Any talk of the New York Yankees’ dynasty of the 1990s and early 2000s usually centers on the “Core Four”: shortstop Derek Jeter, closer Mariano Rivera, starter Andy Pettitte and catcher Jorge Posada. History has mostly remembered that quartet as the primary force behind the pinstriped turnaround that saw New York win four World Series in the span of five seasons from 1996 to 2000. But that narrative leaves out one of the best and most important Yankees of that hugely successful era — center fielder Bernie Williams. In this week’s installment of our Hall of Pretty Damn Good Players, we aim to change that.
|Category||Value||Rank at Pos.|
|Black Ink Test||4||68|
|Gray Ink Test||61||53|
|Years on ballot||2||—|
Full disclosure: According to the advanced metrics, Williams is probably not quite a Hall of Fame-caliber player. He ranks just 27th among primary center fielders since 1901 in total wins above replacement,1 and 26th in JAWS, an average of career and peak WAR.2 By JAWS, Williams’s career was better than only 22 percent of the center fielders already enshrined in Cooperstown. Williams fares better according to more traditional measures — he’s a top-10 center fielder since 1901 according to both the Hall of Fame Standards and Monitor tests, which Bill James created to judge a player’s conventional Hall qualifications. If we looked only at those standard markers for enshrinement, we’d predict Williams to have a 60 percent shot, according to a logistic regression I ran looking at Hall-qualified players from throughout history.
In reality, though, Williams fell quite a bit short of induction. After garnering 9.6 percent of the writers’ vote in his first ballot appearance — well off the track a future Hall of Famer needs to be on — he dipped to 3.3 percent in his second try, dropping him off the ballot entirely. Just like that, one of the best hitters of his era — and one of the winningest players as well — was unceremoniously knocked out of consideration for the game’s top honor.
Williams’s contributions to the Yankees’ dynasty are seriously underappreciated. Before he debuted at midseason of 1991, New York was in a rare down period of three consecutive losing seasons, and they would add a fourth in 1992 as Williams spent most of the season in Triple-A. But Williams showed late that year that he had improved significantly, and he was a key contributor (2.3 WAR) as the Yankees won 88 games in 1993. By 1994 and 1995, Williams blossomed into a full-blown star, producing the 14th-most WAR (9.7 across two shortened seasons) of any position player in MLB. And the Yankees were very good again. In 1994, they had the best record in the American League when the strike ended the season; when we reconstructed the 1994 World Series last fall,3 New York was the most likely winner. In 1995, the Yankees were back in the playoffs for the first time in 14 years, coming within an epic Mariners walk-off win of advancing to the AL Championship Series. (Williams was terrific in the AL Division Series, hitting .429 with a 1.381 on-base plus slugging.)
All of this was before Jeter or Posada even played a full season in the majors, while Pettitte and Rivera were only in their rookie seasons in 1995. Out of the star-studded crop of prospects who turned the Yankees around in the ’90s, Williams was the first to make a huge impact in the major leagues, helping to set the tone for what happened over the next decade or so.
Eventually, he had company. Jeter became the team’s regular shortstop in 1996, recording 2.7 WAR. Pettitte led the team in innings pitched and total value (5.1 WAR). Rivera was a dominant setup man (4.6 WAR) a year before becoming the Yankees’ full-time closer. New York won the World Series with Williams as the team’s third-best player by WAR (4.0 — trailing Pettitte and Rivera), and the dynasty was off and running. Posada moved ahead of Joe Girardi on the catching depth chart in 1998, when New York won a record 125 games across the regular season and playoffs. The Yankees would end up winning four out of five titles from 1996 to 2000, a run interrupted only by a loss to the Cleveland Indians in the 1997 ALDS.
Throughout that entire run, the Core Four clearly played massive roles in New York’s dominance. But Williams outshone almost all of them. According to WAR, only Jeter (25.9) provided the Yankees with more regular-season value than Williams (24.5) during the span of those World Series-winning seasons. Likewise, only Jeter (48.9) generated more weighted runs created (wRC) in the postseason for the Yankees over that span than Williams (38.6) did.4 By any measure, Williams was (at worst) the second-best position player on a team that ranks among the greatest dynasties in baseball history.
|Regular-Season WAR||Playoff Runs Created|
|Derek Jeter||SS||25.9||Derek Jeter||.390||48.9|
|Bernie Williams||CF||24.5||Bernie Williams||.352||38.6|
|Andy Pettitte||P||21.8||Paul O’Neill||.338||30.7|
|David Cone||P||17.1||Tino Martinez||.326||30.0|
|Paul O’Neill||RF||16.1||Scott Brosius||.336||19.5|
|Mariano Rivera||P||14.5||Chuck Knoblauch||.313||17.7|
|Tino Martinez||1B||13.3||Jorge Posada||.303||11.9|
|Jorge Posada||C||10.3||Darryl Strawberry||.396||10.3|
|Orlando Hernandez||P||9.9||Cecil Fielder||.357||9.9|
|David Wells||P||8.9||David Justice||.322||8.3|
In his prime, Williams was a terrific all-around hitter, capable of winning batting titles5 and bombing home runs6 with equal skill. In his best seven seasons by WAR, Williams hit a cumulative .324 with a .409 on-base percentage and a .939 OPS, stellar numbers that stand up next to the peak years of just about any batter from history.
Williams wasn’t a perfect player. Despite winning four Gold Glove awards, his defensive metrics were surprisingly poor — thus hurting his JAWS ranking — and his performance fell off a cliff quickly as he got older. After helping the Yankees win another pennant with 5.0 WAR in 2001 and producing 4.7 more at age 33 in 2002, Williams had -1.9 total WAR over the rest of his career before (unofficially) retiring in 2007. Much like fellow HoPDGP member Andruw Jones, Williams produced the vast majority of his career value before he turned 30. All of the Core Four were still producing for the Yankees into the 2010s, years after Williams had played his last game in pinstripes, which kept him from participating in the farewell narrative with the rest of the dynasty’s cornerstones.
But that doesn’t mean Williams’s contributions to the Yankees should be as forgotten as they seem to have been over the years. Without the strength of his performances, New York could very well have won fewer championships during its dynasty years — and thus, history might not have viewed it the same way. And as great as Jeter, Rivera, Pettitte and Posada were, Williams paved the way for their success in the pressure-cooker environment of George Steinbrenner’s Yankees.
“Honestly, thank God for Bernie Williams,” Posada told The Players’ Tribune in 2016. “If Bernie Williams doesn’t do well, I don’t think any of us would have been here.”
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