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  • Lincoln Mitchell

The Greatest Yankees Infield Ever

 by Lincoln Mitchell

January 19, 2024

***


The other day, I saw a picture somewhere on social media, probably Instagram, of Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. The caption was something like “the greatest infield ever.” I immediately started thinking about great infields of the past and wondered if that quartet, which was very good, was the indeed the greatest infield ever. I then wondered if those four were even the greatest Yankees infield ever.

 

In order to answer this question, I created an informal methodology. First, I only considered Yankees infields that featured the same four players for two or more years and compared the best period of two consecutive years for each of those infields. I also decided that I wanted to give more weight to Yankees infields where all four players contributed, rather than infields that got most of their value from one or two stars. To do that I borrowed a methodology that Bill James used many years ago to, I believe, discuss the greatest outfields ever. Instead of simply adding up the WAR for each player for each of the seasons, I ranked the infielders from least to most WAR and the multiplied the least WAR by four, the second least by three, the third least by two and the first by one. I then repeated that for each of the two seasons and add up the two season scores.

 

Imagine two infields who accumulated 20 WAR. Team A has four players Don (6 WAR) Willie (5 WAR) Graig (5 WAR) and Tom (4 WAR). The score for that group would be (4WARx4)+(5WARx3)+(5WARx2)+(6WARx1). That would come to a total of 47. Team B also has a twenty WAR infield of Lou (14 WAR) (Billy 3 WAR) (Frank 2 WAR) and Chase (1 WAR). Using the same formula, (1WARx4)+(2WARx3)+(3WARx2)+(14WARx1) would equal 30 because the most of the value comes from Lou, so Group A would be considered the better infield.

 

There are some problems with this approach. First, I defined the starting infield as that which was listed at Baseball Reference for the year in question, so this methodology overlooks some teams which relied on four players for three positions or platooned at one or more positions. Second, WAR is a good heuristic, but it does not explain everything, so I also explored some other criteria and stories about some of these infields. Additionally, if a player accumulated negative WAR, I simply multiplied it by one.

 

Five Yankees infields are contenders for best infield ever. They are listed in the table below. To make some comparisons possible, I have also presented the combined slash line and estimated OPS+ of each infield over their best two years. Comparing defense was a bit more difficult so I used two imperfect measures. The number of Gold Gloves and combined dWAR over the course of the two years. The first two infields predate the Gold Glove so that box is scored as not applicable. I have provided the total years the infield was together, but the data is drawn from the peak two years as noted in the table.


 Before getting too far into the numbers there are some interesting things that jump out from this table. First, there are no contenders from the 1949-1964 era when the Yankees won the pennant all but two years. The best infield the Yankees had during those years was from 1952-1953 when Joe Collins, Billy Martin, Phil Rizzuto and Gil McDougald played together, but their numbers do not compare with the other infields. For most of those years Casey Stengel moved players around a lot, rarely stayed with a set lineup and relied heavily on two inner circle all-time greats, Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle. In the early 1960s, the Yankees had some outstanding defensive infields, but Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubek and Clete Boyer never hit enough to make it onto this list..

 

The two great Yankees infields from the pre-World War II era were both anchored by Lou Gehrig at first base and Tony Lazzeri at second. Those two Yankees greats played together for thirteen years and won seven pennants and six World Series as teammates. Gehrig is recognized as one of the greatest players ever, but Lazzeri is often forgotten. That is unfortunate because Lazzeri was a wonderful player, with a career slash line of .292/.380/.467 contributed to his 47.7 career WAR, 46.6 with the Yankees. Lazzeri has a special significance for me because the neighborhood where he lived as child is about a fifteen-minute walk from where I grew up. Lazzeri also attended the same high school in San Francisco as Joe DiMaggio. Years later, OJ Simpson would play football at Galileo. London Breed, the current mayor of San Francisco, is also a graduate of Galileo.

 

Derek Jeter is the greatest shortstop in the history of the Yankees franchise, so it is not surprising that two of the top infields were built around him. The 2009-2012 Yankees infield included one Hall of Famer, Jeter, two others Rodriguez and Cano who put up Hall of Fame numbers, but whose candidacy is marred by PED use, and another player, Teixeira, who was a very good player but not at the level of most Hall of Fame first basemen. That group is in the discussion for greatest infield in history because of their extraordinary offensive production, combining for 214 home runs across 2009-2010. That data in the table, particularly the 129 OPS+, are further evidence of that.

 

The earlier Jeter infield did not have comparable firepower but was buoyed by excellent defense at the corners and solid to excellent offense from all four players. Chuck Knoblauch is remembered for developing the yips during the end of his career, but in 1998-1999 he was a top tier leadoff hitter and a more than adequate defender at second base. This group also helped lead the Yankees to World Series victories all three years they were together.

 

Generation X Yankees fans will always remember the remaining Yankees infield very fondly. Two of the players, Graig Nettles and Willie Randolph were wonderful in the field and either had excellent power (Nettles) or were able to get on base with great frequency (Randolph). Both of them are very worthy, but way too overlooked, Hall of Fame candidates.  Bucky Dent and Chris Chambliss were good players, but not true standouts at their positions. However, both hit home runs that remain among the most famous in the history of the franchise. This infield was the best defensive unit of the group.

 

The table below provides the two-year WAR scores for each of these infields based on the formula discussed above.


 

Two findings jump out from this table. First, the 2009-2010 infield was clearly the best in Yankees history. No other Yankees infield had four players who were such forces at the plate and played solid defense. The Teixeira-Cano-Jeter-Rodriguez group might be the best infield ever, but that will be the subject of another column.

 

The remaining four infields were all very comparable with two-year WAR scores ranging from 67.9 to 73.4. However, when looking at a formula that involves four players over two seasons, the difference between those two scores is basically nothing.

 

The 2009-2012 had no weaknesses and was, in most respects, better than any other infield in Yankees history. However, two of the players in that infield, Cano and Rodriguez, were known PED users and were probably using during those years. If that is the kind of thing that bothers you, then you have four excellent groups from which to pick your favorite. That call is more or less subjective, but you can’t go wrong. If I had to pick from the non-PED group, it would be a very tough call. The Yankees infield of my childhood would get strong consideration, but I would lean towards the 1935-1936 Yankees infield anchored by one of the best ballplayers ever to come out of Manhattan, where I live now (Gehrig) and one of the greatest to come out of San Francisco, where I grew up (Lazzeri).

6 Comments


Melfman1
Melfman1
Jan 21

Entertaining read.

Like

Robert Malchman
Robert Malchman
Jan 19

I discount the PED infield. I wish there were a way to purge them from the record books, but that's in no way feasible. So I have to settle for constant shaming and ridicule, and a lot of asterisks.


I was surprised that the '30s group was so high because I always thought of Crosetti as all-glove and no bat. But I see from the stats that he had a 105 OPS+ for each of those years, which is outstanding for a shortstop.

Like

Mike Whiteman
Jan 19

Great article. I lean towards the Tex, Cano, Jeter and Arod infield as the best in team history, while holding my nose on the PED usage.

Like

Len
Len
Jan 19

You mention briefly McDougald and Rizzuto. I think they deserve more attention. McD could have been a gold glover at 2nd, 3rd, or SS.

Like

fuster
Jan 19

However, two of the players in that infield, Cano and Rodriguez, were known PED users and were probably using during those years.

Like
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