Class Is In

With the acquisition of Johnny Damon, Bernie Williams‘ tenure as the Yankees center fielder is officially over. He’s probably done as a full-time player, and I really don’t feel like waiting until he retires to discuss this matter. Is Bernie Williams a viable Hall of Fame candidate?

I freely plead guilty to bias. Although I am not a Yankees fan, I am a huge fan of both the player and the man (I was privileged to spend a bit of time with him on a couple of occasions, and he came across as an extremely classy individual. I‘ve yet to hear a bad word about him).

Before we get into some statistical perspective, I’d like to hearken back to a comment made on Baseball Think Factory by a poster named Harveys Wallbangers, who was commenting on my earlier column on Albert Belle. He disagreed with my assessment of Belle’s candidacy, and his reasoning was:

“”If you are a BORDERLINE case for the Hall of Fame. As in MAYBE YES or MAYBE NOT.

Then EVERYTHING MATTERS.

Do you have to be Hall of Fame caliber in ALL areas?

NO.

But it’s a factor in the overall equation.

Here is MY Hall of Fame “equation”.

Offense +- Defense +- Baserunning +- Team performance +- Perceived demeanor/attitude +- individual accomplishments (MVPS, Gold Gloves, All-Star appearances, Silver Sluggers, Leading League in Something…

Do the “math”.”

Well he feels that Belle is a borderline candidate. Of interest is this …

Player               RCAA
Belle                 386
Williams              344

I was surprised it was this close.

However that’s the conundrum we’ve discussed before. A player who does one or two things spectacularly will often get more ink than a player who does a lot of things very well.

So let’s take a look based on Harvey Wallbangers’ very reasonable assertions (although we disagree on Belle obviously), considering that Williams’ offensive numbers are considered to be “borderline.” It’s not The Keltner List (The Politics of Glory: How Baseball’s Hall of Fame Really Works by Bill James), but what do you expect … he’s a Brewers fan (please direct all hate mail here).

Offense … Williams stacks up very well here. Ken Griffey Jr. is the elite among center fielders offensively; however below Junior are Williams and Jim Edmonds. Since 1980, Williams ranks second in overall offense among AL center fielders.

Defense … weak throwing arm, but was a Gold Glove caliber defender otherwise.

Baserunning … decent baserunner but wasn’t a terrific base stealer. Not too much synaptic flatulence on the base paths (that I remember).

Team performance … team has reached the postseason for 11 straight seasons, won six pennants and four World Series.

Perceived demeanor/attitude … excellent.

Individual accomplishments (“MVPS, Gold Gloves, All-Star appearances, Silver Sluggers, Leading League in Something”) … never did particularly well in MVP voting (only two top 10 finishes) but won four Gold Gloves, a Silver Slugger (remember, his best years were played with Griffey in the league), was only named to four All Star teams. He won a batting title and once led the league in intentional walks.

Against Williams is that he performs poorly in both black and gray ink tests; however he scores well on both the Hall of Fame Standards and Hall of Fame Monitor tests available at Baseball Reference (he would be a tad below an “average” Hall of Famer).

Williams however had extremely strong overall skills while never being jaw-droppingly outstanding in one or two categories (like Dave Kingman in home runs or Vince Coleman in stolen bases). Other than his throwing arm, he didn’t have a hole in his game.

He was the second-best center fielder in the AL since 1980, but how does he stack up historically? We know the other aspects of his game were solid, but how does he measure up against the great center fielders in history? Offensively, he’s 11th in RCAA among 20-21st century center fielders and eighth in the Junior Circuit. He’s third among Yankees behind Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio, and ahead of Earle Combs.

He’d be at the lower end of the Hall of Fame spectrum among center fielders, statistically.

However he has an edge on (not that it makes him a better player but does help his candidacy) some guys ahead of him on the offensive list. He’s been on four World Series champions. Not just on the team (such as the case of a Charlie Silvera or Luis Sojo) but a key member, a pivotal contributor to those clubs. He’s been on more World Championship clubs than Hall of Famers (present and future) Ty Cobb, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr., Duke Snider, Earl Averill, Hack Wilson and Larry Doby combined.

It may not count for a lot, but it does count for something.

He’s also performed very well in October. His .856 OPS is right around his career mark (.864). When you factor in the fact that there’s a lot of wear and tear on the body come October, players are playing against the best teams in both leagues, and facing their best pitchers in the season’s biggest pressure cooker, still maintaining your normal game is a pretty good definition of clutch.

Although it’s partly a function of era (three rounds of playoffs), Williams holds the postseason records for home runs (22), runs scored (82) and RBIs (80) … that also counts in his favor.

I think what pushes Williams into the Heroes Gallery is this: The Yankees of 1995-2005 will go down as a dynasty team. The one constant on that team, the one player who was a full-timer since the beginning of the dynasty is one Bernabe Williams Figueroa. During those years he played a key defensive position and provided superb glovework for the majority of it, while providing a level of offense for the position that was arguably of Hall of Fame caliber. In this current era of the American League, he is second only to an All-Century player in center field.

And he did it with class.

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