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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #13 Bernie Williams

Williams is one of the best outfielders in the team’s long history, and the unsung hero of a dynasty.

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USA TODAY Sports-Historical 1RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

Name: Bernabe Williams Figueroa
Position: Center fielder
Born: September 13, 1968
Yankee years: 1991-2006
Primary number: 51
Yankee statistics: 2,076 games, 2,336 hits, 287 HR, 1257 RBI, 1366 R, 449 2B, 147 SB, .297/.381/.477, 126 wRC+, 43.9 fWAR, 49.6 rWAR

Biography

Bernie Williams is one of the three best center fielders in New York Yankees history. Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Williams grew up playing ball and running track. He temporarily lived in the Bronx for a year after he was born before settling back down outside of San Juan. There, he played little league ball against other future star Puerto Rican players, including Juan Gonzalez and Ivan Rodriguez.

Williams was always a superstar athlete but was accomplished off the field as well. Being raised by a merchant seaman and college professor was a big reason for this. Unlike many international prospects at the time, Bernie enrolled in college at the University of Puerto Rico at the age of 17 before exclusively taking on his professional career. But once he turned to baseball, he never looked back.

USA TODAY Sports-Historical RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

The Beginning

Williams was signed at the young age of 17 when he was noticed by the scout Roberto Rivera. Rivera saw Williams and Juan Gonzalez play in Puerto Rico when they were 16. After that, he made sure the Yankees would be the team to sign Williams when his 17th birthday came around. The team was concerned that other organizations would find out about Williams’ talents, so they put him in a training camp in Connecticut until his birthday came around and he was eligible to sign.

After his signing, he started in the Gulf Coast League. In 1986, he was still exclusively a right-handed hitter. It wasn’t until 1988 and 1989 that he began to dabble with switch-hitting skills he picked up while playing wiffle ball.

Heading into the 1989 spring training, Williams was universally viewed as the team’s top prospect due to his switch-hitting, high-end speed, and poise on the field. He started the season in Triple-A but struggled mightily. After a demotion to Double-A, he picked it up, but it was still a disappointing season for a player who some thought could make the big leagues.

USA TODAY Sports-Historical RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

Bernie flipped the script in 1990 after being named an Eastern League All-Star and the second-best prospect in the league by Baseball America. At this time, Williams was still only 21.

After excelling to begin the year in 1991, he got his shot in the majors. When Roberto Kelly was injured and set to miss time, Williams got the call. On July 7th, 1991, he made his debut against Baltimore. He went 1-for-3 in the game and had some classic rookie quotes saying, “…I didn’t expect this many fans.”

Welcome to the Bronx, Bernie. He’d remain on the team for the rest of the season and finish with a respectable .238/.336/.350 slash line while belting his first career homer in the process.

Additionally, with a 12.8-percent walk rate at 15.2-percent K-rate, Bernie showed uncanny discipline for such a young player.

Despite the solid performance in ‘91, Williams spent the beginning of the 1992 season in Triple-A. Once he got his chance in the summer, he played his tail off. When the ’92 season was all said and done, he ended up playing 62 games with a 118 wRC+ while hitting .280 and playing above average defense in center field. This performance led to Williams cementing his spot in center field for the next decade, even with certified piece of garbage Mel Hall subjecting him to awful bullying.

Despite a bit of a slump in the following season — thankfully with Hall completely out of the picture — Bernie was still worth 2.2 fWAR. His bat regressed, but he was still an average player. Average was nearly not good enough for George Steinbrenner, though.

Williams was anointed the leadoff hitter at the jump that season, leading to high expectations for the top prospect. Steinbrenner wanted to force Gene Michael’s hand and trade Williams away when he got off to a slow start. The rumored deal would have been for future Hall of Famer, Larry Walker, but obviously that deal never consummated. The restraint paid off. Yes, Walker went on to make the Hall, but keeping Bernie worked out for the Yankees, and Bernie wasn’t too far off from Walker’s production in the next decade. Plus, he had some rings to show for it.

Bernie truly splashed onto the scene in 1994. In 108 games, he ran a 120 wRC+ while hitting .289 with a .384 on-base percentage. That was All-Star level production from an eventual five-time All-Star who was just 25 years old, and it happened behind the likes of Don Mattingly, Wade Boggs, and Paul O’Neill. Mattingly in particular took Williams under his wing, and while he was in awe of the Yankee captain, he listened, too.

When Williams got another shot to show off his skills in a full season in 1995, he ended up with the fourth most fWAR in the American League with 6.4 wins. Ken Griffey Jr. spent several months on shelf, so in ‘95 — perhaps the height of the steroid era — Bernie was the most valuable center fielder in Major League Baseball. The Yankees fell to Griffey and the M’s in a hard-fought ALDS, but Bernie got to shine on the national stage for the first time with a pair of homers and a 1.381 OPS in the five games. That was just a tease for the future.

MLB: USA TODAY Sports-Archive USA TODAY Sports

Bernie Goes Boom

From 1995 onward, Bernie Williams was the one of the best hitting center fielders in the game. The ‘96 campaign signaled the beginning of the Yankees dynasty, and Williams was at the helm. He put up a 132 wRC+ with 3.9 fWAR. Bernie’s was once an excellent defender, but his metrics from ’95 to ’96 did a complete 180. He went from 16.2 Defensive Runs Above Average (Def) to -12.1. He’d stay in the negatives for the rest of his career despite winning four consecutive Gold Gloves from 1997 to 2000. This would kill his overall value — the main point of contention against his Hall of Fame case.

For the next seven seasons, Williams would hit .300 with at least 20 homers, often walking more than he struck out. In 1996, when the Yankees went on to win their first World Series in 18 years, he was dominant during the ALDS and ALCS, winning MVP in the latter with a walk-off homer in the Jeffrey Maier Game. That October, Bernie was on fire, providing highlight-reel moments and belting multiple huge homers on the championship run:

Bernie followed up this season with a 149 wRC+ in 1997, the highest number in his career at the time. The Yankees had themselves one of the best center fielders in the game, but after his struggles in the ALDS, Steinbrenner floated Williams in trade rumors again. George just couldn’t help himself.

After steering clear of any trades, Williams won the batting title in 1998 despite missing over a month with a knee strain. As the ’98 team was on a run to finish off one of the best seasons of all time, Bernie struggled at the plate. Like his experiences in previous postseasons, he was walked at a very high rate. In that run, he had a 17.2-percent walk rate. As the best hitter on the team during that season, he was being pitched around and forced to rely on his teammates to get the job done, which they did.

Following the World Series run, Bernie was a free agent. Coming off a career year, he was due for a big payday. With the constant trade rumors while he was under team control, his return to the Bronx wasn’t necessarily a sure thing. He didn’t sign right away, as he had other suitors gunning for his talents as well, most notably the Boston Red Sox. But as you know, he did ink a big time seven-year, $85 million contract, making him the highest paid player on the team. Heading into 1999, Williams was the clear best hitter on the roster, and was now being paid like it.

Bernie didn’t skip a beat after signing his deal. He kept up his superstar level offense with a 149 wRC+ while hitting .342 with 25 home runs. He delivered the second ALCS Game 1 walk-off of his career in 1999, taking Boston’s Rod Beck deep to put New York up in the series en route to another championship.

Bernie Williams embodied the all-around hitting approach as well as any other hitter of the era. On top of his power and average combination, he struck out less than he walked. Whichever way you looked, Bernie was an elite hitter.

MLB: 2000 World Series-Game 5-New York Yankees at New York Mets USA TODAY-USA TODAY NETWORK

Through 2002, Bernie was one of the most consistent hitters in the game. He put up 4.8-4.9 fWAR in every season from 1998-2002. As his power began to tail off, he still hit for a respectable average. It’s the kind of profile and performance that you see from a Hall of Fame caliber player, which brings me right back to his defensive performance. In an age where analytical information was not accessible, Bernie was run out in center field everyday even though he should have been moved off the position multiple years earlier.

In his last five seasons combined, he accumulated over -100 Def, which is nearly worth 10 WAR. That was the difference between remembering him as a Hall of Famer, and Hall of Very Gooder. Add him playing throughout the steroid era where many offensive lines were inflated, and you see exactly why he didn’t get a fair shot on the ballot.

Regardless, there is no questioning that any switch-hitting center fielder with four World Series rings and 146 wRC+ during a nine-year peak had Hall of Fame-level talent. When longtime teammate David Cone joined the Red Sox in 2001, he got to face Bernie for the first time since the center fielder was an up-and-comer in early ‘95. Coney came away awfully impressed, as recounted in The Yankee Years, Tom Verducci’s book with manager Joe Torre:

“The thing I appreciated more and more from the other side was how good Bernie and O’Neill and Jeter were after facing them. How good Bernie was really caught me. Watching Bernie all those years we always thought, tremendous talent, batting champion, but what we always asked him ‘What are you thinking about when you’re hitting, Bernie?’ you’d get, ‘Nothing. I’m blank.’ And that was Bernie.
“So facing those guys, you see how talented they really were — how tough an out Jeter was, Tino, O’Neill, Bernie ... It was about how good they are, how tough they are and how much they can grind it out, especially for a pitcher like me who throws a lot of pitches and is trying to trick them later in my career.”

Bernie got to secure the final out of the three-peat in 2000, hit another huge playoff homer during the oh-so-close bid for a fourth consecutive crown in ‘01, knocked 11 hits in 11-straight at-bats in ‘02, won a division title with a walk-off, and hit a personal milestone in ‘04 with his 2,000th career hit. The late ‘90s represented Bernie’s peak stardom, but the man could still rake in the new millennium.

The Yankees decided not to re-sign Bernie after the 2006 campaign, which turned out to be his last hurrah in the majors. He stayed hopeful for a comeback and even played for Team Puerto Rico during the 2009 World Baseball Classic. But that would be the final taste of competitive baseball of his wonderful career. Bernie’s 22 career postseason homers rank third in MLB history and his name is splashed all over the Yankees’ prestigious all-time leaderboard, most notably fifth in hits (2,336), third in doubles (449), seventh in homers (287), and fifth in walks (1,069).

It was only appropriate that once the Yankees finally convinced Bernie to formally retire in 2015 that he would be honored with a retired number and a plaque in Monument Park. No one in pinstripes will ever wear No. 51 again.

Onto the Strings

As early as eight years old, Bernie Williams knew his way on a guitar just like he did around the outfield. He attended arts school to further refine his skills as a young student, and was known for playing in the clubhouse from time to time. It was his passion off the field. In 2003, he released his first album, which debuted at #3 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz chart. But it wasn’t until 2009 when Bernie’s public respect as a musician fully took off.

His second album titled, Moving Forward, debuted at #2 on the same chart. It even earned him a Grammy Nomination. He was as good on the strings as he was swinging the bat. He collaborated with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and other historic musicians. Even with the musical accomplishments, he was still hungry to learn more, like a true athlete would. In 2016, he completed a bachelor’s degree in jazz from the Manhattan School of Music.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Oakland Athletics Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps nobody was more qualified to explore the relationship between music and sport as Bernie was, so he wrote a book about it, Rhythms of the Game: The Link Between Music and Athletic Performance. There is truly nothing more Puerto Rican than your two passions being music and baseball. Bernie took passion to a whole new level though, winning World Series on the diamond and getting nominated for Grammy awards.

Bernie Williams is a special human being. Being a fantastic baseball player is cool, and so is being a Grammy nominated jazz musician, but he was also universally loved. If the reports are true, then Yankees fans will get a nice fix of him in 2024 and beyond.

Staff rank: 13
Community rank: 10
Stats rank: 13
2013 rank: 16

References

FanGraphs

Baseball Reference

SABR

Baseball Almanac

Rhythms of the Game: The Link Between Music and Athletic Performance

The Journey Within

Moving Forward

$87.5 Million Contract Signing

Jeter’s Last Game

Olney, Buster. Last Night of the Yankees Dynasty. New York: Ecco, 2004.

Verducci, Tom and Joe Torre. The Yankee Years. New York: Doubleday, 2009.

Previously on the Top 100

14. Don Mattingly
Full list to date