Sunday, December 20, 2009

New York's Finest

It seems almost unthinkable in today's sports landscape; at one time, just a little over 50 years ago, New York City was home to not just two, but three Major League Baseball teams. As most fans know (well, the ones with a sense of history, anyway), between 1903 and 1957 the Yankees, Giants and Dodgers were all based in the Big Apple. There was no shortage of fans eager to support the American Pastime in the state where much of baseball as we know it today originated.

Back in the 1950's New Yorkers used to debate who was the best center fielder in town: Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle or Duke Snider? When I was compiling the data for my Best by Position 1954-2008 series I discovered that they were more than a trio of fine ballplayers, they were the three best center fielders in baseball during that era. Each one is in the Hall of Fame today, and rightfully so. It got me thinking: What are the odds that the three best players at one position all played in the same city? Was there ever a time when New York was stacked at another position? Which seasons featured the strongest groupings at any position?

I figured the best way to get some answers was to turn to Sean Smith's incredible WAR Database. I used Baseball Reference to find out who each team's starters were each year, then added up the WAR totals to determine when New York was strongest and weakest at each position.

I'll admit right away that this method isn't perfect. For instance, certain players' values may be distorted by time spent at other positions. In other cases there may have been no established starter at a position, costing a team some value in that season slot because their games played leader didn't see as much action as a full-time player would (Jack Lelivelt's 36 games in center field were the most on the 1912 Highlanders (Yankees), for instance). That's to say nothing of the incomplete fielding and baserunning information for pre-Retrosheet years, which makes WAR less comprehensive for seasons before 1954. Still, WAR is better than any other stat of its kind, and great players shine through even with missing data. For our purposes it'll do just fine.

Anyway, enough talk! You want to see how each position fared! Let's go!


Best Season: 1951 (15.5 WAR)

1951 was a magical summer in New York; the Yankees won the AL pennant while the Dodgers and Giants went to a three-game playoff over the NL flag. What made these teams so great? Great catching, obviously! Roy Campanella (7 WAR) won the MVP with the Dodgers, Yogi Berra (5.1) won the same award for the Yankees and Wes Westrum (3.4), while not as big a star as the other two, certainly made the Giants strong behind the plate. In fact, the years 1950 through 1953 make up the top four seasons on the catcher list.

Worst Season: 1904 (-2 WAR)

Bill Bergen, a fascinatingly bad hitter, contributed -1.8 WAR for the Superbas (Dodgers) while Deacon McGuire and John Warner each contributed -0.1 for the Highlanders (Yankees) and Giants, respectively. In fact, the 1904 catchers are the only group in this study where every single player has a negative value. Surprising then, that the Giants won the pennant, the Highlanders narrowly missed theirs and only the Superbas were a loser.

First Base

Best Season: 1934 (20.9 WAR)

The Pride of the Yankees, the Iron Horse himself, Lou Gehrig led the way here with 10.7 WAR. Fellow Hall of Famer Bill Terry was second with 6.2 and the Dodgers' Sam Leslie turned in a very good 4. Of course, this was the year Terry sarcastically asked if Brooklyn was still in the league during the preseason. The Dodgers got the last laugh by defeating the Giants in the final two games to cost them the pennant. Terry's bat and glove may have been worth 6.2 on the field, but his mouth was worth -2 off it.

Worst Season: 1950 (3.3 WAR)

As they usually did in that era, the Yankees won the pennant. Joe Collins' 0.2 WAR wasn't a big reason why. This isn't entirely fair though, as backups Johnny Mize and Tommy Henrich provided plenty of value at first base. Tookie Gilbert's -0.5 for the Giants took a chunk out of Gil Hodges' 3.6 for the Dodgers.

Second Base

Best Season: 1950 (18.5 WAR)

1950 may not have been great for New York first basemen, but the keystoners found it much to their liking. The best of the three? Eddie Stanky with 8 for the Giants. Second-best? Jackie Robinson, with 7.5. Who would've thought that the guy who supposedly couldn't hit, run or throw was actually more valuable than the great Jackie Robinson for one season? The Yankees' Jerry Coleman was worth 3, which wasn't too shabby either.

Worst Season: 1917 (1.6 WAR)

The Giants' Buck Herzog was worth 1.9, Brooklyn's George Cutshaw was worth 0.4 and the Yankees' Fritz Maisel was worth -0.7. Nothing much to see here.

Third Base

Best Season: 1938 (15.2 WAR)

The only reason this season made it is because the Giants played Mel Ott (8.7) at the hot corner for most of the year. Red Rolfe (4.3) was an established star for the Yankees, and Cookie Lavagetto (2.2) was solid for Brooklyn.

Worst Season: 1925, 1937 (0.6 WAR)

Strangely enough, the year just before the best one tied for the worst one. Rolfe (3) was his usual good self, but the Giants' Lou Chiozza and the Dodgers' Joe Stripp both put up WAR values of -1.2, signaling a need for both teams to upgrade at the position. 1925 saw three third basemen who were all hovering around replacement level, with Joe Dugan (0.5 for the Yankees), Freddie Lindstrom (0.4 for the Giants) and Jimmy Johnston (-0.3 for the Robins).


Best Season: 1950 (15.7 WAR)

There's that year again, 1950! Yankee Phil Rizzuto had the best year of his career and won the MVP with a 7.1 WAR. The Giants' Alvin Dark (4.7) and the Dodgers' Pee Wee Reese (3.9) turned in strong seasons of their own. Like catcher, the top four seasons on this list are 1950 through 1953, with the same three players representing each team each year.

Worst Season: 1925 (-1.8 WAR)

Travis Jackson contributed 0.9 WAR for the Giants. It wasn't great, but hey, the Giants finished in second place. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the city, Johnny Mitchell was WARing -0.6 for Brooklyn and Pee-Wee Wanninger was dragging down the Yankees with a feeble -2.1. Both teams finished with losing records.

Left Field

Best Season: 1921 (20.2 WAR)

OK, so most of it is Babe Ruth's 14. This was the year the Bambino set a record with 59 home runs, more than twice as many as the next-best guy. George Burns' 3.6 for the Giants and Zack Wheat's 2.6 for the Robins were both respectable.

Worst Season: 1908 (1 WAR)

More not-much-to-see-here: Jake Stahl did 0.9 for the Highlanders, John Hummel did 0.3 for the Superbas and Spike Shannon did -0.2 for the Giants. The Giants got rid of Shannon and picked up the much better Moose McCormick that July, after which point they surged ahead in the pennant race. Perhaps if they'd jettisoned Shannon earlier in the season "Merkle's Boner" wouldn't have become an issue.

Center Field

Best Season: 1955 (27.7 WAR)

Was there ever any doubt it'd be these three? Willie (9.3), Mickey (9.5) and the Duke (8.9) all turned in outstanding seasons in 1955, earning not only the highest total position score for any year, but the most balanced of any top season. 1954 to 1957 were the top four seasons on the center field table, with these three representing their teams each of those years. Ya know, I think it's safe to say that the 1950's was something of a golden era for New York baseball. Has anyone ever noticed that?

Worst Season: 1910, 1915 (0.9 WAR)

The Highlanders/Yankees were propping up the sorry Giants and Superbas/Robins both seasons. Birdie Cree's 3 in 1910 and Hugh High's 2.1 in 1915 were the best marks. Cy Seymour (-0.2 in 1910) and Fred Snodgrass (-0.4 in 1915) inspired few cheers at the Polo Grounds, while the fans at Washington and Ebbets suffered through Bill Davidson (-1.9 in 1910) and Hy Myers (-0.8 in 1915).

Right Field

Best Season: 1930 (24.1 WAR)

Once again it's Babe Ruth on top of the pack, with 10.7 WAR. This time though, his counterparts in the National League contributed more to the cause. Babe Herman's 6.8 for the Robins and Mel Ott's 6.6 for the Giants make the 1930 right fielders much more balanced than the 1921 left fielders.

Worst Season: 1913 (1.4 WAR)

Red Murray's 0.9 for the Giants led the way, followed closely by Bert Daniels' 0.7 for the Yankees. Herbie Moran's -0.2 for Brooklyn wasn't appreciably worse, though that whole "being negative" thing is certainly a strike against it.

This study pretty much confirms what we already knew: the 1950's was the greatest era across the board for all three New York teams. Perhaps it was a fitting last hurrah, as the Dodgers and Giants famously abandoned their fans for the West Coast in 1958. The 1930's would have to be second-best, though the Dodgers didn't do anything distinguished during those Depression days (nice alliteration, huh?).

The first two decades of the century were the weakest, though part of that may be due to the dead ball allowing less divergence from replacement level. 1925 was notably weak for the left side of the infield, and the two best decades each produced a year of turkeys at one position.

If you want to see all the data from this study in spreadsheet form you can click on this link here. You can view it sorted either by year or by total value.

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