The 1986 New York Yankees continued a pattern of close-but-not-quite. After the glory years of 1976-81 when they won two World Series and four American League pennants, the Yankees spent the early and middle part of the decade with high expectations, mostly winning teams, but no playoff appearances.
New York was coming off a 1985 season where they won 97 games, but finished second to the Toronto Blue Jays and the result Billy Martin was fired…yet again. Enter Lou Piniella and enter an offseason of activity.
The Yankees traded for veteran knuckleballer Joe Niekro in January and gave up a decent young starter in Jim DeShaies, who helped Houston win the NL West. Niekro made 25 starts in the Bronx and finished with a 4.87 ERA.
New York made nice with their historic rivals in Boston long enough to cut a deal where they swapped designated hitters, Don Baylor going to Fenway and Mike Easler coming to Yankee Stadium. It was a trade that worked out pretty well each way. With Baylor batting right-handed and Easler from the left side of the plate, each were better suited to their new venues. It was a smaller scale of the grand idea where Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams should have swapped places.
In any case, Easler finished with a nice stat line of .362 on-base percentage/.449 slugging, but Baylor also hit well in Boston and it was Baylor who helped the Red Sox win a pennant.
No player summarized the chaotic state of New York better than poor Ron Hassey, a serviceable major league catcher with some pop from the left side of the plate. He was traded to the White Sox in December. The Yanks got him back in February. Even though Hassey was productive, with a .381/.466 stat line, he was traded back to Chicago in July.
New York was willing to put up with poor production from Butch Wynegar at catcher in exchange for acquiring Wayne Tolleson to solve a season-long problem at shortstop and to hope that Ron Kittle, the Rookie of the Year with the White Sox in 1983 could rediscover his form. Kittle did hit twelve home runs in the final two months of the season, but for the most part this was another deal that didn’t work out.
Even with the moves that were either flops or washes, the Yankees could still hit. No one was better than first baseman Don Mattingly, who followed up his MVP season of 1985 with a .394/.573 stat line, 31 home runs and 113 RBI. Leftfielder Dan Pasqua posted numbers of .399/.525, while the great Rickey Henderson patrolled centerfield and was at .358/.469. Henderson, one of the most complete players in the game’s history, also hit 28 home runs, stole 87 bases, scored 130 runs and drove in 74 more.
Dave Winfield was in right and popped 24 home runs while clearing the 100-RBI mark. Veteran second baseman Willie Randolph, a holdover from the glory years, finished with a .393 OBP. Mike Pagliarulo showed pop at third base, with 28 home runs and 71 RBI.
New York finished fourth in the American League in runs scored and given that they were in the top three in every major offensive category (1st in OBP, 1st in slugging, 2nd in batting average, 2nd in walks, 3rd in home runs, 3rd in doubles), it probably should have been higher.
And they needed all the runs they could get, because it was pitching that ultimately held this team back. Dennis Rasmussen had a good year, going 18-6 with a 3.88 ERA. Ron Guidry, now 35-years-old, finished with a 3.98 ERA in 30 starts. Bob Tewksbury, at age 25, had the best ERA in the rotation, at 3.31. But Tewksbury only made twenty starts, none of this pitchers were really aces and the depth wasn’t very good. Niekro was washed up and 23-year-old Doug Drabek wasn’t quite there yet.
Dave Righetti was excellent at the end of the bullpen, with 46 saves (really good in the current era and off-the-charts in 1986) and a 2.45 ERA. But no one else was effective in relief. The Yankees best hope each night was to bash enough runs to get the ball to Righetti.
There were no problems early on. Guidry won on Opening Day, beating the defending World Series champion Kansas City Royals 4-2. The Yankees won five of six games against the champs and started 10-4. By Memorial Day, they were rolling at 28-15. The only problem is that the Red Sox were also rolling, a half-game up. The Yanks and Sox were the second and third-best teams in baseball, behind only the Mets as MLB took a decided turn to the big markets of the Northeast.
The first part of summer wasn’t as kind. New York was swept three straight by Baltimore and Toronto, and most ignominiously by Boston, who steamrolled through the Bronx. The sweep was marked by a 10-1 loss where Guidry was rocked while the Yankees couldn’t touch Boston’s rising young star named Roger Clemens.
After the rough June, New York was able to win eight of thirteen going into the All-Star break. They were 50-39 and still had the third-best record in baseball, but were now staring at a seven-game deficit against Boston.
The latter part of summer saw little change, as the Yankees got to Labor Day at 70-61 and still within striking distance at 6 ½ games out, though Toronto had passed them for second place. In either case, New York would control their destiny in September, playing the Red Sox and Blue Jays thirteen times in the latter part of the month.
If I told you the Yankees would go 11-2 in those key thirteen games, we would assume this was yet another Bronx stretch drive for the books. That’s exactly what happened, but New York played so poorly in the first part of September, that they were 10 ½ games back by the time the schedule stretch began. A four-game sweep in Fenway to conclude the season was completely meaningless.
The final record of 90-72 and the ultimate second-place finish was a disappointment, but the bigger problem was that the September fade was the sign of things to come. 1986 was the last time in the decade the Yankees won 90 games. They continued to decline before bottoming out in 1990 with a 95-loss season.