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:
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.
Each of Joe Torre's benches made key contributions to the championship run. The 1996 bench had a couple of good players in Jim Leyritz and Darryl Strawberry (slugged .490), Gerald Williams hitting .270, and Ruben Rivera's best 88 major league at bats (.284, .443 slug). But that was just the first half bench. For the stretch drive, New York adding Cecil Fielder (13 homers in 200 at bats as a mostly-regular), Mike Aldrede and Charlie Hayes (both slugged .456), and Luis Sojo (.275 with defense). Fielder, Hayes, and Sojo (the best lousy player I've ever seen) all helped the Yankees win postseason games.
The team in Joe Torre's tenure that got the most help from the lower half of the roster was not any of the champions, but the 1997 wild card team. This was a bench built on the run. In June the Yankees added text-book fourth-outfielder Chad Curtis (.291/.362/.475) to supplement reserve outfielder H.H.M. Whiten. In August they grabbed ex-Showalter stalwart Mike Stanley (.287/.392/.483) and acquired slick-fielding Rey Sanchez (.312) to supplant second baseman Pat Kelly. At third they used a straight platoon of Charlie Hayes and Wade Boggs, but in the ALDS it was Hayes in four of five games, so Boggs rounded out the playoff bench as a .292 hitter from the left side.
For me, Game 4 of the 1997 Division series against Cleveland kind of prevents this bench from numbering among the team's greats. In the 9th inning, after Sandy Alomar homered off Rivera to tie the score 2-2, Mike Jackson was on the hill to face the bottom of the Yankee order. Torre let Charlie Hayes (.330 obp) lead off with Wade Boggs (.380 obp and the platoon advantage) on the bench. Chad Curtis also would have been a better leadoff option, but Torre wasted him earlier in the game as a pinch runner. Assenmacher was out of the game, so if Hargrove wanted a lefty, he'd have to go to Alvin Mormon (5.89 era). And you just knew Boggs would have given us a good at bat and that Hayes was just going up there to hack, which he did, easy out. Then Torre let Girardi hit for himself with Mike Stanley on the bench. Girardi is the kind of hitter who is down 0-2 coming out of the on-deck circle. Another easy out. Sanchez made the third out.
Come on, if you couldn't use Boggs to lead off against a right-hander in the ninth inning when you only needed one run, why even have him on the roster? Easy moves: the kind where the guy played the same position as the guy for whom he should have hit. So for all the previous contributions of the 1997 reserves, in October we'd have been better off with a bench in which the manager had more confidence. Okay, back to the benches:
The bench of the great 1998 club had Strawberry leading the club in homers most of the way, and switch-hitting consummate pros Tim Raines and Chili Davis, depending on which two you want to call the bench players. Girardi backed up Posada and hit .276, while Luis Sojo filled in around the infield. Fifth outfielder Ricky Ledee did not have a good season but he did knock Kevin Brown around in the World Series. The Yanks also got hot cuts of coffee from speedy infielder Homer Bush (hit .380 and slugged .465 in 71 at bats), and immortally, from outfielder Shane Spencer (hit .373 and belted 10 homers in 67 at bats).
The 1999 bench wasn't as impressive, but Curtis (195 ab), Spencer (205), and Ledee (250) shared left field and each offered something: Ledee hit .276 with 9 homers, Spencer hit 8, and Curtis hit .262 with 43 walks. He also went Reggie in a series game and blew off Jim Gray. Luis Sojo and Joe Girardi again provided the glovework. Darryl Strawberry batted only 49 times, but he came back just as the Yankee attack was flagging a little bit and he was briefly the most feared hitter in the line-up, hitting .327/.500/.612. In fact, I've never seen Strawberry more locked in than he was in that little 1999 stint, not even in his glory days. Facing a world champion lineup with Bernie, Jeter, and O'Neill, people were pitching around a troubled 37-year-old recuperating cancer patient who had just come back to the majors.
The last title team had a weak bench in the first half, consisting of a large dose of Clay Bellinger, too-old outfielders like Lance Johnson and Roberto Kelly, and no-good back-up catcher Chris Turner. But the 2000 stretch-drive/playoff bench was a different beast. They added two right-handed bats, Jose Canseco (by then an unobtrusive vet who hit 6 homers and drew 23 walks in 111 at bats), and Glen Hill, who hit .333 and slugged .735, blasting 16 homers in 132 at bats. His spurt was almost twice as long as Shane Spencer's in ¡®98, and this time the Yankees really needed it. They also imported not one but two solid all-infield fielders, Jose Vizcaino and trusty Luis Sojo. Torre may do it by the seat of his pants, rather than by any Weaver-esque logic, but he picked spots for these guys and they won us the World Series again. Sojo, of course, had an extremely high Mookie Factor (the aura which causes game-turning events to occur in one's immediate vicinity).
How will Flaherty, Trammel, Zeile and company hold up against the benches of the past? Three trends are notable. First, since Posada became the regular catcher, Torre has relied on good-field/no-hit back-ups in the mold of his favorite, Joe Girardi, and shied away from boppers like Mike Stanley, the man Girardi replaced. He passed over Todd Greene and Bobby Estrelella last year to retain Alberto Castillo, and going into 2003, one senses that Chris Widger may have accidentally hit himself out of a job with his .297 average last year. The preference is most curious when you consider that as a player Torre was a slugging backstop himself.
Second, it appears that Enrique Wilson is going to keep pinch running. On April 13th against the Devil Rays, Wilson ran for Erik Almonte (to get "veteran presence" on the bases, said the broadcaster), got caught stealing to end the inning, then struck out in the 9th inning of a one-run loss. This performance recalled a series of costly pinch running appearances Wilson made in 2002. Here are the highlights:
9 August, Oak @ NY: Wilson ran for Jason Giambi in a tight game, got thrown out at the plate, then went 0 for 3 and made an error. The Yankees lost 3-2 in 16 innings.
14 August, NY @ KC : Wilson ran for Ventura, didn't score, and then went 0 for 2 in a game NY won 3-2 in 14 innings.
11 September, Bal @ NY: Wilson ran for Giambi and didn't score in a game NY won 5-4 in 11 innings. Coomer went in to play first base and went 0 for 1.
On the plus side of the ledger, on 21 July, Wilson pinch ran for Giambi and scored on a ball Giambi might not have to edge Boston 9-8 (the game in which Weaver gave up five bombs). I guess Yankee fans raised on sabermetrics are kind of like Eisenhower Democrats as far as Joe Torre is concerned. We know he's the right man for the job, but every once in a while there's a stinging reminder that we're not from the same party. I just hate losing those Giambi at bats to pinch running gambles! Generally, for a pinch running move to pay off, somebody needs to hit the ball, and then the hit has to be the exact right kind for the baserunning to make a difference. If you're taking out superior bats, then you're stuck with inferior production in these tied extra innings games. The hidden cost to the run Wilson scored against Boston is pinch running moves is his 0-6 on the three dates mentioned.
The third trend, on a less nitpicking note, is the aggressive rebuilding of the bench. If the current pine-riders should flag at all, the Yankees will not hesitate to overhaul the bottom of the roster in midseason. They've done it under both Bob Watson (1996 and 1997) and Brian Cashman (2000 especially), which may indicate that Torre himself has a substantial hand in retooling his benches for the playoffs, where few skippers have pushed buttons better.
Chris DeRosa is a historian living in Long Branch, NJ, who writes an annual newsletter for all his baseball friends. You can reach him at: firstname.lastname@example.org