Pair Up in Threes-Baseball's Greatest Gangs of Three

The questions of how the core four of the New York Yankees compare to other groups of four players who played together for ten or more years, which was discussed here last week, raises the question of what was the greatest threesome of all time to have played together for ten or more years. There are four serious contenders for the best group of three players as well as one group, Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio and Bobby Doerr, who are not eligible because they all missed time due to military service.

Some of the groups that do not make the final cut include: Yankees Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey and Lefty Gomez who played together from 1930-1939, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada who have played together since 1997, Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton and Gary Maddox who were Phillie teammates from 1975-1984, Hal McRae, George Brett and Amos Otis who were together on the Royals from 1974-1983, Robin Yount, Paul Molitor and Cecil Cooper who were together from 1978-1987, Honus Wagner, Tommy Leach and Fred Clarke from 1900-1911 and Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider and Gil Hodges who played together from 1947-1956.

These were all great combinations of three players, with an interesting concentration of players from the 1970s-1980s, but none of them were quite as good as the remaining four threesomes. They are Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Juan Marichal (1962-1971) Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Earle Combs (1925-1934), Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford, (1953-1963), and Hank Aaron, Eddie Matthews and Warren Spahn (1954-1964). Some of these groups are not as strong as they might seem because they do not include the prime of some of their players. For example, both Yogi Berra and Warren Spahn had their best years before being joined by these illustrious teammates.

The three mid-century groups are easily comparable. Each consists of one all-time great hitter, one ace pitcher and one other great hitter. The years in question, capture most of the prime years of Hank Aaron .320/.376/..567 in 7,216 plate appearances, Willie Mays .293/.380/.545 in 5,988 plate appearances and Mickey Mantle .312/.438/.596 in 6,402 plate appearances. Mantle was less durable and less valuable in the field and on the bases than Mays and probably Aaron as well, but the difference in offensive production, including an OPS+ that was .025 higher during the years in question, is too great to ignore giving Mantle a significant edge here, with Mays and Aaron being about even as Mays’ defense and base running is balanced out by Aaron’s greater durability.

Warren Spahn was a better pitcher than either Juan Marichal or Whitey Ford, but during the years in question, he was not the most valuable of the three. Whitey Ford pitched 2,452.1 innings with an ERA+ of 131 striking out 1,499 and walking 894. Spahn pitched more innings, 2896.1, but his ERA+ of 113 was significantly below that of the Yankee lefty. Marichal’s numbers during this period were very comparable to Ford’s as he pitched 2,805 innings with an ERA+ of 132. Marichal struck out 1,940 walking only 531 as well so gets a slight edge over Ford primarily because he pitched more innings.

It would seem at first glance that the Yankee trio would get the edge on the remaining spot as Yogi Berra was better than either McCovey or Matthews, however, Berra’s best years were over by the late 1950s. Berra’s 124 OPS+ would be more impressive if he had been a full time catcher for all of this time, but he averaged only 113 games a year behind the plate during these years. While, Berra may have brought more value than Matthews who posted an OPS+ of 153 in 6,526 plate appearances during this period. McCovey’s 164 OPS+ during the ten years with the Giants made him the most valuable of the three.

Overall, the trio of Yankees and trio of Giants are very close. Mantle’s edge over Mays is not balanced out by Marichal’s advantage over Ford, but the McCovey Berra comparison makes changes the equation. It is something of a judgment call, but McCovey’s offense, which was better than Mays for the ten years they were together with Marichal, gives the Giants two extremely strong hitters and a dominant pitcher. Had Berra been a full time catcher for all ten years, the Yankee threesome would have been better, but he was not, so the overall advantage, although not by much to the Giants threesome.

Ruth, Gehrig and Combs, like the Giants from the 1960s are all Hall of Famers, but Combs is one of the weakest players in Cooperstown. This comparison can be summed up by the question of whether or not the gap between a dominant pitcher in his prime and a very good leadoff hitter is enough to outweigh the difference between Ruth and Gehrig and Mays and McCovey. The comparsion is further complicated because the Giants played in a pitching dominated era, while the Yankees played at a time much more conducive to hitting.

Looking at neutralized stats, makes the gap between Ruth, .324/.453/.649 and Gehrig .329/.428/.615 and McCovey .300/.409/.588 and Mays .307/.397/.570 seem less extreme, but the difference is still clear and reinforced by the combined OPS+ of Ruth and Gehrig of .383 and .321 for Mays and McCovey during these years. Mays’s superior defense and base running helps the Giants twosome, but not enough.

Combs is the weakest of these six ballplayers, weaker than almost all the players on the lists above, and probably undeserving of his plaque in Cooperstown, but between 1925-1934 he was not a reasonably valuable player. His .399 OBP, neutralized to .384 with an OPS+ of 127, while playing pretty good centerfield made him a key player on Yankee teams that won four pennants and two World Series during this period. Marichal was clearly a better player for the ten years in question, but for the Yankee threesome to be more valuable, Combs doesn’t have to be better than Marichal, just close enough. He seems to meet that threshold meaning that the greatest decade long threesome was Ruth, Gehrig and Combs, but a good argument could be made for the 1962-1971 Giants as well.