By Guest Columnist: Chris DeRosa
Hello, Bronx Banterers. Alex asked me to come off the bench with a Yankee-related feature, so I thought I would take substitution as my theme and discuss Yankee benches: the best benches the team has had in the past and those of the current dynasty.
Yankee fans of a sabermetric bent tend to ignore the slew of coffee table books about the team, and therefore may have missed the fact that Bill James wrote three parts of the latest entry in the genre, The New York Yankees: One Hundred Years, The Official Retrospective. He writes short essays on each of the 25 greatest Yankees as selected by a group of sportswriters, five of the most famous Yankee teams, and six of the club’s greatest managers. It is a pricey book, but it is fun to have James’s always intriguing perspective and to have him take on greatest- (NY)-team-ever debate, even in abbreviated form. Besides, what other coffee table book is going to diss the ’61 club and poke fun at Bobby Meacham?
Anyway, one thing James mentions in talking about Casey Stengel was how frequently his teams led in “Bench Value Percentage,” a measure of the percentage the non-starters contribute to a team’s success. Stengel’s Yankees led three times, 1949, 1951, and 1954. I looked them up. Not surprisingly, these three also had the three highest win shares totals that any of Stengel’s Yankee benches amassed. Might one of those clubs, I wondered, be identified as the best bench in team history?
Choosing one is harder than I thought. First of all, who should count as being a bench player?
If someone is acquired in the last third of the season to be part of the starting lineup, is his contribution really “off the bench”?
If a bench player plays himself into the starting lineup halfway through, score one for the bench? Or count him as a regular?
If you’re half of a strict platoon, are you a semi-regular, or riding the pines?
Chili Davis is supposed to be your regular DH, but he gets hurt. Darryl Strawberry steps in and leads the team in homers much of the way. Strawberry gets sick and Davis makes it back late in the year. Strength in depth for sure, but which one counts for the bench?
The easiest thing to do is to define the bench as the contributions of everybody beyond the eight (or nine with DH) players who got the most playing time. Even then, you’ve got to make some common sense adjustments. Joe DiMaggio shouldn’t count as a bench player for the 1949 Yankees even if he got less playing time than Cliff Mapes. Clearly, what matters in discussing the bench is the contribution of Mapes and other players who stepped in when DiMaggio was injured.
The question of injuries raises a further complication. The 1949 team was famously riddled with injuries. Is a reserve squad that is called on more often for this reason better than another that is equally ready and able, but kept on the bench by a healthy lineup? Maybe not better, but probably “greater.” It’s like when they rank the presidents. You have overcome a major crisis or two in order to rate with the greatest ever. Here are the total win shares claimed by some of the most active Yankee benches and their top not-ready-for-full-time-players:
1949 59 Mapes 12, Johnson 9, Lindell 6, Silvera 6, Stirnweiss 6, Keller 5, Kryhoski 4, Phillips 4
1951 51 Brown 13, Mantle 13, Collins 11, Jensen 9, Hopp 2, Johnson 2, Silvera 2
1954 48 Skowron 13, Coleman 6, Robinson 5, Slaughter 5, Miranda 4, Woodling, Cerv 3
1955 44 Howard 11, Collins 9, Robinson 7, Rizzuto 6, Cerv 5, Martin 2
1980 46 Gamble 11, Murcer 9, Piniella 7, Spencer 7, Lefebvre 4, Werth 3
1997 47 Curtis 11, Boggs 10, Posada 6, Sanchez 5, Whiten 5, Stanley 4, Duncan 3, Kelly 2
Another reason the total doesn’t tell the whole story is that it is difficult to measure the crucial bench quality of versatility. The variety of problems a team can solve off the bench is important along with the overarching measure of their contribution offered by win shares.
Comments on Some Great Yankee Benches
All of which goes to say that it may be too hard to identify the one best bench in team history. Here are some of the excellent ones, though. The bench didn’t figure much until Casey Stengel came along, and he always had a deep and talented roster. There is an extensive literature on Stengel’s use of reserves, so I won’t rehash all that here. In 1949, he did most of his rotating in the outfield and at first base. I think it was his 103-win 1954 club that best exemplified his concept of the roster as 16 players who were all worthy, with the batter-by-batter circumstances dictating which eight were playing and which were licking their chops.
1954: Only Mantle and Berra, the two best players in the league, batted 500 times on this team. The rest of the team was like a giant awesome bench. Charlie Silvera hit well in a handful of at bats backing up Berra, as he always did. At first base was Joe Collins (343 ab), Moose Skowron (215), and Eddie Robinson (142) combining for 22 homers and 89 walks. In the infield were Andy Carey (411), Gil McDougal (394), Phil Rizzuto (307), Jerry Coleman (300), and Willie Miranda (116). The outfielders after Mantle in descending order of playing time were Irv Noren (426), Hank Bauer (377), and Gene Woodling (304), Enos Slaughter (125) and Bob Cerv (100). All these players, with the arguable exception of Miranda, were important contributors to the Yankee dynasty, although not all played well in 1954. James’s Guide to the Baseball Managers reports the 1954 Yanks set a record for pinch hitters, 262, who hit .292 and set a record with 7 dingers.
1977: An example of a fine bench that didn’t get to strut its stuff the way Stengel’s did is that of the 1977 World Champions. Billy Martin got over 500 at bats for seven regulars, but he had in reserve plenty of offensive punch and a couple of glove men who didn’t hurt the team at the plate. Despite the signing of Reggie Jackson, Lou Piniella managed to get over 300 at bats again in a platoon outfielder-DH role, and he hit the snot out of the ball: .330 and slugging .510. Cliff Johnson hit .296 and slugged .606 in 142 at bats, in 56 games at 1B, DH, and catcher. Infielder Fred Stanley (.261) and outfielder Paul Blair (.262) came bearing gloves. George Zeber and Dell Alston both hit .320 in limited trials, and subsequently appeared on those four-head-shot Topps rookie cards in 1978. Klutts’ also had Alan Trammell and Paul Molitor, so that turned out to be a pretty good card.
1980: Like 1954, a 103-win team that didn’t go all the way and had few regulars. Only Reggie, Randolph, and Rick Cerone batted 500 times, Cerone actually led the team with 147 games. The bench was deep in bats. Switch-hitting outfielder Bobby Brown got a big break in center when Ruppert Jones got hurt and played pretty well, hitting 14 homers and swiping 27 bases in 137 games. From the right, Lou Piniella again had a good 300+ at bats, hitting .287 and slugging .462. When Graig Nettles went down, Semi-regular DH Eric Soderholm hit .287, slugged .462, and subbed at the hot corner when Nettles got hurt (though they later added Aurelio Rodriquez to play third and he didn’t do much