Who Would the One Player Be? (Guest Post from ProfRobert)
January 6, 2021
Tim Kabel posed an excellent hot-stove question about what one non-Yankee would you want to see on the team. https://startspreadingthenews.blog/start-spreading-the-news/tk010322
In the comments, Rudy Lopes noted the split in responses between “best player” and “most effect on the team.” I looked a bit at both aspects in responses to Tim and Dr. Paul: Would a player like Ted Williams or Dave Stieb have made a difference between losing and winning the pennant. The answers were once definitely and another two maybes for Williams, and one likely plus one maybe for Stieb. But Rudy’s comment suggested a more direct approach — find a series of years where the Yankees were close-but-no-cigar and then figure if there was a Romeo y Julieta or H. Uppmann that would likely have changed things if the Yankees had him.
I’m going to exclude seasons where they made the playoffs anyway; this should be about the full season and a make-or-break for the post-season. There are 10 such seasons where the Yankees were within 3.5 games of reaching the post-season, 1904, 1906, 1920, 1924, 1935, 1940, 1948, 1974, 1985 and 1988. I discussed 1940 and 1948 with Williams (“maybe” and “likely,” respectively), and 1985 and 1988 with Stieb (“probably” and maybe,” respectively). It’s impressive that Tim and Paul intuitively picked players for a couple of years where a difference could have been made. (Though on further consideration, Orel Hershiser would have been a better choice than Stieb. He would still have been good enough for the Yankees to win in 1985 (5.9 WAR), even with Stieb staying on the Blue Jays, and also very likely would have made a difference in 1988, when he had a 7.2 WAR.)
The other “bunched” years are 1904/06 and 1920/24. In 1904, the New York Highlanders famously lost the pennant to the Boston Americans in large part due to Jack Chesbro’s wild pitch and finished 1.5 GB. In 1906, they finished 3 GB the White Sox. Both seasons, catcher would have been the obvious upgrade (1.1 and 1.8 WAR respectively). The problem is that there wasn’t a catcher in all of MLB who would have made a difference. (Johnny Kling of the Cubs had a 4.7 WAR in ’06, but only 1.2 in ’04). So instead, I’d go with Cleveland second baseman Napoleon Lajoie. It’s not that the Highlanders’ Jimmy Williams was bad those years (3.9 and 3.5 WAR, respectively). But Lajoie had monster years, 8.5 and 10.0 WAR. (I also looked at subbing in Honus Wagner. at short for Kid Elberfeld, but Elberfeld had a better 1904 than Williams, and the Frenchman bested the Big Kraut in both those years). Napoleon Lajoie would have been the difference-maker on two Yankee teams, which is more than I can say with any certainty about Williams, and on par with Hershiser.
For 1920 and 1924, the weak link in the line-up was center field — Ping Bodie (1.2 WAR) and Whitey Witt (0.6 WAR), respectively. The obvious choice here would have been Cleveland’s Tris Speaker, 8.3 and 4.9 WAR.
So the upshot is that I think Lajoie, Speaker and Hershiser would have each added two pennants (division titles in Hershiser’s case). Ted Williams would have added one pennant, very possibly a second, and maybe a third (it’s an open question whether Boston could have found a 1.0 WAR left fielder in 1946, given how bad their third and fourth outfielders were in actuality).
Ted Williams also could have flipped some or all of the three 7-game World Series losses the Yankees had in ’55, ’57 and ’60. (The Giants crushed the Yankees in 1921 and 1922, so Speaker likely would not have made a difference). It’s also worth noting that I’m using the players’ actual seasons, not adjusting for park factors. Yankee Stadium might have hurt Hershiser, a right-handed pitcher. I’m not sure how a season at the Polo Grounds and one at the new Stadium would have affected Speaker, and I really have no idea about Hilltop Park vs. League Park for Lajoie. But you really have to wonder what Ted Williams could have done at Yankee Stadium.
Ted Williams is my pick for One Non-Yankee to have a Yankee career.