and regular ol’ 2016 Yankees questions. Use the RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com email address to send us anything.

Miggy. (Leon Halip/Getty)
Miggy. (Leon Halip/Getty)

Steve asks: I had this conversation with a friend the other day but how many active players would you say are locks to go in the Hall of Fame? And would you say that number is less than the typical number?

I’m not sure what you mean by typical number. I count three slam dunk, no doubt about it future Hall of Famers who are still active: Albert Pujols, Ichiro Suzuki, and Miguel Cabrera. Those guys get in if they retire tomorrow. Alex Rodriguez would be in that group too, he has inner circle Hall of Famer credentials, but it seems unlikely he’ll ever get in due to the performance-enhancing drug stuff.

Adrian Beltre is a “very likely to get in” guy for me but not a no-doubter. Carlos Beltran and David Ortiz are a notch below that. Robinson Cano, Clayton Kershaw, Buster Posey, Mike Trout, Felix Hernandez, Zack Greinke, Andrew McCutchen, and Bryce Harper are all on the Hall of Fame track, I’d say. They still have some more compiling to do. Did I miss anyone obvious? I feel like I’m missing someone obvious.

Chris asks: Any interest in the freshly DFA’d Christian Friedrich?

I was surprised to see Friedrich is already 28. It feels like just yesterday he was slipping in the draft and I was hoping he’d get to the Yankees but holy crap he was drafted back in 2008 (25th overall). Friedrich was in the bullpen full-time last year with the Rockies and had a 5.25 ERA (4.04 FIP) with bad strikeout (16.7%) and walk (9.3%) numbers. Righties hammered him (.409 wOBA) but he held his own against lefties (.292 wOBA), so maybe he still has some lefty specialist potential. He’s out of options, so you can’t send him to the minors without slipping him through waivers. Meh. There’s not much to see here now. A few years back he would have been a nice reclamation project. Now he’s back-end of the 40-man roster fodder. I say pass.

Glenn asks: I realize the Yankees need Nova as a sixth starter, but is there anything in his record that suggests he could excel when concentrating on just two pitches as a short reliever?

Ivan Nova is a two-pitch pitcher as a starter, basically. He’s switched between a slider and a curveball a few times in recent years, but he’s generally a fastball-breaking ball guy who rarely throws a changeup. (During his full seasons from 2011-13, the most he threw his changeup was 4.4% in 2011.) The two-pitch approach has historically worked better in relief because you don’t have to turn a lineup over multiple times. Nova has good stuff. His command isn’t very good and he has a reputation for making it easy to pick the ball up out of his hand, so it plays down. Nova might excel as a one-inning reliever. That applies to lots of guys.

Richard asks: Mike, the MLB Top 100 scouting report said Aaron Judge “could be a higher-average hitter with 20 or so homers per season or more of a masher who delivers 30-plus long balls” depending on how he balances power and discipline. Can you think of a comp for each outcome, and which is ideal for 1) the Yankees and 2) Judge with respect to career outlook? Dingers are great, but a higher BA also means a higher OBP and SLG. Thanks!

The comps part is difficult. Over the last few seasons the only high-average, 20-homer right-handed hitting outfielder is Andrew McCutchen. Adrian Beltre, Troy Tulowitzki, and Buster Posey have done it at other positions, and then you have the superhuman high-average, 30-homer guys like Mike Trout, Paul Goldschmidt, and Miguel Cabrera. A lot of players will have a random .300+ AVG, 20+ homer season, but very few do it consistently. Hitting for average is very hard nowadays. There are more mediocre-average, 30-homer guys out there. Adam Jones, Justin Upton, Giancarlo Stanton, etc. Assuming everything else is equal, I’d take the high-average, 20-homer version of Judge because it’s a more well-rounded player. Batting average is underrated.

John asks: After hearing that Howie Kendrick signed for only 2 years $20 million with the Dodgers, do you think the Yankees made a mistake in going after Castro so early?

I would so much rather have Kendrick at two years and $20M plus Adam Warren than Starlin Castro plus a first round pick. Easy call in my opinion. There was no indication Kendrick would take such a sweetheart deal earlier in the offseason though. And besides, who’s to say the Yankees could get him so cheaply anyway? Kendrick’s played in Southern California his entire career, so I assume he has some roots there, and going back was appealing to him.

If it was known Kendrick would take two years and $20M, lots of teams would have been after him, including the Nationals, who gave up their first rounder to give Daniel Murphy three years and $37.5M. The qualifying offer hurt Kendrick’s market badly and no one could foresee that. I don’t blame the Yankees at all for jumping on Castro in December.

Bird. (Al Bello/Getty)
Bird. (Al Bello/Getty)

Michael asks: Will Bird’s year be in the MLB dl or the MiLB DL? He was on the mlb roster at the end of the season, but was slated to start the season in AAA. Seems the Yankees are going to get burned on a year of service time.

Bird will be on the MLB DL this year and burn a year of service time. He’s a big league player — he played 46 games with the Yankees last season plus the wildcard game — and when big league players get hurt, they go on the big league DL. It doesn’t matter that Bird was likely to start 2016 in Triple-A. If it were that simple, teams would be claiming all of their injured young players were going to start the year in the minors to prevent them from accruing service time. It sucks, but that’s the system. Bird was on the MLB roster for the final third of last season and he deserves the big league pay and service time coming his way after getting hurt.

Many asks: Does Bird’s injury mean Mark Teixeira will get the qualifying offer?

No automatically, no. There’s still an entire season to play out first. Teixeira could hit .210/.280/.350 with nine home runs this season for all we know. Ideally, the decision would be made independent of Bird’s status, right? Either Teixeira is worth the QO or he is not. That’s not really the case though. If the Yankees are on the fence about the QO, Bird’s status could sway them one way or the other. If he’s strong and healthy, they might not think it’s worth the risk. If Bird’s rehab is slow, they might decide to roll the dice. The chances of Teixeira returning in 2017 are greater now than they were before Bird’s injury, but remember, the Yankees will want to keep the average annual value of any contract down for luxury tax purposes. The QO figures to be over $16M next year.

Andrew asks: Any idea on how the qualifying offers will work this upcoming offseason? With all the Teix QO discussion, QO’s need to be offered 5 days after World Series is over and players have 7 days to accept after that. CBA up Dec. 1st, so all of these decisions will be made prior to knowing what will happen?

When the last Collective Bargaining Agreement was struck the Type-A/B system was still in place, then the QO system was part of the new CBA. Last time around they stuck with the Type-A/B system for the rest of the offseason — they did however change the system so teams wouldn’t give up picks for Type-A relievers, I remember everyone laughing at the Phillies for this because they signed Jonathan Papelbon so early and gave up their pick — then switched to the QO system the following year. I assume that will happen again. They’ll ride out the current system next offseason and then implement any changes the following offseason.

Robert asks: So this got shot down in the last mailbag but with the awful Bird news today is there a need now for a backup first baseman? I admit this is mostly nostalgia driven obviously but lefties have remained a problem and Montero could help in that department.

Yeah it makes more sense to bring Jesus Montero back now because the Triple-A first base job is wide open. He is out of options though, so he has to go through waivers to go to the minors. So either you have to trade for him and slip him through waivers yourself, or claim him on waivers and try to pass him through yourself. (Or make a deal with the Mariners contingent on him passing through waivers first.) It seems more likely the Yankees will just sign a minor league free agent. Ike Davis or Chris Parmelee could work. Maybe a Quad-A guy like Matt Clark or Neftali Soto. Montero would be wonderful for nostalgia purposes. The mechanics of getting him are a bit complicated though.

Jonathan asks: Most of us know the fact that Maddux and Bonds turned us down in the ’92 offseason, and then we signed basically anyone we wanted until Cliff Lee, but what do you think our main roster and results of their tenures in NY would have looked like if we signed both back then? Hard to believe we could have done better than we did, but it’s also hard to believe the best pitcher and best hitter of their generation would have made us worse.

Yeah this is an interesting one. The Yankees went hard after both Bonds and Maddux during the 1992-93 offseason but didn’t land either. (They settled for Jimmy Key because they couldn’t get their Plan B, C, or D either.) The 1993 Yankees finished seven games out of a postseason spot even though Key (139 ERA+ in 236.2 IP) and primary left field Dion James (133 OPS+) were really awesome. Do Bonds and Maddux make up the seven-game difference? Maybe! They were that good.

The 1994 Yankees were awesome before the strike. That 1995 season is the big question for me. Do the Yankees beat the Mariners with Bonds in left and Maddux making two starts in the ALDS? (They won Game One, remember.) Signing Maddux probably means no David Cone trade that season. This is a fun thought exercise. It’s hard to think adding two historically great players like Bonds and Maddux would have hurt. At the same time, it’s hard to complain about the way things turned out.

(Ezra Shaw/Getty)
(Ezra Shaw/Getty)

Dan asks: Over the years the Yankees have pulled off some crazy big trades: Roger Clemens, David Justice, A-Rod, Randy Johnson, just to name a few. Thinking back on your Yankees fandom do you have a favorite one? Thanks!

I remember hating the Clemens trade because I loved David Wells. I guess that answers the opposite of your question. The Alex Rodriguez trade is something of a baseball JFK moment for me (and probably a bunch of others). I remember exactly where I was and who I was with and what I was doing when I found out it happened.

I was still in college and I was out at dinner with the girl I was dating at the time. We were at Applebee’s with some other friends because, you know, we were classy like that. I saw the trade scroll across the screen on the ESPN ticker at the bar. There were no details. It was just “Yankees get A-Rod.” I remember thinking the Yankees were going to have to move Derek Jeter to second base and Alfonso Soriano to third to make it work. I guess that’s my favorite trade. It was a foregone conclusion A-Rod was going to the Red Sox at the time, then bam, he was a Yankee. It was awesome.

Daniel asks: This ‘Core Four’ moniker completely cuts out the contributions of Bernie Williams. The guy was a 5-time All-Star, 4-Time Gold Glover, and starting center fielder on four World Series championship teams! Why does he get lost in the shuffle?

Because Core Five doesn’t rhyme. I’m dead serious. If someone had been able to come up with a cute nickname for a group of five, Bernie would be included in that group. It’s too late now though. The Core Four is established. I’ve heard people say Bernie is not in the Core Four because he wasn’t there for all five World Series titles from 1996-2009, which is true, but also disingenuous. Jorge Posada played eight games for the 1996 Yankees as a September call-up. He was hardly a key contributor. Bernie is part of the Core Four as far as I’m concerned.

Elliot asks: Which Yankee Pitcher had the highest game score to clinch a world series?  Game 7?

This was shockingly easy to look up with the Play Index. They have options for series clinching games and everything. Who knew? Here are the five best World Series clinching games by a Yankee (full list):

Rk Player Date Gm# Opp Rslt App,Dec IP H R ER BB SO GSc
1 Ralph Terry 1962-10-16 7 SFG W 1-0 SHO9, W 9.0 4 0 0 0 4 83
2 Bob Turley 1956-10-09 6 BRO L 0-1 CG 10, L 9.2 4 1 1 8 11 80
3 Johnny Kucks 1956-10-10 7 BRO W 9-0 SHO9, W 9.0 3 0 0 3 1 79
4 Tiny Bonham 1941-10-06 5 BRO W 3-1 CG 9, W 9.0 4 1 1 2 2 75
5 Whitey Ford 1950-10-07 4 PHI W 5-2 GS-9, W 8.2 7 2 0 1 7 72

1999 Roger Clemens and 1998 Andy Pettitte are tied for eighth with a 69 Game Score. Imagine being Turley and losing that game in 1956. Woof. The top five all came long before most of us were born, because that’s when the Yankees did most of their World Series winning. Here are the best World Series Game Seven performances. There’s some overlap with the best clinching games list (full list):

Rk Player Date Gm# Opp Rslt App,Dec IP H R ER BB SO GSc
1 Ralph Terry 1962-10-16 7 SFG W 1-0 SHO9, W 9.0 4 0 0 0 4 83
2 Johnny Kucks 1956-10-10 7 BRO W 9-0 SHO9, W 9.0 3 0 0 3 1 79
3 Carl Mays 1921-10-12 7 NYG L 1-2 CG 8, L 8.0 6 2 1 0 7 71
4 Roger Clemens 2001-11-04 7 ARI L 2-3 GS-7 6.1 7 1 1 1 10 64
5 Waite Hoyt 1926-10-10 7 STL L 2-3 GS-6, L 6.0 5 3 0 0 2 58

Look at that. The Yankees lost three of their five best pitching performances in a Game Seven of a World Series. Crazy. I ran a query for the best pitched games by a Yankee in a series clincher regardless of round (full list), and it was identical to the top table with one exception: CC Sabathia‘s performance in Game Five of the 2012 ALDS slots in at No. 2 with an 82 Game Score. What a game that was.

Marc asks: The 1996 Yankees had 3 players (Boggs, O’Neill, Williams) with over 500 PA that walked more than they struck out.  In the last 20 years, how many other times has that happened, if at all?

There are a handful of players each year who walk more than they strike out. Jose Bautista, Joey Votto, Michael Brantley, Buster Posey, and Ben Zobrist were the only guys to do it last year. The last team with multiple players who qualified for the batting title with more walks than strikeouts is the 2009 Cardinals with Yadier Molina and Albert Pujols. Here are the last four teams with three such players:

  • 2000 Cubs: Mark Grace, Ricky Gutierrez, Eric Young
  • 2000 Mariners: Edgar Martinez, John Olerud, Mark McLemore
  • 1999 Rangers: Rusty Greer, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McLemore
  • 1996 Yankees: Wade Boggs, Paul O’Neill, Bernie Williams

The last team with four such players? The 1995 Yankees, who had five: Boggs, Bernie, O’Neill, Don Mattingly, and Luis Polonia all did it that year. As you keep going further back in history there are more and more teams with multiple players who had more walks than strikeouts. Baseball was a much different game back in the day. In 1962 Sandy Koufax had a 10.5 K/9 when the league average was 5.6 K/9, so yeah.

Rick asks: When does it make sense to add a guy like Ian Desmond to the roster and figure the rest out? If Desmond at resembles the player of two or three years ago, he’s well worth the draft pick attached. He can play multiple positions across the infield.

It comes down to the size of the contract. If you’re going to give up the draft pick, I think you’d prefer to keep the player more than one year. That’s just me. Would Desmond take the Kendrick contract (two years, $20M) to be what amounts to a super utility guy, someone who gets 400+ plate appearances at second, short, third, and left field? My guess is if he were willing to do that, several other teams would have interest as well. Desmond’s going to look at the Yankees and wonder where he’ll play. The White Sox, for example, could offer him the same money and the starting shortstop job. It takes two to tango, and besides, I’m pretty sure the Yankees aren’t giving up their first round pick to sign a free agent at this point.

Thursday Night Open Thread

Two weeks from today, Yankees pitchers and catchers will report to work in Tampa. Baseball’s getting close. Among the players already working out in Tampa are CC Sabathia, Andrew Miller, Aaron Judge, Jorge Mateo, Dustin Ackley, Mason Williams, Luis Severino, Bryan Mitchell, Michael Pineda, Aaron Hicks, Ben Gamel, James Kaprielian, Rob Refsnyder, and Nathan Eovaldi, according to Steven Marcus and Erik Boland. The first Grapefruit League game is a little less than one month away. I can’t wait.

Here is tonight’s open thread. The Knicks and the three local hockey clubs are all playing, plus there are a few college hoops games on the schedule as well. Have at it.

The Unsung Heroes of the 1996 Postseason

Lloyd. (Getty)
Lloyd. (Getty)

The 1996 World Series was the first Yankees championship of my lifetime, and my lasting memories of that October will be Jeffrey Maier, Jim Leyritz’s homer, Andy Pettitte out-dueling John Smoltz, Joe Girardi‘s triple, and Charlie Hayes squeezing his glove in foul territory. Those were the major “holy crap” moments.

The Yankees got contributions from up and down the roster that postseason, including some from unexpected sources. Every team needs a few unsung heroes to win a title and the 1996 Yankees were no different. Three players in particular came up big throughout the 1996 postseason. In this post, we’re going to remember those unsung heroes.

Wade Boggs

It’s odd to call a Hall of Famer an unsung hero, especially after Boggs hit .311/.389/.389 (98 OPS+) during the regular season, but the Chicken Man was not at his best in October. The 38-year-old struggled mightily in the ALDS and ALCS: he went 3-for-27 (.111) in the nine games, including a hard to believe 0-for-22 stretch at one point.

The struggles got so bad that Boggs didn’t even start Games Three, Four, and Five of the World Series. Joe Torre went with Charlie Hayes at third base. Boggs still came off the bench to make a significant contribution in Game Four, however. After Leyritz tied the game with his home run off Mark Wohlers, Game Four went to extra innings. The Yankees rallied for the win in the tenth.

That tenth inning rally started with two outs. Steve Avery, who was in the Braves bullpen for the postseason, quickly retired Leyritz and Graeme Lloyd on ground outs. (Lloyd batted for himself because John Wetteland was the only reliever left in the bullpen, and Torre was saving him for the save situation. Whatevs.) Tim Raines followed with a walk and Derek Jeter with a ground ball single to put runners at first and second.

With Bernie Williams at the plate and the go-ahead run at second base, Braves skipper Bobby Cox opted to intentionally walk Williams and push the go-ahead run to third. Andy Fox was the cleanup hitter at the time because he had pinch-run for Cecil Fielder earlier in the game. Cox wanted Avery to face Fox in that situation, not Bernie. Which I guess makes sense. Except Torre had an ace in the hole.

Cox is not stupid, he knew Boggs would pinch-hit, but he was more comfortable with Avery facing Boggs with the bases loaded than Avery facing Bernie with runners on first and second. Not sure I agree with giving a pitcher so little margin for error in a huge spot (Boggs’ OBP > Bernie’s AVG), but it doesn’t matter what I think. Boggs pinch-hit for Fox and worked a go-ahead bases loaded walk to give the Yankees the lead. He fell behind in the count one ball and two strikes before battling back for the walk.

“My belief is, you’d better have some big guts in this game. If you can’t do that as a manager, you won’t go very far. You can’t ever be afraid to do those things,” said Cox to reporters after the game when asked about the intentional walk to load the bases and put the go-ahead run at third. “I wasn’t afraid to walk Bernie Williams. And I wasn’t afraid with Avery. I know that Steve — blindfolded — could throw strikes. It just didn’t happen.”

The Yankees tacked on an insurance run when Ryan Klesko dropped a soft line drive, but by that point the damage had been done. The team had rallied with two outs and Boggs drove in the go-ahead run with a bases loaded pinch-walk. He had an awful postseason overall, but that one at-bat atoned for it all. Boggs came off the bench and came up huge with the game on the line.

Graeme Lloyd

Back in 1996, lefty specialists were not really a thing. A few teams had them but they were not widespread yet. The Yankees had picked up Lloyd from the Brewers in a fairly significant August waiver trade. They sent Bob Wickman and Gerald Williams, who were on the big league roster all season, to Milwaukee for Lloyd, Ricky Bones, and Pat Listach. Listach was sent back to the Brewers because of a pre-existing injury and the Yankees received shortstop prospect Gabby Martinez instead. Lloyd himself had elbow problems at the time of the trade.

Lloyd had been very good for the Brewers that year, pitching to a 2.82 ERA (185 ERA+) in 51 innings. He was not a lefty specialist, but he got hammered with the Yankees during the regular season (eleven runs and 17 base-runners in 5.2 innings), so he was relegated to mostly mop-up duty and left-on-left matchup work during the postseason. And Lloyd dominated. His October numbers: 5.1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 5 K in eight appearances.

Lloyd faced ten left-handed batters in the postseason and they went 1-for-9 with two strikeouts. Only two hit the ball out of the infield. By the World Series, Torre had developed such trust in Lloyd that he did the unthinkable: he pulled Mariano Rivera from the game in the middle of an inning to get a left-on-left matchup with Lloyd. And he did it twice. In Game Three, Torre pulled Rivera with a runner on first and one out in the eighth inning. The Yankees were up 5-2 and Lloyd got Fred McGriff to fly out and Ryan Klesko to strike out.

Then, in Game Four, Torre pulled Rivera with runners at first and second and one out in the bottom of the ninth. The score was tied 6-6 and the middle of the Atlanta lineup was due up. Mo had thrown 26 pitches in 1.1 innings up to that point and I remember thinking Torre was absolutely insane for pulling him for Lloyd. Then this happened:

“It’s been rough for Lloyd,” said Torre after the game. “All of a sudden he’s being booed, and nobody’s saying anything nice about Bob Watson. Just a lot of garbage. He made the trade, and all of a sudden, Graeme Lloyd is one of our most valuable people.”

“With Milwaukee I had one of my best years, then I was traded and everything hit the fan,” added Lloyd. “It was a tough time for me, and I’ve gotten through that. I’ve looked at these playoffs and the World Series like a clean slate.”

If the Yankees and Watson — then the GM — had gotten their way, Lloyd wouldn’t even have been in the organization for the postseason. The team learned about his elbow woes after the trade and appealed to MLB to rescind the deal. The league refused. The Yankees had traded their fourth outfielder (Williams) and a reliable middle reliever (Wickman) for what amounted to a lefty specialist with a damaged arm. And it worked beautifully.

David Weathers

Rotation depth was a bit of a concern for the Yankees in 1996, especially so after David Cone went down with his aneurysm. At the trade deadline the club made what amounted to a change of scenery swap with the Marlins: 26-year-old righty Mark Hutton was traded to Florida for 26-year-old righty David Weathers. Hutton had 5.04 ERA (100 ERA+) at the time of the trade. Weathers had a 4.54 ERA (90 ERA+). (Park factors, man.)

Weathers made four spot starts and seven relief appearances in pinstripes after the trade, somehow totaling only 17.1 innings. He had a 9.35 ERA (54 ERA+) in those 17.1 innings and walked more batters than he struck out (13 BB and 12 K). Weathers also made three starts with Triple-A Columbus. He actually pitched quite well as a short reliever in September (one run in seven innings) and made the postseason roster. In October, he seemed to specialize in cleaning up after Kenny Rogers.

Series Date Tm Opp Rslt Inngs IP H R ER BB SO BF Pit W.P.A.
ALDS g1 Oct 1 NYY TEX L,2-6 8-GF 2.0 0 0 0 0 2 6 21 0.017
ALDS g4 Oct 5 NYY @ TEX W,6-4 4-6 3.0 1 0 0 0 3 9 41 0.291
ALCS g2 Oct 10 NYY BAL L,3-5 9-GF 0.1 0 0 0 0 0 1 5 0.006
ALCS g4 Oct 12 NYY @ BAL W,8-4 4-6 2.2 3 0 0 0 0 11 45 0.133
WS g1 Oct 20 NYY ATL L,1-12 6-7 1.2 1 0 0 0 0 6 19 -0.001
WS g4 Oct 23 NYY @ ATL W,8-6 5-5 1.0 1 1 1 2 2 6 29 -0.013
WS g6 Oct 26 NYY ATL W,3-2 6-6 0.1 0 0 0 1 1 2 8 0.049
11.0 6 1 1 3 8 41 168 0.476

One run in eleven innings. Rogers started Game Four of the ALDS, ALCS, and World Series, and combined to allow eleven runs and 20 base-runners in seven innings. Weathers came out of the bullpen to replace him and allowed just one run in 6.2 innings. Amazingly, the Yankees won all three games, largely because Weathers came in and didn’t allow the other team to break the game open. His work in Game Four of the ALDS and ALCS was particularly awesome.

”(Pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre) is the one who really pushed for us to get David Weathers,” said Torre to the New York Times. ”Mel liked his stuff from when Mel was Houston’s pitching coach the last two years. He felt Weathers could help us out in the bullpen. With my coaches, I trust what they say.”

To win the World Series you’re going to need some players to contribute unexpectedly, and both Lloyd and Weathers did just that. They weren’t even on the team on Opening Day. Boggs had a miserable postseason overall but came through in Game Four of the World Series with his pinch-walk. Without these three doing what they did in October, the Yankees aren’t world champs in 1996.

No Stars, No Scrubs: The 1996 Yankees Won With Depth

(New York Daily News)
(New York Daily News)

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 Offense

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.

Pos Name Age G PA H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS+
C Joe Girardi 31 124 471 124 22 3 2 45 13 4 30 55 .294 .346 .374 82
1B Tino Martinez* 28 155 671 174 28 0 25 117 2 1 68 85 .292 .364 .466 108
2B Mariano Duncan 33 109 417 136 34 3 8 56 4 3 9 77 .340 .352 .500 112
SS Derek Jeter 22 157 654 183 25 6 10 78 14 7 48 102 .314 .370 .430 101
3B Wade Boggs* 38 132 574 156 29 2 2 41 1 2 67 32 .311 .389 .389 98
LF Gerald Williams 29 99 258 63 15 4 5 30 7 8 15 39 .270 .319 .433 88
CF Bernie Williams# 27 143 641 168 26 7 29 102 17 4 82 72 .305 .391 .535 131
RF Paul O’Neill* 33 150 660 165 35 1 19 91 0 1 102 76 .302 .411 .474 123
DH Ruben Sierra# 30 96 407 93 17 1 11 52 1 3 40 58 .258 .327 .403 83

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.

The Defense

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 Starters

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.

Name Age W L ERA GS IP H R ER HR BB SO ERA+ FIP WHIP BB9 SO9 SO/W
Andy Pettitte* 24 21 8 3.87 34 221.0 229 105 95 23 72 162 129 4.08 1.362 2.9 6.6 2.25
Kenny Rogers* 31 12 8 4.68 30 179.0 179 97 93 16 83 92 107 4.83 1.464 4.2 4.6 1.11
Dwight Gooden 31 11 7 5.01 29 170.2 169 101 95 19 88 126 100 4.85 1.506 4.6 6.6 1.43
Jimmy Key* 35 12 11 4.68 30 169.1 171 93 88 21 58 116 107 4.48 1.352 3.1 6.2 2.00
David Cone 33 7 2 2.88 11 72.0 50 25 23 3 34 71 175 3.24 1.167 4.3 8.9 2.09
Ramiro Mendoza 24 4 5 6.79 11 53.0 80 43 40 5 10 34 74 3.91 1.698 1.7 5.8 3.40

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.

The Bullpen

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.

Name Age ERA G SV IP H R ER HR BB SO ERA+ FIP WHIP HR9 BB9 SO9 SO/W
John Wetteland 29 2.83 62 43 63.2 54 23 20 9 21 69 178 3.83 1.178 1.3 3.0 9.8 3.29
Mariano Rivera 26 2.09 61 5 107.2 73 25 25 1 34 130 240 1.88 0.994 0.1 2.8 10.9 3.82
Bob Wickman 27 4.67 58 0 79.0 94 41 41 7 34 61 107 4.26 1.620 0.8 3.9 6.9 1.79
Jeff Nelson 29 4.36 73 2 74.1 75 38 36 6 36 91 115 3.31 1.493 0.7 4.4 11.0 2.53
Dale Polley* 30 7.89 32 0 21.2 23 20 19 5 11 14 64 6.82 1.569 2.1 4.6 5.8 1.27
Brian Boehringer 27 5.44 15 0 46.1 46 28 28 6 21 37 93 4.68 1.446 1.2 4.1 7.2 1.76
Jim Mecir 26 5.13 26 0 40.1 42 24 23 6 23 38 98 4.93 1.612 1.3 5.1 8.5 1.65
Mark Hutton 26 5.04 12 0 30.1 32 19 17 3 18 25 100 4.69 1.648 0.9 5.3 7.4 1.39
Dave Pavlas 33 2.35 16 1 23.0 23 7 6 0 7 18 216 2.65 1.304 0.0 2.7 7.0 2.57

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.

The Return of Straw

(Getty)
(Getty)

I grew up in Brooklyn in a family of almost all Mets fans. I became a Yankees fan because of my grandfather. My grandparents used to watch me when I was a kid while my parents worked — they lived literally right next door, so it was pretty convenient — and I used to hang out and watch games with my grandfather, hence the Yankees fandom.

Even as a young Yankees fan, Darryl Strawberry was my favorite player growing up. My family took me to whole bunch of Mets games as a kid and Strawberry mashed a ton of dingers. I loved it. He was the man. Plus he had such a sweet swing:

Darryl Strawberry

*fans self*

Needless to say, I was thrilled when the Yankees picked Strawberry up in 1995. I didn’t really understand the severity of his off-the-field issues — he was suspended for cocaine use for the first half of the 1995 season — but I was glad my favorite player growing up was on my favorite team. It was awesome.

Strawberry became a free agent after that 1995 season and no team signed him. He instead had to head to an independent league and hope someone would grab him at midseason. With the St. Paul Saints in 1996, the then-34-year-old Strawberry hit .435/.538/1.000 with 18 home runs in 29 games. Yeah, he still had something left in the tank.

With Ruben Sierra not providing much thunder at DH and the Yankees lacking power in general, the team purchased Strawberry’s contract from the Saints on Independence Day in 1996. George Steinbrenner loved ex-stars and he was very willing to give players a second chance. The Boss was so willing to help that Strawberry’s signing bonus was paid directly to his ex-wife to cover his back child support.

“There have been a lot of questions about that, the bitterness of my ex-wife,” said Strawberry to Jason Diamos. “Everybody talks about the child support I owe her. They never give me credit for the $3.5 million dollars I’ve paid her … I came back because I can play. I’ve got money deferred. I would have been okay.”

After two quick tune-up games with Triple-A Columbus, Strawberry was back in the big leagues with the Yankees, joining them at midseason like he did a year earlier. (Except this time there was no cocaine suspension.) “Yes, I’m Darryl Strawberry. Yes, I’ve had a great deal of problems,” he said. “But I’ve also had a great deal of pride. I’m recovering. I’m moving my life forward … This might be my last opportunity. So be it. I’m not going to die if I don’t play baseball anymore.”

One of the reasons the Yankees were so great in the late-90s was the veteran players who produced in part-time roles. Guys like Strawberry and Tim Raines accepted they were no longer everyday players. They swallowed their pride, slid into reduced roles, and produced. “I’m not here to upset any chemistry,” said Strawberry. “I’m just here to do what’s asked of me.”

Straw’s return did not get off to a great start. He went 0-for-10 with a walk and two strikeouts in his first three games back while serving as the DH. Three straight two-hit games followed, including a two-homer game against the Orioles in his fourth game back. Two weeks later, Strawberry hit his third home run since coming back, this one a walk-off shot and the 300th dinger of his career.

“When I came back out (for the curtain call) I was thanking the fans for accepting me back with open arms,” said Strawberry to Selena Roberts after the game. “After all I’ve been through, that was really special. They’ve been really patient … Today is even more special because this is New York. This is where I started my career. It’s where I’ve had all of my success.”

Strawberry hit eleven home runs with the Yankees in 1996 and he seemed to hit them in bunches. He hit two against the Orioles on July 13th, he hit three against the White Sox on August 6th, then two days later he hit two more against the ChiSox. Strawberry also bunched some homers together in late-August.

The Yankees acquired Cecil Fielder at the trade deadline, which pushed Strawberry into left field, replacing Gerald Williams. The move seemed to agree with Strawberry. He hit .224/.350/.418 as the DH and .281/.363/.523 as the left fielder. Lots of players struggle with the move to DH — Strawberry was new to the position after playing his entire career in the NL and only 15 games at DH in 1995 — because they don’t know how to handle the downtime between at-bats.

After coming back at midseason, Strawberry hit .262/.359/.490 (112 OPS+) with those eleven home runs in 237 plate appearances and 63 games. He held his own against southpaws — 124 OPS+ against righties and 109 OPS+ against lefties — so he didn’t need to be platooned either. The Yankees needed an offensive jolt at midseason and they got it from Strawberry and Fielder.

Strawberry fouled a ball off his right big toe late in the regular season and dealt with the injury throughout the postseason. “I know they told me it wasn’t fractured, but it doesn’t feel right. Who’d have thought a toe injury could be that painful?” he said to Jack O’Connell. Strawberry served as the DH in Game One of the ALDS against the Rangers — Fielder did not play — pinch-hit in Game Two, then sat out the rest of the series because of the toe.

The injury still hobbled Strawberry in the ALCS. He pinch-hit and played four innings in right field in Game One against the Orioles, sat out Game Two against the lefty David Wells, then returned to the outfield in Game Three. Strawberry hit two home runs in Game Four — he gave the Yankees a 2-1 lead with a second inning solo shot and tacked on two insurance runs with an eighth inning blast.

Strawberry went deep again in the Game Five series-clinching win — he went back-to-back with Fielder — and went 5-for-12 (.417) with three homers and five runs driven in in the series. He also fouled another pitch off his right big toe in that Game Five win. “I’ve kind of got the feeling it may be broken,” he said to reporters after the game. Torre added, “If he can’t play, he won’t be on the roster.”

Strawberry did make the World Series roster and he did play in Game One, at least before being pulled in the seventh inning of the blowout loss. He sat in Game Two against Tom Glavine, then played the outfield in Games Three through Six. The toe was clearly bothering him though. Strawberry went 3-for-16 (.188) in the Fall Classic and mostly hobbled around the outfield.

Aside from Games Four and Five of the ALCS against the Orioles, Strawberry didn’t have much impact in the postseason, mostly because he was nursing an injury. He did give the club a big lift during the regular season though. He added power, added depth to the lineup — “Some guys have a presence at the plate. Darryl has that sitting in the dugout,” said Paul O’Neill to O’Connell — and made good on what could have possibly been his last chance in MLB.

“(Playing in St. Paul) allowed me to find out who I am, it allowed me to have no pride. I had forgotten baseball could be fun,” said Strawberry after rejoining the Yankees in July. “Without George Steinbrenner, I wouldn’t be here.”

Wednesday Night Open Thread

We are three-fifths of the way through Retro Week and I’m still hoping to post a Retro Week themed mailbag on Friday. We’ve gotten a few retro questions but I’m not sure how many I can actually answer. I may be biting off more than I can chew. Anyway, the email address is RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com. Fire away.

This is tonight’s open thread. The Nets are playing and there’s a whole bunch of college basketball on the schedule, and that’s about it. Talk about any other than politics or religion right here.

We Play Today, We Win Today, Das It: The Out of Nowhere Greatness of Mariano Duncan

(New York Daily News)
(New York Daily News)

To win a championship in any sport, a team is going to need some players to come out of nowhere and be surprise contributors. Very few teams are truly far above everyone else in terms of talent level and very rarely does everything go right. There are injuries and poor performances, especially in baseball. Those unsung heroes are a necessity to win a title, not a luxury.

In 1996, no player made a bigger out of nowhere contribution to the Yankees than Mariano Duncan. Signed to a two-year contract before the season, the team planned to use the then 33-year-old Duncan as a bench player. He spent the first eleven seasons of his career in the NL and had experience at every position other than pitcher and catcher. Duncan was a quality reserve player.

“I’m here for one reason. I signed with the Yankees to do what’s best for the ball club,” said Duncan to Charlie Nobles in Spring Training. The Yankees wanted to break in rookie shortstop Derek Jeter with veteran Tony Fernandez sliding over to second base, but Fernandez broke his elbow diving for a ball late in camp. Duncan suddenly went from backup player to starting second baseman.

“I hate to use the word desperate, but we really need to make a deal,” said Joe Torre following Fernandez’s injury. A deal never came. Jeter started at shortstop, Duncan started at second base, and young Andy Fox made the club as the backup infielder. And it worked perfectly. Jeter was great and Duncan opened the season with an eleven-game hitting streak. He hit .333 and drove in nine runs from the bottom of the lineup during the eleven games.

On July 4th, Duncan’s batting line was sitting at .295/.318/.420, which is better than anything the Yankees could have reasonably expected from their utility player turned started second baseman. This is a guy who hit .272/.297/.407 (90 OPS+) in over 2,000 plate appearances from 1991-95. Duncan went 3-for-4 with a triple and a home run on July 5th. His batting average never dipped below .305 the rest of the season.

From that July 5th game through the end of the season, a span of 80 team games, Duncan hit .382/.383/.575 with 21 doubles in 214 plate appearances. He rarely walked as the on-base percentage suggests, but he was living the good BABIP life (.428) and hit close to .400 for half-a-season. On top of that, Duncan was a Grade-A clubhouse dude.

“He’s been a good pickup for us,” said Torre to Nobles at the end of Spring Training. “Besides being a great utility player, he’s outstanding in the clubhouse with the younger players. When you have a guy like that around, he tells the young players what they need to know before you have to.”

As Duncan tells it, he and Jeter were working out on the field before a game in the middle of the season. Duncan asked Jeter whether he was ready to play that day, but it didn’t come out as intended because English is Duncan’s second language.

“We play today?” asked Duncan.

“We win today,” Jeter replied.

“Das it,” said Duncan.

The slogan for a championship team was born. Duncan had t-shirts made and the Yankees wore them around the clubhouse. Soon fans were bringing banners to the ballpark and hanging them from the facing of the upper deck. “We play today, we win today, das it.”

And the Yankees did a lot of winning that summer. At one point from late-April through late-July they went 51-30 during an 81-game stretch. Duncan was not necessarily a catalyst, but he was one of those surprise contributors. He closed out the season with a .340/.352/.500 (112 OPS+) batting line in 417 plate appearances. It was only the second time in his career that he finished a season as a league-average or better hitter.

In the ALDS against the Rangers, Duncan went 5-for-16 (.313) and drove in three runs in four games. His two-out single in the top of the ninth in Game Three capped off the team’s come from behind rally and gave the Yankees a 3-2 lead in the eventual win.

Duncan didn’t hit a whole lot in the ALCS or World Series — he went 4-for-34 (.118) in the ten games — but he helped the Yankees get there during the regular season and the ALDS. He wasn’t supposed to play much at all, remember. The plan was something like 250 at-bats at all sorts of different positions.

Instead, the Fernandez injury pushed Duncan into the everyday second base job, and he ran with it. He had an out of nowhere above-average offensive season, he played solid defense on the middle infield, he was a plus in the clubhouse, and he was responsible for the slogan that stuck with the team all season. They played, they won. Das it.