A WARPed Study of Yankee CF and Red Sox LF
USC has long been known as "Tailback U" and Penn State "Linebacker U." Notre Dame has produced some remarkable quarterbacks over the years. For one reason or another, a number of college football teams are famous for being able to fill a certain position with premium talent, year after year. Well, have you ever given some thought to which professional baseball clubs are best known for a particular position? I thought I might take a look at the topic and narrow my focus to the two greatest runs at one position by a franchise in baseball history, and then see whose was better.
Now, if someone were to bring to my attention a similar run of greatness by one team at one position like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox have had at center field and left field, respectively, I would probably have to admit to some sort of east-coast bias. I am, after all, a lifelong Red Sox fan and, as such, more familiar with the Sox and Yanks than any other two franchises in baseball. Besides, we northeasterners are nothing if not provincial, right? Sure, off the top of my head, I can say the Cards have had their share of excellent first basemen (Bottomley, Mize, Musial, Hernandez, McGwire) and the Pirates some great shortstops (Wagner, Vaughan, Bell). And, in addition to a legacy of great center field play, the Yanks have had some remarkable right fielders (Ruth, Maris, Jackson, O'Neill) and catchers (Dickey, Berra, Munson, Posada). You could total up the production for some of these cases and probably find better overall totals than what the Red Sox have to show for left field. But there are also a number of mediocre seasons amidst the legends and stars in those other examples. What separates center field and left field for the Yanks and Sox, respectively, is that the two franchises have more or less been able to trot out one productive player after another for a span of seventy years. I can't seem to identify a similar phenomenon, one that has had another franchise, essentially uninterrupted, employ players ranging from very good to legendary over seven decades at a given position.
The method I chose to analyze this is admittedly rough. Although mindful of Yankees center fielder Earl Combs, a Hall of Famer, and a Boston Red Sox left fielder by the name of Babe Ruth, I am starting in 1936 with Joe DiMaggio's rookie season. The date is somewhat arbitrary but, let's be honest, center field in Yankee Stadium and left field at Fenway Park were not exactly hallowed grounds before Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. Since DiMaggio's inaugural season was three years before Williams broke in with the Sox, it should be noted that the start date benefits the Yanks.
Here's how I compiled the data: I took the player that played the most games in a season at center field for the Yanks and left field for the Sox and found their WARP3 (Wins Above Replacement Player) number, a figure featured on Baseball Prospectus' website that seeks to determine how many wins a player contributes in a given season above a replacement player of the same position, and then adjusts the figure for all-time. Some people question the reliability of BP's defensive numbers but, for the purposes of this exercise, I am confident that WARP3 will prove instructive. The results have a familiar ring to them. Sorry Sox fans (and I am a diehard), but once again Boston comes up short of their neighbors 200 miles to the southwest.
First, here is the table. Remember, the player listed for each season is the one that played the most games for their team at the position.
* Ted Williams played RF in 1939, and had a WARP3 of 10.0
Interestingly, if you compare the top-five players for each team, they are basically in a dead heat. Ted Williams, the best player in the study, combines with Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice, Mike Greenwell and Manny Ramirez to provide almost 410 wins. Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and Bernie Williams rank directly behind Williams and are joined by Rickey Henderson and Bobby Murcer to give the Yankees nearly 409 wins.
Of course, the Sox top-five would have even more of an edge if Ted Williams had not served in both World War II and the Korean War. Williams missed out on his 24, 25 and 26 year-old seasons after going off on American League pitching to the tune of a .356/.499/.648 line at the age of 23 and .406/.553/.735 in 1941 at the age of 22. He had established himself as a player of historic significance, was just entering his prime and then went off to war. He also missed the 1952 and 1953 seasons. Two factors, however, mitigate the effect of Williams' missed time. One, he was ably replaced by Indian Bob Johnson (of Designated Hitter fame) in a couple of these seasons. Two, Joe DiMaggio also defended his country and so it would be inconsistent to gripe about Williams without mentioning DiMaggio's service time. But the fact remains that Williams missed more time than DiMaggio. He was also a better player than Joe D. When you net out what Williams could reasonably have been expected to contribute minus what the Red Sox got from guys like Indian Bob (some good work) and Hoot Evers (not so much), the Red Sox lost out on about 50 wins. The Yanks lost out on about 20.
Where the Yanks make up much of the difference is with a bevy of quality, lesser-known players. Despite not having someone emerge as the sort of long-term solution to which the Yanks had grown accustomed, they were constantly in pursuit of just that, and therefore, able to admirably fill center field during the time between Mickey Mantle and Bernie Williams. Players like Mickey Rivers, Roberto Kelly, Jerry Mumphrey, Tom Tresh and Claudell Washington blow Boston's middle-of-the-road types out of the water.
The consistently solid performances the Bombers received out of center field despite periods of frequent turnover leads me to believe that quality play at the position is not something incidental to Yankee tradition but very much a focal point of their architects past and present. Consider this succession. The Yanks traded Bobby Murcer to the San Francisco Giants for Bobby Bonds in October of 1974. With Chris Chambliss, Thurman Munson and Graig Nettles already in the fold and Elliott Maddox having emerged as a superior defender in center field, new owner George Steinbrenner wanted to make sure he had the right mix to surround his promising core and it was determined that Murcer was expendable. And so despite his enormous popularity with Yanks fans and being hailed as the "next Mickey Mantle" (and sometimes even looking the part), Murcer was shipped out. The Yanks netted Bonds, who performed well in 1975, putting up a line of .270/.375/.512. The problem was that Maddox, in the midst of another productive season in 1975 and in a scene reminiscent of Mantle's injury in the 1951 World Series, injured his right knee on a wet June afternoon at Shea Stadium, where the Yanks were playing home games that season. He would never be the same.
After the 1975 season, the Yanks determined that the way they would fill the hole left in center field would be to take advantage of Bonds' big season by flipping him. Bonds was able to fetch them "Mick the Quick" Rivers from the California Angels. Rivers, who would be instrumental on New York's late 1970's championship clubs, became expendable when the Yanks reacquired Murcer in June of 1979. They traded Rivers to Texas along with a few others for Oscar Gamble and some filler.
Next in line for the Yanks in center field was Ruppert Jones, but he too experienced injury troubles in 1980. The Yanks would trade Jones at the end of Spring Training in 1981 to the San Diego Padres for Jerry Mumphrey. Mumphrey had two-and-a-half solid seasons before the Yanks flipped him for Omar Moreno in the summer of 1983. This was the first of the center field trades to quibble with. Mumphrey had been a solid player for the Yanks and still had some good years in him. For his part, Moreno stunk as a Yankee, just as he had as an Astro and a Pirate. It was a baffling move. The silver lining of Moreno's poor play was that it made Steinbrenner determined once again to find someone capable of carrying on the tradition of great center field play for the Yankees. He had his man in Rickey Henderson, whom the Yankees acquired in December of 1984 from the Oakland Athletics. In 1985 and 1986, Henderson would give the Yanks their best consecutive seasons in center field since Mantle in '56 and '57. Claudell Washington pushed Henderson over to left in '87, and he and Roberto Kelly would hold the position over until Bernie took the reins full time in 1993.
The Red Sox story is less complex. Except for war years and injury seasons, the Sox really only had four left fielders from 1939 to 1996. Ted Williams gave way to Yaz, who was replaced by Rice, who yielded to Greenwell. There was a period in between Greenwell and Manny Ramirez where the Sox struggled to find a worthy successor but even in that span they were able to turn to Troy O'Leary for a stretch. O'Leary provided the Sox with a few solid years, not to mention Game 5 of the 1999 ALDS, a favorite memory for any Sox fan. One major reason the Sox don't stack up, however, is that their stars put up a number of pedestrian seasons. Teddy Ballgame, Yaz and Rice combined for seven sub-5 WARP3 seasons while the great Bomber trio of DiMaggio, Mantle and Williams combined for just 3 (all Bernie's).
It has been a lot of fun plowing through various resources to compile the information necessary to write this bit. The real intrigue for me, however, comes from the tangential anecdotes that arise from such an analysis. Ted and Joe D, '46 and '49, Mantle's perennial World Series heroics, Williams' late-career surge, Yaz in '67, the Yankees post-Mick centerfield turnstile, Murcer's promise, Rice in '78 - hell '78 period, Rickey, the Gator and Bernie and Manny's postseason square-offs. Stay tuned, too, because this story is far from over. Damn near a Boston folk hero for his heroics against the Yankees in Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS, Johnny Damon now heads to the Bronx.
This topic is worthy of a novel, a narrative that could weave through the principals, capturing the eras, the cities and the traditions in the process. The Yankees and Red Sox owe so much of their storied pasts to their center fielders and left fielders, respectively, that it would be a most worthwhile undertaking. Like so many other baseball themes, simply scratching away at the surface of this topic has uncovered endless material, capable of captivating a true fan for more time than he or she would probably care to admit. The subject matter has been fascinating but when it comes to the qualitative comparison, like so many other Yanks-Sox tilts, the results remain the same. The Yanks best us again.
Patrick Sullivan is in his 26th season of a lifelong love-affair with both baseball and the Boston Red Sox. In the small-world department, his fiancée, Johanna, grew up just blocks from Rich. Sully, as he is known to readers of The House that Dewey Built, and Johanna will be married in California this December.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]