Great Yankees Batting Orders Revisited
Five Yankees teams, in 1927, 1932, 1939, 1961 and 1998, have won 67% or more of their games. All five of those teams also won the World Series. In 1961, the Yankees lost a World Series game, but the other teams all swept. These were probably the five greatest teams in Yankees history and several rank among the very best teams ever. Baseball has changed a lot since even 1998, and a lot more since 1927, so I decided to look at what the batting order for each of these teams would look like with today’s approach to batting orders. In doing this, I looked at players’ statistics for the whole year. This information was not available during the seasons in question because those numbers were still forming, but in most cases the numbers either were similar to the previous year or had become clear by midseason.
The 1927 Yankees are considered one of the greatest teams ever. This was the best of the three Ruth and Gehrig teams that won the World Series. It was also the year Ruth hit 60 home runs. The batting order the Yankees used most in 1927, fully 25 times, was Earle Combs (CF) Mark Koenig (SS) Babe Ruth (RF) Lou Gehrig (1b), Bob Meusel (2b) Tony Lazzeri (2b), Joe Dugan (3b), Pat Collins (C) and the pitcher. The Yankees used the first six batters in this lineup in that order in 85 of what was then a 154 game season. There are several things about this lineup that would stand out today. First, Mark Koenig would be a poor choice to bat second because he couldn’t hit. His .320 OBP was the lowest of any Yankees starter while only Joe Dugan had a lower OPS. Second, the lineup bunches up the two left-handed hitting and right-handed hitting sluggers. This would not have been an issue in 1927 when bullpen use was totally different, but it would be an issue today.
Today, based on their statistics in 1927, the lineup would look a little different. Earle Combs’ was a prototypical leadoff hitter. In 1927 he was a fast centerfielder with little power whose .414 OBP helped him score 137 runs. He would remain in the leadoff spot, but after that the order would look different. Today the best hitter on the team bats second, not third. That would mean that Ruth would bat second but this team has enough good hitters that a different approach could be taken. However, recognizing Ruth’s unique greatness and value batting third, even today many mangers would bat Bob Meusel second instead. Meusel was the third best overall hitter on this team, but his .393 OBP would mean a lot more RBI opportunities for the middle of the order. It would also keep Ruth and Gehrig in their iconic three and four spots in the batting order. This would leave the Yankees vulnerable to left-handed pitching, but Ruth and Gehrig were not ordinary left-handed hitters. Both had OPS over 1.000 in 1927 against left-handed pitching. Tony Lazzeri, a right handed hitter, would move up to the number five spot. After that, the bottom of the order would be slightly reworked with catcher Pat Collins who hit a very respectable .275/.407/.418 sixth followed by the switch hitting Koenig and the Dugan. The batting order of Combs, Meusel, Ruth, Gehrig, Lazzeri, Collins, Koenig, Dugan and the pitcher would be how these players would be lined up based on 2020 thinking. It was never used in 1927.
The 1932 Yankees are most remembered for Babe Ruth’s called shot in the 1932 World Series, but this was a great all around team. They won 107 games, finished in first place by 13 games and swept the Cubs in the World Series. Ruth, Gehrig, Combs and Lazzeri were still essentially in their respective primes. Bill Dickey and Ben Chapman were good young players that bolstered the offense while ace pitchers Lefty Gomez and Red Ruffing combined for 42 wins. The batting order the team most frequently used was Combs, Joe Sewell, Ruth, Gehrig, Chapman, Dickey, Lazzeri, Lyn Lary and the pitcher. This lineup was used 23 times and another 11 with Frank Crosetti batting eighth at shortstop. Lary and Crosetti had almost the same numbers and played the same position in 1932, so this basic lineup was used 34 times, but the top four were Combs-Sewell-Ruth-Gehrig 86 times.
This team was very left-handed at the plate with only Lazzeri, Chapman and the two shortstops batting from the right side. The major problem with this lineup is that Sewell who hit .279/.349/.392 in 1932 was not the best choice for the number two spot. Today, Chapman,.299/381/.473, would likely be in the number two spot. Again, Ruth could be there as well, but the right handed hitting Chapman between two left handed hitters, Combs and Ruth, would be helpful. Ruth and Gehrig would remain in the middle of the order, followed by Lazzeri, Dickey, Sewell, and the shortstop. Again, this would break up the left handed bats a little bit while bunching the best hitters at the top. If this team’s batting order was crafted today, it would likely be Combs, Chapman, Ruth, Gehrig, Lazzeri, Dickey, Sewell, shortstop, pitcher, but it was never constructed that way in 1932.
In 1939, the Yankees won 106 games, finished in first place by 17 games and swept the Reds in the World Series. They would have won more games in the regular season if they had a better backup first baseman, but given they had not needed one in almost fifteen years, that oversight made some sense. Lou Gehrig, still a fearsome hitter in 1938, became too sick to play very early in the season and was replaced by Babe Dahlrgren, who was not much of hitter, for the rest of the year.
The lineup most frequently used by the Yankees in 1936 was Crosetti, Red Rolfe, Charlie Keller, Joe DiMaggio, Dickey, George Selkirk, Joe Gordon, Dahlgren and the pitcher. They used this lineup 30 times, but the first four were together in the same 46 times. This lineup did not maximize the Yankees potent offense, primarily because of the first two batters. Frank Crosetti had a .315 OBP and should have never batted leadoff. Rolfe’s .404 OBP looks a lot better in the number two spot, but in that high scoring era four Yankees starters got on base more often. The natural leadoff hitter on that team should have been George Selkirk who led the team with a .452 OBP while stealing 12 bases in 17 tries. His power, 21 home runs that year, probably kept him out of the leadoff spot, but today that would not be a problem. DiMaggio was the best hitter on that team and would bat second, followed by Keller, thus following today’s patterns while also having lefty-righty-lefty swingers in the first three spots in the lineup. After that, more questions arise. Dickey, Rolfe and Gordon were all good hitters in 1939 and could be put in any order. However, many managers today would bat Gordon fourth largely because he had more power than the other two. The rest of the order was Dickey, Rolfe, Dahlgren and Crosetti. From today’s perspective the best batting order for this team would be Selkirk, DiMaggio, Keller Gordon, Dickey, Rolfe, Dahlgren, Crosetti and the pitcher. That batting order was never used in 1939 in part because Selkirk never batted first and DiMaggio never batted second.
The 1961 Yankees were famous for Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle both threatening Babe Ruth’s home run record before Maris finally broke it. That team, playing 162 games, won 109, captured the pennant by eight games and won the World Series in five games. Despite this, manager Ralph Houk had some strange ideas about lineup construction. Houk did not use any batting order even 12 times, but based on where they most frequently batted in the order, the typical batting order was Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubek, Maris, Mantle, Yogi Berra, Moose Skowron, Elston Howard and the pitcher. Skowron and Howard frequently switched spots in the lineup. This lineup, with the six and seven spots going either way, was used 17 times. The 1961 Yankees were a strange team because they got great offense from Mantle and Maris, but Kubek, Richardson and Boyer were all defense first players who did not hit all that much. In this situation, there is a temptation to break up the weak hitters, but Houk usually did not do that in a way that makes sense from today’s perspectives. None of those three had an OBP of even .310, so they should not have been at the top of the order.
This team had no natural leadoff hitter, but a more creative manager, or one looking at the team through the lens of baseball today, could have gone with either Howard, who was the primary catcher, or Berra, who played mostly left field in the leadoff spot. Both were slow, but on this team they weren’t going to need to steal many bases. Howard had a .387 OBP so would have been a good, if extremely unconventional, table setter. Mantle was the best overall hitter on that team and would have been an excellent number two hitter. Maris would bat third as the other best hitter on the team, followed by Skowron who had a very good year hitting .267/.318/.472 from the right side, and then Berra, a left-handed hitter, who had an even better year at .271/.330./455. The bottom of the order would be weak with Boyer followed by Kubek and Richardson. A batting order of Howard, Mantle, Maris, Skowron, Berra, Boyer, Kubek and Richardson would have been radical for the era, but would have generated more runs. Needless to say, this was not tried in 1961 as Berra never batted first and Mantle never batted second.
The 1998 Yankees won 114 regular season games and swept through the post season going 11-2 on their way to winning the World Series. They are the only team in this group that was from the modern era as they played with a DH, less lineup stability than the pre-war teams, a multi-tiered playoff system and are in the living memory of many Yankees fans. As with many modern teams, they tinkered with the lineup a lot, never using the same lineup more than eight times. Based on who the starters were and where they most frequently batted, the typical lineup for the 1998 Yankees team was Chuck Knoblauch, Derek Jeter, Paul O’Neill, Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez, Daryl Strawberry, Chad Curtis, Jorge Posada and Scott Brosius. This is a solid and well thought out lineup with the two table setters at the top of the order, the best hitters in the middle and the weaker hitters at the bottom, but a manager using today’s conventional wisdom would nonetheless tinker with it slightly.
The first thing that could be done differently is that although Knoblauch was a big offseason acquisition who was expected to bat leadoff, in 1998 Jeter was a better leadoff hitter as he got on base more frequently, a .384 OBP compared to .361 for Knoblauch, and was a better base stealer, 30 for 36 compared to 31 for 43 for Knoblauch. Today, the best hitter usually bats second, but to break up the lefty swingers a little, Paul O’Neill, essentially the second best hitter on the 1998 Yankees would bat second rather than Bernie Williams, who would bat third. Strawberry and Martinez would bat fourth and fifth. In 1998, Martinez usually batted ahead of Strawberry, but Strawberry OPS+ 132, was a slightly better hitter than Martinez, OPS+ of 124, in 1998. Those two left-handed hitters would be vulnerable to the lefty relief specialist that were so common then, but this team was lefty heavy, so that is somewhat inevitable. The rest of the order would also look somewhat different. The right-handed hitting Scott Brosius, usually batted eighth or ninth in 1998, but he had an excellent season hitting .300/.371/.472 in 1998, so would move up to the sixth spot in the lineup. Jorge Posada would be in the seventh spot followed by Chad Curtis. Curtis was a weaker hitter than Knoblauch but many teams today still like the idea of a second leadoff hitter in the last spot in the batting order, so Knoblauch would bat 9th. Thus, the 1998 Yankees, if they were around today, they would have a batting order that looked something like this, Jeter, O’Neill, Williams, Strawberry, Martinez, Brosius, Posada, Curtis, Knoblauch. That lineup was never used in 1998.
The goal of this exercise is not to craft the lineups I would use, but to look at how ideas about batting orders, run generation and how runs are scored have changed over the years. All of these teams except the 1961 Yankees were managed by future Hall of Famers. They knew what they were doing as evidenced by the great success they all had in these years, but there are some glaring questions-like Ralph Houk’s fondness for middle infielders who could not get on base at the top of the order-that cannot be avoided. Additionally, some of today’s approaches seem strange through the prism of this exercise. Batting the team’s best hitter second is an idea that can be overdone, particularly with good teams that have a lot of high OBP players.