By the Decade: From a strength to a weakness in center

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.

  AB Hits 2B 3B HR RBI BB IBB HBP K GDP BA OBP SLG
Bernie Williams 2919 854 167 11 114 469 395 45 20 431 88 .293 .378 .474
Melky Cabrera 1226 326 55 9 23 149 95 8 11 165 30 .266 .321 .382
Johnny Damon 843 232 43 6 35 111 107 1 6 125 7 .275 .358 .465
Brett Gardner 311 85 8 8 3 32 30 0 4 52 3 .273 .344 .379
Hideki Matsui 287 92 26 1 7 54 28 2 3 44 8 .321 .381 .491
Kenny Lofton 239 65 10 7 2 15 26 0 0 23 3 .272 .338 .397
Bubba Crosby 109 24 3 0 3 11 6 0 1 24 1 .220 .267 .330
Clay Bellinger 79 14 4 0 2 8 12 0 0 23 1 .177 .280 .304
Tony Womack 64 17 4 0 0 3 0 0 0 11 3 .266 .266 .328
Raul Mondesi 42 10 4 0 2 9 3 0 0 7 0 .238 .289 .476
Gerald Williams 28 6 1 0 0 1 2 0 0 4 2 .214 .267 .250
Totals 6261 1754 331 42 195 880 706 56 46 936 148 .280 .355 .440

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:

  AB Hits 2B 3B HR RBI BB IBB HBP K GDP BA OBP SLUG
Bernie Williams 2919 854 167 11 114 469 395 45 20 431 88 .293 .378 .474
2000-2002 1643 523 107 8 74 311 226 29 14 243 47 .318 .402 .528
2003-2004 803 216 38 2 31 108 124 12 4 112 29 .269 .368 .437
2005-2006 473 115 22 1 9 50 45 4 2 76 12 .243 .309 .351
Yanks CF Overall                            
2000-2002 1865 572 119 8 81 341 243 29 15 296 51 .307 .388 .509
2003-2004 1266 356 65 9 42 170 173 13 7 171 39 .281 .368 .446
2005 617 149 31 2 7 59 50 2 1 99 16 .241 .296 .332
2006 670 183 40 6 26 84 70 4 6 104 6 .273 .345 .461
2007-2009 1843 494 76 19 39 226 170 8 17 266 36 .268 .333 .393

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.

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Bernie still wants to play

Watching Bernie Williams play during the World Baseball Classic was one of the more discouraging parts of an otherwise entertaining tournament. He didn’t look mobile in the field; his poor baserunning abilities seemed overexposed by a lack of speed; and his bat, while decent, is hardly feared. No one watching would peg Bernie as anything but retired. No one, that is, except Bernie Williams. In a CenterStage appearance taped yesterday, Bernie told reporters that he can “still play” and wants to get back into game.

Now, I love Bernie as much as any Yankee from the 1990s dynasty. I still proudly wear his jersey to games. But at this point, his repeated statements about playing are just awkward. There’s nothing wrong with retiring gracefully when age catches up, and Bernie has yet to embrace that. I wish he would.

Bernie’s camp denies report

Following up on our morning report concerning potential legal trouble for Bernie Williams, we have a statement from the high-powered entertainment publicity firm Rogers & Cowan.

John Reilly, the V.P. of their music department, writes in with a denial:

Yesterday evening we learned of the filing of a complaint against Mr. Bernie Williams. The news has taken us all by surprise. On the night in question, Mr. Williams had gone out after accepting an invitation to be a guest performer with a local music act. Mr. Williams denies any wrongdoing and we feel that some published media reports today are inaccurate. At this time, Mr. Williams has been advised by his legal counsel, José M. Marxuach, to not make any further comments, inasmuch as we do not want to interfere with the ongoing investigation. We want to assure everyone that Mr. Williams will fully cooperate with the local authorities to have this matter clarified as soon as possible.

Bernie and the Puerto Rican WBC team is scheduled to take on Team USA on Saturday night. There’s no word yet on Bernie’s status for the game, but we’ll track this story as it develops.

Report: Trouble brewing for Bernie

As swan songs go, Bernie Williams‘ efforts in the WBC haven’t been what he wanted. While he was internationally walked a few days ago, his play in the field and on the base paths nearly cost Puerto Rico a key game against the upstart Netherlands team. Now, a woman in Puerto Rico has filed a complaint against Williams, alleging that the former Yankee hit her and took her camera while at a nightclub early Thursday morning. Police are investigating, and I hope they find evidence to clear Bernie. He was always one of my favorites, and I’d hate to see him go out like this.

Bernie: A-Rod’s injury a ‘blessing in disguise’

Bernie Williams knows about the pressures of playing in New York with a big contract. He knows about expectations and the media. To that end, he had some interesting things to say about Alex Rodriguez this weekend. “As hard as this may sound, it could be a blessing in disguise for him, because it might give him an opportunity to get away from all this craziness and give him an opportunity to heal. Kind of dissipate the whole distraction,” Bernie said while practicing with the Puerto Rican WBC team.

I agree with that aspect of Bernie’s comments, but he also said that it “might be good for the Yankees too” because the team has “enough firepower in that lineup.” But with older players returning from injuries and younger players coming off sub-par years, the Yanks were really counting on A-Rod‘s bat. It’s nearly impossible to replace a .306/.389/.578 hitter, and while being away from the PED scandal fallout may do A-Rod good, the Yanks will suffer if he is to miss a lot of time. (Hat tip BBTF.)

Bernie Williams and the WBC

When the rosters for the World Baseball Classic teams were unveiled last night, an unlikely name appeared on the list for the Puerto Rican team: Bernie Williams. The former Yankee great will be will be 40 years old and 888 days removed from his last Major League appearance when the PR team squares off against Panama on March 7, but Williams will play because the other four outfielders include Carlos Beltran, Alex Rios, Hiram Bocachica (!) and, in the words of Mike, “some guy named Jesus Feliciano.” As I said to RAB’s Twitter followers, I don’t know if Bernie’s making the team is a good sign for my one-time favorite Yankee or a bad sign for the Puerto Ricans’ tourney hopes.

As a postscript, Christopher Reina at Real GM Baseball pondered the question of Bernie’s Hall of Fame eligibility and the WBC a few weeks ago. His conclusion: Bernie’s playing in the tournament won’t restart his HoF clock.

Dueling takes on Bernie’s Tampa appearance

In preparation for the WBC, 40-year-old Bernie Williams, two seasons removed from his forced retirement, showed up in Tampa to practice yesterday. When Bernie, his four rings and all the nostalgia he carries with him shows up to camp, it’s a story. In fact, it’s more than just one story.

Peter Abraham presented a picture of a player reluctant to give up baseball. While time had passed Bernie by, the Yanks’ former All Star had trouble coming to terms with it and still seems as though he would be playing if for his family and the fact that no one will employ him. “It’s the story of a guy who still thinks he can play,” Williams said.

But the idea that he could still play never went away. Williams tried to make a comeback in December when he joined a team in the Puerto Rican winter league. That ended after three games when he pulled a muscle in his leg. Now he wants to try again in the WBC if his body holds up…

Williams, who has never admitted to being retired, wistfully spoke of playing in the majors this season. “I’ve always had the desire in the back of my mind that maybe, perhaps, if the situation was right with myself and my family that I could come back before it was too late. Right now I’m taking it as it comes,” he said. “If I still have the fire, I may have to consider seriously taking the opportunity to maybe, perhaps, playing somewhere else. Right now, it’s a very premature statement.”

And on the other hand — and in a somewhat similar vein — is Mark Feinsand’s piece. It sheds some more light on Bernie’s exit from the Yanks and his subsequent reconciliation. The two pieces overlap quite a bit, and both Abraham and Feinsand spend some words focusing on Bernie’s desires to return. Feinsand too sheds some light on the supposedly bitter break up between the Yanks and number 51. Apparently, it wasn’t as bad as we thought:

A lot was made of Bernie’s supposed anger over the way his career ended with the Yankees, but he cleared that up Thursday. The minor-league invite made it easier for him to turn down the offer, since he had a lot of issues with his wife and children, so many that he felt at the time that if he continued to play, he would lose them forever.

But now, Bernie seems happy with his life, even if this WBC represents his final shot at playing competitive baseball. He made his return to Yankee Stadium for the final game last September, but his appearance at Steinbrenner Field felt like the final step in fully mending any broken bonds between Bernie and the only team for which he ever played.

“I feel that I never left,” he said. “The fact that I stepped away had nothing to do with being angry with them. I had to take care of some things, step away and really figure out what was important in my life. I think I’m in a better place right now.”

Bernie wants to come back and play for someone somewhere as a way to go out on his terms. I doubt that will happen, and if he makes Puerto Rico’s WBC team, it probably be the last time we see him in uniform. I, though, am glad to see Bernie back in the Yankee fold. He deserves his Bronx day in the sun.