This is part two of my series on teams that had six 40-WAR players, age 30 or younger, with at least 1.0 WAR that year.
I had planned to take two at a time, but the 1931-33 Yankees deserve their own in-depth look.
Here’s the full list of teams; the first two were covered in part one.
- Pirates, 1901 (1st, 90-49) and 1902 (1st, 103-36) (No World Series yet)
- Athletics, 1914 (1st, 99-53, lost WS 0-4)
- Red Sox, 1915 (1st, 101-50, won WS 4-1)
- Yankees, 1931 (2nd, 94-59), 1932 (1st, 107-47, swept WS) and 1933 (2nd, 91-59)
- Cubs, 1935 (1st, 100-54, lost WS 2-4)
- Athletics, 1971 (1st, 101-60, lost ALCS 0-3)
- Indians, 1996 (1st, 99-62, lost ALDS 1-3)
- Yankees, 1998 (1st, 114-48) and 1999 (1st, 98-64) (swept both WS)
A review of the concept: These teams all had six players who (a) were 30 or younger and scored 1+ WAR that year, and (b) amassed 40+ career WAR. Due to search limitations, players appearing with two teams in one year slipped through the cracks for finding the teams; but for each found team, I’ll list such players whenever I notice them. Pitchers’ WAR is counted as the higher of pitching WAR only, or pitching plus offensive WAR.
I’ve shuffled and expanded the team table format. Each table lists the six players who met the criteria (seven in one case), and their group totals, followed by other notables. Italics and an asterisk by the name mark a player who was not a regular with that team. I hope the column headings are self-explanatory; if not, just ask.
1931 Yankees: 94-59, 2nd place, 13.5 games behind A’s
Next 5 years: .636 W% (MLB #1), World Champs in ’32, ’36
|NYY 1931: 2nd, 94-59
NYY 1932: 1st, 107-47
NYY 1933: 2nd, 91-59
|Career WAR||HOF?||NYY WAR%||NYY:
|1931 Age||1931 WAR||WAR-
|1932 WAR||1933 WAR|
|Lou Gehrig||112.4||BW||100%||17, 14||28||8.8||42.9||5||7.9||6.9|
|Red Ruffing||70.4||BW||83%||15, 13||26||2.6||23.8||5||7.9||3.2|
|Bill Dickey||55.8||BW||100%||17, 15||24||4.1||19.1||5||3.0||4.6|
|Tony Lazzeri||49.9||VC||97%||12, 12||27||3.2||18.5||5||5.2||4.2|
|Lefty Gomez||43.1||VC||100%||13, 10||22||5.7||20.8||5||3.3||3.6|
|Ben Chapman||41.3||—||61%||7, 6||22||6.0||20.4||5||4.3||4.7|
|Dixie Walker||42.7||—||4%||5, 1||20||0.0||2.0||4||—||2.0|
|GROUP TOTALS||415.6||5||83%||86, 71||24.1||30.4||147.5||34||31.6||29.2|
|Babe Ruth||183.6||BW||78%||15, 15||36||10.3||20.0||3||8.3||6.4|
|Johnny Allen||28.1||—||29%||4, 3||—||—||15.0||4||3.4||1.3|
|Frankie Crosetti||23.9||—||100%||17, 12||—||—||12.5||5||1.2||1.6|
|Earle Combs||42.5||VC||100%||12, 11||32||4.2||10.2||4||4.7||2.6|
|*Red Rolfe||23.5||—||100%||10, 9||22||0.0||9.2||3||—||—|
|Lyn Lary||19.3||—||54%||6, 4||25||4.9||5.9||3||1.2||0.3|
|Joe Sewell||53.7||VC||15%||3, 3||32||3.7||4.5||2||2.6||1.9|
|Herb Pennock||45.0||BW||74%||11, 10||37||1.5||1.1||3||0.1||-0.4|
Overview: The Yankees of 1931-33 stood betwixt two dynasties, each a candidate for “best ever”:
- The 1927-28 Yanks swept both Series to cap a run of six pennants in eight years.
- The 1936-39 Yanks were the first to win four straight World Series (or even three).
In the seven years between, the Yanks led all teams with a .608 W%, including an epic ’32 season — 107-47, and another Series sweep. Yet those seven years were their most fallow period from Babe Ruth’s arrival to Mickey Mantle’s decline. Except for ’32, they never strongly contended — blown away by the A’s in ’29-31, 7 games behind in ’33-34, and a “close” finish in ’35 only by a meaningless streak at the end. So ’31-33 represents a transition, and an interesting time to find them in this study.
How were they formed? All the focus group except Ruffing came up with the Yankees — Gehrig in ’23, Lazzeri ’26, Dickey ’28, Chapman and Gomez in ’30, and Walker in ’31. (Dixie didn’t really play until ’33, and then not again until ’37, after he’d been waived to the White Sox.) Ruffing was bought from Boston during 1930 for fifty grand — quite a sum for MLB’s loss leader over the last five years (and #41 in WAR).
In 1931, four of their nine 3-WAR players were outside the focus group. The Babe at 36 was still the best around (10.3 WAR), with another great year ahead. Lyn Lary was a good, young, two-way shortstop (4.9 WAR, 5th on the team), the third modern SS to drive in and score 100 runs — and (quoting Bill James) the first to do that and then lose his job, thanks to injury and defensive decline. Future Hall of Famer Earle Combs was 32, but still a prime offensive force (4.2 WAR, 6th). At third was another 32-year-old bound for Cooperstown, Joe Sewell; claimed on waivers after his first off year, the king of contact rebounded with a .302 BA, .390 OBP and 102 runs in 130 games (3.7 WAR, 8th).
How did they win? In the ’32 championship, they were 1st in scoring (as usual), but also 1st in prevention (first time in 6 years). They had an extreme strikeout staff, with four of the top six K artists. To appreciate what 780 Ks and 5.0 SO/9 meant in that era:
- Almost 100 Ks more than any team since 1916, and the live-ball record until ’46.
- Ruffing (AL leader) and Gomez (#3) were one of two live-ball tandems with 175+ Ks before Koufax/Drysdale.
- Four pitchers with 100+ Ks was a live-ball first, unmatched until ’43, and unique in the Yankee annals until ’63.
- 5.0 SO/9 was 1.8 over the MLB average, a margin we haven’t seen since the 2003 Cubs of Prior & Wood.
For the three years combined, New York’s .639 W% was the best by about 10 games, but they only won the ’32 pennant, running 2nd to the A’s and Senators the other years. (Those three clubs claimed eight of the top 10 season records in that span.)
The Yanks were the flagship of a high-scoring era, averaging 6.5 runs per game over ’31-33. They led in total homers, with Babe & Lou #2-3 (1st and 3rd in total WAR). But they also led the AL in steals, largely thanks to Chapman’s MLB-high count each year. And they were far ahead in walks drawn, with Ruth 1st, Gehrig 3rd, Lazzeri and Chapman nos. 8-9.
In run prevention, they were about AL-average in total, a little worse on each side of ’32. They led in pitchers’ strikeouts all three years by large margins, with the three highest marks since 1916. On defense, they were below average in dWAR and DPs all three years, and their efficiency fell to last in ’33.
How long did they last? In the focus group, all but Walker were Yankee regulars into ’36, when Chapman was traded. Lazzeri was cut after ’37 (halfway through the 4-title spree), and Gehrig was stopped by illness the next year. Dickey, Ruffing and Gomez kept going strong into the war years. Of the other key players, Ruth was cut after ’34, too fat to play the field any more. Combs slowed in ’36 and lost his job, missing out on the Series.
What brought them down? The four-peat ended nine years after the focus group came together, so we needn’t explain any subsequent comedown. A more interesting question is, what happened after ’32? Why didn’t that 107-47 juggernaut come out on top in the next three years, when the AL champs averaged an accessible 98 wins?
To examine that, we start a few years earlier, with the hidden strength of the first Yankee powerhouse.
Pitching in Ruth’s Shadow: A Brief History
“The ’27 Yankees” evokes Murderer’s Row: The Bambino and Larrupin’ Lou averaged 53 HRs, 169 RBI and 12.1 WAR, while Combs and Lazzeri ranked 4th and 6th in AL offensive WAR. Yet they also led the league in pitching WAR, with the AL’s #3-4 individual marks. The ’22-23 Yanks were also 1st in run prevention, 2nd in WAR/pitch.
But the ’27 staff had grown long in the tooth. Urban Shocker and Dutch Ruether combined for 31-12 in ’27, but neither they nor Bob Shawkey won another game. (Bye-bye, 519 victories.) Wilcy Moore had just burst from the bushes with a big year at age 30, but he never approached that again. Herb Pennock and Waite Hoyt would fade after ’28. By 1929, the Yankees were last in WAR/pitch, and again in ’30. New York’s big lead in WAR/pos for ’29-31 was dwarfed by the Athletics’ pitching power.
Time for reinforcements: Red Ruffing was bought in May 1930, and began reversing his 39-96 career start in Beantown. Lefty Gomez broke in that year, then broke out in ’31, going 21-9. The staff gelled in ’32: With Johnny Allen‘s fine rookie year, Gomez’s 24 wins, Ruffing’s career high in WAR and a bounce-back by George Pipgras, New York was 1st in run prevention, and ran off with the flag. The future looked bright.
So, the ’33 Yankees: With Dixie Walker finally cracking the lineup, they’re the only team with seven players meeting the study criteria, and led in WAR/pos for the ninth straight year. With six HOFers in the lineup, they led the majors at 6.1 runs per game, in a pitcher’s park. The rotation of Gomez, Ruffing, Allen and “Sheriff” Russ Van Atta had a good 103 ERA+. Sounds like a pennant — so why did they finish 7 games behind the Senators?
Our Doug noted one key to the race: Washington took the season series by 14-8, the only team to win 10 or more from New York. Not quite shocking, as the Senators held a 37-29 edge in the prior 3 years, even splitting with the ’32 Yanks (96-36 against everyone else). In ’33, the Sens went 8-3 in the Stadium, where the Bombers were 48-15 otherwise.
The broader issue with the ’33 Yankees was awful second-line pitching, which continued the next two years. Splitting off the top four by innings, in each season:
- 1933 — Top 4 totaled 9.0 WAR; others totaled -1.9 WAR, in 40% of the innings.
- 1934 — Top 4 totaled 15.8 WAR; others totaled 0.2 WAR, in 33% of the innings.
- 1935 — Top 4 totaled 12.0 WAR; others totaled 2.7 WAR, in 37% of the innings.
In ’33, six guys with 60+ IP scored negative WAR, tied for the most of any team until 1982. Joe McCarthy tried everyone — 11 different Yankees started 4 games or more, a club record until the nightmare of ’89.
But how did it come to this?
Ed Barrow’s constant pursuit of proven pitchers left little patience for anyone, trainees least of all, and he was slow to see the need for depth when his first aces faded and times changed.
Barrow came down from Boston after 1920. Inheriting six pitchers who’d been good at least two of the last three years, he consolidated. By the start of 1922, he dealt the four who’d been off a bit lately, plus his best new find of ’21, bringing in three BoSox to form a splendid rotation.
It was a bold move — a true 5-man rotation was a novelty — and so successful that they needed little else for several years. From 1922-25, that rotation averaged 90% of team innings, 20% more innings than other teams’ annual top five, and about 70 IP more per year than the next-highest team. They were exceptionally durable: The ’22-23 Yankees are the only teams since 1917 to use just 8 pitchers all year, and the last teams with 5 men at 230+ innings. From ’22-25, the Yankees had 17 individual seasons of 230+ IP, no one else more than 11.
That approach brought three pennants and a near miss in Barrow’s first 5 years. But the horizon was clouded:
- They weren’t developing anyone.
- Barrow’s quick-fix deals had costs down the road.
Outside the five aces, no Yankee from ’22-25 had more than 86 innings or 0.8 WAR … total. Twelve of their other 16 pitchers appeared in just one of those seasons. Only six pitchers who broke in with the Yanks that decade totaled even 2 WAR in his career, and New York reaped just 27% of their 68 total WAR — just 5% from their top two products. And they often didn’t get the most out of pitchers obtained elsewhere.
Ed Barrow was a Hall of Fame builder, no question. But his first take on pitchers prefigured the Steinbrenner ’80s: “What have you done in The Show, lately?”
Carl Mays, Jack Quinn, George Mogridge and Rip Collins — all Yanks before Barrow — were dispatched as soon as they had an off year. But each had a lot left: Mays went 20-9 and 19-12 in the next 3 years. Mogridge averaged 16 wins and 4.2 WAR in the next 4 years, helping Washington unseat the Yanks for the ’24 title. The aged Quinn had surprising endurance, averaging 3.2 WAR for the next 11 years, with 122 wins and 48 saves from age 38 on (2nd to Phil Niekro in WAR for that bracket). Collins went 83-69 and averaged 2 WAR in 9 years afterward.
Still, Barrow’s four imports were a smash hit, averaging 19-10 in their first 8 seasons. So he kept at it. When a need arose, he’d swap a young pitcher or two for someone with a track record. When an ace slumped, off he went:
- Young Garland Braxton had less than 200 IP and a 105 ERA+ when he went in the ’26 stretch deal for Ruether. The veteran totaled 2.3 WAR in a year-plus, while Braxton averaged 4.8 WAR the next 2 years.
- Sad Sam Jones was on the downswing in ’26, age 33, so Barrow dealt him for two nobodies. Sam had 9 good years left, with more total WAR than all but one Yankee pitcher in that span.
- Waite Hoyt was off in ’29, and dealt early the next season (age 30) for a couple of veterans; pitcher Ownie Carroll had been good once, but he scored negative career WAR after the trade. Hoyt was no longer up to a full starter’s load, and took a while to find his swingman niche, but he averaged 2.0 WAR in 8 years after the trade.
- Veteran Tom Zachary came on waivers for the ’28 stretch, then went 12-0 as a ’29 swingman. A slow start in ’30 put him back on the waiver wire, but he averaged 4.2 WAR the next 2 years.
- Wilcy Moore had two off years after his big debut, so they dumped him for 37-year-old catcher Bubbles Hargrave, who burst. When Moore had a good ’31 for Boston, Barrow sent Gordon Rhodes (10 years younger) to bring him back; that one failed, too.
Even some successful trades had a downside. When Bullet Joe Bush slipped a bit in ’24, he was swapped out for Shocker, and the old spitballer gave three good years. But that trade also cost rookie Milt Gaston, who’d gotten just a brief look. Bad teams ruined Gaston’s W-L record, but he averaged 2.4 WAR and 228 IP in the next 6 years, peaking in 1929-30, when the Yanks most could have used him.
Championships are forever, and Barrow’s pickups were a big part of three ’20s titles. But to see why a superb lineup took but one flag from 1929-35, just note that:
- For ’29-30 combined, no Yankee pitcher topped 2.5 WAR. But their exiles Gaston, Collins, Jones and Quinn averaged almost 6 WAR.
- In ’33-34 combined, only Gomez cleared 5 WAR for New York. But four ex-Yankees did — Hoyt, Jones, Rhodes and Ed Wells.
By the late ’20s, most teams were spreading the workload. Relief aces and swingmen were on the rise. But New York, run by deadball skippers Barrow and Miller Huggins, was slow to embrace the new concepts:
- From 1925-33, the Yanks had just one of the 42 seasons worth 2+ WAR by relievers and swingmen (20+ relief games, max. 20 starts).
- In 1927, every team had at least eight pitchers with 50+ innings, except the champion Yankees and 5th-place Reds.
- The next year, without Shocker, Ruether or Shawkey, Huggins leaned on his 28-year-old holdovers for the repeat: Hoyt worked 273 innings, a 13% hike from his last-5-years average, and Pipgras shot to 301 IP, almost twice his old high. Just six others had 270 IP that year. Both crashed in ’29, and never again approached that workload.
- In ’32, every team but the Yanks had a pitcher with at least 40 relief innings. The ten teams over 10 WAR/pitch had at least 5 pitchers with 1+ WAR, except the Yankees — #2 in WAR/pitch, but dominated by three guys.
- By 1946, there had been over 80 individual seasons of 90+ relief innings, still just one by a Yankee.
The last straw in Barrow’s pattern might have been Ivy Andrews. In June ’32, the 25-year-old Andrews — 59 career innings, 3.20 ERA — was packaged with veteran Hank Johnson and cash for the more proven Danny MacFayden (16-12 the year before). The deal flopped: Deacon Danny pitched well the rest of the year, but Andrews did even better. And MacFayden sank after that, while Andrews averaged 3.3 WAR from ’32-36; his WAR would have led the Yankees in ’35 and ’36. For the capper, MacFayden surged once New York cut him loose, averaging 4.0 WAR from ’36-38.
After that, young Yankee pitchers got more opportunities. From 1921-31, only five had totaled 100 IP in their first 2 seasons, but twelve did so in the next 10 years. In 1935-39, seven different Yankees in their 1st to 3rd season had a year of 1+ WAR, which none had done on Barrow’s first six New York teams.
A new skipper likely spurred the change. In 1931, the helm was handed to Joe McCarthy, who had guided a young Cubs staff the last 5 years, with Charlie Root, Guy Bush, Pat Malone and Sheriff Blake becoming stars on Marse Joe’s watch.
Whatever the trigger, there was more patience with off years. Spud Chandler followed two good seasons with two of struggle, but they stuck with him. Chandler went 75-26, 2.26 in his next 5 years (not counting an Army stint), winning 20 twice and the ’43 MVP. They didn’t keep all their products; Johnny Allen was dealt after ’35, and had two big years for Cleveland. But now it was the Yanks swapping a veteran for two younger arms, Monte Pearson and minor-leaguer Steve Sundra, and they roughly matched Allen’s value. (Pearson won all four WS starts in ’36-39, with a 1.01 ERA.)
McCarthy also employed their first long-term relief ace, Johnny Murphy. For 1934-43, “Grandma” led all relievers in games, saves, wins and WAR.
In 1936-39, the youth movement joined Ruffing and Gomez (nos. 3 and 7 in total WAR/pitch), plus an excellent defense, to make the Yanks #1 in AL run prevention each year, averaging a half-run per game below the #2 team annually. With holdovers from the ’32 champs, plus a new wave of Barrow’s finds — Joe DiMaggio, Joe Gordon, George Selkirk, Tommy Henrich and Charlie Keller — they won four straight pennants by an average 15-game margin, and went 16-3 in the Series, by an average score of 5.9-2.7.
On the ’33 Pennant Race: Perhaps overconfident from the ’32 romp and a 12-5 start to this season (with 3.4 RA/G), they sold Pipgras back to Boston in May, along with unproven 3B Billy Werber. They would miss The Bull’s competent innings, as their RA/G plumped to 5.3 the rest of the way. They were 6 games ahead on June 7, but a stretch of blow-ups by closer Wilcy Moore knocked them off the perch by month’s end. Moore finished the year at 7.69 RA/9, and never pitched in the majors again. A hot July kept New York in the race, and a double-walk-off sweep of Washington on August 7 left them a game behind with two left in that series. But the Sens scored easy wins, starting a 13-game streak that effectively ended the race.
Relief pitching back then was far from what we’re used to; AL bullpen ERA was 0.71 worse than starters. But even by those standards, Yankee relievers were dreadful, serving an MLB-worst 6.58 runs per 9 innings. They could have used Hoyt, whom Barrow had dealt for peanuts three years ago; by ’33, Hoyt was a thriving swingman, averaging 3.0 WAR and a 3.01 ERA in 146 IP over 4 years. Barrow signed veteran George Uhle for that role in midsummer, but the ’20s star had nothing left in his arm. (He did bat 11 for 25 with them, the best career average by a Yankee with more than 5 hits.)
1934-35: Selling Pipgras with Werber in ’33 hurt more than the pitching. Sewell slumped that year and was finally done, leaving a hole at third in ’34: Jack Saltzgaver didn’t live up to his minor-league numbers, and rookie Red Rolfe hadn’t found his power yet. Meanwhile, Werber broke out in Boston — 200 hits, .321 BA, 40 steals, 129 runs and 5.4 WAR, the most by an AL 3B in 20 years. Maybe it doesn’t matter, since Rolfe and Werber wound up with similar value patterns, and Werber alone couldn’t have closed the 7-game gap in ’34. But if Barrow had been clever enough to keep Werber, trade Crosetti while his stock was high, and play Rolfe at short (his native spot), they might have won the pennant in 1940, when Cro had an awful year while Werber scored 4.5 WAR.
The ’34 Yankees were tied with Detroit at the end of July, but the Tigers won 14 straight during a 42-16 closeout, while New York’s bats went cold. Their pitching was good enough that year, but the offense was down a run per game from ’32. The nine regulars had about the same rates as in ’32, but the bench played twice as much, with injuries piling up: Combs missed the second half after cracking his skull on an outfield wall. Dickey went down in August with a broken finger. Ruth was slowed in September, missing the last-ditch 4-game set in Detroit, one of his favorite parks; needing a sweep, the Yanks were blanked in the first two games, and all but eliminated.
Ruth was let go in ’35, and a funny thing happened: The Bombers became average Joes in their own park. Their road marks of 48-27 and 6.4 R/G were the best in baseball, but 41 home wins was their fewest in a 40-year span (1919-58), with a similar low in scoring. They would have won easily with a home record typical of the Ruth years (50-26), or of the last two seasons (52-24). But just as in ’34, the Yanks led early, then faded in July and August (32-28), while the Tigers roared (43-15), and the race was all but over by Labor Day.
In the Senators’ one golden era, 1924-33, they still trailed New York in total W% by .604-.574. But they were the lone team to best the Yanks head-to-head, by a comfortable 116-104. Their 53-57 mark in Yankee Stadium was best by far of any visitor, 10.5 games better than the #2 A’s (who were .602 over all in this span). Washington had the best BA and OBP among Bronx visitors, and were 2nd in homers and slugging. Joe Hardy never had it so good.
The first Yankee champions, in 1923, were almost wholly imported: Other teams delivered their top six pitchers and seven of 10 regulars, with 10 coming directly from the demolished BoSox dynasty during 1919-23. The ’32 champs, at the center of this study, were the opposite: Eight of 10 regulars and three of the top four pitchers broke in with New York. By 1936, the lineup was almost all Yankee-bred: Seven of eight regulars, and four of the other five with 100+ PAs.
The first Yankee dynasty had absurdly good luck with pitcher acquisitions, both in quality and durability. Even those dealt away when they seemed old often were far from done.
- Bob Shawkey, acquired mid-1915 (age 24) —
8 straight years over 200 IP (not counting his Navy year), avg. 257 IP and 4.7 WAR … normal decline from age 34.
- Jack Quinn, re-acquired for 1919 (age 35) —
2 years avg. 260 IP and 4.0 WAR, then an off year and traded … avg. 4.2 WAR for the next 7 years (age 38-44).
- Carl Mays, acquired mid-1919 (age 27) —
3 years avg. 290 IP and 4.9 WAR, then an off year and sold at age 32 … 2 more good years in the next three.
- Waite Hoyt, acquired for 1921 (age 21) —
9 years avg. 247 IP and 3.9 WAR (all 200+ IP), then traded … avg. 2.0 WAR for 8 more years (age 30-37).
- Bullet Joe Bush, acquired for 1922 (age 29) —
3 straight years over 250 IP, avg. 4.4 WAR, then faded & traded.
- Sad Sam Jones, acquired for 1922 (age 29) —
5 years avg. 217 IP and 1.7 WAR, then traded at age 34 … avg. 2.3 WAR for 9 more years (age 34-42).
- Herb Pennock, acquired for 1923 (age 29) —
6 years avg. 248 IP and 5.3 WAR (all 200+ IP) … normal decline from age 35.
- Urban Shocker, re-acquired for 1925 (age 34) —
3 straight years over 200 IP, avg. 4.3 WAR, then got sick and died at age 37.
- Dutch Ruether, acquired for the ’26 stretch (age 32) —
220 IP and 2.3 WAR in just over a year … then went home to the PCL for several more good years.
All eight were among the top 25 in pitching WAR for 1919-28. The six acquired at age 27+ (avg. 30.7) went on to average 1,676 innings and 23.9 WAR/pitch from that year forward — and that’s with Shocker passing away after an 18-6 season, and Ruether tossing 1,000 more frames back in the PCL (going 29-7 the first year). For a frame of reference, just a dozen actives (in a league twice as big) have 1,600 IP and as good a rate of WAR per inning.
Credit the traders — but no design is so good as to have that much luck as its residue. And that luck was as crucial as Babe Ruth to the Yanks’ six pennants from 1921-28.
(To those who read all 3,900 words of this absurdly long post, thank you! But let’s not imagine that I’ve covered all angles on the ’31-33 Yankees, so please help fill in the blanks.)