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Yankee Preview Wednesday: Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter
2004-02-25 08:04
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

The Odd Couple

By Richard Lederer and Alex Belth

With Andy Pettitte leaving New York to pitch for the Houston Astros, only four Yankees remain from the 1996 Championship team: Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada, all products of the Yankee farm system. Although it may seem as if the Yankees are a candidate for the TV show “Extreme Makeover”, no other team can claim a quartet of players who have been together longer.

Rivera has been an ace closer and one of the greatest postseason pitchers of all-time. Posada is among the premier catchers in the game and arguably the Yankees’ best since Yogi Berra. Williams and Jeter have been the two most valuable everyday players during the Joe Torre Era, yet they are rarely paired like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig or Thurman Munson and Reggie Jackson, let alone Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. Perhaps the reason why Williams and Jeter have not been linked to the same degree as Bagwell and Biggio is because they have not developed a catchy nickname like the Killer B’s. Regardless, they will be associated together even less now that Alex Rodriguez has joined the team. It’s going to be all about DJ and Alex; Bernie Williams will be by himself in the corner strumming his guitar. Over time, the connection between Jeter and Williams is likely to lose even more relevance.

But Williams and Jeter—along with Rivera—symbolize the current Yankee run. Williams is a product of the transition period during the early nineties and the championship years of the late nineties. Jeter is symbolic of the Yankee Dynasty under Joe Torre. Both players have been serious-minded professionals in the quiet Yankee tradition of Gehrig, Roy White, Willie Randolph and Don Mattingly as opposed to flashy stars like Hal Chase, Ruth, and Jackson. And yet they are entirely different players. Williams looks like a wandering gazelle in the outfield—grounded, but perhaps lost in a daydream—while Jeter is the stalking cheetah or a preening peacock in the infield. In that sense, Williams is the typical outfield personality and Jeter is the ultimate infielder.

Jeter is a major star, a sex symbol. Williams looks like a bookworm and is a family man. Jeter is Spiderman and Bernie is Peter Parker. Jeter is the cool extrovert and Williams is the thoughtful introvert. Jeter does little things that get noticed while Williams is easy to overlook. Recall the infamous Jeffrey Maier game against the Orioles in the 1996 ALCS which made the rookie Jeter a household name. It was Williams’ home run in extra innings that actually won the game for the Yanks, but who remembers that? Many of us just remember that’s the night that some lucky kid made another lucky kid a star.

Since his rookie year in 1996, Jeter has been a relentless and driven competitor. For Yankee fans, his enthusiasm has been contagious. Jeter smirks. He smiles. He engages the fans while he’s on the on-deck circle. No matter how tense the situation, he looks like he is having a good time out there. Watching Jeter, you feel invited along to enjoy in his fun. (If you hate the Yankees, it makes it easier to despise Jeter.) Jeter is a natural. It’s as if he were built to be a ballplayer--mentally, physically and emotionally. Jeter personifies Tom Boswell’s description of “a gamer.”


Baseball has a name for the player who, in the eyes of his peers, is well attuned to the demands of his discipline; he is called "a gamer." The gamer does not drool, or pant, before the cry of "Play ball." Quite the opposite. He is the player, like George Brett or Pete Rose, who is neither too intense, nor too lax, neither lulled into carelessness in a dull August doubleheader nor wired too tight in an October playoff game. The gamer may scream and curse when his mates show the first hints of laziness, but he makes jokes and laughs naturally in the seventh game of the Series.

Jeter has an edge, too. He’s just careful to keep it in check, but it’s definitely there. It was evident in Jeter’s unforgiving treatment of Toronto catcher Ken Huckaby last season, as it will likely crop up again in relation to Alex Rodriguez and who should play shortstop. But it is this edge, Jeter’s icy arrogance that has gotten him this far. And it serves him well on the field. Leo Durocher once asked:


If a man is sliding into second base and the ball goes into center field, what’s the matter with falling on him accidentally so that he can’t get up and go to third? If you get away with it, fine. If you don’t, what have you lost? I don’t call that cheating; I call that heads-up baseball. Win any way you can as long as you can get away with it.

Jeter has not only been a "heads-up” player from the get go, but he has also been a realiable one, participating in 148 or more games every year except 2003 (when he suffered a dislocated left shoulder on Opening Day). Only Garrett Anderson, Chipper Jones, and Rafael Palmeiro have had more seasons of 148 or more games since Jeter’s rookie year in 1996.

Although Jeter’s defense leaves a lot to be desired (placing at or near the bottom of his peers in almost every advanced metric), he has been one of the three best offensive shortstops in baseball over the course of his career. Since 1996, Jeter ranks first among shortstops in on-base percentage (.390), third in slugging (.462), and third in OPS (.853). Derek is fifth on the all-time Yankees list (500 games or more) with a .317 batting average, behind only Ruth (.349), Gehrig (.340), Earle Combs (.325), and Joe DiMaggio (.325).

The Yankee shortstop had a career year in 1999, leading the league in hits (219) and times on base (322), placing second in runs scored (134), and fourth in total bases (346). In the area of rate stats, Jeter finished second in batting average (.349), third in on-base percentage (.438), fifth in OPS (.989), and second in OPS+ (161). He was clearly the team’s best player, playing an important defensive position and ranking at or near the top in every offensive category. Jeter, in fact, became the first shortstop in club history to hit 20 home runs in a season in 1999.

Jeter’s reputation may have peaked the following year, becoming the first player in Yankee history to be named Most Valuable Player of the All-Star game and capping off another magnificent season by capturing MVP honors in the World Series. Derek led the Bronx Bombers to their fourth World Championship in his first five seasons, batting .409 with two home runs in the five-game subway series with the Mets. That year, Jeter became the third Yankee to compile three consecutive 200-hit seasons, joining Gehrig (1927-1929) and Mattingly (1984-1986). He also reached the 1,000 hit mark at a younger age than any Yankee not named Mickey Mantle.

Jeter is generally thought of as a “clutch” hitter, a player who elevates his game during the postseason when the stakes are highest. Does the perception match the reality?

BAOBPSLGOPS
Regular.317.389.462.851
Postseason.314.385.469.854

In comparison, here are Bernie Williams’ regular vs. postseason rate stats:

BAOBPSLGOPS
Regular.305.390.492.882
Postseason.278.386.483.869

Jeter’s numbers are freakishly close, and while Williams trails Jeter in postseason batting average, he nudges him out in OBP and SLG. What’s truly remarkable about Jeter isn’t that he is such a clutch hitter after all; rather, it’s that he is so consistent. (Rob Neyer made the point that neither Williams nor Jeter are necessarily clutch performers, but that Rivera is most certainly Mr. Clutch.) Derek is a steady ballplayer who plays at a high level during the regular season and the postseason. The simple fact that he performs on Broadway rather than some community playhouse theater is what brings Jeter the notoriety and the favorable critical reviews. He is the biggest star the Yankees have had since Reggie and probably the most beloved since Mantle. But according to baseball historian Glenn Stout, the author of Yankee Cenutry, Jeter is more like DiMaggio:


I think Jeter is the quintessential Yankee for his time, just as DiMaggio was. Like DiMaggio, he was the precise player the Yankees needed for his time, the player who made the Yankees the Yankees—and so was Mantle. Another interesting point with Jeter is that, like DiMaggio, he gives very little of his personality off the field, so that we tend to consider him totally and completely for what he does on the field, which sort of makes it easy to project special qualities onto him. He’s “touched” in a way very few athletes are in a way that transcends any way of measuring it—it’s not that Jeter’s play doesn’t reach statistical thresholds, but that stats just don’t contain him, or the right stat hasn’t been created yet.

Jeter is not an icon at this point, but the DiMaggio analogy is apt. It’s hard to blame sportswriters for being duly impressed. Furthermore, Stout hits on what people love and others hate about Derek Jeter. You can’t judge him entirely with quantitative analysis. His value is more far-reaching than that. The irony is that Bernie Williams is often under-appreciated because he lacks the same qualities that make Jeter famous. But his numbers more than compensate for his demur disposition; perhaps that explains why he’s popular with sabermetricians. In fact, when compared directly with Derek Jeter, here is what Bernie’s career averages (per 162 games) look like:

ABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSOSBCSGDP
Williams62611219136524104889714817
Jeter65112420732517826911724614


BAOBPSLGOPS
Williams.305.390.492.882
Jeter.317.389.462.851

And if you compare their average seasons since the start of the Yankees championship years in 1996, Williams looks even better:

ABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSOSBCSGDP
Williams62111919736527115929213718
Jeter65112420732517826911724614


BAOBPSLGOPS
Williams.317.404.525.929
Jeter.317.389.462.851

If this is the case, then why has Williams been overlooked? Is it that he just doesn’t have the personality of a big star? In a recent telephone interview, television analyst Tim McCarver said:


Bernie’s a track star playing baseball. And Bernie will tell you that. [As a hitter] Bernie has very powerful hands, and that allows him to almost read the ball at the last minute, to pick the ball up at the last instant. Very few people can do that. They have to start earlier. But as far as his effect on the team, Bernie is just a wonderful guy, but in no way does he have the leadership characteristics that Jeter does. He’s just not that kind of player.

Williams is somewhat like Roy White, a player who, according to Glenn Stout, “by himself couldn’t really turn the team around, but who got better and whose talent was more appreciated when surrounded by better players. Like Bernie, when White was young there was a lot of bitching about what he wasn’t rather than what he was.” Bill James has another take on why Williams is underrated in “One Hundred Years: The New York Yankees”:


[Williams is] So steady and unwavering he goes unnoticed…If a player is accomplished in three, four, five areas, it is harder to recognize the breadth of his total accomplishment. Williams spreads his accomplishment all over the statistical map. He hits doubles and home runs, he draws walks, he hits for a high average, he runs well, he plays a key defensive position, and he bats from both sides of the plate…He tends to be overlooked in the discussions of the best players because his talent isn’t isolated in one area—it’s everywhere.

If you think about it, it’s remarkable that Bernie Williams is the senior-ranking member of the Yankees. Only Barry Larkin (18 years), Edgar Martinez (17), Craig Biggio (16), and Frank Thomas (14) have been with their current teams for more consecutive seasons than Williams. Bernie’s unassuming, quiet nature is not the kind that traditionally lasts in George Steinbrenner’s universe for long. But when George served his second suspension from the game—from July 30, 1990 to March 1, 1993—Williams was allowed to develop. Williams was the beneficiary of Gene Michael’s plan to build the Yankees through their farm system. It wasn’t a smooth ride—Mel Hall used to terrorize the young Williams in the locker room—but eventually the Yankees’ patience paid off. Williams proved to be a late-bloomer and fulfilled the early promise the organization showed in him.

Unlike Jeter, Williams never possessed a natural instinct for the game. Long-legged and graceful, Williams was nevertheless awkward on the basepaths. His soft, round face, his doe eyes, further create an impression of passivity. But like Tim Duncan in basketball, Williams’ looks are deceiving: he is a driven, intense performer. He just so happens to be a flake and a bit of an artiste, too.

A talented musician, Williams seems to have mastered the game by breaking down each task, each skill into a lesson. Watching him play the outfield, or up at bat is a pleasure because Williams looks like he’s playing a private game, one that is separate from the game at hand. It’s almost as if Williams plays the game like he’s practicing scales on the guitar: it’s all practice and repetition. Williams is a musician playing baseball. But the writer Pat Jordan observed:


Bernie is the kind of guy where everybody will always be talking about his secondary thing. The kind of guy that no matter what he does, you say, “Yeah, but you should hear him play the guitar.” Or you should hear him do this, or do that. I think that’s what his curse is. That he does everything in such a way that he always gets credit for the secondary, or even third thing that he does. If he was a guitar player you’d say, “Yeah, but you should have seen him play baseball”.

And Bernie has played baseball very well. Williams enjoyed his peak production from 1997-1999, a period in which he was one of the top offensive performers in the game. The Yankee centerfielder placed among the top four in batting average and the top seven in on-base percentage and adjusted OPS each year. He maintained a high level of play through 2002 before faltering to age and injuries in 2003.

Since 1991, Bernie ranks second among center fielders in OBP (.390), fourth in SLG (.492), and third in OPS (.882). Over the course of his career, Williams has vaulted into the all-time top ten Yankees rankings in hits (1,950), doubles (372), home runs (241), and RBI (1,062). Only Gehrig (14 times), Ruth (11), and DiMaggio (8) have had more seasons with both 100 R and 100 RBI than Williams (5).

Williams was a good defensive outfielder throughout the early part of his career, and he received four consecutive Gold Glove awards from 1997-2000. His below-average arm—which was never any good—and increasingly limited range have reduced him to a less than acceptable alternative in center field for a championship-caliber team.

Williams and Jeter have each been among the top 20 players in baseball during their careers. From a statistical standpoint, Williams ranks behind only Ken Griffey Jr. in terms of center fielders. By the same token, Jeter rates second or third among active shortstops--behind only his good friend and new teammate Alex Rodriguez and perhaps Nomar Garciaparra of the Red Sox.

With Williams expected to alternate between the outfield and designated hitter this year and A-Rod switching to third base, Bernie and Derek may no longer be compared to the same peers as they have been throughout their illustrative careers.

Williams, who turns 36 in September, is coming off the least productive season since his rookie year and is in dire need of putting up some big numbers once again should he wish to be taken seriously by Hall of Fame voters upon his retirement. Unfortunately, Williams is likely to fall short of accumulating the counting stats (such as 3000 hits and 500 home runs) voters like to see and is at risk of falling below the magical .300 threshold in career batting average should he fail to make a strong comeback before his current contract expires following the 2005 season. He has walked too much in his career to get 3,000 hits and he has never been a home run hitter. Bernie’s greatest talent—that he does so many things well—could ironically come back to haunt him when it comes time for voters to evaluate his career. As it stands now, Williams is a borderline candidate unless he makes something of the rest of his career.

However, Williams’ value takes on a different dimension when viewed from a sabermetric standpoint against his positional peers. Using a stat created by Lee Sinins of the Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia, Williams ranks 11th in Runs Created Above Average and 7th in Runs Created Above Position among all center fielders since 1900.

RUNS CREATED ABOVE AVERAGE

RCAA
1Ty Cobb1369
2Mickey Mantle1099
3Tris Speaker1053
4Willie Mays1008
5Joe DiMaggio708
6Ken Griffey Jr.535
7Duke Snider467
8Earl Averill391
9Hack Wilson367
10Larry Doby359
11Bernie Williams357


RUNS CREATED ABOVE POSITION

RCAP
1Ty Cobb1078
2Mickey Mantle1009
3Willie Mays856
4Tris Speaker777
5Joe DiMaggio629
6Ken Griffey Jr.532
7Bernie Williams366
8Duke Snider334
9Hack Wilson325
10Earl Averill321
11Larry Doby308

Every player who is eligible for the HOF on both lists has already been inducted. It would only be fitting if Williams could follow in the giant footsteps of these all-time greats and be immortalized with a plaque in Cooperstown, alongside Yankee legends Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. Make no mistake about it, Williams is not in the class of DiMaggio and Mantle, but he compares very favorably to all but seven center fielders in the history of baseball.

Jeter, who won’t turn 30 until June, still has several seasons of baseball in him. Whether he stays at shortstop or ends up converting to another position at some point, Jeter is likely to remain a Yankee through the expiration of his contract in 2010. An additional seven years of productivity in pinstripes could elevate Jeter above everyone in Yankee lore other than Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Berra, and Mantle.

Jeter already ranks 9th and 11th among shortstops in Runs Created Above Average and Runs Created Above Position, respectively. Should he remain at SS, he stands an excellent chance of climbing into the top five in RCAA and at least in the top half dozen in RCAP before his career is finished.

RUNS CREATED ABOVE AVERAGE

RCAA
1Honus Wagner938
2Arky Vaughan478
3Alex Rodriguez400
4Robin Yount284
5Barry Larkin271
T6Nomar Garciaparra243
T6Joe Cronin243
8Luke Appling239
9Derek Jeter237
10Lou Boudreau202
T11Cal Ripken161
T11Alan Trammell161

RUNS CREATED ABOVE POSITION

RCAP
1Honus Wagner994
2Arky Vaughan598
3Barry Larkin481
4Alex Rodriguez474
5Joe Cronin431
T6Robin Yount408
T6Cal Ripken408
8Luke Appling375
9Alan Trammell365
10Joe Sewell346
11Derek Jeter308
12Nomar Garciaparra295

Interestingly, Alan Trammell is the only shortstop on either of the two lists above who is eligible for the HOF and yet still on the outside looking in. Trammell, who appears to be a deserving candidate in his own right, is likely to slip outside the top ten in RCAP once Jeter and Garciaparra pass him (which could take place over the course of the next two or three years in both cases).

The 2004 season will be an important one for both Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter. For Williams, it could decide whether or not he has a chance to make the Hall of Fame. With his arthritic shoulders and his bad knee a continuing concern, Williams could conceivably be out of the game in two years when his contract is up in New York. Would Bernie consider playing anywhere else but New York, or would he simply be content to walk away from the game at that point? The irony is that Jeter may be the one who ends up replacing Williams in center field, perhaps not this year or even next year but a distinct possibility in 2006.

Jeter’s immediate future is equally as intriguing. It would have been even if A-Rod hadn’t been traded to the Yankees. Now, it’s the best soap opera in town. Jeter is well on his way to the Hall of Fame, but, after a charmed start to his career, DJ is the target of criticism more than ever before. The scrutiny revolves around Jeter’s defense—the one aspect of his game that sabermetricians take exception with. Now that Rodriguez is on the Yankees, mainstream writers have already found new enlightenment in the sabermetric argument. How will Jeter handle the decline in his skills? He is known as the ultimate team player. Will his reputation change if he makes like Cal Ripken and lets pride get in the way of eventually doing what is best for the team?

While there are a lot of question marks surrounding what the future holds for this odd couple, their past accomplishments are undeniable. Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter have already cemented their place in Yankee history as two of the greatest players of this championship era.

Richard Lederer is the sole owner and proprietor of Rich's Weekend Baseball BEAT, and Alex Belth is your host right here at Bronx Banter.

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