(The following was originally published at SB*Nation’s Pinstripe Alley)
In addition to the Hot Stove, baseball warms up the winter months with Hall of Fame debate. From the time the ballot is released until the votes are counted in early January, arguments are made for and against various candidates, often with a considerable degree of disagreement and usually with some form of exaggeration. As a result, for those players on the borderline, the process can be somewhat demeaning.
This year, Bernie Williams is making his first appearance on the ballot, and judging by popular sentiment, he isn’t likely to come close to enshrinement. Although Williams’ case deserves much closer scrutiny than many seem willing to give, as a borderline candidate, there really is no right or wrong answer regarding his candidacy. With that in mind, it seems more appropriate to consider the best players who are not in the Hall of Fame instead of trying to determine which of them actually belong.
At the Baseball: Past and Present blog, Graham Womack recently completed a survey based on exactly that premise. For the second straight year, Womack polled an electorate made up of baseball writers and researchers and compiled the results into a ranking of the 50 best players not in the Hall of Fame. Included in this baseball version of purgatory were several players who spent most of their careers in pinstripes, prompting a further question: who are the 10 best eligible Yankees without a plaque in Cooperstown?
In order to answer that question, we first need to define who qualifies as a Yankee. A player like Tim Raines, for example, wore pinstripes for three years, but if inducted, he would undoubtedly enter the Hall of Fame wearing an Expos cap. Therefore, the bar was set high for inclusion. Either a player had to play half his games with the Yankees, or appear in more seasons with the Bronx Bombers than any other team. This strict criteria eliminated several recent prominent Yankees, such as Mike Mussina and Jason Giambi, who most people probably still think of as a member of the Orioles and Athletics, respectively.
With the criteria set, the next phase included combining Womack’s subjective approach with a stat-based qualification. For simplicity’s sake, this was accomplished by first ranking the top-15 non-enshrined Yankees by baseball-reference.com’s version of WAR and then weighting each player’s portion of the cumulative total. Then, the votes from the survey were tallied for the same group of 15 players and a similar weighting was applied. Finally, the two ratios were combined, averaged and ranked, from which the top-10 was extracted. That list is presented below as the best Yankees who are not in the Hall of Fame.
Top-10 Yankees Not in the Hall of Fame, Based on WAR and Survey
Note: In order to qualify, a player had to play at least half his games in pinstripes, or appear in more seasons as a Yankee than for any other team. Each weighting is a player’s percentage of the total.
Source: baseball-reference.com and baseballpastandpresent.com
Perhaps better known to some by the surgery that bears his name, Tommy John was also an accomplished pitcher whose 26 seasons on the mound rank behind only Nolan Ryan. John’s 288 victories (124 before the surgery and 164 after) also stand as the highest total by any pitcher not enshrined in Cooperstown. His 91 wins as a Yankees is more than he had with any other team and includes back-to-back 20-win seasons in 1979 and 1980, making him the last pinstriped hurler to accomplish that feat.
During what was a relatively dark period in Yankees’ history, Don Mattingly was a beacon in the Bronx. From 1984 to 1989, Mattingly anchored the Yankees’ formidable offense, and during those six seasons ranked among the likes of Wade Boggs, Cal Ripken and Rickey Henderson as one of the best players in the game. With an MVP, batting title, silver sluggers, and a string of Gold Gloves, Mattingly seemed destined for Cooperstown, but a degenerative back injury took its toll on the latter half of his career. If it was up to me alone, Mattingly wouldn’t even be on this list because he’d already have been elected to the Hall. Of course, that’s emotion talking, but Yankees fans who grew up in the 1980s can surely sympathize.
When most people think of Graig Nettles, defense pops to mind first. Dodgers‘ manager Tommy Lasorda will likely never forget his fielding display in the 1978 World Series. However, Nettles was also a very potent hitter, compiling 390 homeruns and 1,314 RBIs during his 22-year career, half of which were spent in the Bronx. Among all Yankees who are not in the Hall of Fame, Nettles’ WAR of 61.6 is the highest.
Bernie Williams was an instrumental part of the Yankees’ recent dynasty, but his contribution is sometimes overshadowed by the exploits of his more heralded teammates. However, during his prime years, Williams was the Yankees’ best player. Batting in the middle of the Bronx Bombers’ lineup, Williams never posted a wOBA below .385 from 1995 to 2002, while racking up four gold gloves in centerfield (even though modern metrics discount Williams’ defense, the extreme to which they do so seems suspect). In addition to his exploits during the regular season, Williams ranks either first or second all-time in post season hits, homeruns, RBIs, runs, and total bases.
Despite being a fan favorite, Willie Randolph often gets lost in Yankees’ history. With the exception of his 1980 campaign, when he led the league with 119 walks and posted a wOBA of .392, the Yankees’ second baseman was seldom spectacular, but always steady. Among all players who played at least 75% of their games at second base, Randolph’s WAR of 60.5 ranks 10th, just a shade behind Hall of Famers like Roberto Alomar and Ryne Sandberg and ahead of several others.
It’s hard not to talk about Thurman Munson and not dwell on what might have been. If not for the tragic plane crash that claimed his life, it seems highly likely the Yankees’ fiery catcher would have compiled a resume suitable for framing in Cooperstown. Even though his career came to end too soon, Munson still boasts a list of impressive accomplishments, including an MVP, Rookie of the Year award, three gold gloves, and a stellar line of .357/.378/.496 in 135 post season plate appearances.
Most borderline Hall of Fame candidates are derailed by rapid decline or injuries later in their careers, but Ron Guidry’s main culprit was a late start. For several years, the Yankees didn’t quite know what to do with the diminutive lefty, but once they inserted him into the starting rotation, the decision paid immediate dividends. From 1977 to 1985, Guidry recorded 154 victories, more than any other pitcher in the majors, winning one Cy Young and finishing top-5 three other times. Unfortunately, his delayed ascent to the majors was compounded by a balky elbow, which also robbed him of his twilight years.
For many, Roger Maris’ career can be summed up with one number: 61. However, the right fielder accomplished much more than just that one record. Not many people realize that in addition to winning the MVP in the record setting 1961, he also won the award the year before. Maris remained a key member of the Yankees for five more seasons following his pursuit of the Babe, ranking second to only Mickey Mantle in every major category during his time in pinstripes. Maris ended his career with two more productive seasons in St. Louis, and helped lead theCardinals to a championship in 1967 by hitting .385/.433/.526 in the World Series, but he’ll always be remembered as half of the Yankees’ fabled M&M Boys.
Charlie Keller’s OPS+ of 153 is the 28th highest rate in baseball history among all players with at least 3,000 plate appearances. Unfortunately, his playing time was very limited. King Kong Keller only managed five seasons with at least 500 plate appearances, and in each one ranked among the league leaders in WAR and OPS+. Also, in all but one of those seasons, he made the All Star team and garnered MVP consideration. Keller not only lost two prime years to military service, but also saw his career dramatically altered by a back injury in 1947. Before coming down with the ailment, Keller had picked up where he left off before entering the military, posting an OPS+ of 159 in 1946 and 165 over the first 45 games of 1947. Although he remained productive in very limited roles after injuring his back, his chances at making the Hall of Fame were derailed. Keller’s brief career doesn’t merit induction, nor does it place him atop this list, but purely based on talent, as exemplified by his numbers, a case could be made that he is the best player not in the Hall of Fame.
Along with Keller, Tommy Henrich flanked Joe DiMaggio on the great Yankees’ teams of the late-1930s and 1940s, so it’s easy to understand why both are often overlooked. However, Old Reliable, as he was affectionately called, more than held up his end. In 11 seasons, all spent in pinstripes, Henrich regularly posted an OPS+ well above average, culminating in a career rate of 132. His accomplishments were also recognized with five All Star Game appearances and five years with MVP consideration. If not for his late start in the majors, and three seasons lost to military service, Henrich, like Keller, might not be eligible for this list.
The Yankees have had so many great players that one can still construct a formidable team even when selecting from among those not in the Hall of Fame. In addition to the names mentioned above, players like Roy White, Roger Peckinpaugh, Paul O’Neill, Eddie Lopat and Allie Reynolds are all deserving of an honorable mention. And, a strong case could be made that they belong on the list above, but that’s what the comments section is for. So, who are your top-10 Yankees outside of the Hall of Fame?