“Bernie Goes Boom”: Did Yankees’ Williams come up in wrong generation?

BOSTON - JULY 13: Bernie Williams of the American League waves to fans as he's introduced before the 1999 All -Star Home Game at Fenway Park on July 13,1999 in Boston, Massachusetts. The American League defeated the National League 4-1. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
BOSTON - JULY 13: Bernie Williams of the American League waves to fans as he's introduced before the 1999 All -Star Home Game at Fenway Park on July 13,1999 in Boston, Massachusetts. The American League defeated the National League 4-1. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images) /

It’s been a long time since I’ve heard the name “Bernie” and thought of anyone other than my favorite U.S. presidential candidate. But when the 2021 Yankees found themselves mired in an offensive slump, I was reminded of an icon of my childhood.

A few games ago, Yankees color commentator Suzyn Waldman offered an apt explanation as to why many Yankees, and for that matter, baseball players in general, are currently not hitting.

Quoting former pitcher and fellow broadcaster David Cone,  Waldman explained that one of the biggest changes in baseball has been that position players are no longer taught how to hit. Instead, they are taught how to hit for power. And while swinging for the fences may be a solid approach if you’re Aaron Judge, it can leave lesser players with little more than a multitude of strikeouts.

Waldman contrasted today’s hitters with retired Yankees centerfielder Bernie Williams. Williams, she argued, was the perfect example of a player who focused on hitting, rather than slugging. Sure, he hit a fair amount of home runs, but that was never his focus.

Bernie Williams indeed had a career that most players would envy. He batted .297 and posted a wRC+ of 126. But while I understand Waldman’s nostalgic comparison, when it comes to my own view of Williams’ career, I can’t help but be a slight downer.

Yankees outfielder Bernie Williams, the Almost-Star

I started following the Yankees in 2001. Barry Bonds hit a record 73 home runs that year. Sammy Sosa hit 64. Richie Sexson’s 45 was good for only ninth place. It didn’t matter that my Yankees came one inning short of a fourth consecutive World Series title. The fact that our team’s best sluggers were Williams and Tino Martinez (who hit 26 and 34 home runs respectively) made me feel like my team was somehow inadequate.

And I continued to see Williams in a frustrating light. He was an almost-star. He was almost a slugger, having hit 30 home runs once. He was also almost a career .300 hitter. And his Baseball Reference WAR is 49.6, almost enough to get him serious Hall of Fame consideration.

Waldman is right to say that several of New York’s sub .200 hitters could afford to take pointers from Williams. But I am here to say that the opposite is equally true. Williams might be able to teach today’s player how to be competent, but today’s players, in turn, could have taught Williams how to be a superstar.

Analyzing Bernie through Gardy

So how good would Bernie Williams have been, if he been trained in the 2010s instead of the late ’80s and early ’90s?  Unfortunately, there is not much data to work with when it comes to answering such questions.

Baseball’s current trend towards power-hitting has been documented via Statcast data. Statcast tracks the (launch) angle at which hitters make contact, and just how hard that contact is. This data only goes back to 2015, making it impossible to meaningfully look at how the “launch angle revolution” affected the performance of players who played through the transition to this current power-centric era, let alone how it would affect those whose careers entirely predate it (like Williams).

One of the few encouraging precedents available is that of Brett Gardner. Gardner’s best slugging seasons were 2017 and 2019. Both years saw him set career highs in slugging percentage and home runs by raising his launch angle.

More importantly, in 2017 Gardner batted .264 and posted an OBP above .350, both of which are above his career averages. And while the same cannot be said of his 2019 numbers (.251 and .325 respectively), at the very least those totals marked an improvement over his 2018 totals.

The Gardner data is useful for assessing how Williams would have performed if trained to steepen his launch angle. Both Williams and Gardner are products of a Yankee farm system known to emphasize plate discipline. And while Gardner’s plate discipline is a big part of his game, Williams’, it appears, was on another level.

An average player, for instance, swings at about 30% of balls outside of the zone; Brett Gardner’s career O-Zone % is 21.4. While unfortunately such data was not kept until the final five seasons of Bernie Williams’ career, even in those twilight years, he chased only 15% of outside pitches.

And the data that was kept during Williams’ career further suggests a disciplined hitter. Williams had a better than average career walk rate of 11.8%, a better than average strikeout rate of 13.4% and a career on-base percentage of .381. It seems the lesson of Gardner’s late-career power surge is that players who are comfortable with their plate discipline can afford to make the adjustment and embrace steeper launch angles. With his strikeout and walk rates, Williams likely could have risen to the challenge of adopting a more power-focused swing.

Bernie Would Have Slugged

From there, one can only speculate how good Bernie Williams would have been had he been trained to think about his launch angle. Brett Gardner raised his launch angle and surpassed the 20-homer mark twice, despite having previously struggled to hit more than 10. Bernie Williams’ career slugging percentage is about .80 points higher than Gardner’s. One can only imagine what he would have done if he channeled his power into hitting balls over fences.

Furthermore, Williams posted a career wRC+ of 125. In 2019 (MLB’s last full season), 42 players reached that total. And of those 44, only nine hit less than 30 home runs (2-3 of whom likely would have hit 30 had they played a full season’s worth of games).

In short, in this era, players with a bat and eye like Williams’ overwhelmingly hit for power.

There is admittedly one stat that’s not in Williams’ favor: his hard-hit rate. Like plate discipline numbers, that stat was only available in the final five years of Williams’ career.  Over those years, Williams posted a below-average 26.4%. That said, it’s hard to imagine that Williams wasn’t making much more hard contact in his offensive peak seasons of 1996-2001.

The conflict between hitting and slugging has long been part of baseball’s fabric. Before Babe Ruth burst onto the scene, homers were not only rare but taboo. Ty Cobb claimed that he chose not to hit home runs, seeing true baseball as being a game of line drives and base running. Ichiro Suzuki, Cobb’s friendlier reincarnation, was also rumored to not hit for power by choice.

Ultimately, both styles of hitting come with a cost. Today’s sluggers strike out a lot, which can infuriate fans, even when these all-or-nothing swings produce net positive results.

Bernie Williams’ approach paid off. He had a wonderfully successful career, making five All-Star games and winning four World Series titles. Still, the greedy eight-year-old in me can’t help but wish he’d done all that…and also hit 500 home runs.