Countdown to Spring Training: 14

There are so many great players in Yankee history and so many great seasons by Yankee players that we sometimes overlook the player and/or the season. Maybe it's because he was more well known with other teams, maybe it's because he was on the Yankees before I was sentient, but sometimes I forget that Rickey Henderson was a Yankee. While his entire career was brilliant--and his time with the Yankees equally brilliant--1985 was the finest of those seasons. What does that have to do with 14? In 1985, Rickey Henderson racked up 9.8 bWAR, good for 14th all time on the Yankees' single season list (he's tied with Babe Ruth). That year, Henderson led the league (shocking, I know) with 80 steals (he was caught just ten times). He also led the league in runs with 146. He led the AL in bWAR (9.8); was fourth in BA (.314); fourth in OBP (.419); seventh in SLG (.516); third in OPS (.934); fourth in walks (99); and second in OPS+ (157). His OPS/OPS+ marks were the second highest in his career, trailing only 1990 (1.016/189). For good measure, he added 24 homers, the second most of his career (28 in 1990 and 1986).

Not surprisingly, Henderson made the All Star team that year and won a Silver Slugger. He did not, however, win MVP. He finished in third place behind George Brett of Kansas City. The winner was Henderson's teammate, Don Mattingly.

Rickey played just eight games in April, and didn't play well, but smacked the ball around for most of the rest of the season. He OPS'd .991 in May; 1.123 in June; and 1.059 in July. He "slowed down" in August and September, but still OBP'd .377 and .401 in those months. In '85, Henderson obviously terrorized everyone, but there were a few exceptions. The only teams that Henderson failed to put up an .800 or better OPS against were the Red Sox (.703); Angels (.715); and Brewers (.699).

Rickey Henderson was a special player and 1985 was definitely a special year for him.

Countdown to Spring Training: 19

In 2005, a young pitcher emerged for the Yankees. Along with Shawn Chacon and Aaron Small, he helped push the Yankees into the playoffs. Once in the playoffs, he was a tough-luck loser. He pitched 6.2 innings and allowed just one run on four hits. In 2006, he contributed big time. Chien-Ming Wang posted a 125 ERA+ and gave up a league low 0.5 HR/9. Where does this fit in with regards to our countdown? Well, Wang won 19 games that year (which led the AL). Let's break down that total. Wang had his most wins against the Rays, going 3-0 against them. He beat the Orioles, Red Sox, Mariners, Rangers, and Blue Jays two times each. He won one game against the Indians; Tigers; Marlins; Royals; Twins; and A's. He failed to record a win against the Angels; Braves; White Sox; and Nationals (though he was very close to a CG against the Nats, but a Ryan Zimmerman walk off homer begged to differ. . 11 of CMW's wins came at home (3.03 ERA) and eight came on the road (4.35 ERA). He won nine games in the first half of the year (4.00 ERA), he won nine games; in the second half (3.13 ERA), he won ten. His winningest months were May, June, and August, in which he won four games each.

Win number one didn't come until Wang's third start number three. He pitched brilliantly in the Metrodome, allowing just two runs (one earned) against the Twins in seven innings. Wang didn't walk anyone and struck out eight, his season high (and only game in which he struck out more than five batters!).

Win number 19 took place on September 27, Wang's last start of the season. He wasn't great--he gave up ten hits and four runs in six innings--but he still managed the win thanks to the Yankees putting up 16 against the O's with homers by Bobby Abreu, Johnny Damon, Jorge Posada, Jason Giambi, and Robinson Cano.

Wang recorded his signature win of the season on July 28 at Yankee Stadium II. On that night, Wang recorded (to date) his only career complete game shutout. In the nine masterful innings, he allowed just four baserunners: two hits (one each by Julio Lugo and Ty Wigginton) and two walks (one each by Carl Crawford and Greg Norton). The Devil Rays only struck out one time (Lugo), but that didn't matter. True to his heavy-sinker approach, Wang got the Rays to ground out 17 times in the victory.

In 2007, Wang repeated his 2006 performance, again notching 19 wins. Since 2007, he's won just 15 games total. It all fell apart on June 15, 2008 (my 21st birthday) in Houston. Ugh. We'll always have 2006 and 2007, CMW.

Countdown to Spring Training: 21

The Yankees are the most successful team in Major League Baseball history; they've been to the World Series 40 times and won 27 titles. And because that history exists, we almost take it for granted. We know where it is;we know--to an extent--where it comes from; and we have hopes for where it will be in the future. Today, we'll travel to the launching point of the Yankees' dominance, their 1921 squad. This team lost the 1921 World Series to their stadium-partners, the New York Giants. Despite that, they had a great year and were set up well for the future. One year later, they once again lost the Fall Classic; however, in 1923, they finally broke through. As they say, the rest was history. Let's get down to the nitty gritty about the '21 Yanks.

They won the AL, obviously, with a 98-55 record by 4.5 games over the Indians. On the hitting side of things, they finished fourth in BA (.300), third in OBP (.374), and first in SLG/OPS (.464/.838) as well as runs (948) and home runs (134). On the mound, they led the league with a 3.82 ERA and struck out the most batters (481). Individually, there were some strong performances, too.

Starters Carl Mays and Waite Hoyt dominated on the mound, posting ERA+ marks of 138 (2nd in AL) and 136 (4th in AL), respectively. Hoyt was 21 at the time, by the way. At the plate, there were also some solid performances. Outfielder Bob Meusel and catcher Wally Schang OPS+'d 128 and 123 respectively, good marks for any player, regardless of position. However, the were overshadowed by one man: George Herman Ruth.

In 1921, Babe Ruth annihilated the American League. His .378 batting average didn't lead the league, but his .512 OBP; .846 SLG (!); 1.359 OPS; 238 OPS+; 145 walks; 177 runs; 171 RBI; and 59 home runs all did. His 59 homers were more than five American League teams had and he accounted for 12% of all the home runs hit in the AL in 1921. To accomplish that feat today--12% of the AL's HR--a player would need to hit 300 home runs (there were 2500 HR hit by AL teams in 2012). 1921 was arguably Ruth's finest offensive season along with 1920, '23, '26, and '27 (okay they were all pretty goddamn awesome).

1921 was the jumping off point for both Yankee and Ruthian dominance. While they didn't win it all and it was neither the team's nor Ruth's most famous season, it was an important and exciting one nonetheless.

Countdown to Spring Training: 22

As we continue the theme of counting down the days until spring training, for number 22 I'll focus on the 22nd Yankee Championsihp, and by extension the entire 1978 season. The Yankees entered the 1978 season the defending World Series Champions. The year before George Steinbrenner had shelled out big bucks to bring in Reggie Jackson, perhaps the biggest superstar slugger of the 1970s. The move proved chaotic with Manager Billy Martin, but was otherwise a success. The Yankees won the World Series in 1977, beating the Dodgers in six games. In the deciding game of the series Jackson hit three consecutive homers in three consecutive at-bats, cementing his status as Mr. October.

In 1978 the Yankees stumbled in their title defense. The team stumbled badly out of the gate and found itself 14.5 games behind the Boston Red Sox in mid-July. Making matters worse, the volatile relationship between Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson came to a head just when the team was struggling the most. After unsuccessfully lobbying to suspend Jackson for the remainder of the season after Reggie disregarded Billy's signals in a game against the Royals, Billy found out that Steinbrenner was looking into trading him for White Sox Manager Bob Lemon. In anger, Martin was quoted as saying of Jackson and Steinbrenner, "They deserve each other. One's a born liar and the other's convicted." Billy resigned the next day.

Bob Lemon took over as Manager, and the team miraculously turned things around. At season's end, the Yankees and Red Sox finished in a tie for first place, forcing a one game playoff in Boston. The Red Sox took a 2-0 lead into the seventh inning that game, when Bucky Dent came up with two on and two outs and hit his now legendary three run shot to give the Yankees a 3-2 lead. Just like that, a legend was born, and Bucky's name could no longer be said in Boston without an expletive being inserted for his middle name.

What gets lost in the legend is that Dent's homer wasn't actually the game winner, although it did plate the most runs for the Yankees. The game winner belonged to Reggie Jackson. Jackson hit a solo homer in the 8th inning to make it 5-2 Yankees. The Yankees would go on to win the game 5-4.

The playoffs were almost identical to the 1977 playoffs. Having guaranteed the torment in New England would continue for at least one more season, the Yankees proceeded to beat the Royals three games to one to win the AL Pennant before beating the Dodgers four games to two in the World Series.

In a way, the Yankees' 22nd Championship was also a bittersweet one. The late 70's championships were the first World Series victories for the Yankees since 1962. 1978 would prove to be the team's last for 18 years. The team wouldn't regain its dominance again until 1996, and the return of the Yankee dynasty.

Countdown to Spring Training: 23

When I volunteered to write the Countdown to Spring Training number 23 post I entertained the idea of writing about a different number 23. The fact that Lou Gehrig and Alex Rodriguez share the all time grand slam leadership with 23 a piece came to mind. But what's the point? In Yankee land there's only one thing 23 means: Don Mattingly.

Ironically, of all the writers for this blog I'm probably the least qualified to write a post on Donnie Baseball. I wasn't a Mattingly fan as a kid. As a boy I was a bigger fan of the history of baseball than I was of the actual game being played at the time. I spent far more time watching videos with footage of the all time greats (Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, etc) playing the game than I did any actual live games.

That changed in 1989. My Dad took me to the Stadium to see the Yankees play Oakland on my eighth birthday. We got there early to watch batting practice, and maybe get an autograph. When we arrived Mattingly was working his way along the field side of the Yankee dugout, signing autographs. We rushed over to join the line, but we had poor real estate. We camped out just beyond where the dugout ended. It was clear that Donnie Baseball was going to stop signing autographs before he got to us. When he did, I became very upset, like any eight year old would be.

For some reason, just as it was dawning on me that Mattingly wasn't going to give me an autograph, Rickey Henderson (who was still a Yankee at the time; he would be traded to Oakland a month or two later) was taking grounders at first base. My Dad yelled to him, "Rickey, make my son a Yankee fan!" Henderson raised his hand, and pointed in the air with his index finger, as if to say "one second please". He stopped taking his reps, came over, and signed my baseball. Three things happened that day. First, I stopped being a fan of the history of baseball and immediately became obsessed with the New York Yankees. Second, I became a Rickey Henderson fan. Finally, I got a souvenir that I'll keep for the rest of my life.

Apart from the role he played in getting me that autograph, this story also relates to Mattingly in terms of when it takes place. That I began following the Yankees as a team year-in, year-out, in 1989 meant that I missed Mattingly's glory years.

By 1989 Mattingly had already suffered the back injury that forced him to change his swing in a way that robbed him of his home run power. Before that injury Donnie Baseball was an offensive juggernaut, perhaps the best all around hitter in the game. Every year from 1984 to 1987 Mattingly had a wOBA of at least 140. He was a perennial threat to hit .330 with 30 plus homers. He won the batting title in 1984, when he hit .343. He won the MVP the following season, when his slash line was .324/.371/.567. He was even better in 1986 when he posted .352/.394/.573. During a time in baseball when sluggers routinely hit .250 and struck out a couple hundred times, Donnie Baseball was a throw back to Stan Musial, or even Lou Gehrig. No one was better.

Mattingly was also the only reason many Yankee fans got up in the morning. As odd as it sounds in light of today's team, the Yankees weren't a power house in the AL in the 1980s. Mattingly's best years came at a time when George Steinbrenner was banned from baseball, the Yankees were experiencing a multi-year playoff drought, and the Mets, of all teams, owned New York City. At that time many Yankee fans tuned into the games specifically to watch Don Mattingly, because there wasn't much else going on for the team. For a time Mattingly delivered.

The back issues are an apt metaphor for the bad luck and unfulfilled potential of Don's entire tenure with the Yankees. Fate never did right by him. He could have been one of the all time greats, but he got injured. He remained a better than average offensive player into the early 1990s, but he decided to hang 'em up after the 1995 season, when he finally played in October. The next year the Yankees won the World Series, with Tino Martinez at first base. Years later the Yankees would choose Joe Girardi over Mattingly to be the team's manager.

As bittersweet as all that may be, no one can change the fact that Don Mattingly is the face of the Yankees from the 1980s. That may not have been a great time for the team, but for a while it was a great time Donnie Baseball.

Countdown to Spring Training: 30

Happy Sunday, everyone. Today's installment brings us back to the late 40's and early 50's period of Yankee baseball. Today, we'll honor left-handed starting pitcher Eddie Lopat. I chose him for this morning's post for two (odd) reasons. First, he died on my fifth birthday, June 15, 1992. Second, he's buried in St. Mary's Cemetery in my hometown of Greenwich, CT; all three of my deceased grandparents are buried there. They're odd connections, but they're connections nonetheless. Lopat started his career at age 26 for the Chicago White Sox in 1944. He stayed there through the 1947 season, posting a 108 ERA+ in 893.0 innings. However, his first two years--104/80 ERA+--don't do him justice. In the 1946 and 1947 seasons, Lopat threw to a 125 and then a 129 ERA+. He placed 7th and 4th in raw ERA those years, and also finished 6th in both seasons in K/BB. Just before the 1948 season was to start, the Yankees traded for Lopat.

In that 1948 season, Lopat regressed a little bit. He finished the year with just a 112 ERA+, down 17 points from the season before. However, he recovered in 1949 and put up a solid season with a 124 ERA+. He'd repeat that in 1950 before jumping up a notch in 1951 and 1952. He was at 132 and 131 respectively. Then as a 35 year old in 1953, Lopat had the best year of his career: he led the AL with an .800 winning percentage, a 1.127 WHIP, a 1.6 BB/9, as well as a 2.42 ERA/152 ERA+. Lopat also won Game Two of the World Seires against the Brooklyn Dodgers that year; for the record, the Yankees swept the Dodgers in the series that year.

Eddie spent just another year and a half with the Yankees after that. In the middle of the 1955 season, the Yankees sent him to the Orioles. The O's released him in October of that year and that was the end of his Major League career.

Countdown to Spring Training: 36

Welcome to a new feature I'm going to be running here at TYA. As we count down to Spring Training, I'm gong to be taking that day's number and relate it to something significant in Yankee history. For today, with 36 days left until Spring Training begins, I'm going to take a look at the 1936 Yankees. This team could define the word 'dominant.' They finished 102-51, beating out the second place Tigers by 19.5 games. They lead the league in runs scored per game (6.9) and runs allowed per game (4.7). Their 1,065 runs scored is the second most in modern (1900 and later) baseball history (the record is held by the 1931 Yankees with 1,067 runs). They led the league in OBP (.381); SLG (.483); OPS (.864); and HR (182). On the pitching side of things, they had the best ERA (4.17) and the most strikeouts (624) while allowing the fewest runs (731). Four of their batters--Lou Gehrig (1); Bill Dickey (7); Red Rolfe (8); and Joe DiMaggio (9)--finished in the top ten for bWAR. Gehrig also led the league in OBP (.478); SLG (.696); OPS (1.174); OPS+ (190); HR (49); and walks (130). Not surprisingly, he won the AL MVP over Luke Appling.

1936 was Joe DiMaggio's first season as a Yankee. The 21 year old hit .323/.352/.576/.928/128 with 29 home runs, 44 doubles, and a league leading 15 triples. As a testament to his greatness on the baseball field, that 128 OPS+ would be the second lowest of his career; the worst was 116 in his final season, 1951. Between then, his OPS+ ranged anywhere from 138-184. Pretty good.

Most importantly, though, the Yankees won the World Series in 1936, 4-2 over the New York Giants.

In Game One, the Yankees lost 6-1. They jumped ahead to a 1-0 lead in the third inning thanks to a home run by George Selkirk. However, that was the only run NYG starter Carl Hubbel would allow. The Giants answered with a fifth inning home run from shortstop Dick Bartell and added another by catcher Gus Mancuso in the sixth. The Giants scored four runs in the eighth. One came on a bases loaded walk, one came on a sac fly, and two came on an RBI-single/error to put the Giants up 6-1. Jake Powell, Tony Lazzeri, and Selkirk all grounded out in the top of the ninth to end the ballgame.

In Game Two, the Yankees got their revenge by dropping 18 (!) on the Giants (who scored only 4). Each Yankee, except starting pitcher Lefty Gomez, reached base at least twice. Frank Crosetti and Joe D each had three hits. Lou Gehrig knocked in three runs. Bill Dickey and Tony Lazzeri each homered and each drove in five runs; four of Lazzeri's RBIs came on a third inning grand slam.

Game Three was a nail-biter, with the Yankees eking out a 2-1 victory in the Bronx. The Yanks took the lead in the bottom of the second thanks to a leadoff homer by the Iron Horse and held that lead until the fifth when Jimmy Ripple hit a leadoff homer of his own. In the top of the eighth, Frank Crosetti pushed across the game winning run with a two-out single. Pat Malone recorded a save in the ninth inning, since Red Ruffing was lifted for a pinch runner in the bottom of the eighth.

5-2 was the tally in the Yankee victory in Game Four. Already up 2-0 in the bottom of the third, Gehrig tallied his second home run in as many games to double the Yankee lead to 4-0. The Giants got single runs in each the fourth and the eighth, but the Yankees added an insurance run in the bottom of the eighth. Monte Pearson was the star of this game for the Bombers, tossing a complete game while striking out 7 and walking only 2.

A first inning 3-0 deficit was too much for the Yanks to overcome in Game Five, and they dropped the game 5-4.The Giants got a run scoring double and two RBI singles in the first. George Selkirk answered with a homer in the bottom of the second and the Yankees added a run on an error in the third. The Giants added a run and the Yankees did eventually tie the game at 4 in the bottom of the sixth on back-to-back RBI singles from Powell and Lazzeri, and eventually the game went into extra innings. The Giants' Bill Terry had a sac fly in the top of the tenth to put his squad back on top and the Yankees ended the game in frustrating fashion in the bottom of the tenth. Bill Dickey led off with a single and was lifted for pinch-runner Bob Seeds. Selkirk and Powell followed with fly balls, but up came Tony Lazzeri. In the middle of his at bat, Seeds was caught stealing and the game ended.

Just like they did after losing Game One, the Yankees came back with a vengeance and scored 13 runs. The game was much closer than that for the majority of the contest. In fact, the Giants cut the lead to one. Leading 6-5 going into the ninth, the Yanks exploded all over the Polo Grounds. They scored seven runs in the top half of the ninth. Things got started with two singles from Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig. DiMaggio, who went to third on Gehrig's single, then scored on a fielder's choice. George Selkirk took an intentional walk, then Jake Powell singled home Gehrig and Dickey (who reached on a fielder's choice). Dick Coffman, the Giants' pitcher, was lifted for Harry Gumbert, who didn't get off to a good start. He walked Tony Lazzeri, gave up a run-scoring single to pitcher Johnny Murphy, then walked Frank Crosetti to force in a run. He finally got an out on a Red Rolfe groundout, but that also plated a run. Joe DiMaggio, in his second time up in the inning, knocked an RBI single as well. All of a sudden, the Yankees led 13-5. The bottom of the ninth went easily, 1-2-3, and the 1936 Yankees were World Series champions.