Top five second basemen in New York Yankees history

Willie Randolph poses for photograph with a plaque he was awarded during opening ceremonies for the Old-Timers' Day baseball game Saturday, June 20, 2015, at Yankee Stadium in New York. Inset: Yankees second base defense in various years.

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Who are the best second basemen the New York Yankees have ever had?

The Yankees had plenty of standouts at the position. Many, such as Alfonso Soriano, excelled at big hitting while others, such as Bobby Richardson, showcased exemplary defense. There are also extraordinary ones, such as Robinson Cano, with utmost excellence in both areas.

Having a strong second baseman has been valuable to the team’s success for years. And yet, outside of a few exceptions, there has been a lot of movement in the position, even during championship runs, due to the team either trading its second basemen or letting them walk in free agency as the Yankees were having a replacement waiting in the wings. Hopefully, Gleyber Torres can avoid that fate if he plays his way to a long-term deal after this season.

Here is the list of five of those finest Yankees, who ever guarded the second base.

#5. 400-HR club elit Alfonso Soriano (1999-2003, 2013-2014)

This may be a surprising choice, as Alfonso Soriano had only three full seasons as a Yankee before being traded to the Texas Rangers for Alex Rodriguez. But there’s a reason why the Bronx Bombers were able to get a superstar in return. Soriano was becoming a star with the Yankees in his own right.

Admittedly, Soriano had weaknesses in his game. He was a terrible defender at his position; in all three of his full seasons with the Yankees, he led all second basemen in errors. He was also a free swinger that tended to whiff a lot; this made him highly prone to strikeouts, while he generally didn’t draw many walks, which limited his on-base percentage, especially as a leadoff hitter.

But even with those weaknesses, Soriano’s dynamic bat and baserunning made him one of the best combinations of speed and power the Yankees had ever seen. 

In 2001, Soriano finished third in AL Rookie of the Year voting after hitting .268/.304/.432 with 34 doubles, 18 home runs, 77 runs scored, and 43 stolen bases. While his wRC+ was a below-average 93 and he was worth only 0.1 fWAR, he still established himself as the team’s primary leadoff batter, and would show tremendous improvement the next year.

Soriano’s 2002 season was historic. With a .300/.332/.547 slash line, the free-swinging second baseman led the majors with 209 hits and 128 runs scored thanks to a team-record 696 at-bats; 44% of those hits went for extra bases, with 51 doubles, two triples, and 39 home runs, while his 41 stolen bases led the American League.

He became just the second Yankee ever to join the 30-30 club (the first was Bobby Bonds in 1975) and the first second baseman in MLB history to accomplish that feat; in fact, he was just one home run shy of becoming the first (and only) Yankee to hit 40 homers and steal 40 bases in a season. All told, he registered a 131 wRC+ and 5.6 fWAR, and he was named an All-Star, won his first Silver Slugger Award, and finished third in AL MVP voting, behind only Miguel Tejada (winner) and Alex Rodriguez.

2003 was largely a reprieve, as Soriano had another 30-30 season with 38 homers and 35 steals; 13 of those homers led off a game, setting a single-season record. He also scored 114 runs while hitting .290/.338/.525 with a 124 wRC+ and 5.1 fWAR. 

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about Soriano without mentioning his extraordinarily clutch 2001 postseason. In the ALCS against the 116-win Seattle Mariners, he hit a walk-off home run in Game 4 that allowed the Yankees to pull off the upset. In the World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks, he only hit .240 with a .600 OPS, yet had a 14.5% Championship Win Probability Added thanks to a walk-off single in Game 5 and a dramatic, go-ahead home run off Curt Schilling in the top of the eighth inning of Game 7; with those two monumental hits, Soriano had a strong case for World Series MVP if New York hung on to win the series.

Of course, Soriano was traded to the Texas Rangers after the 2003 season in one of the biggest trades in baseball history, with the Yankees getting A-Rod in return. He would later be converted to an outfielder and became just the fourth member of the 40-40 club in 2006 with the Washington Nationals; after a seven-year tenure with the Chicago Cubs, Soriano concluded his career in the Bronx, adding one last hurrah to his playing career by going on a historic tear in August 2013 and hitting his 400th career homer on August 27.

In the end, Soriano spent parts of seven seasons with the Yankees, with 2001, 2002, and 2003 being his only full seasons. He still hit .276/.315/.492 with 147 doubles, 121 home runs, 385 runs scored, 343 RBI, and 130 stolen bases, totaling 11.0 fWAR.

It was a difficult decision to include Soriano due to his Yankee tenure being comparatively short; other second basemen such as Bobby Richardson were Yankees for their entire careers. But Soriano accounted for more fWAR in his 2002 and 2003 seasons alone (10.7) than Richardson had in his entire 12-year career (6.3), which ultimately gives the exciting Dominican second baseman the edge on this list.

#4. Yankees’ fallen hero Robinson Cano (2005-2013)

Robinson Cano hits a three-run homer for the Yankees vs. the Diamondbacks on April 16, 2013, at Yankee Stadium.
AP

Despite signing a lucrative contract to play in Seattle and two PED suspensions in his late career, many Yankee fans look back fondly on Robinson Cano’s nine seasons in the Bronx, and for good reason.

A slick fielder with one of the most beautiful left-handed swings the game has ever seen, Cano molded excellent bat-to-ball skills, raw power, and defense to accumulate a truly impressive resume and reward the Yankees organization for their faith in him. He was considered a can’t-miss prospect by the front office with amazing expectations bestowed upon him, and he delivered on them.

Cano set the tone for his Yankee tenure with three fantastic seasons to begin his career. In 2005, he hit .297/.320/.458 with 34 doubles and 14 home runs, while creating a dream double-play combo with Derek Jeter. 2006 saw him hit .342/.365/.525 with 41 doubles, 15 homers, and a 128 wRC+, resulting in both a Silver Slugger Award and an All-Star nod.

Although his average fell to .306 in 2007, Cano’s offensive output was similar with 41 doubles and 19 homers, while his rapidly developing defense resulted in 23 defensive runs saved and a 4.7 fWAR. And that was before Cano officially entered his prime; after a down year in 2008, he transformed into the best second baseman in MLB for the next half-decade.

2009 saw Cano contribute to a championship team by pounding 204 hits, 48 doubles, and 25 home runs to complement a .320/.352/.520 slash line. From 2010 to 2013, Cano won four straight Silver Sluggers and two Gold Glove Awards, with four straight top-6 MVP finishes. The 2009 season was his first of five straight seasons with 25 or more home runs.

Over those five years, he had 224 doubles, 142 home runs, 496 runs scored, 513 RBI, a .314/.369/.530 slash line, a .384 wOBA, and a 139 wRC+. With the glove, he had 18 and 15 defensive runs saved in his respective Gold Glove seasons in 2010 and 2012. That five-year span ultimately amounted to 28.4 fWAR.

Sadly, the 2013 season was his last in pinstripes, as the Mariners gave him an offer he couldn’t refuse: 10 years and $230 million. Cano continued to play at an elite level for his first few years, but then received a pair of suspensions for failed drug tests during his tenures with the Mariners and New York Mets. These suspensions, which included a year-long punishment in 2021, effectively destroyed any Hall of Fame case Cano could have had.

But even with the murky ending to his MLB career, Cano was as elite as anyone during his Yankee tenure with 35.7 fWAR, and his production may even warrant a plaque in Monument Park someday. His .309 batting average, 375 doubles, 204 home runs, .504 slugging percentage, and 126 wRC+ are all the best by a second baseman in Yankees history, and he also has quite the trophy case to back up those numbers as well. Cano also deserves credit for being one of the few homegrown superstars the Yankees developed during the “Evil Empire” era, even if he ended up signing elsewhere once he hit free agency.

And yet, Cano falls short of the top 3 despite everything going for him, placing behind two underrated Hall of Famers and a franchise icon.

#3. Yankees’ Flash Joe Gordon (1938-1946)

Baseballhall.org

One of the most underrated players in Yankees history, Joe Gordon wasn’t just ahead of his time; he is a player who would absolutely thrive in today’s game.

Combining excellent power and plate discipline with Gold Glove-caliber defense (had it existed back then), Gordon would finally get his due when he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2009, 31 years after his death. Despite playing in just 11 seasons, seven with the Yankees, Gordon accumulated 60.4 fWAR thanks to a .268/.357/.466 slash line, a 120 wRC+, 150 total zone runs above average, and 22.4 dWAR in the field. Those numbers could have been even better if he didn’t miss the 1944 and 1945 seasons to serve in the military.

Debuting in 1938 with the Bronx Bombers, Gordon hit 25 home runs to not only set the MLB record for rookie second basemen, but he also set the American League record for most home runs by a second baseman, regardless of experience. He would surpass that total four more times in his career, and the rookie record stood until 2006, when Dan Uggla hit 27 homers. He also hit .400 with a .733 slugging percentage in the World Series that year to firmly establish himself as a budding star.

Even after his great rookie campaign, Gordon improved even further over the next five seasons. He had a fantastic 1939 season that was an improvement in almost every statistic; he increased his homer tally to 28, he hit .284/.370/.506 with 111 RBI, and his strikeout percentage was reduced by 5%. On defense, he was worth 21 total zone runs. 

In 1942, he had the best season of Gordon’s career, as he hit .322/.409/.491 with a 151 wRC+ and .424 wOBA, while hitting 18 homers and driving in 103. Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox won the Triple Crown that year, but it was Gordon who took home AL MVP honors; although Williams should have won the award with his Triple Crown and 11.5 fWAR, Gordon’s own 8.7 fWAR is still a brilliant season in its own right.

After a productive 1943 season, Gordon missed the entire 1944 and 1945 seasons to serve in World War II, and a combination of injuries and two years away from the game resulted in the worst season of his career, as his average plummeted to .210. Nonetheless, he still had trade value and after the season, the Yankees shipped off Gordon to the Cleveland Indians for pitcher Allie Reynolds.

While Reynolds would be a key contributor to six World Series-winning Yankee teams, the trade ended up being a rare win-win deal as Gordon returned to his pre-war form and delivered two brilliant seasons for the Indians in 1947 and 1948; in the latter season, he hit a career-best 32 home runs, which remained the American League record for second basemen until 2001, when Bret Boone finally surpassed the mark. He also established himself as a team leader and developed a close friendship with teammate Larry Doby, who integrated the American League in 1947. Gordon spent four seasons in Cleveland before his career came to a close.

All told, Gordon’s seven years with the Yankees were truly exceptional; accruing exactly 1,000 hits in 1,000 games, he hit 186 doubles and 153 homers despite having to deal with Yankee Stadium’s infamous “Death Valley” in left-center field. He additionally hit .271/.358/.467 with 617 RBI, turned 761 double plays with 103 total zone runs, and totaled 39.9 fWAR while winning four World Series titles.

Gordon may have been overlooked by the Hall of Fame for so long because of the talented teams he played for, especially when he had to play alongside Joe DiMaggio. But over time, it was finally realized that Gordon was a big reason why the teams he played for were great, and he would be validated with his posthumous selection to Cooperstown.

#2. “Poosh ‘Em Up Tony Lazzeri (1926-1937)

Another Hall of Famer overshadowed by a roster full of legends, Tony “Poosh ‘Em Up” Lazzeri would finally earn his plaque in Cooperstown in 1991, 45 years after his death, when voters realized that he was a big reason why his teams were so great.

A key component of the legendary “Murderer’s Row” lineup and beyond, Lazzeri spent all but two seasons with the Bronx Bombers and was one of the best second basemen of his era. He was remarkably consistent and clutch at the plate, being a .293/.380/.467 hitter with a .387 wOBA and 121 wRC+ in pinstripes. Although he never hit more than 18 home runs in a season, he had three seasons with a wOBA over .400 and three more over .390, while his 1,157 RBI are the most by a second baseman in Yankees history.

After a legendary 1925 season in the minors with 60 home runs and over 200 RBI and runs scored, Lazzeri debuted with the Yankees in 1926; he had a solid rookie season by hitting 18 homers and driving in 114, while hitting .275. However, his sophomore season was his true breakout campaign, as he got on base far more often. Once again hitting 18 home runs with 102 RBI, Lazzeri’s slash line improved to .309/.383/.482 for a 125 wRC+ and 6.3 fWAR; his presence in the sixth spot of the lineup made Murderer’s Row effectively impossible to navigate.

Lazzeri improved even further in his next two seasons. Although he missed 38 games due to injury in 1928, he hit 30 doubles, 11 triples, and 10 homers while slashing .332/.397/.535 and posting a 144 wRC+; his efforts allowed him to finish third in AL MVP voting. 1929 was the best season of Lazzeri’s career, replicating his 1928 performance while staying healthy; he hit .354/.429/.561 with 64 extra-base hits, a .444 wOBA and 156 wRC+, and 7.2 fWAR, all of which were career-bests.

The next two years were solid but unspectacular, but 1932 would be another big season. With manager Joe McCarthy moving Lazzeri up to fifth in the lineup, the slugging second baseman hit .300/.399/.506 with a 135 wRC+, 59 extra-base hits, and 113 RBI. He followed that up with a strong World Series against the Chicago Cubs, hitting a pair of homers and driving in five to help the Yankees sweep the series. 

During his Yankee tenure, Lazzeri had two exceptional single-game performances that set several MLB records. On June 3, 1932, he became just the fourth of 14 players to hit for a natural cycle (single, double, triple, and home run in order) and the only one to complete such a cycle with a grand slam; this remarkably occurred in the same game where teammate Lou Gehrig hit four home runs. Four years later, on May 24, 1936, he became the very first player in MLB history to hit two grand slams in a single game; he also had 11 RBI that day, setting an American League record that still stands.

Lazzeri would be released following the 1937 season, and played part-time roles for the Chicago Cubs, Brooklyn Dodgers, and New York Giants over the next two seasons before his MLB career ended. Sadly, he didn’t get to enjoy retirement for very long, as he died of a heart attack at age 42 on August 6, 1946.

In the end, Lazzeri helped bridge the gap between the Babe Ruth era to the Joe DiMaggio era alongside Lou Gehrig, and won five World Series titles in pinstripes. In addition to leading all Yankee second basemen in RBI, he also leads in hits (1,784), triples (115), and on-base percentage. 

It was a tough call choosing between Lazzeri and his successor, Joe Gordon, as both of them would eventually enter the Baseball Hall of Fame and were among the best second basemen of their respective eras. But while Gordon arguably had the better overall career, Lazzeri gets the nod due to spending more time with the Yankees (12 years, as opposed to seven), putting up 48.4 fWAR in the process, the second-most by a Yankee second baseman. 

Lazzeri even has a legitimate case for being number one on this list, but he’s ultimately trumped by one of the most beloved players in the history of the franchise.

#1. Monument Park honoree Willie Randolph (1976-1988)

Unlike Joe Gordon and Tony Lazzeri, Willie Randolph is not enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. However, he is the greatest second baseman to ever wear a Yankee uniform.

The only thing Randolph lacked in his game was power, as he hit just 54 home runs in his career, 48 of which came with the Bronx Bombers. But he could do everything else; he could get on base, steal a bag, move runners along, and play brilliant defense up the middle. Above all that, though, was his role as a clubhouse leader, serving as a quiet, calming presence during the wild “Bronx Zoo” era.

After a brief cup-of-coffee with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1975, the Yankees traded for Randolph, who was just 21 years old, for pitcher Doc Medich on December 11, 1975; the Bronx Bombers additionally got pitchers Dock Ellis and Ken Brett in the deal. Immediately named the starting second baseman, Randolph led all rookies with 4.6 fWAR in 1976 and stole 37 bases with 59 runs scored while primarily batting eighth. He would be moved up to second in the batting order during New York’s “soap opera” season of 1977 and helped contribute to a World Series title by scoring 91 runs. 

From there, Randolph continued to improve by putting up consecutive seasons of 5+ fWAR in 1978 and 1979, winning a second World Series in the former year. But in 1980, he put together his best season; setting career-highs with seven homers and 99 runs scored, Randolph led the majors with 119 walks and struck out just 45 times in 642 plate appearances while hitting .294/.427/.407. His 140 wRC+ and 6.5 fWAR were both the best of his career, and he was given the Silver Slugger Award at second base.

Randolph would enjoy a resurgent season in 1987, tying his career-best of seven homers and setting a new personal best of 67 RBI; he also hit .305/.411/.414 with a batting average over .300 for the first time in his career. A 15.1% walk rate was complemented by a microscopic 25 strikeouts in 543 plate appearances, for a 4.6% strikeout rate. But after enduring the worst season of his career in 1988, Randolph left in free agency and played for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Oakland Athletics, Milwaukee Brewers, and New York Mets before retiring in 1992. 

Offensively, Randolph was a manager’s dream table-setter. Despite his lack of home run power, he made up for it with elite on-base skills and baserunning acumen. Hitting .275 over his 13 seasons in pinstripes, he drew 80 or more walks in seven of those seasons for a .374 on-base percentage; he walked in 13.5% of his plate appearances with a miniscule 6.9% strikeout rate. When he got on base, Randolph caused havoc on the base paths and swiped 251 bases across his Yankee tenure, the most by a second baseman in franchise history; in his first five seasons, he stole 30 or more bases in four of them. Thanks to his plate discipline and baserunning, Randolph scored at least 80 runs seven times and leads all Yankee second basemen with 1,027 runs scored. 

Defensively, Randolph was one of the best fielders of his generation, regardless of position; he is one of the best defenders to never win a Gold Glove Award, as Frank White and Lou Whitaker had a monopoly over the second base Gold Gloves. Regardless, he had 168.2 defensive runs over his career, the ninth-best at any position from 1975 to 1992; on that list, only three of the eight players ahead of him had a higher fWAR than Randolph’s 62.1, and all of them (Ozzie Smith, Cal Ripken Jr., and Gary Carter) are in the Baseball Hall of Fame. A master at both starting and executing double plays, Randolph turned-two 1,547 times in his career and was worth 115 total zone runs. 97 of those total zone runs, 144 of those defensive runs, and 51.4 of his fWAR came with the Yankees, the latter of which is the most by a second baseman in franchise history.

But Randolph is best remembered as one of the great leaders in franchise history. Playing during a time of chaos both on and off the field, Randolph provided stability and remained calm, collected, and focused on the game. Seasoned by the Thurman MunsonReggie Jackson-Billy Martin era, he later served as the clubhouse beacon during the Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield era. For his final three years with the Bronx Bombers, he served as team captain alongside Ron Guidry, a truly prestigious honor even if he shared the role. 

While Randolph isn’t considered to be a primary candidate for Cooperstown, he was a player who donned the pinstripes with pride and gave the Yankees maximum effort in every game. He was eventually given a plaque in Monument Park on June 20, 2015, validating the contributions he had given to the team for 13 years on the diamond, which included back-to-back World Series titles.

The Yankees had some truly great second basemen, but Willie Randolph was the best Yankee of them all.

Honorable mentions:

Snuffy Stirnweiss– Playing for the Yankees from 1943 to 1950, Stirnweiss won three World Series championships and was the primary beacon of light for the team during the war-decimated seasons in 1944 and 1945. Despite having a wRC+ below 100 in all of his seasons outside of those two, he accumulated 17.8 fWAR in those two seasons alone and won the batting title in 1945 by hitting .309/.385/.476 with a 146 wRC+. He may have benefitted from the lower league-wide talent level during World War II, but his two best seasons would be great in any era of baseball.

Billy Martin– Although far better known as a manager, Martin played for the Yankees from 1950 to 1957, missing the 1954 season and most of 1955 after being drafted by the military. He totaled 6.3 fWAR and won three World Series championships, while being mentored by legendary manager Casey Stengel. His two best moments came in the World Series, as he made a game-saving acrobatic catch on a Jackie Robinson pop-up in Game 7 of the 1952 Fall Classic, and dominated the 1953 World Series with 12 hits, 23 total bases, and the series-winning walk-off single in Game 6.

Bobby Richardson Despite his non-existent bat, Richardson was a fantastic defender with five Gold Gloves in a 12-year career, all with the Yankees. Once October arrived, however, the 5’9” second baseman elevated his hitting prowess to a new level; with a career slash line of just .266/.299/.335, those numbers inflated to .305/.331/.405 in the World Series. In losing efforts in the 1960 and 1964 World Series, Richardson set a still-standing World Series record of 13 hits in 1964, and became the only player on a losing team to win World Series MVP after driving in 12 runs in 1960; his six RBI in Game 3 set another Fall Classic record that would later be tied by Hideki Matsui in Game 6 of the 2009 World Series. Perhaps fittingly, Richardson’s best moment came in the field, when he snared Willie McCovey’s screaming line drive for the final out of Game 7 of the 1962 World Series, the last of three championships he would win.

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