Just how good was Bernie Williams in pinstripes? That’s not necessarily a question that should force Yankees fans to think more than a few seconds. Bernie was great. He was a switch hitter that could hit for average, decent power, and played a premium, up the middle position. He was also on the dynasty team of the late ‘90s. That’s all you really need to know in order to come to the conclusion that Bernie Williams had a great career in pinstripes.
However, to a lot of casual fans (and even some hardcore fans) he isn’t mentioned in the same breath as the “Core Four” consisting of Jeter, Rivera, Pettitte, and Posada. Once you see the players he matches up with from a couple of decades ago, you might just reconsider his place standing amongst other Yankee legends.
The first cog in the machine arrives
When Bernie Williams was initially discovered as a 17-year-old in Puerto Rico, the Yankees moved quickly to sign him. In 1986, he started his American baseball career playing in the Gulf Coast league with the Yankees rookie affiliate. The first of the core of players that would bring a dynasty back to New York had officially started his journey.
When asked about what the report on Bernie given to him, then director of scouting Doug Melvin said “Bernie is going to grow and remind you of Dave Winfield.” It was no secret the Yankees thought highly of Williams. He was a good defender that would more than likely improve with experience. He was also so young that he would grow into his body and had the potential to be a major producer at the plate.
Come 1991, when Bernie got his first taste of the show, he proceeded to hit .256/.344/.375 in 147 games spread across the 1991 and 1992 seasons. He also was worth 2.4 WAR in what amounts to a full rookie campaign. It was a good start, for sure, but there was more to come. Bernie would establish himself as the everyday centerfielder in 1994 and would put up his best season to that point. He finished the year hitting .289/.384/.453 while playing solid but not great defense. He had a solid approach at the plate but his power numbers were not at a level that could justify his spot in the middle of the lineup under then manager Buck Showalter.
The defense wasn’t what many expected but that was mostly due to Bernie’s unspectacular arm. He was quite adept at tracking down fly balls. Coincidently, I’m sure, William’s performance from 1993 to 1995 caused a lot of stress for George Steinbrenner (rest in peace) if only because he was such a highly touted prospect. There were rumblings of trade scenarios everywhere. If it wasn’t for Buck Showalter, Bernie could have been traded and the Yankees would have missed the greatness that was to come.
A run of greatness
From 1996 to 2002, Bernie Williams would become the middle of the order hitter that Doug Melvin spoke of when he compared him to Dave Winfield. Check out these statistics:
Bernie was a superstar for those seven seasons. He averaged 27 homeruns, 113 RBIs, and 5.5 WAR during that time and was a lynchpin in the Yankees lineup during the last real dynasty in baseball. How did he compare to other centerfielders during that time? Take a look at the top five centerfielders in terms of WAR during that period:
Ken Griffey Jr.
The only player ahead of Williams during that time is Ken Griffey Jr. The other three players in the top five are all defensive standouts that were no slouches with the stick. They also combined for 15 All-Star appearances, 22 Gold Glove awards, a couple of Silver Slugger awards, and five stolen base titles. How many people would have even entertained the idea of comparing Junior and Bernie? That’s a near unanimous (437 of 440 possible votes in 2016) Hall of Famer slightly edging out a player that just last year fell off the ballot entirely after failing to garner the five percent required to remain.
Now the entirety of each of their respective careers looks much different. Griffey added another 30 WAR (along with 294 homeruns) before retiring in 2010 while Williams finished with just 0.9 more WAR before retiring in 2006. For a stretch though, Bernie and Junior were neck and neck. Can we please include him in the conversation with Rivera, Jeter, Pettite, and Posada now?
It’s hard to compare pitchers with hitters so we can keep the comparison to Jeter and Posada. Bernie played in 671 less games than Jeter in just about every offensive category except runs and stolen bases. He played in 248 more games that Posada but their standard stat lines and overall totals basically lineup. How come we enshrine Jeter and Posada as part of the “Core Four” but don’t give the same respect to Bernie Williams? Hell, Posada didn’t even become the full-time catcher for the Yankees until their last championship season during their historic run from 1996 to 2000 (don’t throw heat at me for mentioning this fact about Posada. Jorgie was one my favorite players during the mid-2000s).
The “Core Four” legend should be officially retired and replaced by the “Fab Five”. I know it doesn’t sound very “Yankee-ish”, to coin a phrase, but it has to happen. Bernie Williams played on the same Yankees teams that won four of the five championships that the “Core Four” was named for in the first place. Do all those runs, stolen bases, and hits matter unless there is someone behind him in the three or four spot being a consistent run producer? Who was that hitter from 1996 to 2002? It was Bernie.
I think the Yankee Universe is ready to officially welcome Bernie Williams into the newly christened “Fab Five”.