A Historical Look at Yankee Injury Replacements

So, the most obvious thing we can say about the 2019 Yankees season is that it hasn’t gone as planned. At times, the injuries seem to have bordered on the ridiculous, with the team on the IL much better than the team off the IL, at least on paper.

A very, very pleasant surprise though has been the play of the replacements. Watching guys like Clint Frazier, Gio Urshela, and Domingo German not only keep the Yanks afloat but develop into what looks to be legitimate big leaguers has been fun and remarkable to watch.

Of course, this isn’t the first time the Yankees have had to deal with physical ailments. Here are few notable instances of significant losses through the years, and how they were replaced.

Cliff Mapes for Joe DiMaggio in 1949

Joe DiMaggio was just about the perfect ballplayer for the first ten seasons of his career. He was a three-time MVP, an All-Star each season, a future Hall of Famer.

After the 1948 season he had surgery for bone spurs in his right heel, yet came into Spring Training 1949 still in pain. He had another surgery that spring and missed the first 65 games of the season.  While Gene Woodling, Hank Bauer and Cliff Mapes all spent time in centerfield, it was the rookie Mapes who handled the bulk of the work. He started 35 of those games, slashing .270/.390/.426. While they were clearly not DiMaggio numbers, they were respectable enough as the team went 41-24 without their star centerfielder.

DiMaggio came back to the Yanks in June of 1949 and hit .346/.459/.596 the rest of the way. The Yanks won the AL Pennant in a classic race against Boston and then World Series over the Dodgers – a perfect season.

Rafael Soriano for Mariano Rivera 2012

Mariano Rivera was rolling towards the completion of an extraordinary career, one in which he was acknowledged by many as the best reliever of his time, and perhaps of all time. He had reached his 600th career save in 2011 to add to his legendary career postseason performance. Going into 2012, he was 42 years old and hinting at retirement after the season.

The 2012 season looked to be nothing unusual, a 2.16 ERA with five saves going into May. We all remember the horror, however of May 3rd when, while shagging flies during BP prior to the game (per his usual routine), Mo suffered a gruesome right knee injury which ended his season.

The Yanks had a pretty good backup plan though.

In what was seen as a curious move at the time, prior to the 2011 season Yanks signed closer Rafael Soriano, who was fresh off of an all-star season with 45 saves for Tampa Bay. He struggled in a setup role for New York that season (4.12), but stepped right in after Mariano went down and saved 42 games as the Yanks won the AL East.

After the injury, Rivera vowed “I can’t go out like this”, and that he would be back for the 2013 season. He capped his extraordinary career with 44 saves and a 2.11 ERA in 2013.

Babe Dahlgren for Lou Gehrig in 1939

Lou Gehrig’s durability and elite play is of course stuff of legends. Even as he looked to be slowing down a bit as a 35-year old in 1938, he was still an All-Star who had 29 home runs and 114 RBI.

The 1939 season started off miserably for the Yankee legend, with a .143 average and no extra base hits through April. On May 2, Gehrig pulled himself from the lineup due to his poor play.  

The replacement was Babe Dahlgren, a 26 year old with a .259 career batting average at the time and had spent the previous three seasons either in the minors or on the bench.  Babe went on to slash .235/.312/.377 with 15 home runs, nowhere near even Gehrig’s diminished 1938 stats.

The 1939 Yankees were one of the greatest teams in baseball history, winning 106 games and sweeping Cincinnati in the World Series. Looking at WAR for Dahlgren in 1939 (-.4) and Gehrig in 1938 (+4.3), one could assert that the 1939 Yanks could have had over 110 wins with a healthy Gehrig.

Lou of course would never play for the Yankees in an official game again, as he was stricken by a horrible disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), commonly known now as Lou Gehrig’s disease. As for Dahlgren, he followed up 1939 with a basically average (+.5 WAR) 1940 season for the Yanks and was then sold to the Boston Braves in 1941.

Ron Davis for Goose Gossage 1979

The 1979 Yankees came into the season as defending World Series Champions. Then, in moves that almost seemed unfair at the time, they added free agent pitchers Luis Tiant and Tommy John. Led by Bob Lemon from the beginning of the season after orchestrating their historic 1978 comeback, another pennant seemed certain. A big part of that 1978 squad was reliever Rich “Goose” Gossage, the free agent addition with the imposing fastball and mound presence who saved 27 games with a 2.01 ERA.

On April 19th, the Yanks took a loss to Baltimore which made them 7-5 on the young season, a half game out of first place. Afterwards, what looked to be good natured ribbing between Gossage and catcher/DH Cliff Johnson turned into a real fight, which tuned into torn ligaments in the Yankee ace’s right thumb - a serious injury. The first game without Goose was the next day when they beat Texas 5-3, with Dick Tidrow gaining the save.

Tidrow looked to be the first option to take Gossage’s place in the pen. He was a capable pitcher, having shown an ability to start and relieve effectively and was a significant contributor to three straight Yankee pennant winners. Unfortunately, the end of ballgames did not seem to be the thing for the man nicknamed “Dirt”. He turned in a 10.20 ERA in eight performances from April 27th until he was traded to the Chicago Cubs on May 23rd, where he resumed being an effective pitcher. For Tidrow the Yanks received Ray Burris, who had a 6.18 ERA in fifteen appearances out of the Yankee pen in 1979.  

At about the same time, rookie right-hander Ron Davis was promoted to the majors from AAA and took a spot in the Yankee pen. In 17 games from May 28 through July 6th Davis appeared in 17 games, finishing 12 of them with an 8-0 record, 2.04 ERA, four saves, and five blown saves. In fact, three of his wins came as the result of blown saves. The Yanks did go 14-3 in games in which Davis appeared during the stretch.

Gossage returned to the Yanks in July and pitched well the rest of the season, but by that point in the season they had sunk to fourth place, and would not advance any higher. 1979 was indeed a lost season for the Yanks due to injury, ineffectiveness and worst of all, the death of the Captain, Thurman Munson, in an airplane crash in August.

So, what will be the story of this year’s Yankees? Even with yesterday’s news of Andujar and Loaisiga going onto the IL, we’re starting to see reports that indicate that there’s a light at the end of the injury tunnel. Aaron Hicks has returned. Didi Gregorius is taking full infield practice, Giancarlo Stanton took swings at live pitching yesterday. Dellin Betances is throwing. If everyone gets healthy and stays healthy, this team in August may look very different than it does now. Even so, Yankee fans still owe a debt of gratitude to the players that helped pull the team through a difficult time.