Bernie Williams has earned Monument Park honors more than Tino Martinez or Paul O'Neill
On Thursday, the Yankees announced plans to honor Hall of Famers Joe Torre and Rich Gossage as well as Torre dynasty mainstays Paul O'Neill and Tino Martinez with plaques in Yankee Stadium's Monument Park. Torre's No. 6 will be retired as well during his Aug. 23 ceremony. Gossage (June 21) and Martinez (June 22) will be honored during Old-Timers' Day weekend, while O'Neill will have his day on Aug. 9.
While the Yankees also announced that Bernie Williams would be honored in 2015, from the outside it appears ridiculous that he should have to wait behind either of his former teammates. Under Torre, O'Neill and Martinez played key roles for a team that won four World Series and five pennants in six seasons (1996-2001), but Williams — the only one of the trio to spend his entire career in pinstripes — was both the vanguard of their turnaround from a 13-season stretch (1982-94) without a playoff appearance and still a key member of their 2003 pennant-winning squad. He towers over the other two with regards to his place in Yankees history.
Signed as a 17-year-old out of Puerto Rico in 1985, Williams reached the majors in July 1991. After bouncing back and forth between the minors and the majors for his first two seasons, Williams took over the regular centerfield job once Roberto Kelly was traded to Cincinnati for O'Neill in November 1992. He hit .302/.392/487 with 18 homers in 1995 while helping the Yankees back to the postseason, the first year of an eight-year stretch across which he hit .321/.406/.531 while averaging 24 homers and 5.2 Wins Above Replacement. During that span, he won the 1998 AL batting title, made five straight All-Star teams (1997-2001) and won four Gold Gloves, though the defensive metrics suggest those were dubious.
For his career, Williams racked up 2,336 hits and 287 homers en route to a .297/.381/.477 line and 125 OPS+. While playing in 12 straight postseasons from 1995 through 2006 — the only Yankee besides Mariano Rivera to do so — he hit .275/.371/.480 with 22 homers and 80 RBI in 545 plate appearances, won 1996 ALCS MVP honors, and would have been in the running for 2003 World Series MVP honors (.400/.429/.720 with two homers) had the Yankees prevailed over the Marlins.
By that time, Williams appeared as though he might have a legitimate shot at a plaque in Cooperstown, but the decline that began in 2003, his age-34 season, extended through his remaining three seasons; he hit just .263/.346/.412 for a 100 OPS+ over his final four years, which saw him spending considerable time at DH and rightfield due to his declining range. Because of unusually subpar defense (-139 runs via a combination of Total Zone and Defensive Runs Saved), neither his 49.5 career WAR, 37.5 peak WAR (best seven seasons) or 43.5 JAWS are anywhere close to the average among Hall of Fame centerfielders (70.4/44.1/57.2), but even so, he ranks 26th at the position by that methodology.
O'Neill, who had struggled to assert himself as a full-time player in Cincinnati, hit a combined .303/.377/.492 with 185 homers for a 125 OPS+ during his nine seasons (1993-2001) in pinstripes. He won the AL batting title during the strike-shortened 1994 season and earned All-Star honors four times while a Yankee. His defense was nothing to write home about, so he averaged just 3.0 WAR per year with the Yankees and had just one year above 5.0 (5.8 in 1998). In 304 postseason plate appearances with the team, he hit .281/.355/.459 with 10 homers; he turned in some huge series performances, including a .474/.545/.789 showing during their 2000 Subway Series win over the Mets. Including his time with the Reds, he tallied 2,105 hits and 281 homers while hitting .288/.363/ .470 for a 120 OPS+. With a 38.8/27.3/33.1 JAWS line, he ranks just 58th among rightfielders, giving him no case for the Hall of Fame.
Martinez, a 1988 first-round draft pick by the Mariners who was part of the club that eliminated the Yankees during the 1995 Division Series, was acquired by the team that winter to fill the void left by the retirement of the iconic Don Mattingly. While the 29 homers and 115 RBI he averaged over the next six seasons were certainly gaudy numbers, his .279/.348/.488 showing was good for just a 114 OPS+, comparatively light for a position with less defensive responsibility. What's more, his big 44-homer, 141 RBI season came in 1997, the year they were eliminated in the first round, and he slumped to .258/.328/.422 with 16 homers and an 89 OPS+ in 2000 before rebounding in 2001. Across that six-year span, he averaged 2.5 WAR, earned All-Star honors just once, and hit a meek .247/.331/.384 with eight homers in 317 posteason PA; his top October highlight came via a grand slam in Game 1 of the 1998 World Series, after he took a pitch that should have been called strike three.
Where O'Neill retired after the 2001 World Series, Martinez spent two years with the Cardinals and one with the Devil Rays before returning for an encore in the Bronx in 2005. He bashed 10 homers in 12 games during a stretch in early May that helped the Yankees recover from a slow start, but finished at .241/.328/.439 with 17 homers for the entire season. His 28.8/21.7/25.3 career JAWS line ranks just 80th among first basemen.
One can certainly understand the Yankees' impulse to honor all of the aforementioned players in some manner, but even with 26 Yankees players, managers and other officials already having plaques in Monument Park (as does Jackie Robinson), the list of those who merit them before Martinez and O'Neill is long enough to reach to Cooperstown, and it starts with Rivera and Jeter, who will presumably get theirs in time. Such a list would include other Hall of Famers who spent their primes in pinstripes (Earle Combs, Tony Lazzeri, Herb Pennock), lifetime Yankees (Roy White, Mel Stottlemyre) and those who were major parts of multiple World Series winners (Graig Nettles, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, Willie Randolph) as well as Williams. Given the lack of information released on Thursday, it remains possible that the team actually plans to retire Williams' No. 51 and that the Yankees have pushed off the festivities so as to spread them out or accommodate his schedule. Barring either excuse, it makes little sense as to why he should have to wait while his ex-teammates get their moments in the sun.