I’ve always consumed baseball in some form for as long as I can remember. I played it growing up (and still play slow-pitch softball today) and my family always made an annual excursion to Yankee Stadium; given the time period–the late 90’s–it seemed like they won every time we went to games. And in this great stretch, despite being too young to fully appreciate what those teams were doing, I obviously enjoyed rooting for the team and the players. And my favorite player among them was Bernie Williams.
Bernie’s glory days with the Yankees were marked by incredible consistency by both him and the team. Once he started rolling and before his precipitous drop-off at the end of his career, Williams was guaranteed to hit near .300; OBP near .400; slug 20 homers; hit 25-35 doubles; and drive in around 100. From 1994-2002, his peak performance, Williams hit .319/.404/.525/.929, averaging 38 doubles, 27 homers, and 90 walks per 162 games. Among outfielders in that time period, his 141 wRC+ tied him with Sammy Sosa for 10th place in the Majors, just ahead of Ken Griffey, Jr. (140). He was 5th in fWAR (43.0), too, just ahead of Manny Ramirez (41.6) and just behind Larry Walker (43.9); everyone trailed Barry Bonds (76.4) by a whole lot.
His finest season came in 1998, when he won the batting title with a .339 average. In addition to that, he also posted a .422 OBP and a career high .575 SLG. He knocked 26 homers and 30 doubles despite playing in only 128 games (578 PA/499 AB). All told, Williams hit .297/.381/.477/.858 for his career, notching a 125 OPS+; a .373 wOBA; and a 126 wRC+. He hit .300 or better eight times; he OBPed .400 or better four times; he slugged at least .500 six times; and he hit .300/.400/.500 or better three times, all in a row from 1997-1999. He now sits in 10th place on the Yankees’ all time bWAR list (49.4); 6th on the Offensive WAR list (62.6); 6th on the games played list (2076); 6th on the runs list (1366); 5th on the hits list (2336); 6th on the total bases list (3756); 3rd on the doubles list (449); 7th on the home run list (287) and the RBI list (1257); and 5th on the walk list (1069). Bern, baby, Bern, indeed.
This all ignores the fact that Williams also shined in the playoffs, smacking 22 homers in 465 postseason at bats (545 PA) and posting a line of .275/.371/.480 with 71 walks, all remarkably similar to his regular season career line. He was the 1996 ALCS MVP, crushing the Orioles to the tune of .474/.583/.947/1.531 with two home runs and three doubles. The ALCS is when Bernie did his most playoff damage, posting a .962 OPS in 41 games.
Those are the statistics and in some ways, for me at least, they represent the sentiment. The teams Bernie played on were some of the best in Yankee history and I was there to watch them and he was my favorite to watch. I even went as far as to model my batting stance after him, his slightly crouched positioning speaking to me more than Paul O’Neill’s, Derek Jeter’s, and Tino Martinez’s upright stances. Things obviously worked out a lot better for Bernie with that stance than they did for me. Imitation is how I appreciated Bernie and the rest of the team during that time. Now as an adult, a more well-rounded and educated fan, I can look back at these numbers and realize just how damn good Bernie was at hitting.