On Sunday the Yankees will retire Bernie Williams’ jersey number, placing his No. 51 in Monument Park alongside those of the team's other legends, including iconic centerfielders Joe DiMaggio (No. 5) and Mickey Mantle (No. 7). Williams, who was arguably the best player the New York teams that won five American League pennants and four World Series championships from 1996 to 2001, is wholly deserving of the honor. Yet the enigmatic Williams, who hasn’t appeared in a major league game since 2006, didn’t officially retire until last month and was dismissed from the Hall of Fame ballot after just two years and only 3.3% of the vote in 2013, so he has never really gotten an appropriate valedictory for being one of the best players of his era.
Williams was arguably underappreciated even during his career. From 1995 to 2002—the first eight years of the Yankees’ renewed success after a 13-season playoff drought—Williams hit .321/.406/.531 as the team’s centerfielder and averaged 5.2 Wins Above Replacement per year. From '96, when New York won its first World Series in 18 years, through '02, Williams was by far the team’s best hitter, posting a 144 OPS+ (Derek Jeter's was 121). He was also the Yankees' second-most valuable player over that span, trailing only Jeter in total bWAR, 35.1 to 37.2. As for October, in his first 10 postseasons (totaling 115 games), Jeter hit .307/.378/.463. In Williams’s first 10 postseasons (also totaling 115 games), he hit .280/.378/.490.
For all of the talk about the Yankees’ homegrown “Core Four” of Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera—a description which became popular around the group’s latter-day 2009 championship—the true Core Four of the dynasty was Jeter, Pettitte, Rivera and Williams, the latter of whom was also homegrown. Posada didn’t qualify for a batting title until 2000 and was something of the fifth Beatle during the dynasty’s peak. As much as anything else, that Core Four construction has marginalized Williams’s place in both Yankees and baseball history.
Williams, it seems, made the mistake of being born just a hair too soon. He is 13 months older than Rivera, who in turn is almost two years older than Posada, the next oldest member of the group. While the other four all debuted in 1995, Williams arrived in the major leagues on July 7, 1991 at the age of 22. And compared to the other four, all of whom played in the postseason immediately, Williams spent the first two years of his career struggling to establish himself on the last two Yankees teams to finish with a losing record.
Signed out of Puerto Rico at the age of 17, before the draft was expanded to include the island, Williams was a natural righty. The Yankees taught him to switch hit, and in 1988, his third professional season, he hit .335/.449/./487 in the Carolina League. Though he failed to perform that well in subsequent seasons on the farm, Williams was rated the 11th-best prospect in baseball by Baseball America heading into the '91 season. In July of that year, Yankees centerfielder Roberto Kelly sprained his wrist, clearing room for Williams in the majors. The gawky, bespectacled rookie would start New York's final 85 games that season in center, pushing Kelly to leftfield upon his return. However, Williams’s final line that year was an underwhelming .238/.336/.350, and he appeared in just two more major league games prior to August of the following season, when he again pushed Kelly to left and started in center in the final 60 games of the season.
Williams’s superior performance in 1992 (.280/.354/.406) emboldened New York to trade the 28-year-old Kelly, clearing centerfield for Williams and acquiring Paul O’Neill from the Reds in one fell swoop. As crucial as that sequence of events would prove to be in both creation of the Yankees’ late-90s dynasty and the team’s turn-around in '93 (improving by 12 wins to post their first winning season since '88), Williams was not an instant success. In '93, he was merely a league-average bat, striking out more than 100 times for the only time in his career and missing three weeks due to an oblique strain in mid-May. Williams was far better in '94, walking more than he struck out and posting career highs in all three slash stats, but he wasn’t yet the productive middle-of-the-order bat he would be at his peak. In fact, Williams, still a far better hitter from the right side, spent most of that season batting seventh against righties and leading off against lefties.
It wasn’t until after the strike in 1995 that Williams, then in his age-26 season, would establish himself as a star player, and even then recognition came slowly. Williams’s 18 home runs and 82 RBIs that year failed to communicate just how valuable his .307/.392/.487 performance at the plate really was. That changed with his 9-for-21 (.429) performance against the Mariners in the first, and still one of the most memorable, American League Division Series.
Then, in 1996, Williams had a true breakout season, hitting .305/.391/.535 with 29 home runs and 102 RBIs. On top of that, he hit .345/.435/.707 in October with six home runs as the Yankees won the World Series. Included in those totals was an extra-inning–walk-off home run against the Orioles in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, which helped him win Most Valuable Player honors in that series.
Still, Williams wouldn’t make his first All-Star team until 1997 and would only start one of the five games in which he was honored and, despite being arguably the best player on baseball’s best team, would never finish higher than seventh in the Most Valuable Player voting. Looking back now, there are reasons to devalue Williams’s performance. Despite winning four Gold Gloves and having a strong defensive reputation in his prime, he grades out poorly in the defensive metrics starting in '96. That, in turn, suppressed his WAR totals, leaving his 6.4 bWAR in '95—when he posted his best defensive numbers—as his career high. Despite his significant speed (he averaged six triples a year from '95 to 2000), Williams was also a lousy base stealer, getting thrown out on 37% of his attempts in his career. From '92 to '99, he topped 65% just once and averaged 60% overall, yet he continued to attempt roughly 20 steals a year. In '99, he attempted 19 steals and was safe just nine times.
Williams also played in an era rich with centerfield talent. Over the span of his 16-year career (1991–2006), four other centerfielders—Ken Griffey Jr., Kenny Lofton, Jim Edmonds and Andruw Jones—compiled more WAR than Williams’ 49.4. In addition, there were three others at the position who overlapped Williams's career significantly and would eventually surpass his career bWAR: Carlos Beltran, Johnny Damon and Torii Hunter. Of those seven contemporaries, Williams had a higher peak than only Damon and Hunter (based on the sum of their seven best seasons, per bWAR). Again, Williams’s poor fielding marks are largely responsible for his showing among that group. Limit the conversation to hitting, and only Griffey and Edmonds had higher peaks among that group, and just barely in Edmonds’ case.
Williams also suffered from an early decline. As great as he was through 2002, he fell off significantly after tearing the meniscus in his left knee at the age of 34 in '03 (though he still hit a combined .308/.351/.508 in the memorable '03 and '04 postseasons). Two years later, his game collapsed completely, rendering him a sub-replacement-level player in '05 and '06, his final two seasons.
Always a unique personality—Williams attended a performance arts high school in Puerto Rico, released an album of guitar music in 2003 and was nominated for a Latin Grammy for his second album in '09—Williams was considered a daydreamer by his teammates and coaches and was often criticized for having poor baseball instincts. He never fully acknowledged the end of his career, playing for Puerto Rico in the 2009 World Baseball Classic and still believing he might return to the major leagues at the age of 40 that season. It wasn’t until Pettitte retired (for the first time) in February 2011 that Williams, then 42, acknowledged publicly that his career, which had ended five years earlier, was likely over, but it wasn't until last month that he made his retirement official. That sharp decline and lack of finality, combined with his slow emergence in his early 20s, has contributed to Williams’ brilliant peak being overshadowed by the lesser portions of his career.
Williams may not be a Hall of Famer, but he nonetheless holds a significant place in baseball history. He ranks among the all-time leaders in most major postseason hitting categories (first in RBIs; second in hits, runs, doubles, home runs and total bases; third in walks), and while that is in part due to his being second to only Jeter in most playoff plate appearances, Williams was one of the main reasons why the Yankees were good enough to reach and advance in those postseasons. By OPS+, he was the best hitter on three of the four world championship teams he played on, and was a close second to Jeter on the 1999 team. He was thus the best hitter on arguably the best baseball team of all time, the '98 Yankees, for whom he won the American League batting title, hitting .339/.422/.575 with a 160 OPS+.
Bernie Williams deserves to be thought of as an iconic player, not just in Yankees history, but also in baseball history. Here’s hoping Sunday’s ceremonies at Yankee Stadium remind everyone just how important he was to the game.