Willie Randolph and a different path to greatness

Tuesday Night Open Thread
Prime Time: The Deion Sanders Sideshow
(Getty)
(Getty)

Last offseason the Yankees let go of the best hitting second baseman in franchise history. Among second basemen who batted at least 1,000 times in pinstripes, Robinson Cano is the franchise leader in doubles (375), home runs (204), batting average (.309), slugging percentage (.504), OPS (.860), and OPS+ (126). It’s not particularly close in most of those categories either.

A strong case can be made that Cano is not the best second baseman in Yankees history, however. According to both the Baseball Reference and FanGraphs versions of WAR, Cano is no better than the third best second baseman in franchise history. Robbie lags behind some others in on-base percentage and games played — he and the team mutually agreed to part ways, for sure, but tenure counts, no? — and, well, in rings too.

You needn’t take WAR at face value to argue Willie Randolph, not Cano or Hall of Famers Joe Gordon and Tony Lazzeri, is the best second baseman in franchise history. Randolph is just behind Lazzeri on the all-time hits (1,784 to 1,731) and on-base percentage (.379 to .374) leaderboards at the position while ranking first in walks (1,005) and steals (251). The gap between Willie and second place is 175 walks and 100 steals, so it’s not close either.

The Yankees originally acquired Randolph in one of the least talked about best trades in franchise history. On December 11th, 1975, New York sent workhorse righty Doc Medich to the Pirates for righty Dock Ellis, lefty Ken Brett, and the Brooklyn-born Randolph. Medich was okay after the trade (95 ERA+ in 1,209.1 IP) but never did repeat the success he had in pinstripes (107 ERA+ in 787 IP). Ellis had a 114 ERA+ in 231.1 IP for the Yankees and Brett was flipped for outfielder Carlos May a few weeks later.

Randolph was obviously the real prize though. As a 21-year-old in 1976, he put up a .356 OBP with 37 steals and was an All-Star. He went to four All-Star Games in his first six years with the Yankees and was a catalyst atop the order for the Thurman Munson, Reggie Jackson, Chris Chambliss led teams that were winning pennants and World Series titles in the late-1970s. In 1986, Randolph was named the team’s co-captain with Ron Guidry. He and the Yankees eventually parted ways after the 1988 season, when Willie put up a career worst 77 OPS+ at age 33.

Although he was never the biggest name or the biggest star on the team, Randolph was consistently one of the best players on the Yankees during his 13 seasons in pinstripes. He just went about it in a way that was underappreciated at the time. Randolph was a classic number one or two hitter who controlled the bat well but he never really bunted — averaged six sac bunts per year with the Yankees — and had zero power. He had a career .075 ISO and averaged only 20 doubles and four homers per season in New York.

What Randolph did do, however, were two things that didn’t really become highly sought after skills until this century: he drew a ton of walks and played some crazy good defense. Willie averaged 77 walks per year with New York and led the league with 119 free passes in 1980. Not only did he never once strike out more than he walked, he averaged 38 more walks than strikeouts per season while in pinstripes. The closest his strikeout total ever came to his walk total was in 1977, when he walked 64 times and struck out 53 times.

Because he excelled at drawing walks and putting the bat on the ball while having zero power, Randolph managed to post a higher OBP (.374) than SLG (.357) during his 13 seasons in New York. His career numbers are a .373 OBP and a .351 SLG. Only 108 players in history have batted at least 3,000 times and finished their careers with a higher OBP than SLG, and, of those 108, Willie ranks 21st in OBP and fifth in plate appearances (9,461). Of the 20 players with a higher OBP, only two (Dave Magadan and Brett Butler) started their careers after 1975.

Measuring defensive skill is a bit tougher than measuring offense, especially since we’re talking about the late-1970s and 1980s. Among second basemen, Randolph is seventh all-time in games at the position (2,152), ninth in putouts (4,859), tenth in assists (6,336), third in double plays turned (1,547), and sixth in defensive WAR (19.4). Following the 1977 season, Rangers scout Joe Branzell filed this scouting report on Randolph and praised his defense (via Diamond Minds):

Willie Randolph scouting report

On the 2-8 scouting scale (some use 20-80, some use 2-8, same thing), a 6 is above-average and 7 is well-above-average. Branzell gave Randolph a 7 for his range and 6s for his arm strength, arm accuracy, and fielding ability. Clearly, at least one scout considered Willie an above-average defender, which matches his reputation. Randolph never did win a Gold Glove, however, mostly because Gold Gloves are stupid and historically have been a popularity contest more than a “who’s actually the best fielder?” award.

Players like Randolph — powerless bat control specialists on the middle infield — were not uncommon back in the day, but very few were as great in that role as Willie. He drew a ton of walks, never struck out, never hit for power, and played a mean second base for 13 years in pinstripes and 18 years overall. Randolph was a great Yankee, arguably the best second baseman in franchise history, and he did it with a unique skill set that is more highly valued in today’s game than it was three decades ago.

Tuesday Night Open Thread
Prime Time: The Deion Sanders Sideshow
  • gageagainstthemachine

    You had me at Dock Ellis. Today’s PED accomplishments don’t stack up anywhere near his LSD no-hitter!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_vUhSYLRw14

    • David Masino

      You know, having heard about Dock pitching his no-hitter on acid more than 20 yrs ago (wasn’t it actually a perfecto?) I actually think its sad that that’s what ppl seem to chiefly remember him for…

      There was a “Dockumentary” short film on him a couple years back, seems alot went on in his life, good and bad, eventually cut short by complications from yrs of heavy drinking, though he got clean and became a positive role model & mentor for others afterwards, esp. other ballplayers…

      As for Willie, any Yankee fan who watched him loved him, there wasn’t anything about him not to like. I’d say he’s roughly analogous at his position as a Yankee to what Bernie was- not a HOF’er (though I’d say Bernie’s case is stronger but not by much) but a damn good, indispensable ballplayer for many years on championship teams, respected and liked by most everybody.

      I know he wanted to come back and coach here, and wished he had more lasting success managing, but I think he will be back in pinstripes one day.

      One thing i disagree with is the notion that Willie didn’t win the gold glove largely on account of a popularity contest. I agree with that scout’s assessment- an above average to very good fielder.

      One prob: Willie played at the same time & league as Frank White, and Frank White was a tremendous fielder, and Lou Whittaker was excellent also. Can’t see Willie winning GG’s over those guys

      • gageagainstthemachine

        I agree. Mostly, I just love the animated story of it. However, it does have to be said that sometimes people are unfortunately defined or remembered due to major instances. Dock was good, but he’ll also be remembered for that no-hitter and the LSD connection. Clinton was by most political definitions an excellent president in terms of governing, but he’ll largely be remembered for Monica Lewinksy. Pete Rose was a somewhat of a god when it came to playing the game, but most people will always talk about his betting on baseball. ARod will go down in history for what he’s now being remembered by as opposed to the amazing career he’s actually had. These are the hard facts of life for people. Luckily, I will remember Willie better than Dock because not only was he a better ball player, but he also had a better personal life that allows us to look at his playing legacy as a whole and not necessarily because of isolated, but overshadowing, circumstances.

        • Moncada’s Codpiece

          Clinton has had ample opportunities to do other things. Monica Lewinsky will always be remembered for Monica Lewinsky.

          • gageagainstthemachine

            Of course he has (and overall he was a very productive president), but ask the average American on the street about Bill Clinton and what’s probably going to be one of the first things they can speak to? The Monica scandal. That was my point.

      • Jorge Steinbrenner

        Agreed on all counts, although I can’t speak much to the Dock Ellis stuff.

  • Farewell Mo and Jeet

    I never really thought of Randolph as a HOFer but after looking at his fangraphs page recently and comparing him to players like Biggio and other HOF 2nd basemen, he’s much more in the conversation than I would have originally thought.

  • Yankenstein

    And Willie ran hard to first.

    • I am Brett Godner

      Yeah and I think I read on the internets once that Cano was lazy.

  • Posada_20

    Loved WIllie. Played the game hard and never complained or caused any trouble. Remember the first time I saw him play in Pinstripes was in that game against the Angels on Bat Day, 1976 when the Yanks trailed the Angels and Frank Tanana 8-0 heading to the 9th inning and rallied to score 8 runs in the 9th to tie it. Willie had a big 2 run double in that 8 run 9th. Was always a favorite of mine.

  • YankeeB

    You tend to overlook a guy like Willie Randolph because of the way he went about his business, but to do so would be your loss. He was a cornerstone player on a solid team. Sorry he won’t be back as a coach this year, as you can never have to many guys like that around your organization.

  • OldYanksFan

    I get that Cano played 4 less years as a ‘Yankee’, but it’s misleading to say Willie might be considered better than Cano. Cano is in a whole different class.

    • Stan

      They based that on WAR if I am reading the article correctly. Im not sure if that total WAR so its hard to say. I would say that overall Cano is the best 2B in Yankee history due to his offensive numbers being as outstanding as they are for a 2B, but as noted below Randolph was the better defensive 2B in my eyes.

  • Stan

    Randolph is the best fielding 2b the Yankees have had in the 40 years I have been watching. Cano being a close second.

  • Kenthadley

    He was a good manager too. His only problem with the Mets is the players went around him to cry to Omar about how tough Willie was on them, and Omar undermined Randolph by listening to them….once he canned Randolph, the team and Omar went straight down the toilet.

  • OldYanksFan

    Question:
    Player A: Hits 2 HRs every 10 ABS. His OPS is:.200 + .800 = 1.000
    Player B: Hits 5 Singles every 10 ABS. His OPS is:.500 + .500 = 1.000
    Which player is more valuable?

    • TheEvilUmpire

      Player A. Guaranteed to score 2 runs every 10 ABs. That’s 120 runs per year spread over 600 ABs, not to mention 120 home runs! Plus Player A could be the worst runner ever, but it wouldn’t matter as long as he can jog.

      • OldYanksFan

        Tell you what… and it’s easy to do,
        Take a teams of Player A vs a team of player B.
        Now it might not always happen, but Team A goes:
        Single Out Single Out Single Out every inning
        Should score 1 run/inning, 9 runs/game.
        Team B scores 7 runs/game.

        • 86w183

          Only if every two-out single drives in a run which is hardly a guarantee. Guys will get thrown out at home. They will get thrown out trying to go form first-to-third. It’s not nearly as simple as you make it seem.

          • Preston

            Not to mention, what if the first guy in the innings gets out. Then it’s out, single, out, single, out and no runs scored (assuming non random sequencing which is silly). Which is the real problem. The runs rely on sequencing with singles, but not when you put it over the wall.

            • 86w183

              No one was ever erased on a DP, caught stealing or picked off on a HR either.

    • http://riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

      Player A, easily.

    • Preston

      OPS highly overvalues singles because it counts them twice (once in OBP and once in SLG). That’s the biggest flaw in the stat.

    • Centaur Hips

      According to wOBA, player A but barely. (.446 to .427)

      • Centaur Hips

        Sorry meant player B.

      • Dalek Jeter

        wOBA doesn’t take into account outcomes though. With player A you’re guaranteed basically 1 run a game from him if he goes 1-5 with a homer.

        • Centaur Hips

          It all depends on sequencing. 5 singles in a row would easily trump a 1 HR, but most likely they will occur every other AB. The HR guarantees a run, while all the singles have the potential to score but could also be stranded. The wOBAs are pretty much similar so it depends on if you prefer constant production or higher risk but higher reward with the singles. Having a .500 OBP would be great especially as a leadoff hitter, but so would a .800 SLG% in the middle of the order. Also watching all the RISP fails with the HR guy would be pretty annoying to most fans I would think, but they would also be the more exciting player by far.

          • Dalek Jeter

            I agree it’s definitely more of a toss up for the “one guy” if we’re talking about a team of player A or a team of player B like they are below, give me a team of player A’s every time.

            • Centaur Hips

              Gun to my head I would take A, but I would be ok with the singles too. Games would just be wayy too long.

              Singling your opponent to death can be effective. I would know since it’s the only way I win in Tap Sports Baseball.

              • Dalek Jeter

                That game is dead to me.

    • Jorge Steinbrenner

      A.

    • Looser Trader FotD™

      I’d like one from column A, and one from column B. And some mochi for dessert.

    • W.B. Mason Williams

      Which one is more Cuban?

    • Centaur Hips

      http://www.tangotiger.net/markov.html

      According to this the OBP lineup would score 12.33 R/G and the HR lineup would score 6.75 R/G so it would have 6.75 HR/G.

      I put in average K rates for both and didn’t change the baserunning stuff they had. Just gave them .500/.500/.500 and .200/.200/.800 slash lines. (54 AB, 27 Hs, and 10.8 Ks for OBP and 33.75 AB, 6.75 H, 6.75 HR, and 6.75 Ks for HR)

  • TheEvilUmpire

    There’s something to be said about having a position that you can just pencil in and forget about year after year. Willie gave that to the Yankees for over a decade. I think Brett Gardner is that comparable player – no flash, but you know he’s got it handled in the field and is a plus offensively year in and year out. Those types of players are so under appreciated, but essential to any team that hopes to contend.

    • Looser Trader FotD™

      THIS

    • Moncada’s Codpiece

      Quality player, year in, year out. The morning e-mail noted to expect an article of what the opposite of that looks like in the pre-Jeter days. Painful times, indeed.

  • Monterocouldstillbedinero

    Willie was solid and, with less ability than Cano, played the game hard and smart and made the most of his abilities. He stood a little far from the plate which affected plate coverage at times but he was the perfect steady professional influence on a team (and sometimes manager) full of flamboyant personalities.
    I’ve talked to him at ST games and watched him interact with people over the years. Solid and great with fans of all ages.

  • TKP119

    For anyone who is interested I wrote a post at Lohud for the pinch hitter series last year ranking the top-5 Yankee second basemen of all time:

    http://yankees.lhblogs.com/2014/02/01/pinch-hitting-tyler-patterson-2/

    • 86w183

      I remember that. Excellent piece, but I have to have Lazzeri at # 1. He tops Gordon in every statistical category and spent five more seasons in pinstripes.

      • TKP119

        I think it’s a toss up between Lazzery and Gordon, I just put more value on Gordon’s peak performance. Thanks for reading.

      • Looser Trader FotD™

        His ’29 season was epic: 159 OPS+!!!

        • TKP119

          Interestingly, the two best individual Seasons for a Yankee second baseman belong to Snuffy Stirnweiss (8.9 rWARin 1945 and 9.0 in 1944). he didn’t crack my top-5 list because his career was just too short, and he gets docked a bit for playing in the WWII years when many of the best MLB players were overseas. You can say the same thing about the next best season Joe Gordon’s 8.8 rWAR in 1942.

          Next up would be Cano’s 7.7 rWAR season in 2012.

    • Jorge Steinbrenner

      Seems like a dead link, but congrats on writing that piece.

  • SweetSpot

    Is Willie Randolph Cuban? If not, why are we talking about him?

    • Jorge Steinbrenner

      Good point. We should be talking about his replacement, Esteban Sax.

  • TCF16

    I loved Willie as a player, but I do think Cano edges him out because of Cano’s power. Cano’s defense was criminally underrated. Not as a good as Willie but still excellent.

    • Y’s Guy

      Willie is one of my all time favorite Yankees but Cano was clearly better. That’s not a knock on Willie.

    • I talked to Barzini

      Extremely underrated. Watching Cano turn double plays was something special to watch and I’m not sure if/how the defense numbers account for that.

      • Dalek Jeter

        He also had excellent range into the 2B hole, and IMO by far the strongest arm in baseball at 2B. He has like a SS or a RF arm.

        • I talked to Barzini

          I didn’t even mention going back on popups which he is, undoubtedly imo, better at than any other 2b in the game. Robbie made literally every play that a 2b must make look extremely easy.

  • http://gcam5101994.blogspot.com/2015/01/ Rays55Yankees

    It was a shame Randolph and the Yankees couldn’t get together on a coaching job. Unfortunately I have the feeling Girardi didn’t want to have him around because he views Willie as a threat.

    • http://riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

      Willie hasn’t coached since 2012. He’s not exactly a hot commodity at this point.

      • SweetSpot

        You’re right he’s not. It’s just hard to understand why. He’s got tons of baseball experience on the field and in the dugout, he’s smart, articulate, well-liked, etc. Jeff Pentland hasn’t been a hitting coach since 2011 when the Dodgers fired him halfway through the season. The Royals fired Pentland and so did the Cubs. I’m just curious as others are why Randolph is having a hard time finding a job when a guy that got fired over and over and over gets hired.

        • Looser Trader FotD™

          The Mets meltdowns seem to have left a lingering stench on him.

          • SweetSpot

            You’re probably right.

            • Tom_hamsandwich

              Randolph brings a very Joe Torre vibe to managing, and I think that has gone out of style. I think he would be a great addition to the coaching staff nonetheless.

              • SweetSpot

                What’s a Joe Torre vibe? Managing the Yankees to the post-season every one of his twelve seasons with them, winning six American League pennants and four World Series championships? (wink!)

          • Mayan Brickann

            Not entirely undeserved. Aside from the Gene Mauch Phils losing a 6 game lead with 12 to play, the 2007 Mets is probably the greatest collapse ever.

            • W.B. Mason Williams

              2011 Red Sox

              • Mayan Brickann

                Close. 2011 Red Sox/Braves lost 9 game leads with 25 games to play. 2007 Mets lost a 7 game lead with 17 to go. Neither are good. Mets collapse is probably worse.

                • W.B. Mason Williams

                  Yeah you’re right. Bonus part is I got to enjoy both.

  • Dalek Jeter

    Willie was before my time, but “clearly the best 2nd baseman in franchise history” is quite a claim. Gun to your head, you have a 20 year old Willie Randolph and a 20 year old Robbie Cano on the board who are you going with the to be your franchise second baseman?

    • Looser Trader FotD™

      I’ll just take Tony Lazzeri in 1929 and his 159 OPS+

  • Centaur Hips

    I thought that Randolph was a borderline MLB player that went into coaching since I didn’t get to see him play. Cool to that he was a great player. Seems like a great guy as well.

    • Dalek Jeter

      You need to study your Yankee history, good ser.

      • Centaur Hips

        Yoan Moancada is Yankee history.

        • Dalek Jeter

          He’s living history, living history is oft painted in the blood of good men. (I’m sorry, I’m reading A Song of Ice and Fire again)

    • Jorge Steinbrenner

      In other words, Willie Randolph was the balls.

    • Mayan Brickann

      Quite possibly the most underrated Yankees player ever. He was underrated while he was playing and remains so now. Not an HOF’er or anything, but a very good player.

  • Jorge Steinbrenner

    Yes.

  • HoopDreams

    Cano was the laziest .300 power hitting 2B with a laser rocket arm ever

    • dach_yanks

      I never bought into this rap on Cano — maybe his first few seasons he relied on his extraordinary talent, but Bowa (and ARod gets some credit as well) got into his head about realizing his potential, and his off-season DR workouts were famously rigorous. I just think his constant smile (clear love for the game) and easy smooth grace & athleticism made it “look easy” … hence the “lazy” image.

      • zedzedzed

        I agree, it’s not fair to say he was lazy. You don’t get to be that good without hard work.

  • Scott

    I started following baseball and the Yanks at the tail end of Willie’s career. My aunt and uncle got me into the Yanks and my aunt was a huge Willie fan (have fun with that, I set it on the tee, somebody knock it out).
    I remember him being a good defender, but I don’t remember the walks, OBP, I was too young to care. I just knew Willie was a good Yankee.

  • Robert

    Saw Willie play at Tilden HS Brooklyn thru Yankee career. He was a true Yankee great fielder clutch hitter He was .Another coach on the field .
    Cano is a better fielder and hitter in my opinion as someone who has seen both play.

  • Looser Trader FotD™

    Loved those late 70’s teams and was fortunate to have seen them play quite a bit including in the post season. There were bigger stars on those teams obviously, but Willie went about his business in a fantastic way.

  • dach_yanks

    My Yankee fandom started in late 60’s so I got to see Randolph — rock solid 2-way player, consistent production and great #2 table-setter, very high intangibles (although his era included likes of Munson and Chambliss and Guidry, so natural leaders abounded). Comparison with Cano is classic case of trying to compare players from very different eras; at end of day, I give slight edge to Cano who was under-rated as defender (his great arm expanded his range) and elite #3 hitter, while Randolph was complete package but less impact/high character leader.

    • Dos Luises

      It is amazing the natural leaders on that late 70’s team…
      Chamblis Managerial & Coaching Experience
      Randolph Managerial & Coaching ”
      Bucky Dent Managerial & Coaching ”
      Lou Piniella Managerial & Coaching ”
      Roy White Coaching Experience
      Thurman Munson … Oh Captain, My Captain…
      Why do I feel like I’m missing one more manager from that team?

      • TCF16

        Sparky manages in the Cape Cod league and has for a while
        Guidry – Coach
        Gullett – Well respected coach

        Tidrow – scout for Giants

        cant think of anyone else

        • RetroRob

          Mickey Rivers. Mickey is managing….oh, wait, he’s at the race track.

        • Dan M.

          Jim Beattie was on the 78-79 Yankees and went on to become a general manager for about a decade.

  • Jimmy

    Willie is definitely one of my all-time favorite Yankees. Solid guy at the plate, solid on the field and with no drama. Just a classy team-guy who played as hard as he could all the time. Glad to hear others appreciated him as much as I did.

  • Dos Luises

    Nicely done. Randolph was always my favorite player, Nettles a close second. I might have suspected that Cano would have rated higher on your list so that tells you again a long time fan like myself would have under-rated him too.

  • RetroRob

    As much as Gene Michaels gets credit for being the architect of the 90s Yankees, Gabe Paul is the mostly forgotten architect of those 70s teams. He acquired Graig Nettles for a bucket of spit, then traded for Chris Chambliss, Dick Tidrow, Oscar Gamble, Lou Piniella, Mickey Rivers, Ed Figueroa and as Mike writes here, Randolph and Dock Ellis. Here was a crazy thought. Let’s give an untested rookie the job at 2B!

    A strong argument can be made that both Nettles and Randolph are HOF-caliber players. Lesser players are in the Hall at their positions.

    • Cogen777

      IIRC Gabe Paul was still with Cleveland when he traded Nettles to the Yankees. The trade raised a few eyebrows when he did become the Yankees GM. Some believed he already knew would be getting the NY job and made the trade based on that knowledge.
      Either way, he is a great story as a GM.

      • RetroRob

        You are right, or maybe we are both right. : -) Paul was still with the Indians when the trade happened, but then quickly was a minority investor when Steinbrenner purchased the Yankees, eventually taking over as GM after Mike Burke was removed within a year of Steinbrenner’s arrival. The timing of Nettles trade to the Yankees and Paul being officially named GM was a bit, umm, curious. It would be as if today Dan Duquette traded Matt Weiters to the Blue Jays, and then a few weeks later was officially named President of the Blue Jays. It would never happen today, but forty some years back??? Yeah, I think it’s quick possible something underhanded happened here.

  • JFH

    One of my all time favorite Yankees. I loved watching him play every day. He was overshadowed by bigger personalities in the clubhouse. But on the field, he was consistently great.

  • dbutler16

    Go Willie! One of the great players of those Yankees teams of my youth.

  • O.D.M.

    I remember the trade. I was psyched because I liked Ellis a lot as I was also a Pirate fan (because of Clemente) and I recall reading in the papers that The Yanks prime motive was Willie. They really believed in him. It may have been Gabe Paul’s machinations in Cleveland but NYY brass was smart in getting him.

  • cstrings

    Willie is the best! The numbers only confirm what long time Yankees fans knew already. He continues to be a class guy UNDER-APPRECIATED to this day by the “experts” and MLB owners. He was always a winner and he played a quiet yet fiery role in the success of the Yankees during his playing days and his coaching days. WHY DOESN’T HE HAVE A TEAM TO MANAGE TODAY??? Thanks for this excellent article, Michael.