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:
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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