Monday, January 02, 2012

Bernie Williams: A Mets Fan's Take on his Hall of Fame Candidacy

Growing up in New York City in the 90's, it was not easy being a Mets fan.  To be clear, it's *never* easy being a Mets fan, but the 90's -- particularly the late 90's -- was an a particularly trying time for a baseball-obsessed teenager to like the Mets.  As a high school student at the time, I knew that each September would deliver me the distinct pleasure of returning to school with the Yankees setting their playoff rotation and the Mets limping flaccidly to the finish line.

To make matters worse, my high school was located in downtown Manhattan, a stone's throw from the Canyon of Heroes.  As a result, my classmates and I were fortunate enough to have a front row seat to not one, not two, but THREE Yankee World Series Championship Parades (they failed to win the World Series -- losers! -- in 1997). 

Aside from 1999 and 2000, Mets fans didn't have much to root for late in the year and would be subject to torture by our much more fortunate classmates.  (Not that September was always entirely uninteresting to a good fan back in the day... Did you know Lance Johnson had 21 triples in 1996?)  Years of this behavior instilled a definite, permanent hatred in my heart for all things Yankees -- so much so, in fact, that even though I spent a week convincing myself that I'd root for the Yankees to beat the Phillies in the 2010 World Series, it took only one pitch before I hated the Pinstripes again.  It was reflexive. 

In the midst of all this Yankee dominance, there was one character who seemed to defy everything that I knew about the Yankees and against whom I felt no enmity:  Bernie Williams.

As anyone reading this already knows, for the better part of a decade -- and especially in the late 90's -- Bernie Williams was an awesome, All-Star, Gold Glove-winning centerfielder for the Yankees.  Bernie was going to play good-enough defense, play 140 or more games, and hit .330.  He batted cleanup on a stacked, multiple World Series winning team.  But ... I didn't hate him.  And as I see Bernie's name for the first time on the Hall of Fame Ballot, I gave it more pause than I originally thought that I would.  Is Bernie Williams a Hall of Famer?

I'll save you guys some reading:  a quick look at his raw career statistics implies that he is not.  With only 287 home runs and 2,336 hits, he didn't play long enough at a high enough level to accumulate the impressive statistics that the Hall of Fame voters require for entry to the Hall.  He only once led the league in a significant statistical category -- batting average, in 1998.  He never won the MVP, or placed higher than 7th.  None of his Baseball-Reference top ten most comparable players are members of the Hall themselves (though a few are still active). 

So why can't I shake this Bernie Williams thing?  Why do I feel like Bernie Williams has at least an *argument* for the Hall .. and why do I feel this way as a Mets fan?!

Phenomenal Peak Hitter

In the prime of his career, few put up as impressive batting lines as Bernabe Williams.  From 1995 to 2002 -- a span of eight incredible years -- Bernie Williams batted .321/.406/.531.  His OPS of 937 was good for an OPS+ of 142.  He walked almost nearly as much as he struck out.

Not sure how good an OPS+ of 142 is?  For that stretch of time, he was basically Ryan Braun (career 145 OPS+) or Prince Fielder (144 OPS+).  Think MVP-winner Josh Hamilton is a good player?  Well, Hamilton has a career OPS+ of 134, weighted strongly toward slugging percentage rather than on-base percentage, and can't stay particularly healthy.  For the better part of a DECADE, Bernie Williams was as good, or better than all of them.


Although he was never regarded as a brilliant defensive centerfielder (four Gold Gloves notwithstanding), Bernie did all that he did and he did it at one of the most important and challenging positions on the diamond.  Oh, and he did win those four Gold Gloves.

According to Fangraphs, Bernie was not bad defensively in the majority of his career.  Although he declined precipitously beginning in 2003, at the age of only 34, Total Zone has Bernie as only 59 runs below average as a center fielder over the first twelve years of his career. 

Championship Winner
Even more, as much as people want to talk about Derek Jeter or the Yankees "Core Four" of Jeter, Pettitte, Posada, and Rivera, nobody's career coincided with Yankee Championships better than that of Bernie Williams.  Bernie donned pinstripes from 1993 to 2006 as a full-time player, but was truly a full time, healthy force from 1995 to 2002.  In that time period, the Yankees, as we all know, won the World Series four times -- or 50% of the seasons that Bernie played at his peak.

His name litters the all time postseason leaderboards.  He's second all time in postseason runs, hits, doubles, and home runs.  In most of these categories, he is second to Derek Jeter -- a player who has over 150 more postseason plate appearances than Bernie does.  He's third all time in walks, but only by one, and he's somehow miraculously still FIRST all time in postseason RBI.

I don't mean to say that any of the above "winner" stuff should factor too seriously into Hall of Fame voting.  However, Hall of Fame voters, as currently constituted, DO factor things like that into the equation.  So why the lack of buzz about Bernie?

Putting all of the above into context, it is really hard to understand by Bernie Williams has not been getting more attention when it comes to the Hall of Fame.  

His mainstream credentials above are strong.  His sabermetric credentials are even stronger.  Starting with 1995, Bernie posted a WAR of 4.9 or higher every year except one (when he posted a 4.2 WAR) and peaked at a value of 6.7 WAR.  Bernie made only five all-star teams, but by all accounts, should probably have been on seven or eight. 

He compares incredibly favorably to other center fielders.  As a current example, my love for Carlos Beltran is well pronounced, but even the most successful stretch in his career pales in comparison to Bernie.  From 2003 to 2009, the prime of Beltran's career, when Beltran averaged 27 home runs and 25 steals per year, he still only posted an OPS+ of 128.

A writer named Lincoln Mitchell over at the Faster Times brought up a truly incredible statistic last month when discussing Bernie's candidacy:
Another way to assess Williams candidacy is to determine how many center fielders in the history of the game had clearly better careers.  The list is shorter than one might initially think . . . One way to see this is that Williams played 1,924 games in center field during a career where he posted an OPS+ of 125.  In the history of the game, only eight players have played 1,700 or more games in center field with an OPS+ of 115 or better.  Three of these players, Williams, Griffey and Edmonds are not eligible for the Hall of Fame.  The other five are all in.  Williams’ numbers are far behind those of Cobb, Mays, Speaker and Mantle, but are better than Edd Roush’s and a cut behind contemporaries Griffey and Edmonds.
Even as a Bernie Williams fan, I could not believe that the above was true.

Unfortunately, as of this writing, Bernie Williams is not going to make the Hall of Fame.  Even worse, according to the list put together by the guys over at Baseball Think Factory, it looks like Bernie will be one-and-done, and not even get another year on the ballot:
92.6 - Barry Larkin
43.2 - Lee Smith
11.1 - Don Mattingly
2.5 - Bernie Williams
After 81 ballots were published online and aggregated, it looks like he'll fall short of the 5% required  to remain eligible for Hall voting the next year.

I am glad that some guys (Bert Blyleven comes to mind) have made the Hall of Fame after a grassroots campaign developed for them, or hung around for years and became part of the debate (Ron Santo, Jack Morris, Andre Dawson).  Unfortunately for Bernie, it doesn't appear that he'll have a chance to do that, and I can tell you that Fonzie Forever has neither the traffic or panache to do what Rich Lederer now famously did for Blyleven. 

So, although I cannot help Bernie get the respect that I think he rightfully deserves, I can still use my soap box to say thank you.

Bernie Williams always played the game with class.  He was, for a time, an elite hitter who played center field, won four World Series, and owns the most glorious of mainstream postseason records (RBI).  He was even so much of a True Yankee (tm) that they buried him under the New Yankee Stadium for luck.

Thank you for your charity (here, here, here), your music, and your wisdom.  And thank you for proving to a teenaged-version of myself that even on a horrible, evil empire like the Yankees, that there is the capacity for good.  Thanks.

"I know there's certain things regarding your job or whatever you may end up doing [that you don't like], but I'm here to tell you, don't let your job define who you are. Your relationships will define who you are.  No matter what you choose to do in life ... you are going to be in a position to make an impact on somebody's life."- Bernie Williams

Brian Mangan is a lawyer who lives in New York.  He is glad to have survived the baseball-trauma of his mid-90's youth so that he could live to see the Mets' ten times more upsetting current state of affairs.
Follow us on twitter at @fonzieforever


Marc said...

I think Bernie will get the 5% to stay on the ballot. Keep in mind there are over 500 votes, and these results are from a small sampling of writers who are willing to share such info. It's my understanding very few are from NY.

The real shame is, they seem to lump centerfielders in with outfield when it's such a unique and different position from the corners. Yet voters don't lump in SS and 2nd with infielders. In my humble opinion (another Met fan who is a Bernie fan) he's the second best centerfielder of his generation behind Griffey. Hopefully voters will give him the respect he's due.

John Apicelli said...

Well said....Bernie Williams would get my vote if I could....I was born in 1950 & have seen some great center fielders....Bernie Williams is one of them.....John Apicelli, Pleasantville,N.Y.

Brian Mangan said...

Thank you both for your kind words!

Marc: You turned out to be correct -- it looks like Bernie did end up getting the 10% necessary to stay on the ballot. Surprising, because as of having 150+ ballots published online by various writers, he was hovering around 3%. Looks like those in favor of Bernie might be a little less inclined to do that kind of thing on the internet.

John: Always great to hear from someone who has been watching baseball for a long time weigh in on something like this. Bernie was one of my favorites.

Bill G said...

Here's the flaw in your argument for Bernie Williams making the Hall. You are comparing what he did from 1995-2002 to what Ryan Braun has done from 2007-2013. Different eras. Your argument sounds good until you look at the numbers.

Bernie Williams had that OPS + of 142+.

In the same span, 1995-2002, here are the OPS + figures for other Major Leaguers:

Albert Belle 146 OPS + (brought down by his last season. Cut that out, his OPS + is 153, and that doesn't include his best year of 1994 when his OPS + was 194).
Barry Bonds 197 OPS +
Jeff Bagwell 155 OPS +
Jim Thome 159 OPS +
Mark McGwire 183 OPS +
Edgar Martinez 162 OPS +
Jason Giambi 152 OPS +
Sammy Sosa 148 OPS +
Larry Walker 150 OPS +
Mike Piazza 156 OPS +
Vlad Guerrero 147 OPS +
Gary Sheffield 158 OPS +
Alex Rodriguez 146 OPS + (this span did not include his best seasons)
Frank Thomas 152 OPS + (again, his best season of 1994, when his OPS + was 212, is excluded)

Williams was very good, but so many Major Leaguers were much, much better. If you extend the date range by one year in either direction for many of these players, the discrepancy increases greatly.

In those seven years, Williams never finished in the top 5 in the MVP. He won one Silver Slugger Award. Braun, by way of comparison, won an MVP, was MVP runner up, and third in the MVP, and won five Silver Sluggers.

And there is why Williams is not a Hall of Famer. He put up very solid numbers in an era when other players were putting up all-time great seasons. Williams OPS + high is 160 in 1998. Go back and look at the players I listed, and where their OPS + figures touch.

Bernie Williams is not getting Hall of Fame votes for the simple fact that he was never one of the elite players in the game.