Nobody Played the Green Monster Like Carl Yastrzemski

There are at least three remarkable things about Carl Yastrzemski’s playing career. The first is that he played forever. Second, he hit for the American League triple crown in 1967. But third, and most importantly, nobody played the Green Monster like Yaz. I asked my father about it, as he became eligible to vote during Yaz’s rookie season, and he put it simply: “He had it all mapped out.” With the Red Sox belatedly deciding that it’s time to erect a statue in honor of Yaz (I mean, come on, Frank Thomas already has his statue at US Cellular Field) I thought we could take a look back at Yaz’s career.

The worry when Manny Ramirez left Boston — other than the Red Sox not being able to hit as well — was that the team might not have a consistent presence in left field any longer. Which they didn’t, because Jason Bay was a paper mache imitation of a baseball player. During Manny’s tenure, it was popular to say that the Red Sox had only had six left fielders since the 40’s — Ted Williams, Yaz, Jim Rice, Mike Greenwell, Troy O’Leary and Manny. That is a bit of an exaggeration — guys like Johnny Lazor, Bob Johnson, Hoot Evers, Tony Conigliaro, Tommy Harper, Billy Hatcher and Wil Cordero all logged their fair share of left-field duty over the years. But the point was well taken. The fact that so few players had manned the wall is because it can be so difficult to play effectively. This has been borne out over the past few years. Since 2009, only two of the 12 Boston left fielders to rack up at least 100 innings in the field could be characterized as plus — Darnell McDonald and Josh Reddick.

Things were quite different during Yaz’s tenure. Outfield assists are often a back-handed compliment, as in order to get an assist, the runner had to be willing to challenge your arm. That is not necessarily the case with outfield double plays, however. And nobody could catch a runner napping like Yaz. During his career, he turned 27 double plays from left field. To put that into context, Barry Bonds turned three fewer twin killings in nearly 6,500 more innings. Yaz’s 27 twin killings are the most by a left fielder in major league history. In fact, he is one of just five players with 20 or more.

There are other measures we can use to evaluate Yaz’s defense. First, he was awarded seven Gold Gloves. Only 13 players have accumulated more outfield Gold Gloves than has Yaz, and six of those guys played the entirety of their careers after Yaz had retired. Watching old highlights of Yaz, it’s clear why he garnered so much attention. Start this video at 3:33 to see a glimpse of that defensive mastery.

The kicker is Yaz’s place in the annals of defense altogether. Filtering by 1901-present, and clicking on the “Fld” column reveals the following top 10:

Name G Fld WAR
Brooks Robinson 2,884 294.0 80.2
Andruw Jones 2,185 278.8 67.8
Mark Belanger 1,905 241.0 34.9
Ozzie Smith 2,561 239.0 67.6
Roberto Clemente 2,433 204.0 80.6
Barry Bonds 2,976 189.6 164.1
Willie Mays 2,992 185.0 149.9
Carl Yastrzemski 3,306 185.0 94.8
Cal Ripken 2,998 181.0 92.5
Joe Tinker 1,804 180.0 55.5

Of course, much of why Yaz places so high overall is that he played just about forever. But if you go to the defense tab and peep the Total Zone rankings, you’ll also find that Yaz ranks 24th overall for his play in left field. His time there more encompasses a normal career track, as he was eventually forced off of left field by Rice. Not that Yaz was a slouch at first. His 49 TZ ranks 220th overall, out of 5,500 players (min. 1,000 innings), which puts him in the top four percent at two positions. The only other player who can claim that is Darin Erstad (center field and left field). If you expand the scope to the top five percent, Scott Fletcher also qualifies (second base, shortstop).

Now, to be sure, the Red Sox are not erecting a statue for Yaz solely because he was great at defense. No one is going to be erecting statues of Brendan Ryan anytime soon. Yaz however was not only excellent in all facets of the game, but as I mentioned earlier, he excelled at them for a long, long time. And I think that is a fitting marker in choosing whether or not to build a permanent, metallic statue in someone’s honor. Yaz donned the uniform of the Olde Towne Team for 23 seasons. His 13,992 plate appearances stand second only to Pete Rose. That’s a long career, and as a bonus it was played exclusively in Boston. That’s not to say that there should be a minimum time played or anything like that — certainly I would be in favor of a Pedro Martinez statue, and he only was a member of the Red Sox for seven seasons — but Yaz’s longevity is one of his enduring characteristics. Simply put, Yaz was always there.

Carl Yastrzemski was a great hitter. He was the only player to hit for the triple crown for 45 years, and is one of just eight players to notch 3,000 hits and 400 homers in his career (though Al Kaline with his 399 homers basically counts as a ninth). He’s also one of just 23 position players to top 90 WAR for his career. And his defense had a lot to do with that. Certainly his offense wasn’t bad, particularly for his era, but taking the wide view, his 130 wRC+ ties him for 158th all-time with the likes of Ryan Howard, Jose Canseco, Josh Hamilton and Mike Epstein. Even filtering for his career (1961-1983), Yaz only comes out tied for 43rd in wRC+. Defense is what separated him from the pack. Following Ted Williams was probably one of the most difficult jobs in baseball history, but thanks to his mastery of the Monster, Yaz filled the Splendid Splinter’s shoes pretty darn well.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for the Boston Globe. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

35 Responses to “Nobody Played the Green Monster Like Carl Yastrzemski”

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  1. Pale Hose Kyle says:

    Regarding the Yaz/Hurt Sox statue issue: It isn’t surprising to me (as a White Sox fan). Frank Thomas was worth twice as many batting runs as the franchise’s next two hitters combined. The field gets a little more crowded for those other Sox, so statue selection becomes harder.

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  2. Cyril Morong says:

    How does Fenway affect his fielding stats? I think I checked one year and he had alot more assists at home than road. Not sure if that is true for his career.

    It seems like he was a great hitter. He led the league in OPS+ 4 times and had 4 other top 10 finishes. How does he do in wRC+ in terms of leading the league? His rank probably fell because he played so long.

    He seemed to hit alot better at home. Here are his AVG-OBP-SLG at home .306-.402-.503. Road they were .264-.357-.422. Now a .357 OBP for his era was quite good and, again, it is “low” because he played so long.

    But he did have a great road OPS in his 3 best years, 67, 68 and 70. His road OPS was over .900 in each of those years.

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    • Brandon T says:

      The Monster might add a few assists, but it tends to kill zone ratings. Fenway RFs tend to have higher zone ratings, because the outfield is so huge out that way. That’s why rangy defenders like JD Drew and Shane Victorino are so highly valued by the BoSox front office.

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  3. Wobatus says:

    He also broke the Long Island high school scoring record in basketball held by Jim Brown. His grandson Mike had a 139 wRC+ this year for the Orioles Aberdeen affiliate in the NY-Penn league.

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  4. Cyril Morong says:

    Where do you get wRC+ numbers for the minors?

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  5. Rickyjohjima says:

    I think they delayed the statue partially because of Carl’s unfortunate decision to lend his name to deceptively advertised women’s birth control.

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  6. semperty says:

    While I’m sure Yaz was an excellent OF (there’s not really any denying that) I’m pretty sure a lot of his double plays are enhanced by the fact that he’s throwing out of a little league style OF.

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    • Wobatus says:

      I imagine the runners are more cautious because of this but maybe on certain plays it is hard to avoid. I wonder if there is a park effect study for this. Rice had 17 LF DPs, Manny had 3, but he had 15 in RF, although that was mostly when he was younger with the Indians.

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  7. Justin says:

    Headline: “Carl Yastrzemski Good At Baseball.”

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  8. Tim says:

    Hawk Harrelson wrote the title for this piece? No one did anything better than Yaz. “No one could eat a cheeseburger like YAZ.” – Hawk Harrelson, probably.

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  9. Bab says:

    I dig these historical pieces. More!

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  10. Sizzle says:

    “No one is going to be erecting statues of Brendan Ryan anytime soon.”

    Had a hearty chuckle at that line.

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  11. Ron says:

    I like what Eddie Stanky said, “Yaz was an all-star from the neck down”.

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  12. Mister says:

    Manny Ramirez was obviously absolutely terrible in the field. BUT he had one amazing skill. He could barehand the ball off the wall and turn around and get rid of it so fast, and had a pretty decent arm. He got a lot of outfield assists this way. I always bring up this one specific skill when people talk about how bad Manny was in the field. Do you think Yaz was better than Manny at this one aspect of playing left in Fenway?

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    • Paul Swydan says:

      Hard to say, because I was too young to watch Yaz play. But I DO know that Manny spent a lot of practicing taking balls off the Monster during BP to get good at that, so it certainly wasn’t him having good instincts for that one aspect of defense or anything like that.

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    • DaveF says:

      How many of Yaz’s LF double plays involved high-fiving a fan mid-play. Because if the answer is less than ‘one’, I’m taking Manny.

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  13. Mr Punch says:

    Yaz was, in fact, a very good hitter. His career is a bit hard to grasp from the numbers – averages are reduced by sheer longevity, counting stats by playing in a era of depressed offense. He’s not thought of as a top slugger, but he was at one point the only active player with three 40-HR seasons.

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    • pft says:

      His HR power was limited to 1967-1970. After that he was an OBP machine who walked a lot. Once he hit 35 he was just a league average hitter who walked more than most. Couple of years he knocked in 100 RBI because he had some guys getting OB ahead of him in what was a pretty potent lineup.

      Yaz was booed a lot during his best years, 1967 excepted. At some point he became an icon and the boos tapered off, sometime after 1975 I think. Nice that he had a statue.

      I don’t think he topped more than 3 million in lifetime earnings.

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      • GreenMountainBoy says:

        Yaz’s power numbers dropped during and after 1971 because of a wrist injury that affected his swing for the rest of his career. He himself said that he never regained his former power because his wrist, even after it “healed”, wasn’t as strong as it had been previously. Remember, he was only 31 years old in 1971. Aside from an injury, there was no reason for him to go from being a 40 HR hitter to a high teens to lower 20s HR hitter overnight. Check out his plate discipline. It remained the same well into his late 30s, whereas if he was on the decline after 1971, it would have eroded as well.

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  14. pft says:

    Offensively Yaz was a great hitter for about 12 years. he likely would never have had such a long career today because older players make so much more and must be more productive or lucky enough to have had a long term contract that forces teams to keep them around.

    Yaz played LF when the wall was covered in tin (changed to smooth hard plastiuc in 1976), making it much tougher than today since the bounces off the wall were less predictable. He had a great arm, but also a quick release and accurate. He also charged GB to LF so as to get momentum to home while he threw.

    His value can not be measured in assists alone. He kept a lot of runners from even trying to get the extra base. he also did a great job deaking the runner, making it look like he was going to catch the ball and then turning at the last minute to get the ball as it bounced off the wall.

    Also, Jason Bay was not a bad LF’er defensively at Fenway after a rough start there. Offensively he was great, and better on the road so it was not just Fenway. His sudden collapse after leaving Boston is a puzzle.

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  15. Jonny Gomes says:

    But did he ever turn an unassisted double play?

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  16. deafdumbandblindkid says:

    i’m a tigers fan from way back. al kaline is a model outfielder, for me.

    yaz was every bit al’s equal.

    and, looking back? who else you got?

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  17. Angry Venezuelan says:

    But Helton and Walker were a product of Coors Field, they’re not Hall of Famers and weren’t among the best players of their generation /Sacarsm off

    Good article. This is one of the reasons I really dislike the way some members of the writers who get to vote to the HOF think: the double standard and lack of will to research a little.

    PS: Yastrzemski is a great player, this is not a rant against him nor it is implying that he didn’t deserve his hall induction.

    Sorry about any spelling errors, English is not my mother tongue. I haven’t even been out of my country ever.

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    • Angry Venezuelan says:

      By the way, I know this article in particular wasn’t about the offensive performances, I simply needed to vent and this place felt appropiate. Like I said earlier, good article.

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    • Wobatus says:

      English is my mother tongue but you could probably give me lessons.

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  18. Cantab says:

    Thank you for an informative article. But…please don’t say “Old Towne Team.” Shaughnessy flashbacks, ugh.

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  19. japem says:

    Also, Tim McCarver has a cameo at the 4:00 mark

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  20. Bryan Cole says:

    What, you’re just going to drop 80-grade names like “Johnny Lazor” and “Hoot Evers” in an article and walk away?!

    Nobody shredded in the Lansdowne Street clubs like Johnny Lazor.

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