Was the 2009 Yankees Infield the Best Infield of All-Time?

The other day I was thinking about the 2009 Yankees (because that’s what you do as a Yankee fan when you can’t really remember the late 90s) and found myself marveling for the umpteenth time at how incredible their infield was: Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez all had good years at once. That’s two future Hall of Fame middle infielders, one guy who would be in Hall if not for… ya know, and another who’s only a step below that level.

The star power in that 2009 Yankees group leads to an important question: Could that be the best infield of all time? ESPN’s Buster Olney thinks it’s up there—in 2013, he ranked that Yankees group the second-greatest infield ever, behind only the 1976 Reds. The New York Daily News explored the question back in September 2009, quoting Jim Palmer as saying the Tex-Cano-Jeter-Rodriguez quartet belonged in the conversation for best infield in history.

So I decided to compare the total WARP of the four 2009 Yankees infielders with that of other notable infields. Alas, the Big Red Machine core of Perez, Morgan, Concepcion, and Rose topped the ’09 Yanks in both 1975 and 1976. The Philadelphia Athletics’ “$100,000 infield” had the Bombers beat in 1910, 1912, 1913 and 1914.* So did the Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance Cubs in 1906.* And the 1999 Mets. But the ’09 Yankees did have the best infield since… actually they didn’t even have the best infield in their division that season, bested by the Rays. But they did form the top Yankees infield since… no actually the ’07 team, despite playing Doug Mientkiewicz at first base, edged the ’09 squad thanks to a huge year from A-Rod.

*Using Baseball-Reference WAR because WARP doesn’t go back that far

Now I found myself confronting defeat. It was clear the 2009 Yankees were not quite as special as I had remembered. Here’s a partial list of infields I tabulated before giving up.

Total Infield WARP Total Infield bWAR
2009 Yankees 15.2 20.4
1975 Reds 20.1 22
1976 Reds 23.3 23.5
1910 Athletics n/a 22.1
1912 Athletics n/a 27.9
1913 Athletics n/a 26.9
1914 Athletics n/a 24.5
1906 Cubs n/a 22.2
1999 Mets 16.4 21.1
2009 Rays 19.7 24.9
2007 Yankees 16.4 21.4

So I tried moving the goalposts. Since none of the ’09 Yankee infielders graded out particularly well on defense that year, I looked at offense-only metrics. Suddenly they scoot past the ’75 Reds, a couple of the A’s teams and the defensive-focused ’99 Mets. But even in the offense-only category, it’s hard to argue with stats that the ’09 Yanks are in the conversation for best infield of all-time. They’re still behind by the ’76 Reds, several “$100,000 infield” squads, and even those ’07 Yankees.

But even though value stats don’t quite back up my belief that the Yankees infield in 2009 was the greatest of all-time or even the best-hitting of all time, it might not be wrong to say that year (and the following three as well) the Yankees had the best infielders of any team ever.

Because check out what happens when we add together the total career WARP and bWAR of notable groups of starting infielders:

Total Career WARP Total Career bWAR
2009-12 Yankees 253.7 299
1975-76 Reds 264.6 273.1
1996-98 Orioles 228.8 268.4
1911-14 Athletics n/a 246.9
1999-2001 Indians 184.7 219.3
1906-10 Cubs n/a 177.3

Looking at career value, that Yankees group trails the Big Red Machine in WARP, whose formula is extremely harsh on Jeter and Teixeira. But three of the four Yanks are still playing, and Cano alone could make up the remaining 11 wins over the rest of his career. Per WARP, the 2009-12 Yankees will have the most prolific infield ever by 2017.

And according to bWAR, the contest is already over. The title-winning Yankees quartet tops the mid-70s Reds (Perez, Morgan, Concepcion, Rose) early-10s A’s (McInnis, Collins, Barry, Baker), late-00s Cubs (Chance, Tinker, Evers, Steinfeldt), late-90s Orioles (Palmeiro, Alomar, Ripken, Sufhoff/Bordick), and turn-of-the-century Indians (Thome, Alomar, Vizquel, Fryman).

I’ve racked my brain for other contenders but can’t come up with any. The ’94-95 Indians would have been up there if Eddie Murray had played first as much as he DHed. The Whitaker/Trammell Tigers teams had solid corner infielders but never incredible ones. The Jackie Robinson Dodgers were missing a third baseman. Some strong duos (Bagwell and Biggio, Ripken and Murray, Greenberg and Gehringer) never fit into strong quartets.

I did find one infield, however, that beats the 2009-12 Yankees in total career value: the 2008 Yankees. That team also had Cano, Jeter and Rodriguez, but manning first base was Jason Giambi, who out-WARPs Teixeira 51.5-38.5. So according to WARP, the most talented infield in baseball history was not the group that led the Yankees to a World Series title while inspiring breathless comparisons to the Big Red Machine, but rather the squad that produced the franchise’s first non-playoff season in more than a decade.

So can we proclaim the 2008 Yankees, in a shocking upset, the best infield of all-time? Nope. Career value doesn’t totally override who the players were at that moment, and in 2008 Giambi was past-prime, Cano had the worst year of his career, and Jeter and Rodriguez were sub-standard as well.

What we can claim, after all the manipulation of stats and changing of definitions, is what I already knew going in: The 2009 Yankees infield was pretty special, whether it was the best of all-time or not.

Lead photo courtesy of Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

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