The Yankees have been the most successful team in big league baseball history. Many of the greatest players ever, from Babe Ruth to Alex Rodriguez, yes Alex Rodriguez, have had great years for the Yankees. However, like all teams, they have struggled at times or struggled to find the right player for a position. With this in mind, I decided to figure out a kind of reverse all time all star team for the Yankees, finding the worst Yankees player ever at each position. Before going forward, we must remember that even the “worst” players are among the very best ever. Anybody who manages to play even one inning in the Major Leagues, let alone a few years, is a truly great player. So, this is meant respectfully and in fun, not as an insult to these great players who, even in their on-the-field failures, gave us some happiness over the years.
I created some specific criteria for this team. The players have to had real careers. I was not interested in guys who went 0 for 2 in their only game. Nor was I interested in career backups. So, position players had to play at least 300 games for the Yankees with at least two seasons of 120 or more games, 100 for catchers. For starting pitchers, I wanted two seasons with 25 or more starts, and for the one reliever, two seasons with 40 or more relief appearances. I also gave a slight preference for players in the post-1920 period. My reason for that is that until 1920, the Yankees were frequently not that good of a team and reading about mediocre players from more than a century ago just isn’t that interesting for most fans. So, here is the team. As usual, my goal here is not to provide definitive answers to a question that is essentially a product of the Coronavirus induced baseball doldrums, but to have some fun spark discussion.
The 1988-1989 offseason was a transitional year for the Yankees. For much of the 1980s, the Yankees were a good team that just missed the playoffs many years. In 1988, they had won 85 games and finished in fifth place, but were only 3.5 games behind the division winning Red Sox. There starting pitching had been pretty bad in 1988. Their ace was John Candelaria a 34 year old lefty who managed to win 13 games with a 3.34 ERA. Rich Dotson, Tommy John and Rick Rhoden combined for more than 90 starts and each had an ERA well over 4.00. A too old Ron Guidry and a too young Al Leiter helped round out the starting pitching. The Yankees needed pitching in the offseason so they pursued free agent Andy Hawkins, signing him to a three year deal at around one million per year. It was a strange move as Hawkins was coming off of a three year stretch of mediocrity, averaging nine wins and a 4.35 ERA with the Padres.
Hawkins was a mediocre journeyman at that point in his career who was not positioned to meaningfully help the Yankees. In 1989, Hawkins did what smart baseball people would have expected. He went out and made his starts, leading the Yankees in game started with 34, innings with 208.1 and wins and losses with 15 each. It would have been a decent season for a number four or five starter, but Hawkins was supposed to be the ace of the staff. The next year Hawkins was even worse as his ERA ballooned to 5.37 in 26 starts. The Yankees released him early in 1991 when his ERA for that year ballooned to 9.35 in only 12.2 innings.
For most Yankees fans, the names of Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich are forever linked for their off the field relationships, but they were different pitchers. Peterson was an All Star and a twenty game winner who was a top pitcher on several Yankees teams in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Kekich, who started his career with the Dodgers and spent a lot of time bouncing between being a starter and a reliever, was never as good.
During his five years with the Yankees, Kekich was 31-32 with an ERA of 4.31. That gave him an ERA+ of 76 because the early 1970s were still a relatively low offense era. Kekich made 24 starts in 1971 and 28 in 1972, the years he was essentially a full time starter for Yankees. He was almost a .500 pitcher going 20-22, with an ERA+ of 80. The Yankees traded him to Cleveland early in the 1973 season.
Shawn Kelley pitched in his 11th big league season last year and has enjoyed nice career. He has logged 464 big league innings with an ERA+ of 110. He has averaged well over a strikeout per inning and only one walk for every 3.7 strikeouts. Unfortunately for the Yankees, the two years he was in the Bronx stand out as the worst in his career. In 2013, Kelley was one of the Yankees setup men in the last year of the great Mariano Rivera’s dominance out of the Yankees bullpen. He appeared in pitched 53.1 games over 57 innings, but was not effective. His strikeouts per inning and relative to walks were still excellent as he struck out 71 while walking only 23. However, the eight home runs he surrendered contributed both to his 4.39 ERA and his more respectable 3.63 FIP.
The Yankees have had two Hall of Fame Catchers, Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey, one who should be in, Thurman Munson, and two who were only about half a step or so behind many Hall of Fame catchers, Jorge Posada and Elston Howard, who was a nine time All Star as a Yankee, primarily as a catcher. Other than those five, the Yankees have rarely had the same catcher for very long. Those five players each caught more than 1,000 games for the Yankees. Next on the list is an obscure player named Ed Sweeney who caught 598 games for the Yankees between 1908 and 1915.
Yankees catchers have either been very good or not stuck around for long, making it difficult to identify the worst Yankees catcher ever who was a regular for at least two years. Joe Girardi is best remembered as a longtime Yankees manager, but from 1996 until the early part of the 1998 season, he was the Yankees starting catcher and remained with the team backing up Posada through 1999. Girardi was always a defense first player, but for those years his hitting was particularly bad as he combined to hit .272/.317/.361 during an extremely high offense period. His defense was solid enough to keep him above replacement level with a total of 1.6 WAR during his time in pinstripes. Girardi then is the worst at a position where the Yankees have been historically very strong.
On May 2nd, 1939 when Babe Dahlgren took over as the Yankees starting first baseman, he had the very difficult task of taking over for Lou Gehrig who had begun to show the unmistakable signs of ALS, the disease which is now referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Dahlgren did well as the number eight hitter that day, hitting a home run, a double and drawing a walk in six trips to the plate as the Yankees clobbered the Tigers 22-2. However, Dahlgren could not come near sustaining that, or any other, level of production. During the two years he was the Yankees starting first baseman he hit .250/.318/.380, with a total of 27 home runs and 162 RBIs. These were terrible numbers for a first baseman in a hitter’s era. Dahlgren was sold to the Boston Braves before the 1941 season.
The Yankees have had several very good second basemen and a few, Robinson Cano, Joe Gordon, Tony Lazzeri and Willie Randolph who were a shade better than that. They have also had several players like Steve Sax, Mariano Duncan, Gil McDougald, Bobby Richardson and even Horace Clarke who turned in several very solid years at the position. On balance, second base has been a quiet strength for the Yankees over the years, making it difficult to identify anybody who played regularly at the position who was not good.
When the Yankees have been weak at this position they have rarely stuck with the same subpar player at second base for more than a season. The race for worst at this position is between two good players. Jerry Coleman and Billy Martin overlapped with the Yankees in the early 1950s and shared the position for much of that decade. Coleman was the better fielder while Martin, who hit .262/.313/.376 with 6 WAR over parts of seven seasons in pinstripes, was the marginally better hitter. Given that the Yankees were such a good team with one or both of these two players at second base from 1949-1957, it doesn’t seem right to call one of these two the worst at the position for the Yankees. Nonetheless, with so few players who were not good qualifying, the nod goes to Martin, primarily because his shenanigans would create so much stress on a bad team, he would turn a fun lousy team into an unlikeable lousy team.