COUNTING DOWN: The Best Yankee At Each Uniform Number (#18)
By Paul Semendinger
In recent years, there have been a number of very popular Yankees who have worn uniform number 18.
This list includes Didi Gregorius, Hiroki Kuroda, Johnny Damon, and Scott Brosius. Currently, Andrew Benintendi wears this number.
Most would think that one of the recent popular Yankees would be the best ever to wear #18, and that just might be the case in the end, but sit back, because today it's time for a bit of Yankees history. Some of what follows will surprise even the most devoted and knowledgeable Yankees fans...
Other Yankees who performed well in #18 or who wore it for numerous years include Randy Velarde, Hal Reniff, Johnny Allen, and some guy named Larsen.
This long exercise has been one in which I looked at the complete history of each uniform number and chose the best player based on that player's career in that uniform number as a Yankee. This exercise isn't, "Who had the greatest moment in each number." If it was a greatest moments exercise, that would be a different story. Don Larsen would win hands-down.
But, as everyone knows, absent of that one special game in the 1956 World Series, Don Larsen didn't have a great career.
Don Larsen had a career record of 81-91. That record is often mentioned when people write about his World Series Perfect Game, "A sub-.500 pitcher pitched one of the fall classic's greatest games ever..."
And that's true, he was a career sub-.500 pitcher, but in 1956, Don Larsen was 11-5 for the Yankees. He was actually pretty good that year.
And in 1955, the season before, he was 9-2. And in 1957, the year after, he was 10-4. That's three good years in a row...
Don Larsen was a Yankee from 1955 through 1959. In those years, he went 45-24 with a 3.50 ERA. He pitched in 128 games, starting 90 of them.
Most people don't know that as a Yankee, Don Larsen was actually pretty darn good.
Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, and Eddie Lopat get credit for being the big three pitchers at the start of the 1950's Yankees' Dynasty. But how about this three for the period of 1955 through 1958:
Whitey Ford: 62-25 (.712)
Bob Turley: 59-30 (.662)
Don Larsen: 39-17 (.696)
People don't also know that Don Larsen won a game in the 1957 World Series and he also won a game in the 1958 fall classic. (And, in 1962, when the Yankees beat the San Francisco Giants, Don Larsen pitched in three of those games, for the Giants, and earned one win against the Yankees.)
A winning percentage close to .700? Three World Series wins. A Perfect Game. Might Don Larsen be the best Yankee ever at uniform #18?
Maybe. But there is more here...
When people talk about the great Yankees pitchers of the 1930s, they recall Lefty Gomez and Red Ruffing. They don't remember Johnny Allen. And that's a shame. Take a look at these seasons:
1932: 17-4, 3.70
1933: 15-7, 4.39
1934: 5-2, 2.89
1935: 13-6, 3.61
As a Yankee, Johnny Allen went 50-19, 3.79.
Trivia - Which pitcher has the highest winning career winning percentage in the history of the Yankees?
Answer - Johnny Allen
I'm sure most people reading this article never even heard of Johnny Allen. But he won at a better rate than every other Yankees pitcher... EVER.
Let's look quickly at two of the others:
Hal Reniff wasn't a great pitcher, but he did pitch for 7 seasons with the Yankees (1961-66). He pitched in 247 games (all out of the bullpen) with a 3.26 ERA. He was a cog in the machine that went to four World Series. Unfortunately, the Yankees went from great to bad in the years he pitched.
Randy Velarde also wore #18 in 7 seasons. He played, never starring, with the Yankees from 1987-95. He also came back for a cameo in 2001. In the years he wore #18 (1989-95), he played in 602 games and batted .271. Velarde played a host of positions, and was one of the scrappy, "gutty and gritty" Yankees. Never a star, Velarde was an important contributor to the Yankees. The Yankees went from bad to good in the years he played.
And now, the most notable recent players:
Scott Brosius: 4 years: .267/65/282 (WAR 8.3), plus a few memorable World Series homers.
Johnny Damon: 4 years: .285/77/296 (WAR 14.4), he played a big role in the 2009 World Championship
Hiroki Kuroda: 3 years: 38-33, 3.44 (WAR 11.4), a steady and reliable starting pitcher.
Didi Gregorius: 5 years: .269/97/360 (WAR 15.1), a solid player, replaced Derek Jeter, smiled, added a lot to the team, "Start Spreading the News."
This isn't easy....
Just for the record:
Randy Velarde: WAR 11.8
Hal Reniff: WAR 3.8
Don Larsen: WAR 4.6
Johnny Allen: WAR 8.1
By WAR, the top three Yankees at #18 would be Didi Gregorius, Johnny Damon, and Randy Velarde.
By years as a Yankee, Randy Velarde would get extra points. If we rank them by years, it would go:
Randy Velarde/Hal Reniff - 7 years
Didi Gregorius/Don Larsen - 5 years
Scott Brosius/Johnny Damon/Johnny Allen - 4 years
If we look to World Championships, Johnny Allen gets one (1932). Don Larsen gets two (1956, 1958), Scott Brosius gets three (1998, 99, 00), and Johnny Damon gets one (2009).
Let's still dig deeper.
How about how that player was considered at the time? The only players from this list to earn MVP votes were Johnny Allen (2 seasons), Johnny Damon (1 season), and Didi Gregorius (2 seasons).
If I were to rank the pitchers, I'd have to rank them as follows:
I think history means more than WAR in this case. Kuroda had the highest WAR, but I think the other two pitchers were better and more notable to Yankees history than Kuroda was. Johnny Allen was great, but he also had a "sour attitude" and that led the Yankees to send him to Cleveland while he was still pitching great. Over the next two seasons, he would go 35-11.
If I were to rank the position players, I'd have to rank them as follows:
Gregorius had the better seasons (if we look at MVP votes), was a Yankee longer, and does have the highest WAR.
Which now brings me to the final rankings. Where I consider all of this. I think, in the end, it's Don Larsen (4.6 WAR) vs. Didi Gregorius (15.1). Larsen was great for a time, greatest than most remember, or even know, but that WAR gap is significant. Larsen wasn't the best starter on those teams. Didi played every day...
Didi Gregorius never won a World Championship, but he was a winning Yankee, a leader, a bright light, a fun player, and a gifted defender... he also had a few memorable home runs as well.
In one of the most difficult decisions I have to make in this series...
Start Spreading the News...
Didi Gregorius is the greatest Yankee to ever wear uniform #18.
Most of the background research for this project came from Baseball-Reference.com and the SABR BioProject.
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