COUNTING DOWN: The Best Yankee At Each Uniform Number (#24)
By Paul Semendinger
I never go into these exercises with the knowledge of who the best player at a uniform is. (I always have my hunches and my favorites, but I like figuring this out as I write these.)
I have been looking forward to uniform #24 for a long time. I know that the number is famous for a guy in Monument Park, Tino Martinez. I have a sense that a player who in not there, Rickey Henderson, was actually the better Yankee.
(Over the course of their careers, there is no debate that Rickey Henderson was greater than Tino. Rickey Henderson in his career was greater than almost every other player in history. It might be fun to figure out exactly where Rickey Henderson belongs on an all-time listing of the greatest ballplayers ever. I think an argument can be made that he's a Top-20 player, maybe even Top-10. Rickey is the all-time leader in runs and stolen bases. He had more than 3,000 hits and 1,100 runs batted in. He clubbed 297 homers. Rickey was a unique player which makes it challenging to determine exactly how great he was. But he was great, one of the best, that's for sure. As it turns out, Rickey ranks #15 all-time in WAR for position players. He's right there.)
We also cannot forget Robinson Cano who wore the number well for a long time and was one of the greatest Yankees second baseman of all-time. Had he stayed with the Yankees, Cano would have easily taken this honor. The number might even be have been retired for him one day. But Cano left, and with that, what also left was his all-time legacy. (This is something Aaron Judge should take note of. There must be a salary number, and I don't presume to know what it is, when the extra dollars mean less and are less valuable than becoming an iconic New York Yankee. Is that worth $50 million? Is it more? Is it less? There is a value to being iconic. If Robinson Cano hadn't left, this article would have been a quick one to write. Instead, there is at least some debate.)
So, who was the best Yankee in uniform #24? And, was there anyone else who wore #24 that can even be considered?
50 different players wore #24 as Yankees. Of note:
Spud Chandler (who won an MVP in 1943) wore this number in 1937.
Paul Waner (who is in the Hall of Fame) wore this number for 9 games in 1944.
Ralph Branca (who gave up Bobby Thompson's homer as a Dodger in 1951) wore this number as a Yankee in 1954.
Al Downing (who would later serve up Hank Aaron's 715th homer) wore #24 for most of the 1960s (1961-69).
Mike Torrez wore #24 in 1977 when he got the final out of the 1977 World Series. He later gave up Bucky Dent's big homer.
NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders wore this number in 1989.
Kevin Maas wore #24 when he homered a million times as a rookie in 1990.
Gary Sanchez was #24 for his Yankees career.
Matt Carpenter is having a somewhat magical ride in #24 this season.
In the end, the argument for the best #24 ever as a Yankee comes down to three names: Rickey Henderson, Tino Martinez, and Robinson Cano.
Who, among them, was the best?
The case for Rickey Henderson:
As a Yankee, he led the AL in runs two times and in stolen bases three times
He owns the single season stolen base record and is second all-time in career steals as a Yankee
4 time All-Star, 1 Silver Slugger, 3rd in MVP voting (1985)
As a Yankee: .288/78/255 (4.5 seasons)
The case for Tino Martinez:
5 100+ RBI seasons
5 20+ HR seasons
MVP Runner-up (1997), 1 Silver Slugger, 2 time All-Star
4 World Championships
As a Yankee: 276/192/739 (7 years)
The case for Robinson Cano:
AL Leader in Games (2009)
Rookie of the Year Runner-Up (2009)
5 time All-Star, 3 Top-5 MVP Seasons
5 Silver Sluggers
1 Gold Glove
As a Yankee: .309/204/822 (9 years)
Ranked by WAR, these players come in as follows:
Robbie Cano - 44.4
Rickey Henderson - 30.8
Tino Martinez - 16.7
I concur with that assessment. Robinson Cano was a Yankee for double the time that Rickey Henderson was. Tino was very good, but he just wasn't great. (It's nice that Tino is in Monument Park, but for him to be there ahead of so many other and more deserving players, is just not fair. Tino isn't even in the Top-50 All-Time Yankees as ranked by WAR in pinstripes.)
Robinson Cano was the greatest Yankee in uniform #24. Had he not left, his career WAR of 68.5 would have ranked him as the 6th greatest Yankee of All-Time. What could have been...
Again, dollars are dollars, I get it, but being a Top-10 Yankee, also has to be worth something. I wonder if Robinson Cano, in retrospect, feels the same way. (Aaron Judge, already #27 all-time as a Yankee should take note...) What is the price for fame?
Most of the background research for this project came from Baseball-Reference.com and the SABR BioProject.
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