For the seventh installment of our Yankees By the Decade retrospective on the aught-aughts, we land in center field. For the Yankees of the 2000s, center field represents quite the dichotomy. The position peaked early and never regained the luster of the Bernie Williams Era.
Bernie Williams retired — or was forced off the Yanks when he opted against accepting a Spring Training invite in 2007 — in 2006. Yet, he remains the center fielder of the decade. Despite a late-career swoon, he still hit .293/.378/.474 as the Yanks’ center fielder this decade, and his early-00 numbers are, as we’ll see soon, stellar.
After Bernie became too old and too slow to adequately man center field, the Yankees simply could not find an adequate replacement. For one year in 2006, Johnny Damon‘s offense was well above-average, but his defense in center was anything but. He turned in a -11.6 UZR that year and sported his trademark awful arm. The man hired to replace Bernie had all over 843 at-bats at center over his four years with the Yanks.
Melky Cabrera and then Brett Gardner followed Damon in center. Although Gardner flashed some speed and Melky an arm, the two weren’t impact offensive players. For the decade, the tale of center field is one of decline. Bernie started off strong, but by 2009, the Yanks were content to live through average or below-average center field production. It’s been a long, hard fall:
With this table, we can track that fall. For three years, Bernie was a beast. He put up a combined OPS+ of 140, and Yanks’ center fielders hit a combined .308/.388/.509. The vast majority of the team’s overall counting stats in center came during those three years. The 81 home runs and 340 home runs were nearly 40 percent of the decade’s totals. The slugging outpaced the rest of the decade by over .060 points.
In 2003, though, Bernie fell to Earth, and for the next two seasons, the Yanks tried to move a proud aging ballplayer to lesser position. In 2004, the team brought in Kenny Lofton, but Joe Torre stuck with his man. Bernie still made nearly two-thirds of all center field at-bats, and his OPS+ over that span was a good-but-not-great 108. Still, the combined .281/.368/.446 line was not too shabby.
In 2005, it all fell apart. Bernie couldn’t hit, and his legs were gone. A cameo by Melky Cabrera was worse, and the Yanks’ center fielders hit .241/.296/.332. It was truly a low point of the decade. Johnny Damon provided some pop in 2006, but he couldn’t man the position. The combined .273/.345/.461 line was a breath of fresh air amidst some offensive woes later in the decade.
When Melky Cabrera took over in 2007 and enjoyed approximately 80 percent of the center field playing time for the next three seasons, the Yankees were seemingly content to let the offense in center slide. Since 2007, Yanks’ center fielders have hit .268/.333/.393. That .726 OPS is a far cry from the .897 mark that started the decade. Melky’s combined UZR in center over the last three seasons has been -8.4. He was well below average in 2007 and at or slightly above average in 2008 and 2009. Melky had an average 2009 with the stick, but now he’s gone, sent to Atlanta in the deal that brought Javier Vazquez back to the Bronx.
As the Yankees head into 2010, they will begin a new era in center field. Curtis Granderson is under contract through 2013, and the club holds an option for 2014. Hopefully, the new decade will begin as the previous one did — with some top offensive and some solid defense out of center field. It’s been a while.