If you were to guess the 10 most valuable position players in Yankees history, based on wins above replacement, who would you have? The top several are easy: Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, DiMaggio, Jeter, and Berra are all slam dunks. Then you have Bill Dickey, a Hall of Famer whose number has been retired by the club, and Alex Rodriguez, who for all his faults was widely considered one of the preeminent talents of his era. Can’t say any of the top eight are surprising and, in their careers and after, they all received due credit for their abilities and accomplishments.
But then you have a player who, despite being a two-time World Series champion, team co-captain, and by bWAR the ninth-best position player in the history of baseball’s most storied franchise, received a paltry 1.1 percent of the vote in his first year of Hall of Fame eligibility and was unceremoniously dropped from the ballot.
Willie Randolph might just be the most underrated and underappreciated Yankee in the club’s history.
The slick-fielding, Brooklyn-raised second baseman was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1972 and, after a brief stint with the major league club in 1975, was traded to the Yankees along with Dock Ellis and Ken Brett for a single, solitary season of pitcher Doc Medich (Pittsburgh obviously has a thing for awful, short-sighted deals).
His first season with the Yankees in 1976 was in many ways a microcosm of his career and why he’s not more appropriately regarded. He was excellent, providing a solid-enough bat (103 OPS+), good speed (37 stolen bases) and fabulous glove work at the “keystone.” He made the All-Star team and, in all, was worth 5.0 bWAR as a rookie. That’s phenomenal!
Yet he was overshadowed in AL Rookie of the Year voting by Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, the Detroit Tigers’ eccentric pitching phenom who captured the imagination of the baseball world with both his talent and on-field antics. Fidrych was worth an astonishing 9.6 bWAR that year and easily won Rookie of the Year honors. Being outshone by a historically good opponent is simply bad luck. What makes it worse is that Randolph didn’t even finish second for the award. Minnesota Twins catcher Butch Wynegar, who was worth 3.4 bWAR that year, did. (Of course, wins above replacement models didn’t exist back then, but they show in retrospect that baseball writers, and by proxy the baseball world, weren’t keying in on the things that may have made Randolph a superior player.)
Did the fact that Randolph’s two carrying tools – defense and the ability to get on base – work against him? Almost certainly. They were valued, to be sure, but no one was writing epic poems about a second baseman’s ability to hang in there and turn a double play.
And even in the things he did well, Randolph fell prey to bad timing. Among all second baseman in the history of the majors, Randolph has the fifth highest career defensive WAR (20.2), but he has zero Gold Glove awards. That’s because two slots above him on that dWAR ranking sits Frank White (21.9 dWAR), who was winning eight Gold Gloves with the Kansas City Royals during Randolph’s prime years. And when White wasn’t taking home the silverware (er, goldware?) it was Detroit’s Lou Whitaker, whose own Hall of Fame case has recently and deservedly been championed by baseball analysts, particularly after the election of his double play partner Alan Trammell.
Once again, Randolph had the misfortune of being great when someone else was perhaps slightly greater.
On the offensive side, the ability to draw walks isn’t the sexiest skill to have. Randolph sports a career 104 OPS+, which puts him above average. His lack of power drove that number down, as he remarkably had a lower career slugging percentage (.351) than OBP (.373). But his on-base skills are worthy of appreciation. Consider that in his 18 big league seasons, he never – not once! – struck out more than he walked. For his career, he drew nearly twice as many walks (1,243) as he struck out (675).
It was those skills that drove his value as a Yankee and allowed him to thrive even after trading in the pinstripes after the 1988 season. With the Dodgers in 1989, and at the age of 34, Randolph was worth 4.1 bWAR. For the Milwaukee Brewers in 1991, at the age of 36, he was worth 4.3 bWAR (in just 124 games).
For his career, Randolph accrued 65.9 bWAR. To put that in context, the aforementioned Cooperstown-worthy Lou Whitaker amassed 75.1 bWAR. Derek Jeter, who was elected nearly unanimously in his first year of eligibility, had 71.3 bWAR. Your mileage may vary on Randolph’s Hall of Fame credentials, but the fact that he was one-and-done on the ballot underscores just how criminally underappreciated he was.
Thankfully, the Yankees recognized as much in 2015, when they honored Randolph with a plaque in Monument Park. And we’d all do well to remember that, though he may never have been the best player on his team or at his position, Willie Randolph’s spot as an all-time great Yankee is secure.