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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #19 Willie Randolph

One of the Yankees’ most low-key greats, Randolph had a career to make New York proud.

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox

Name: William Larry “Willie” Randolph
Position: Second baseman
Born: July 6, 1954 (Holly Hill, SC)
Yankee Years: 1976-88
Primary Number: 30
Yankee Statistics: 1,694 G, 7,465 PA, .275/.374/.357, 110 wRC+, 1,731 H, 48 HR, 259 2B, 58 3B, 271 SB, 54.0 rWAR, 51.4 fWAR

Biography

Willie Randolph has been a through-and-through New Yorker in close to everything but birth. Born in 1954 to Minnie and Randy Randolph, sharecroppers from Holly Hill, South Carolina, Willie came into the world smack in the middle of what came to be known as the Second Great Migration, and shortly after his birth, the Randolphs joined the ranks of millions of Black families leaving the rural South in favor of the urban North and West around the middle of the century. They settled in Brownsville, Brooklyn, where Willie would spend his childhood and adolescence, growing up in the Samuel J. Tilden Houses with his family, who later added more siblings into the mix, including a brother, Terry, who briefly suited up for the Green Bay Packers.

It’s also where he would get his first taste of sports stardom, dominating the infield at Tilden High School in neighboring Flatbush, where he was classmates with future NBA star World B. Free and the organizer Reverend Al Sharpton. New York isn’t necessarily much of a baseball hotbed, but his performance was enough of a standout to get the attention of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who popped him the seventh round of the 1972 draft, the eighth year of the draft’s existence. Ironically, while the New York City high school ranks failed to produce any genuine big leaguers out of those first seven drafts, Randolph was the second City-bred star that the Pirates plucked out of Brooklyn in 1972, having already selected John Candelaria — born just eight months earlier and playing miles away at LaSalle High School — in the second round.

Through the minors

Randolph and Candelaria were teammates in the minors for a time, though not initially. Randolph began his professional career soon after being drafted, reporting to the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League for 44 games as a 17-year-old. He acquitted himself quite nicely in that first taste of professional ball, batting .317 with five triples, 10 steals, and more walks than strikeouts as the youngest everyday player on the roster. The next spring, he joined Candelaria at Class-A Charleston, where he led the team in hits (120), doubles (25), triples (6), homers (8), walks (93), and defensive assists (307), again as one of the youngest players in the lineup.

While a defender as slick as he was might have stuck at shortstop at least a little longer had he come about more recently, Randolph moved to the keystone in Charleston after playing shortstop in rookie ball in deference to Dwayne Peltier, the team’s first-round pick in ‘72. Randolph, who in his youth had developed an affinity for Mets second baseman Ken Boswell, played so well at second base that the Pirates kept him there moving forward. His .962 fielding percentage — I know, I know, it’s all we have to go on — was the best in the infield, and he repeated the feat at the Double-A level the next year, leading the Thetford Mines Pirates with 319 assists and a .966 fielding percentage.

Randolph wound up near the top of almost every defensive leaderboard you can find for the duration of his career.

Between 1976 and 1990, FanGraphs credits just seven players with more defensive runs than Randolph, and four of them (Cal Ripken Jr., Alan Trammell, Gary Carter, and Ozzie Smith) are in the Hall of Fame. Among the top 30 defensive players in that time by that measure, only Ozzie provided more value on the basepaths. Alas, the voting bloc of the time was more infatuated with the likes of Bobby Grich and Frank White, so Randolph never won a Gold Glove.

Willie’s speed and defense were evident from the beginning, but his bat still needed a bit of work. He struggled with the stick for the first time with Thetford Mines up in Quebec at the ripe age of 19, seeing his batting average drop down to .254, though his on-base numbers remained excellent with a career-high 110 walks. Sharing a lineup with future big leaguers Omar Moreno, Tony Armas, and Craig Reynolds, though, he still wasn’t a particularly impactful offensive contributor.

Breakout & trade

That would change the next year. Getting bumped up to Triple-A Charleston of the International League (same city, different team), Randolph racked up 250 assists at second base in just 90 games, and more importantly, broke out in a big way with the bat, raising his average to .339 and, once again alongside Candelaria, earning himself a call-up to Pittsburgh midway through the 1975 season.

Pittsburgh Pirates vs Atlanta Braves Set Number: X19776 TK1 R5 F13

Randolph truly struggled for the first time in his initial taste of the big leagues, receiving sporadic playing time down the stretch for a competitive Pirates team after making his debut on July 29th. He finished his first season with just 10 hits, and only one for extra bases, across 30 games and 70 trips to the plate. He got two trips to the plate against Cincinnati in the NLCS, neither of which had resulted in hits.

Randolph would get a chance at revenge against the Reds soon enough. The Yankees weren’t particularly happy about sitting out the playoffs for the 11th consecutive season, and conspired to shake things up quite a bit following its conclusion. On a December day in which the Yankees had already shocked baseball by sending Bobby Bonds to the Angels, Randolph was heading back home to New York as the centerpiece of a deal that also netted the Yankees Dock Ellis (“no-hit pitcher and clubhouse lawyer,” as the New York Times put it), and Ken Brett (“a left-handed pitcher with a good bat and a bad elbow”), in exchange for up-and-coming starter Doc Medich. No Pittsburgh player had generated more buzz at the Winter Meetings than Randolph, Pirates GM Joe Brown said at the time, and while the Yankees rotation took a minor hit to their rotation, they had their second baseman of a generation in hand.

Home, sweet home

Dodgers v Yankees Photo by Focus on Sport via Getty Images

Randolph was the Opening Day second baseman in the Bronx in 1976, and he never looked back. It would be 1989 by the time the Yankees would have another Opening Day starter at the keystone, the longest Opening Day streak at the position in team history. He started his rookie campaign looking more like the form he had flashed in Triple-A the year prior, hitting .314 through his first 43 games of the season and becoming the third second baseman ever—after Rod Carew and former Yankee Bobby Richardson—to make the AL All-Star team as a rookie. As rookies often do, Randolph lost some steam midway through season, finishing with a .267 batting average and just 20 extra-base hits, but with a nearly 2:1 walk-to-strikeout ratio and a low offensive bar at second base, it was still good for a 107 wRC+. Add his excellent defense, and he handily led all rookies with 4.6 fWAR and 5.0 rWAR.

Willie struggled in the ‘76 playoffs, though, collecting just three hits in 31 at-bats as he once again fell victim to the Big Red Machine, and with Reggie Jackson in the fold, expectations were high in 1977. For the most part, Randolph met them, making a second straight All-Star team (recording six assists in the field) and improving on most of his power numbers while seeing his overall offense and defense stay relatively stable. Stability, of course, is not what the 1977 Yankees season is remembered for, and Randolph saw his role begin to increase amid the chaos, spending much of the year at the top of the lineup after living in the 8-hole as a rookie.

The third time was also the charm for Randolph’s playoff success, as he reached base 12 times in nine games and scored nine times, second on the team to Mr. October himself. He withstood a vicious slide from Hal McRae in the ALCS against Kansas City to hit .278 in that five-game series, though his biggest plate appearance was actually a sacrifice fly that scored the go-ahead run in the ninth-inning of the Yankees’ Game 5 rally to win the pennant.

Willie’s performance in Game 1 of the World Series is the stuff legends are made of. His role in the Yankees’ comeback win over the Dodgers starts with a game-tying home run in the sixth inning against a locked-in Don Sutton, and it continued an inning later, when he drew a walk and scored the go-ahead run from first base on a Thurman Munson double.

Randolph was also responsible for sparking the last part of that game that people remember, doubling off of Rick Rhoden to start the 12th inning and scoring two batters later on Paul Blair’s walk-off single.

Randolph only hit .160 for the series, but his mark was made. Unfortunately, it would be his last shot at the postseason for a few years. A year of continued growth and development in 1978, in which he was fourth among second baseman with a 117 wRC+ and led the position with 5.2 fWAR and 5.8 rWAR, was derailed by a hamstring injury in the the Yankees’ 160th game of the season.

Thus, Randolph was forced to watch the Yankees’ AL East playoff victory over Boston and championship repeat against LA from the sidelines (though the unsung Brian Doyle more than capably filled in). And while he remained as stable as a 10-year vet in his age-24 season — staying healthy for the entire ‘79 campaign and setting then-career-highs across the board with five homers, 13 triples, 61 RBIs, 98 runs, 95 walks, and 478 assists at the keystone — nobody can blame him for not being enough to compensate for the loss of Thurman Munson and the expiration of George Steinbrenner’s patience with Billy Martin, and the fourth-place finish that came with it. But his playoff return would come soon enough.

Career years

Entering his mid-twenties, Randolph took things to a new level in 1980, as he returned the All-Star Game and the Yankees re-grouped for 103 wins and an AL East title. Armed with a half-decade of steady big league experience, his already-excellent batting eye and plate discipline reached new heights, leading the league with 119 walks, a total only three second basemen (Joe Morgan, Eddie Stanky, and Max Bishop) have ever eclipsed. He did it all while striking out just 45 times across more than 600 plate appearances, a walk/strikeout combination that hadn’t happened since Ted Williams and has only been matched twice since, by Wade Boggs and Barry Bonds. Pretty good company!

At the same time, he also raised his batting average to a career-best .294, and it was the first of just two seasons in which he slugged over .400. The writers, prescient as ever, saw him fit for a 15th-place finish in MVP voting, though he was awarded a Silver Slugger at the keystone, the only such honor of his career. The career-high 6.6 rWAR and 6.5 fWAR he posted, though, were both top-10 marks between both leagues combine. Nobody’s taking that MVP away from George Brett and Rickey Henderson was a menace in his own right, but it was a better effort by Randolph than it was apparently given credit for.

Fittingly, Randolph was the only Yankee hitter to make any kind of noise during their three-game ALCS sweep at the hands of the Royals. He went 5-for-13 with a pair of doubles that have probably been drowned out in memory of third-base coach Mike Ferraro making the ill-fated decision to send him home in the eighth inning of Game 2. That gave the rest of the country an opportunity to see George Steinbrenner at his most furious on national television.

Randolph’s fourth All-Star appearance in 1981 was, if nothing else, a true New York bump, as the fans voted him a starter despite the worst offensive season of his career, finding success on neither end of the players’ strike that carved out two months of the season. His career-high batting average was followed by a career-low .232, and for the first time ever, he was a below-average hitter relative to the rest of the league, running an OPS+ of 88 and a wRC+ of 94.

Nonetheless, Randolph was once again ready to go when his name was called in October, knocking four hits in each of the first two playoff rounds, catching the pop fly to win the pennant in Oakland, and homering twice in the World Series, the only multi-homer playoff round of his career.

The Yankees might have fallen to the Dodgers in that sixth game linked above, but the nine walks Randolph drew will live on in the record books as the third-most ever in a World Series at the time. Only Barry Bonds near the peak of his intentional-walk powers in 2002 has added himself to the list since.

Phenomenal consistency

Following the high of 1980 and low of 1981, Randolph spent the next half-decade embarked on a campaign that can only be described as phenomenal consistency. Despite being just 27 years old in 1982, by then, he was somewhat of an elder statesman in the Yankees clubhouse, as only he, Graig Nettles, and Ron Guidry remained from the team that had brought home pennants in the ‘70s. After 1983, Nettles was gone too, but as the team vacillated between non-first-place slots in the AL East for several seasons, Randolph’s steadying presence remained at the top of the lineup. Instead of the likes of Nettles and Jackson, he was now setting the table for new threats, like Dave Winfield and Don Mattingly.

Between 1982 and 1986, Randolph’s wRC+ remained firmly planted between 105 and 114. He never hit above .287, and he never hit below .276. His speed wasn’t what it once was, but he managed to steal between 10 and 16 bases every single year, and he remained healthy, playing between 140 and 144 games in all but one season. It wasn’t anything special, but only Bobby Grich and Lou Whitaker posted more WAR of any kind among two-baggers during that time. The Yankees don’t award their Captain title lightly, and Randolph sharing the duties with Guidry from the ‘86 campaign onward says plenty on its own.

MLB Photos Archive Photo by Rich Pilling/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The end of Randolph’s Yankees tenure mirrored some of his earliest ones. He reached free agency after 1986 but returned to the team and promptly turned back the clock for a career-high .305 average, the first of just two times he’d ever break the benchmark, while tying his 1980 high of seven homers and driving in 67 runs in just 120 games. he walked three times as often as he struck out, punching air just 25 times in nearly 550 trips to the plate. No player since has struck out so little while walking so much. It was good enough for his fifth All-Star selection, more than a decade after his first.

Unfortunately, just like earlier in his career, a career year was followed by a crash. Randolph, then 33, dealt with more injuries, playing in just 110 games while seeing his overall production slip to a 79 wRC+ and 1.8 WAR, handily the worst performance of his career. With the team in the throes of more Steinbrenner tumult, looking for a new manager after the conclusion of Lou Piniella’s tenure and Billy Martin’s final pit stop, the Yankees moved on from Randolph. He moved across the country and signed with the Dodgers on a two-year deal.

Resurgence & late career

Willie Randolph circa 1989 Photo by Owen C. Shaw/Getty Images

He returned to the All-Star Game for the final time in his first year in Los Angeles, posting what can only be described as a classic Randolph season with a decent enough .282 batting average accompanying plenty of walks, a dearth of strikeouts, and an overall performance amounting to roughly 4 WAR.

Although the defending champion Dodgers missed the playoffs in 1989, Randolph got a chance to return the postseason in 1990. An early-season trade sent him to Oakland, where his hitting was lackluster in the regular season but once again came alive in the playoffs.

Randolph went 7-for-23 (.304) in eight postseason games culminating in a sweep at the hands of — wait for it — the Cincinnati Reds. I bet he just couldn’t get enough of those guys.

Willie had one more surge left in him, which he gave to the Milwaukee Brewers on a one-year deal following his playoff run with the Athletics. You could say that in some ways, he saved the best for last, obliterating his previous career-high with a .327 batting average that was good for fourth in the AL. It was also his eighth season with at least 75 walks and fewer than 50 strikeouts, making him the 13th player to ever reach that mark. Ten of the other 12 are in the Hall of Fame, and Randolph is the only one to make their debut after 1953. A real throwback.

Coaching days & later life

Randolph’s absence from New York wouldn’t last too long. Following his one-year stop in Milwaukee, he concluded his career on a one-year deal with his childhood Mets, riding off into the sunset after 90 games in a part-time role. At the time of his retirement, his 2,210 hits and 62 fWAR were both 10th all-time among second basemen, and while playing amid a second base cohort that included Grich, White, and Lou Whitaker meant he rarely got much in the way of award love, that wasn’t indicative of the respect he commanded around the game.

It only took a year away from the game before Randolph re-joined the Yankees in a front-office role in 1993, and then took over as a third-base coach under Buck Showalter in 1994. He was held in high enough esteem that he remained in the position even after Joe Torre took over in ‘96.

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Willie Randolph and Bernie Williams
Photo by STAN HONDA/AFP via Getty Images

Randolph definitely made the most of his post-1960s Yankees experience. He got some World Series rings at the beginning, bailed out before things got really bad, then hopped back on board just in time to add four more rings. He remained on board as the team’s third-base coach for a decade, reportedly coming close to leaving to manage the Cincinnati Reds before failing to find agreeable salary terms. With his eye on managing, Randolph moved to a bench-coach role for the 2004 season, and the next winter, he was in the next borough, having been named manager of the Mets.

This isn’t the place for a detailed recounting of the many ups and downs of Randolph’s 555 games in the dugout for the Mets, but in retrospect, they were probably better than the way he was treated at the time. Along with new GM Omar Minaya, a dream pairing of NYC-raised baseball men, Randolph raised the Mets above .500 for the first time in four seasons, and a year later, he finished second in Manager of the Year voting, winning 97 wins and getting the Mets excruciatingly close to the World Series. It’s an excuse to post this classic, at the very least.

The rest, of course, it history. Always inclined for the dramatic, the Mets blew their seven-game lead in September of 2007, and ownership’s confidence in Randolph as a manager never recovered. Less than three months into the 2008 season, he was handed walking papers in infamously unceremonious fashion, ultimately ending his managerial career with a final record of 302-253.

Disappointingly, Randolph never got another shot at a manager’s office, spending 2009 and 2010 as Milwaukee’s bench coach before spending an additional year as a bench and third base coach for Buck Showalter’s first Baltimore staff in 2011. That was the last of his involvement with MLB, though he hasn’t left coaching completely, serving on Team USA’s staff for the 2013 and 2017 World Baseball Classic, and leading Team USA in other tournaments.

United States v Dominican Republic Photo by Andy Hayt/San Diego Padres/Getty Images

It’s a shame, in some respects, that Randolph never managed again after the disastrous end to his tenure with the Mets, as history has more or less vindicated the idea that the organization itself was more of a problem than he ever was.

Even with that being the only MLB managerial experience on his resumé, though, there aren’t many who have lived a more full baseball life than Randolph, who received a Monument Park plaque from the Yankees in 2015 and currently resides in New Jersey with his wife Gretchen. It was certainly one that can make New York proud.

Detroit Tigers v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Staff Rank: 19
Community Rank: 19
Stats Rank: 11
2013 Rank: 12

References

Araton, Harvey. “Retrospect Puts Randolph In New Light.” New York Times, September 27, 2010.

Baseball Almanac

Baseball-Reference

BR Bullpen

Chass, Murray. “Randolph, Guidry Named Captains.” New York Times, March 5, 1986.

Durso, Joseph. “Yanks Send Bonds to Angels for Pair And Medich to Pirates for 3 Players,” New York Times, March 5, 1986.

FanGraphs

Griffith, Nancy Snell. SABR Bio

Jenkins, Lee. “Randolph, a Son of Brooklyn, Seeks to Scale One More Pedestal,” New York Times, November 4, 2004.

Previously on the Top 100

20. Phil Rizzuto
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