Yankees' Top 5 left fielders: Hoch's take

April 27th, 2020

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only … if you don’t agree with the order, participate in the Twitter poll to vote for your favorite at this position.

Here is Bryan Hoch’s ranking of the top five left fielders in Yankees history. Next week: center fielders.

Yankees’ All-Time Team: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS

1. Charlie Keller (1939-49, ‘52)
Beginning with a two-homer performance in his first World Series, Keller was a feared slugger and solid fielder on three Yankees championship clubs (1939, ’41 and ’43), compiling a career OPS+ of 152 that ranks 27th all-time, ahead of other superstar left fielders like Ralph Kiner, Willie Stargell and Albert Belle.

After batting .295/.416/.526 with 122 homers and 492 RBIs in his first five big league seasons, including an American League-best .922 OPS in 1943, Keller was absent for most of the next two seasons due to service in the United States Merchant Marines. A five-time All-Star, “King Kong” completed his Yankees career with a slash line of .286/.410/.518, slugging 184 homers with 723 RBIs in 1,066 games.

Though he returned strong from military service, Keller’s production was hampered by a herniated disc later in his career. Among Yankees who played a minimum of 45 percent of their games in left field, Keller paces the franchise list in homers (184), on-base percentage (.410), slugging percentage (.518), OPS (.928) and fWAR (44.9). He led AL left fielders in putouts four times and fielding percentage twice.

2. Bob Meusel (1920-29)
A member of the “Murderers' Row” lineup that celebrated three World Series titles (1923, ’27, ’28), Meusel batted fifth behind Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, posting batting averages of .313 or better in seven of his first eight seasons. Known for his strong throwing arm, Meusel’s best offensive season was 1925, when he led the AL with 33 homers, 79 extra-base hits and 134 RBIs.

Meusel’s 1,009 RBIs during the 1920s were the fourth most by any Major Leaguer, behind only Ruth (1,338), Rogers Hornsby (1,153) and Harry Heilmann (1,131) -- all Hall of Famers. Meusel logged a .311/.358/.500 slash line (121 OPS+) during his time with the Yanks. His .311 average, 338 doubles, 87 triples and 1,009 RBIs pace all Yankees left fielders, while his 1,565 hits and .500 slugging percentage rank second. His 146 homers and 134 steals are third.

One note regarding Meusel: the Bombers utilized him in left field (625 games) almost as much as right (536), which is why we adjusted the franchise requirement of games in left field from 50 percent to 45 percent. In fact, though best known as a right fielder (as he will be considered for our purposes), Ruth played more than 1,000 games in left during his 22-year career.

3. Roy White (1965-79)
White helped bridge the gap between Mickey Mantle’s exit and the successful late 1970s, enjoying a 15-year career in pinstripes that featured three AL pennants and two World Series championships. The affable switch-hitter patrolled the expansive Yankee Stadium outfield with remarkable consistency, twice appearing in all 162 games (1970, ’73) while logging a career slash line of .271/.360/.404 with 160 homers and 758 RBIs.

White’s most productive seasons came over a five-year span from 1968-72, when he averaged a .283/.380/.432 slash line with a 139 OPS+. He led all AL left fielders in putouts eight times, assists twice and fielding percentage five times, pacing the AL with 104 runs scored in 1976. Among Yankees left fielders, White ranks first in plate appearances (7,735), at-bats (6,650), runs (964), hits (1,803) and walks (934), while placing second in doubles (300), homers (160), RBIs (758) and stolen bases (233).

"There's some special friendships you have in baseball, and I think they have a lot of meaning to them,” White said in 2013. "I'm glad to have the opportunity to know some of these guys that I played with."

4. Hideki Matsui (2003-09)
Derek Jeter has frequently referred to Matsui as one of his favorite teammates, evidence of the substantial impact that "Godzilla" made during his seven seasons with the club. Though Matsui’s epic six-RBI performance in the clinching game of the 2009 World Series came as a designated hitter, he was mostly utilized in left field until ’08, two years after his consecutive-games streak ended at 518 due to a fractured left wrist that prompted Matsui to apologize to his incredulous teammates.

A two-time All-Star who arrived in New York after making his name as one of the most celebrated stars in Japanese baseball history, Matsui’s most productive seasons with the Yankees came over a four-year span from 2004-07, when he batted .297/.376/.502 with a 130 OPS+. Among Yankees left fielders, Matsui ranks third in batting average (.292), OBP (.370) and slugging (.482), and he is fourth in doubles (196), homers (140) and RBIs (597).

"You talk about as a teammate or as a manager or as a fan, what you want out of a player, he's it," said Joe Girardi, who was New York's manager when Matsui won the 2009 World Series Most Valuable Player Award. "He was tough. He worked extremely hard. He was a leader on the field by the way he played. He was a leader in the clubhouse because of who he was, the way he went about his business. He was well-loved in the clubhouse. People wanted to be around him."

5. Brett Gardner (2008-present)
Currently the longest-tenured Yankee, Gardner is an excellent defender who was honored with an AL Gold Glove Award in 2016, Gardner has seen his skill set evolve from a pure speedster (he led the AL with 49 stolen bases in 2011) into a more complete power threat, having belted 61 of his 124 career homers in the last three seasons.

A clubhouse leader who has played two-thirds of his Major League games in left field, Gardner owns a .992 fielding percentage that ranks ninth among all active outfielders. Gardner’s 267 stolen bases are third on the franchise list. Gardner also ranks second among Yankees left fielders in plate appearances (5,995), at-bats (5,220), runs (876), doubles (230) and triples (68). He is third in hits (1,355) and walks (613), while standing fourth in homers (124) and RBIs (524).

"Being with the Yankees my whole career and getting to witness so many things makes me feel blessed," Gardner said in 2017. "Coming from a town of 2,000 people in the middle of nowhere in South Carolina and getting to play on a team with such a rich history and tradition has been pretty special.”

Honorable mentions
Birdie Cree (1908-15) compiled a 125 OPS+, including a terrific 1911 campaign when he batted .348. … Hector Lopez (1959-66) won two World Series with the Yanks, providing above-average seasons in 1960 and ’61. … Lou Piniella (1974-84) was a fiery fan favorite who hit .295 in pinstripes. … Tom Tresh (1961-69) was the 1962 AL Rookie of the Year, a three-time All-Star and a Gold Glove Award winner. … Gene Woodling (1949-54) received AL MVP votes in three consecutive seasons from 1951-53, leading the AL with a .429 OBP in ‘53.