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1987 vs 2021: A Simple Study (Less Stats, More Feelings)

by Paul Semendinger

June 5, 2021


In my “About Last Night” feature yesterday, I made the following reference:

At some point, the rubber has to hit the road. The 2021 Yankees aren’t terrible, but they’re also not good. These teams of recent years remind me of the Yankees of the late 1980s, just before the bottom fell out. Those teams were good, often, but they were missing something. The 1986 Yankees won 90 games. In 1987, they won 89 games. In 1988, they won 85 games. Then came 1989 and a 74 win season. It all came crumbling down. That’s what this feels like. It feels like 1987. “The Yanks are good. They have so much talent – Winfield and Rickey and Donnie Baseball. If Pags can continue to improve… Maybe Pasqua can be a star… They have a few older pitchers with good track records, maybe they can turn back the clock…” Substitute the names and that sounds like the Yankees of the last few years. Yes, if feels like it did in 1987. Only then we didn’t know what the next few years had in store. This just doesn’t seem like a team heading in the right direction. It feels like 1989 is coming sooner than we think.

This sparked some discussion about the 1987 Yankees and the 2021 edition.

I decided to take a quick, less primarily stat driven, and more emotional look at the two teams to compare the starting position players on both teams to see, if given a choice, which player I’d take.

Here’s how I see it…

(The 1987 stats were over a full season, the 2021 stats are season-to-date through Thursday night’s game.)

C – Rick Cerone (.243/4/23) vs Gary & Higgy (.198/11/22)

In this I would have to take Gary Sanchez and Kyle Higashioka. In 1987, Rick Cerone, who really only had one good year, was 33-years-old. I was never a big fan of Cerone. Gary Sanchez has been a huge disappointment regarding his level of play and his potential, and Higgy is Higgy, a nice #2 catcher, now being asked to be a #1. Still the Sanchez/Higashioka tandem is the one I’d take over Rick Cerone. They still have more talent and upside.

1987 – 0

2021 – 1

1B – Don Mattingly (.327/30/115) vs Who?

Who’s on first? Literally. It is Luke Voit (injured for much of the year) or D.J. LeMahieu (a second baseman) or Mike Ford (who didn’t hit a lick)?

It doesn’t matter. I’d take the 1987 Don Mattingly over any of them.

1987 was also the year Don Mattingly hit homers in 8 consecutive games (see below).

Mattingly is a legend and is on my short-list of most favorite players ever. (I’d even take the early 1990s Don Mattingly, of course, but that’s another story.)

1987- 1

1921 – 1

2B – Willie Randolph (.305/7/67) vs D.J. LeMahieu (.255/3/14)

This one is a toss-up. This season is, or was, for both, their age-32 year. It’s possible that this year D.J. LeMahieu falls short of the numbers Randolph produced in 1987. But, the writing was soon on the wall. Randolph’s days as a starter were ending.

This comes down to just my hunch, who will be better going forward? I think that LeMahieu will probably put up better numbers than Randolph did in his later years. I’m not convinced of that, but it seems likely – even with his struggles this year. I think LeMahieu will age better than Randolph did. That being said, I don’t think we’ll see the 2019-20 LeMahieu again, and Willie Randolph, playing less than regularly put up some good late career numbers.

If it’s an emotional call, I’ll take Willie Randolph. He’s my favorite second sacker ever. (The 1987 team had a number of my favorite players…)

I might even, at this point state that I’d be very much in favor of Willie Randolph managing the 2021 or 2022 Yankees. (Don Mattingly too.)

1987 – 2

2021 – 1

SS – Wayne Tolleson (.221/1/22) vs Gleyber Torres (.262/2/19)

Well, this is a no-brainer. Wayne Tolleson is no Gleyber Torres, in any way.

The Yankees went through a long period from Bucky Dent until Derek Jeter where they had very poor shortstops year-in-and-year-out.

1987 – 2

2021 – 2

3B – Mike Pagliarulo (.234/32/87) vs Gio Urshela (.261/6/26)

Pags was one of my favorites as well, and he did hit 32 bombs that year.

But Urshela seems like the real deal and the better player now and going forward. I really want to pick Pags, but…

Love ya’ Pags, but I’m taking Gio.

1987 – 2

2021 – 3

LF – Rickey Henderson (.291/17/37) vs Clint Frazier (.184/5/11)

This is also a no-brainer. You take Rickey Henderson every day and twice on Sunday.

I didn’t like Rickey Henderson when he was on other teams after he left the Yankees, but when he was a Yankee I LOVED him. He was so so so so so fun to watch: the steals, the swagger, the walks and homers, the “snatch catch.” Rickey Henderson was so cool, so great, so awesome to watch.

1987 – 3

2021 – 3

CF – Claudell Washington (.279/9/44) vs Brett Gardner (.197/1/4)

I loved “C Dub,” but Gardy has the legacy and all of that. Still, the 1987 Claudell Washington would run circles around the 2021 Brett Gardner. Gardy has looked completely washed up.

I’d like to say that this is close enough to go with the legacy player, but it’s not.

If I were building a team of the players at this point in their careers, even though Washington was winding down, I’d still have to take him over Gardy.

1987 – 4

2021 – 3

RF – Dave Winfield (.275/27/97) vs Aaron Judge (.289/13/30)

I like Aaron Judge as a player a ton more than I liked Dave Winfield, who just seemed distant and was a player I couldn’t warm-up to like Rickey Henderson and Mattingly. Winfield was very very good, and great at times, but he sort of represented that whole era of Yankees baseball. Very good, great at times, never quite enough.

Still Judge hopes to have half the career Winfield had. (And he has a long way to go to get there.)

You would have to take Big Dave in this exercise.

1987 – 5

2021 – 3


So, there you have it… it’s pretty close.

This was just a look at the position players.

We didn’t do DH (Ron Kittle vs Giancarlo Stanton?) or the pitching staff. Maybe I’ll compare the pitchers one day soon. (The pitching was what seemed to doom those 1980s teams as it was…)

It was fun to look at and remember that 1987 team. (That was my freshman year in college. Yikes. Where have the years gone?)

Who would you have picked in this exercise?

I have a few last notes after the video:

I’d take Lou Piniella over Aaron Boone as the manager – always.

And I’d take Phil Rizzuto, Bill White, Frank Messer over any three Yankees announcers today.


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