The Core Four in Historical Context

When the Yankees won the World Series last year, the term “core four” was introduced referring to four players who have been part of all five of the last Yankee championships. This is a little inaccurate because Jorge Posada, one of the group, only appeared in eight games in 1996 and did not play that post-season at all. Nonetheless, the accomplishments of Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera, as well as the time they have spent playing together, are very impressive. 2009 was the tenth year these four players have been together on the Yankees for most or all of the season, but these years were not consecutive because of Andy Pettitte’s brief sojourn with the Astros.

It is very unusual for four players to play together for this long, but it is not unprecedented. There are two other groups of four players who played together for ten years who are comparable to the core four. In addition, two other groups of Yankees played together for nine years, but not ten. From 1930-1938, Bill Dickey, Lou Gehrig, Lefty Gomez and Red Ruffing were teammates winning five pennants and five World Series. From 1954-1962 Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle and Moose Skowron another group of four teammates won seven pennants and four World Series The core four played together from 1997-2003 and 2007-2009 winning six pennants and four World Series.

Two National League teams, however, have had a core group of four players together for ten years. Henry Aaron, Del Crandall, Eddie Matthews and Warren Spahn played together for the Milwaukee Braves, from 1954-1963. Juan Marichal, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Gaylord Perry played together on the San Francisco Giants from 1962-1971.

The Giants were the better of these two National League groups, but not by much. Given that Mays’ years in question were more in the pitching dominated 1960s, his hitting numbers .293/.380/.545 OPS+ 157 were almost identical to Aaron’s .320/.375/.572 OPS+157. Mays, however, stole more bases, got caught stealing fewer times and was a better defender, making him the better ballplayer for his ten year period.

Similarly, Eddie Matthews had an extraordinary ten year run hitting .281/.391/.534 for an OPS+ of 153 in 6,526 plate appearances. McCovey had less playing time, only coming to bat 5,359 times but stayed within 24 homeruns of Matthews, 350-324, while hitting .283/.391/.557 for an OPS+ of 164. The differences between the two star Giants and their two slugging Brave counterparts are quite small, almost close enough to call even.

Gaylord Perry and Juan Marichal tip the balance to the Giants. Warren Spahn was one of the greatest pitchers ever, but most of his best years were over by 1954. He was still a great pitcher, during this period, but not quite as dominating has he had been from 1947-1953. Nonetheless, over the ten years in question he pitched 2722.2 innings with an ERA+ of 119. 1962-1971, however, captured most of Marichal’s prime. During this period he posted even better numbers pitching 2,805 innings with an ERA+ of 132. Marichal struck out 1,940 walking only 531 while Spahn struck out 1,267 and walked 669 during this period.

Comparing Del Crandall, perhaps the best NL catcher between Roy Campanella and Johnny Bench with the early years of Gaylord Perry is difficult. Perry pitched 2,294 innings during this ten year period with an ERA+ of 119 while Crandall provided strong defense and league average hitting, a very valuable combination in a catcher. A slight advantage might be given to the Braves here, but not enough to make up for the gap between Marichal and Spahn and the small superiority of Mays and McCovey over Matthews and Aaron.

The core four of the Yankees is quite different than the Giants foursome. No Yankee was as good as Willie Mays, but all four were better than Gaylord Perry over the ten year period in question. Moreover, after Derek Jeter, who has been the best of these four players, it is hard to rank the other three players. While Pettitte, for example, can be easily compared to Spahn, none of the four Braves or Giants can be compared to Mariano Rivera who spent these years being dominant at a position that did not really exist in the 1950s and 1960s.

Perhaps the best way to compare these two groups of players is to begin by comparing Derek Jeter and Willie Mays. Both were top notch offensive players at key defensive positions. However, Mays was a far better defender and had an OPS+ more than 30 points better than Jeter’s during the years in question, so Mays gets a big edge there. Andy Pettitte and Juan Marichal can be compared as well since both were ace starters. Pettite, by the standards of his time has been a real workhorse, pitching 2010.2 innings over the ten year period. Given the context, this is almost as impressive as the 2,805 innings Marichal pitched over the ten year period. However, Marichal was clearly the superior pitcher during these years, posting on ERA+ of 132 to Pettitte’s 112.

Mariano Rivera is hard to place in this comparison. As a dominant closer for all ten of these seasons, Rivera was better than Perry who was a very good but not dominant starter for these years. Neither Rivera or Posada were better than McCovey who was one of baseball’s best slugger between 1962-1971 a period in which only one player had a higher slugging percentage and only two had a higher OPS+. A very generous analysis might conclude that Posada and Rivera were better than McCovey and Perry, but even this feels like a stretch. The margin, however, would not make up for the advantage Mays and Marichal have over Jeter and Pettitte.

Marichal, Mays, McCovey and Perry, although probably the greatest foursome to ever play together for ten or more years, did not enjoy anything approaching the success of the Yankee core four. The four Giants only made the post-season twice, losing the World Series in 1962 and the NLCS in 1971, while the core four was in the post-season nine out of the ten years they were together and won four World Series. This is due somewhat to the structure of the post-season at the time, but the Yankees still won 78 more regular season games than the Giants over the years in question.