A Daily Digest reader sent in such a phenomenal question that I had to answer it for everyone. It’s the perfect end to Retro Week.
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Jimmy asks: If you had to build a team choosing one player from each decade (e.g. one from the 1920’s, one from the 1930’s, etc.) to fill out all 9 fielding positions plus a DH, who would you pick?
The problem is that there are 10 decades (including the current one, which I’m using) and only 9 starting positions. So I’m going to throw in one starter here.
Let’s start out with the obvious ones, shall we?
Right Field – Babe Ruth
I don’t have to spend time justifying this one, do I? This and the next one were the slam dunkiest of picks.
First Base – Lou Gehrig
Gehrig was actually better in the 30s (181 OPS+) than he was in the 20s (174 OPS+). His 1934 through 1937 seasons are one of the most dominant stretches in baseball history (187 OPS+), during which he led the league in OBP all four years, led in OPS three out of the four, led the league in homers twice, and won a batting title. In 1934 he led the league in BA, OBP, SLG, OPS (naturally), HR, and RBI, yet finished fifth in the MVP voting because…no, seriously, someone find the 1934 voters. We need an explanation. Even teammate Lefty Gomez got more first place votes, which is just bizarre.
Anyway, Gehrig was probably the most dominant player of the 1930s. He led the way in Offensive WAR (because there is no way you’re getting me to factor defense into analyzing the 30s), trailed closely by Jimmie Foxx. I suppose you could make an argument that Foxx was the most dominant player, but it’s really him or Gehrig.
Center Field – Joe DiMaggio
At this point I had to start making a graph of who I was picking where. Do I go with DiMaggio as the CF in the 40s, or Mantle as the CF in the 50s? As it turns out, the 50s was a crowded time. If I wanted to use Mantle in CF, I’d pretty much have to use Charlie Keller as my 40s guy in LF. After mapping it out, I stuck with DiMaggio.
Pitcher – Whitey Ford
Originally I had Yogi here, and there wasn’t much thought in my mind to change it. Then I realized that pitcher would be the toughest position to fill. Sorry to say, but it was easier to flip out Yogi for Whitey than it was to flip out Ruth, Gehrig, or DiMaggio for Ruffing, Gomez, or Hoyt. I still think it all works out for the better.
Left Field – Tom Tresh
Probably my weakest pick, but for good reason. For a while I had Roy White as LF in the 70s and Elston Howard as C in the 60s, but the difference in production is just too great. I love Howard, but Thurman Munson just dominated in the 70s. Tresh held his own in the 60s though, so he’s a fine pick, if not the flashiest.
Catcher – Thurman Munson
I did not know this: White has the most Offensive WAR of any Yankee who has played at least 50 percent of his time in left field. It was tempting to go with him here, but Munson was just a powerhouse in the 70s. He led the team in WAR, and is right with Posada, behind Berra and Dickey, as the one of the greatest catchers in Yankees history.
DH – Dave Winfield
We now reach the most fudged selection of the group. My initial inclination was to go with Giambi in the 2000s as DH, but then I realized that was stupid. A-Rod is the best-hitting 3B in Yankee history by no small margin. Again, could have gone Nettles in the 70s, but then I have to go with a lesser LF from the 80s. And, well, there were no Yankees with 1,500 PA who got half their time at LF in the 80s. Seriously, zero. Winfield qualified for DH in that he got more than 25 percent of his at-bats there in the 80s. I’m not particularly proud of this pick, but it’s what works.
Shortstop – Derek Jeter
By this point you can see what positions and decades remain and guess my three picks. So I’ll just list them.
Third Base – Alex Rodriguez
Hate him? Fine. But he won two MVPs and led the team to its first World Series in nearly a decade. Wah wah Graig Nettles wah wah.
Second Base – Robinson Cano
Cano took a huge step forward in 2010, which is convenient for this list. He is 10 Offensive WAR against the next-best Yankee hitter from the decade (Curtis Granderson), which makes me really depressed about the 2010s Yankees.
Offensive WAR Ranks
How did I do? Let’s look at the Yankees Offensive WAR leaders by decade to see how many wins they produced. Before looking I’m pretty sure I got near the top guy in each decade.
Note, this is the WAR produced with the Yankees in that decade only.
Note: Jeter actually produced more WAR, almost double, in the 00s (the most on the Yankees), but that creates a problem in the 90s. Only Bernie and O’Neill ranked ahead of him in Offensive WAR. O’Neill is right out, and to swap out Bernie would be to pick Keller in the 40s. That leaves 3B to the 60s, which means Clete Boyer, which is just not happening. This is a balancing act. Going Bernie-Jeter in 90s-00s makes the team weaker elsewhere.
If you think you can produce more than the 431.6 cumulative Offensive WAR of this squad, be my guest. But I’m pretty sure this is the best team, under the given circumstances, that you could create.