I think most Yankee fans have recollections of Roy White’s career that are similar to mine: A very good player on some bad Yankee teams, then a solid contributor on some championship Yankee teams later in his career.
Although neither of those evaluations is necessarily incorrect, they do understate how good of player Roy White was. The facts are he was one of the best players of his generation, he is the best Yankee left fielder of all time, and he’s in the “Who’s the most underrated Yankee of all-time?” discussion.
Furthermore, for those of you who still aren’t sold on newer stats, such as WAR and OPS+, Roy White is the reason you should be. White was a high on base percentage, plus base-running switch hitter with better than league average power who although predominantly a left-fielder, played multiple positions. That combination of skills make a player a very valuable player but the performance may or may not show up in the counting stats like hits, home-runs, and RBIs. But they are measured, and will show up in WAR for overall value and OPS+ for in the batter’s box performance.
Let’s start with overall value. Starting in 1968 (when White became a regular) through 1978 here are the MLB WAR leaders for left-fielders (min. 4,000 PA and more than half of games played in LF):
- Yaz 54.3
- White 48.2
- Stargell 42.3
- Billy Williams 30.3
- Joe Rudi 26.0
- Lou Brock 22.2
In fact, if you don’t want to cherry pick an era, let’s look at how White compares to other great left fielders for their careers. Career WAR:
Jim Rice (HOF) 47.7
Roy White 46.8
Lou Brock (HOF) 45.4
Even if you want to look at peak WAR (player’s best seven seasons), here’s what you’ll find:
Speaking of peaks, let’s open the sample size up a little bit and include players from all defensive positions to compare to Roy when he was at his best. From 1970 through 1971, here are MLB’s WAR leaders:
- White 13.5
- Yaz 13.5
- Clemente 12.7
- Nettles 12.7
- Bando 12.6
- Aaron 12.3
“That’s all good and well, versatility and good all-around play are nice, but let’s leave that for the middle infielders, right? I mean left fielders are supposed to swing the big lumber…” you may say.
Let’s look at OPS+, which weighs OBP and SLG accordingly then accounts for park factors and the run scoring environment of the era. (Because as we know, it was harder to hit in the mid-60s through the mid-70s when White played than it was in any other era). White’s career OPS+ was 121 (OPS+ is set at 100 being league average, so 121 is 21% better than league average) which places him in the top 20 all-time among left-fielders. But if you want to open it up to all other defensive positions for comparative purposes…
You want to know which other players had a career 121 OPS+? Dave Parker, Dale Murphy, and Harold Baines (who I don’t need to remind you, was a DH who’s in Cooperstown with that 121 OPS+). It also places White just ahead of some notable names like Paul O’Neill (120), Cecil Fielder (119), Andre Dawson (119) and Pete Rose (118).
It wasn’t just the “little things” with Roy White – the man could rake.
So it should go without saying, the above puts White in some pretty elite company in Yankee history. His 46.8 career WAR is 7th on the Yankees since integration (ahead of Posada, Mattingly, Rizzuto, and O’Neill among other notables) and first among Yankee left-fielders all-time. In fact, his 1970 and 1971 campaigns were the best two WAR seasons a Yankee left fielder has ever had at 6.8 and 6.7, respectively.
His base-running WAR was first among NY Yankees from 1965 -1979 with three top 10 league finishes in SB %, and as a testament to his team play (and as a nod to the situational hitting fans out there) White led the American League in sacrifice flies twice and is one of only three Yankees with more than 50 sacrifice flies and 50 sacrifice bunts in his career (Jeter and Randolph are the other).
And as someone who’s been writing a Yankee-centric baseball blog for four years, I know it needs to be mentioned: In 25 post-season games, Roy posted a .387/.430 OBP/SLG line, both better than his career averages. So if you’re a believer in clutch, Roy certainly wasn’t afraid of the bright lights in the October Bronx.
How did he end up so underrated? Probably a combination of factors, but being on a crappy team when at his best didn’t help. Then when the team was great, he was surrounded by future Hall of Famers (Jackson, Gossage, Hunter) guys who have good Cooperstown cases (Munson, Nettles, Randolph) and guys who performed like Hall of Famers over that stretch (Guidry, Lyle). Being relatively quiet and reserved in the middle of the Bronx Zoo era certainly wasn’t going to help him be noticed either. Somewhat tangentially, many players of that era are historically underrated, something Jay Jaffe touches upon in his book (link on right side of the page).
Whatever the case, Roy White was a great player who was also one of the best Yankees of all time, and I hope he’s recognized as such.
And on a personal note, White was the guest speaker at my post-season Little League dinner at one point in the late 70s and was a favorite with both kids and parents. He was (and I’m sure still is) informative, personable and humble – among the 10 or so speakers we had from the late 70s through the mid-80s, he was more amenable to staying a few minutes later to pose for pictures, sign autographs and just chat with folks than most players were.
Happy birthday number 6, thanks for being a great Yankee.
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