Clearing the Bases: New York Yankees

The New York Yankees are the most storied franchise in sports history. Yankee Stadium is home to forty pennants, thirty-nine Hall of Famers, twenty-seven World Championships, twenty-two MVP’s, seventeen retired numbers, and five Cy Young’s. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez are among the countless number of legends that have donned the pinstripes. Going position by position, the Yankees have an all-time player at each spot. Catcher? Yogi Berra, Bill Dickey. First base? Lou Gehrig. Third base? A-Rod. Shortstop? Derek Jeter? Left field? Rickey Henderson, Charlie Keller. Center field? Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio. Right field? Babe Ruth, Roger Maris, Reggie Jackson. Hmmm…am I missing a position? What’s that- second base? Oh snap.

Despite all those championships, Hall of Famer’s, and MVP’s, the Yankees have no major standout at second base. Sure, Tony Lazzeri and Joe Gordon are both Hall of Famer’s, but neither player is considered an “all-time” player. Going further, both players got into the Hall of Fame by way of the Veteran’s Committe. It took Lazzeri fifty-one years to finally get inducted and it took Gordon fifty-eight years to be inducted. Lazzeri played for twelve seasons during the live ball era, overshadowed by Ruth, Gehrig, and DiMaggio. Gordon played just seven seasons in pinstripes, losing two seasons to WWII. It’s amazing an organization that was home to so many legends, is so weak at a particular position. Once Alex Rodriguez and Mariano Rivera have their numbers retired, the Yankees will have a retired number at every spot except second base (Billy Martin  is more renown for his managerial career). Actually, scratch that. Jackie Robinson’s number 42 is retired. Make that one Dodger second baseman with their number retired by the Yankees.

So with that in mind, just who is the best second baseman in Yankees history?

Although second base has lacked superstars, there have been decent (but mainly sub-par) players throughout the years such as Snuffy Stirnweiss, Bobby Richardson, Chuck Knoblach, and Alfonso Soriano. To narrow down the search for the best second baseman in team history, the minimum number of games at second base in Yankee pinstripes to qualify is 1000. Sorry Gil McDougald. That leaves us with three candidates: Tony Lazzeri, Joe Gordon, and Willie Randolph. Let’s get crackin’!

*Right click tables and hit view table to see larger image*

Tony Lazzeri (1926-1937, 1456 games)

Tony “Poosh ‘Em Up” Lazzeri was the first good Yankee second baseman in team history (and one of the first good Italian Yankee players), playing from 1926-1937. Born in 1903 in San Francisco, Lazzeri was twenty-two when he made his Yankees debut. That rookie season he went on to hit .275/.338/.462 with a 117 wRC+ and by 1928 he broke out with a 154 wRC+. He was a key piece of the famed Murderer’s Row, but his legacy loomed in the shadows of Ruth and Gehrig. He won five World Series, was an All-Star in 1933, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1991 by the Veteran’s Committee.

Tony "Poosh 'Em Up" Lazzeri

His numbers might have been inflated due to the live ball era, but he was still a right handed batter in Yankee Stadium and still put up numbers quite a bit better than the league average, as indicated by his wRAA/600 PA. For a second baseman, he put up solid power numbers, but his better attribute was getting on base. During his stay with the Yankees, his wOBA never went below .350 and topped the .400 mark three times, with a career high of .437 in 1929. Lazzeri wasn’t the best fielder, but he held his own. He was a solid hitter with a decent glove. He peaked from 1927-1929, putting up WAR’s of 5.8, 4.7, and 7.8 respectively, and he had several solid seasons thereafter. By 1937 he was slowing down, however, and retired with a career Yankee WAR/150 of 4.2. That’s a good number, but is it enough to be considered the best Yankee second baseman of all-time?

Joe Gordon (1938-1946, 1000 games)

Born in 1915 in Los Angeles, Joe “Flash” Gordon took over the second base gig from Lazzeri in 1938. He hit the ground running posting a 4.1 WAR in his rookie season, which turned out to be his lowest single season Yankee WAR until 1946, his last season in the Bronx. His WAR hovered in the 4-6 range, finally peaking in 1942 with an 8.4 WAR. Looking purely at OBP, it may not appear Gordon was as good at getting on base as Lazzeri, but the numbers are somewhat skewed by a low BA. When it comes to drawing a walk, Gordon had a better BB rate and better BB%.  Despite a barely lower wRC+, it surely was due to a horrible campaign in 1946. Not to mention he missed two years because of war obligations. Had he been able to play in 1944 and 1945, his age 29 and 30 season no less, his numbers could have been even better.

Gordon won four World Series in the Bronx, appeared in six All-Star games, and won the AL MVP in 1942. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009 via the Veteran’s Committee.

Willie Randolph (1976-1988, 1693 games)

Born in 1954 in South Carolina, the next good Yankee second baseman since Gordon left in 1946 played his first game in pinstripes thirty years later, in 1976. After his playing days, Willie became a bench coach for the Yankees for thirteen seasons, becoming a fan favorite. He also managed the Mets and is currently the Milwaukee Brewers bench coach. He won two World Series with the Yankees as a player and was a five time All-Star during his stay in “The City That Never Sleeps”. He won a Silver Slugger Award and was the team captain from 1986 until 1988.

Willie Randolph

Unlike the other two second basemen discussed so far, Randolph is not a Hall of Famer. However, Randolph is one of the more underrated players in baseball and Yankee history. Many think of him as a coach or the Yankee captain, but in reality he is a borderline Hall of Famer (but falls short in my book). With the Yankees he was not a slugger by any means. His Yankee SLG of .357 is putrid, but even more so when comapred to the SLG of Lazzeri and Gordon. He made up for that with his OBP skills. Randolph was adept at walking and getting on base. His lowest BB% as a Yankee was 10.3%, with his career high being 18.5%(!) in 1980. While he wasn’t an exceptional hitter, he was above average and had several quality seasons at the dish from 1978-1980 and 1985-1987. What he was really good at though, was defense. In thirteen seasons he compiled a Total Zone of 70 and had several seasons where he saved 10+ runs. His three year peak from 1978-1980 is comparable to the best peaks of Lazzeri and Gordon. After that, Randolph continued to be a solid 3-4 WAR for the Bronx Bombers. 1981 and 1982 were down years for Willie, where he posted WAR’s of 2.9 and 2.4 respectively. To be honest, those year’s might have cost him a chance at the Hall of Fame. Had he been able to just put 4+ WAR seasons like he had been doing thus far in New York, his career WAR would have been in the mid-sixties. 1981 and 1982 may have cost him a chance at the Hall, but will it cost him the title of best Yankee second baseman?

After comparing the players head to head, you realize just how close they are to each other. It was tough to separate them, but here is how they rank:

1.) Joe Gordon

2.) Tony Lazzeri

2a.) Willie Randolph

Despite being a Yankee for just seven seasons and meeting the minimum requirement of games played dead on, he did enough to establish himself as the best in team history. Offensively, he was just as good as Lazzeri, if not better. While Lazzeri did have a better wRC+, Gordon had the best wRAA/600 PA of the three players, he was a great defender (much superior to Lazzeri), and his WAR/150 was a full win better than Lazzeri and Randolph. Imagine if he had the chance to play in 1944 and 1945 to pad his stats? If not for WWII, this question might have been settled already.

Joe Gordon, best second baseman in Yankee history

As  for second place, Lazzeri and Randolph were indistinguishable despite being opposites.  Lazzeri was the big hitter with an average glove. Randolph was the big time fielder, who was above average at the dish. Lazzeri has a 4.2 WAR/150. Randolph has a 4.3 WAR/150. In the end though, I give a slight, slight edge to Lazzeri. He was just a plain out better hitter, regardless of era. And despite the fact that Randolph was a much better fielder, Lazzeri was decent enough with the glove to hold off Randolph. Randolph got a lot of his WAR value from TZ, but I don’t trust TZ too much. So in a close contest like this, I will give the benefit of the doubt to the better hitter.

Currently in the Bronx, there is a twenty-seven year old second baseman who has been making a name for himself. His name is Robinson Cano. Although he figures to have a long ways to go before he can challenge Gordon, Lazzeri, and Randolph, how does he stack up right now? And what will he need to do in the future to become a contender for best second baseman in Yankees history?

Robinson Cano (2005-2009, 734 games)

Right away you can tell Robbie’s career stats are the victim of a terrible 2008. As a result, his first five seasons do not compare at all to the first five season’s of Lazzeri, Gordon, and Randolph. RC is going to need a sustained peak to make up ground. There are positive signs though for Cano. He is just twenty-seven and figures to have about five more solid to great seasons in his projected prime. There is no reason to think he can’t improve, as he’s already had two seasons of 5+ WAR in his low and mid twenties. (One small note on that though- his TZ ratings view him as a solid fielder. UZR disagrees big time. For the sake of consistency in comparing to past players, I used TZ). Moreover, longevity can be on his side. Assuming he stays with New York through his option years, he’ll have four more years in pinstripes.

How do I see it? Robbie will need a long, sustained peak in pinstripes. Like all things with Cano though, offensive success will depend on his “luck” with BABIP. Defensively, he’s flashed signs of brilliance so he just needs to bring that talent to the field on an everyday basis. If he can prove himself to be an average fielder with a good bat, Cano will add a couple more 5+ WAR seasons to his belt. In the end, I see Robbie matching Lazzeri. He will never match Gordon’s defense, but Cano can be a good offense, average defense player, much like “Poosh ‘Em Up” Tony. However, he still has a long, long way to go.

Can Robinson Cano become the best second baseman in Yankees history?

If RC ends up a lifelong Yankee though, he will be the best Yankee second baseman in team history. While his rate stats may not compare to Gordon by that point, the longevity factor will have to be taken into account, especially if the stats are still comparable and Cano has several major accomplishments under his belt, such as 3000 career hits.

So there you have it. For a weak position in a franchise of strength and depth, legends and history, Joe Gordon is the best second baseman in team history, followed by Tony Lazzeri and Willie Randolph.

Who do you consider the best second baseman in Yankees history? And where do you see Robbie Cano compared to the second base “Big Three” when his career his over?


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One Comment on “Clearing the Bases: New York Yankees”

  1. geovannie Says:

    yo quiero ese jugador de la grande liga porque es un jugador de segunda base y muy valioso de los yanqees es el mejor jugador y es el hunico jugador de segunDA BASE FAVORITO TE QUIERO MUCHO

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