Thirteen new candidates have been added to the 2012 Hall of Fame ballot, but none have overwhelming credentials, which should bode well for Barry Larkin, Tim Raines, and Jeff Bagwell, three eminently deserving players snubbed by last year’s voting. However, it seems as if one of the new eligible players is being written off much too quickly. That’s really nothing new for Bernie Williams, whose career would have never gotten started had he yielded to those who dismissed him.
Bernie Williams’ Hall of Fame campaign faces an uphill battle on two fronts because he appears like a borderline candidate to both the traditional and sabermetricly-inclined factions of the electorate. On the one hand, the older members of the BBWAA are likely to balk at Williams’ relatively deflated counting stats, while those voters in tune with the latest sabermetric trends might be swayed by his less than eye-popping WAR. Both first impressions are worthy of a second look.
Hall of Fame Centerfielders and Upcoming Candidates, Ranked by OPS+ (click to enlarge)
Note: Includes Hall of Famers who played at least 50% of total games in centerfield as well as Bernie Williams, Ken Griffey Jr., and Jim Edmonds.
Source: Baseball-reference.com and fangraphs.com
For the most part, the class of centerfielders in the Hall of Fame is truly elite. So, being compared to Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, and Tris Speaker, among others, is bound to be unflattering. However, Williams fits right in among the group of centerfielders just below that untouchable tier. Although some might consider that level unworthy of enshrinement among the aforementioned immortals, it doesn’t seem fair to hold their greatness against Williams, whose career OPS+ of 125 ranks 13th among all players who played at least two-thirds of their games in centerfield (minimum 6,000 plate appearances in the modern era).
Top-15 Centerfielders, Ranked by OPS+
Note: Includes Hall of Famers who played at least 66% of total games in centerfield and amassed at least 6,000 career plate appearances.
If Bernie Williams’ offensive production for a center fielder seems to merit induction, what else could be holding his candidacy back? Let’s take a look at two of the most common criticisms of his Hall of Fame credentials and address them one-by-one.
1. Bernie Williams was a poor defensive center fielder.
As Rob Neyer notes in his evaluation of Williams’ candidacy, depending on whose defensive metrics you trust, the former Yankee ranks anywhere from a below average centerfielder (baseball-reference) to an extremely poor one (fangraphs). However, should those numbers be taken at face value? According to fangraphs, Williams’ WAR takes a hit of 152.5 fielding runs, which is by far the worst among all center fielders in the database. Even though he did struggle toward the tail-end of his career, it’s hard to believe that Williams was that much of a liability in the field. Considering the many doubts about UZR (the fielding component of fangraphs’ WAR since 2002), it seems intellectually lazy to simply rely on WAR, especially when much of Bernie Williams’ career pre-dated the calculation of that metric (Total Zone is fangraph’s pre-2002 basis for defense). Otherwise, we might as well just add up the Gold Gloves. Rather than taking the easy way out, more investigation into Williams’ defense is required before allowing it to be the reason he is excluded from the Hall of Fame.
2. Bernie Williams rarely ranked among the league leaders/wasn’t a memorable postseason performer.
And while he does have nearly a full season’s worth of postseason statistics — for which he deserves some credit — he has few memorable October moments and overall his stats are right in line with his regular-season numbers.” – Rob Neyer, SB*Nation, November 30, 2011
Another mark that many people seem to hold against Bernie Williams is the lack of black and gray ink on the back of his baseball card. However, despite failing to rank among the league leaders (more on that later), the Yankees’ centerfielder still either surpasses or comes close to the bar set by Bill James’ Hall of Fame Standards and Monitor. Also, although Williams’ name is missing from the regular season leader boards, it is splashed all over the post season rankings. Williams ranks either first or second all-time in October hits, homeruns, RBIs, runs, and total bases. Granted, he also played in more games than most (almost an entire season’s worth), but his ability to post an .850 OPS both under heightened scrutiny and against the very best competition should be considered a feather in his cap. And who says Williams didn’t have many memorable moments? After all, his two walk off homers in the postseason are tied with David Ortiz for most all time, and some of his other 78 RBIs must have had meaning too.
Hall of Fame Centerfielders and Upcoming Candidates, Various Measurements (click to enlarge)
Note: A Monitor score of 100 means a likely Hall of Famer. A Standards score of 50 represents the average Hall of Famer.
For all the reasons cited above, Bernie Williams deserves much more careful scrutiny as a Hall of Fame candidate. However, there is an additional compelling reason to give him a favorable nod: steroids.
Several Hall of Fame voters have adamantly stated that they will not vote for players linked to performance enhancers, even if there is no proof they actually used them. Although I am not an advocate of this form of vigilante Hall of Fame voting, those who espouse the philosophy should be consistent. Not only should they withhold a vote from all players whom they suspect of taking PEDs, but they should also assign extra credit to those they firmly believe did not.
Not only do clean players deserve a bump because of the integrity they showed by resisting temptation (the Hall of Fame’s voting guidelines specifically mention integrity, sportsmanship, and character as qualities to be considered), but, perhaps more significantly, because their peer comparisons suffered as a result of the inflated numbers produced by those using enhancements. Who knows what Bernie Williams’ WAR, OPS+, or wRC+ would have been if he was being compared to a game full of clean players? Perhaps his relative performance would compare even more favorably with the Hall of Fame centerfielders listed above? Personally, I am not a fan of opening a Pandora’s Box, but if many voters are going to lift the cover, they should be prepared to jump in with both feet.
It’s fair to call Bernie Williams a borderline Hall of Famer, but only if that means his candidacy merits closer scrutiny. Those who have flippantly cast him aside as a good player who doesn’t meet the Hall of Fame standard should at the very least examine their reasons for coming to such a conclusion. As a Yankees’ fan, my bias is obvious, but the numbers support that conclusion. Hopefully, when this year’s ballots are counted, Williams name will appear on enough to allow for future years of more serious consideration.