Was Graig Nettles the best Yankee of the 1970s?

When Yankee fans think of the 1970s — the decade of Ten Cent Beer Night, Disco Demolition Night and multi-purpose stadiums layered with Astroturf — they usually think of Yankee greats Thurman Munson and Reggie Jackson. Affectionately called Thurm, Munson was a seven-time All-Star who had a slash line of .292/.347/.411 with the Bronx Bombers during the seventies. In addition, he captured the 1970 American League Rookie of the Year, the 1976 AL MVP and three Gold Glove awards before tragically passing away in an airplane crash in 1979. Similar to Munson, Jackson also experienced plenty of success—he had a candy bar named after him for crying out loud. Though Jackson spent only three seasons in the Bronx during the 1970s, he certainly made them count, as Mr. October became a Yankee legend when he hit three home runs in the clinching Game 6 of the 1977 World Series while averaging an elite slash line of .285/.371/.524 in the regular season. Both players now have their respective numbers of 15 and 44 retired in Monument Park, and deservingly so. However, third baseman Graig Nettles has fallen under the radar, as he has a more than convincing case to join Munson and Jackson in the debate over the best Yankee of the 1970s.

Nettles, acquired from Cleveland in 1972, had a criminally underrated stretch across the 1970s. According to Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP), Nettles finished first out of all position players in the American League (53.8) and third in the major leagues behind only Hall of Famers Joe Morgan (63.0) and Johnny Bench (54.0). Accounting only for his years in the Bronx in the ’70s, Nettles averaged a WARP of 5.0 per season across a seven-year span, besting the marks of Munson (4.3) and Jackson (4.2). It is tough to debate the all-around capability of Nettles on the diamond, but his power, plate discipline and defense particularly showcase his true worth with the Yankees.



A typical third baseman usually comes with decent pop, and Nettles is no different. He averaged 26 home runs a season from 1973-79, easily outpacing Munson’s average of 11 homers across the decade and approaching Jackson’s average of 29 from 1977-79. Coincidentally, during Jackson’s first year in pinstripes in 1977, Nettles had his best offensive season with the Yankees. That year, he finished tied for second in the AL with 37 home runs, eclipsing Jackson’s mark of 32. And, even though RBIs are a stat based on the production of the men in front of the batter, Nettles drove in the third most in the entire American League during the 1970s (831). The only men who were able to drive in more runs than Nettles are — surprise, surprise — two members of Cooperstown in Carl Yastrzemski (846) and Jackson (922). And if all these stats are still not enough, just look below at the moonshot he hit against the Royals in the 1978 ALCS (via MLB).


Plate Discipline

While it is fair to point out that having a penchant for base on balls is much more valued in today’s game compared to the 1970s, Nettles certainly was still well above average in that regard when he played. He walked in 9.7 percent of his plate appearances from 1973-79, peaking at 12.2 percent in his first season in New York. In addition, he never had a reputation of striking out a lot, as noted by his solid strikeout rate of 11.9 percent in the same period. To put his plate discipline in perspective, Carlton Fisk, arguably one of the greatest offensive catchers of all time, posted a remarkably similar walk rate of 9.2 percent and a strike out rate of 13.2 percent. To be mentioned in the same breath of a player of Fisk’s caliber is a true credit to Nettles and yet, it highlights the lack of attention he receives for the type of stretch he had in his prime.

Nettles was never known for maintaining a high batting average, only peaking at .276 in the 1978 season. In addition, Nettles batted sixth or lower in over two-thirds of his plate appearances from 1973 to 1979, a less than ideal spot to be a big provider of runs scored. However, despite these issues, Nettles finished sixth in the AL in runs scored. The main reason he was able to score such a large amount of runs was because of how effective he was at reaching base.


Man oh man, can this guy defend or what? Nettles was a tremendous defender for the Yankees, often dazzling the crowd with spectacular catches and diving plays. While he only won two Gold Gloves during his career, mainly due to the presence of 18-time Gold Glove winner Brooks Robinson, playing second-fiddle to the “Human Vacuum Cleaner” should not be deemed an insult. Nettles managed to excel in defensive metrics throughout the 1970s, as he posted a stellar Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) of 95.3 from his tenure with the Yankees in the 1970s. For perspective, according to Baseball Prospectus’ glossary, having an “excellent” FRAA rating is Jacoby Ellsbury’s 2011 season (11.6). Nettles topped out at a FRAA of 24.4 in 1974 and averaged 13.6 FRAA over those seven years with the Yankees. With that in mind, Nettles was literally more than twice as good defensively than Ellsbury for the first three of four seasons of his Yankee career. In fact, Nettles actually outperformed Robinson in FFRA during their respective primes (age 25 season through age 31 season), as Nettles (166.9) easily bested Robinson (98.2). Even when factoring in other defensive metrics, such as Fangraph’s Defensive Wins Above Replacement (Def) or Baseball Reference’s version of Defensive Wins Above Replacement (dWAR), these statistics still give the edge to Nettles (157.2 Def and 17.8 dWar respectively) over Robinson (151.2 Def and 16.2 dWAR) during their primes. Obviously, no one is doubting the defense of Brooks Robinson, but perhaps Nettles should have deserved more credit for his defense especially since Robinson was on the back end of his career by the mid-1970s.

Most importantly, Nettles’ defense showed up in the clutch, as he made a plethora of plays, one of them showed below (via MLB), as he helped the Yankees get back in the 1978 World Series after dropping the first two games. Without the contribution of Nettles, perhaps the Yankees would have one less championship ring in their illustrious history.

To say the least, Nettles was a spectacular ballplayer during his time in New York. While he doesn’t have a plaque or his number retired in Monument Park, his underlying statistics and his two World Series championship rings show the impressive years he has provided for the Yankees and perhaps has deserved more respect in retrospect from Yankee fans.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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