NEW YORK, NY - MAY 15: Brett Gardner #11 of the New York Yankees makes a catch hits a by Jacoby Ellsbury #2 of the Boston Red Sox during their game on May 15, 2011 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
With Brett Gardner recently suffering a setback and remaining on the disabled list, the New York Yankees are missing one of (if not the) best fielding outfielders (and surely better than the experiment of Eduardo Nunez or DeWayne Wise or senior citizens Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones). He was the top-fielding outfielder in the majors last season, but where does that performance rank in New York history? And we saw how important defense can be in last night's New York Mets loss when a botched fly ball to left-center cost them the game. For over a century, baseball statisticians, writers, experts and analysts have been trying to find a way to competently quantify and qualify fielding. Judging players by who makes the fewest errors (which are arbitrarily and subjectively attained) doesn't quite cut it anymore. At any rate, for this list we'll use defensive Wins Above Replacement (or WAR; taken from Baseball Reference.com). Here are the Top 5 best defensive seasons combining the Yankees and Mets.
5. Clete Boyer, 2.7, 1962: One of the many Yankees acquired from the Kansas City A's in the 1950s, Boyer led the AL in defensive WAR that season (though he made 22 errors, and had a .964 fielding percentage). A contemporary of Brooks Robinson, Boyer didn't win his first (and only) Gold Glove until he switched leagues and was in his third year with the Atlanta Braves, in 1969. The Yankees were an offensive juggernaut in Boyer's prime years with New York, but he anchored the infield defense.
4. Graig Nettles, 2.8, 1976: The Yankee third baseman's fielding became the stuff of legend in the 1978 World Series, but his best regular season was in '76. Nettles led the league in defensive WAR, made 19 errors and had a .965 fielding percentage. He didn't win the Gold Glove that season (and no, Brooks Robinson didn't either -- Aurelio Rodriguez of the Detroit Tigers did), but he won it the following two years.
3. Clete Boyer, 3.0, 1961: While Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle were staging a home run derby, and the Yanks were running away with the AL pennant and then easily defeating the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series, Boyer was having one of the greatest defensive years the Bombers have ever seen. He led the league in defensive WAR, had a .967 fielding percentage and made 17 errors at third. Boyer wasn't much of a hitter (lifetime .670 OPS and OPS+ of 86), but he's the Yankees' all-time leader in Defensive War (actually tied with Phil Rizzuto, at 11.0).
2. Brett Gardner, 3.2, 2011: The speedy left fielder led the AL in defensive WAR last season, made only five errors and had seven assists. His 294 putouts were second best for left fielders. Ralph Kiner once famously said, "Two thirds of the earth is covered by water, the other third by Garry Maddox." The same could be said of Gardner.
1. Rey Ordonez. 3.5, 1999: He couldn't hit a lick and he was a bit surly, but Ordonez was the best fielding shortstop New York has ever seen (well, maybe Rizzuto's in the conversation). Part of the "Best Defensive Infield Ever" in 1999, with John Olerud, Edgardo Alfonzo and Robin Venura, Ordonez only made four errors that season, for a .994 fielding percentage. He was so good at catching popups behind him that the Mets could have played a few games without a left fielder and let Ordonez grab all the fly balls hit that way. He won the last of his three Gold Gloves in '99.