Why classy Bernie Williams came up short for the Hall of Fame
When it comes to the Hall of Fame potential of New York Yankees of recent vintage, the dividing line between the ones who are likely to make it to Cooperstown and the ones who aren’t is generally pretty apparent.
Players like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Alex Rodriguez should reach the 75 percent of ballots filled out by members of the Baseball Writers Association of America on their first try. Only Rodriguez could face any opposition among this group, thanks to his steroid-infused past.
Meanwhile, Yankee heroes without staying power or truly excellent careers, like Tino Martinez or Scott Brosius, appeared only briefly on the Hall of Fame ballot. Not only did they fail to reach 75 percent, but they both fell short of the five percent necessary to stay on the ballot for another year.
But it is fair to say that Bernie Williams falls somewhere in between these two groups, as do Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada. Williams, since his final game came in 2006, is up first. He'd certainly be far from the worst Hall of Fame center fielder, but he'll probably fall just short in the minds of most voters.
That seemed to be the case today when he received 10 percent of the vote from the Baseball Writers Association. According to the rules of voting, as long as he stays above the five-percent threshold, he'll remain on the ballot for 15 years. But while many players who fail on the first try eventually earn induction, the starting point for those players is usually higher than 10 percent.
The Hall of Fame case for Williams not unreasonable. While playing one of the most demanding defensive positions, Williams posted a career OPS+ of 125, or 25 percent better than league average as a hitter, regardless of position. His peak was even better: from 1997-2002, he never dropped below 138 in any season, with a high of 160 for the 1998 Yankees. That places him in some terrific company. Among primary center fielders with at least 1,000 games played, he ranks 11th ever in OPS+, trailing mostly Hall of Famers, and ahead of enshrined center fielders like Kirby Puckett and Richie Ashburn.
By virtue of having played with the Yankees, Williams received another 545 plate appearances in the postseason, nearly a full season's worth. He hit just about as well in the post-season, against better pitching, as he did over his career in the regular season.
On defense, he was adjudged good enough by the Gold Glove voters to win the award four times.
So what's the problem? Essentially, it is that he is not perceived by the sportswriters who select entrants to the Hall of Fame to have been an extraordinary player over the course of his lifetime in baseball, particularly when considered among some of the outstanding Yankees he played with.
Williams was a very good home run hitter, but not a great one—he maxed out at 30 during an era when 50 wasn’t uncommon. He was a decent base stealer, nothing more. He walked quite a bit, usually more than he struck out. He only led the league in anything once, with a .339 batting average in 1998.
Then there's the surrounding talent. Williams always received less coverage not only than Rivera and Jeter lesser teammates, like David Wells and Chuck Knoblauch and even Darryl Strawberry. Maybe that's why Williams gets less credit for playing center field on an endless parade of championship teams.
Ultimately, Williams' path to the Hall, if there is one, is like the one traveled by Tony Lazzeri, the second baseman on the 1927 Yankees. Lazzeri was a very strong offensive player at a key defensive position, second base. But he was overshadowed throughout his Yankee career, first by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, then later by Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio.
The Veterans' Committee, an ever-evolving group of baseball observers charged with electing players overlooked by the writers' voting, eventually decided that Lazzeri was worthy of enshrinement, and in he went in 1991—52 years after his final game and 45 years after his death.
Hopefully, if Williams is to earn his way into the Hall, it won't take that long. But he shouldn’t hold his breath.