On Tuesday, the Yankees announced that they’d be retiring number 21 in honor of Paul O’Neill. This didn’t come as surprise to any Yankee fan, but I’m sure I’m in the majority of folks that said “COME…ON…” either before or after an eye roll.
Although I shouldn’t have to say this, I will anyway: Paul O’Neill was a very good player and a key part of some of the best Yankee teams ever. That said, he was nowhere near the level of player whose number should be retired by the most storied franchise in baseball. Although I’m aware that this is as much about selling t-shirts and bobblehead dolls to the Yankees as anything else, there are 35 players in Yankee history who produced more WAR than O’Neill in their Yankee careers whose numbers are not retired. (Not counting recent players like Brett Gardner and C.C. Sabathia.)
Willie Randolph, for one, produced more than twice the WAR that O’Neill did.
I can go on forever about this but for brevity’s sake let’s stick with comparing O’Neill to another Yankee corner outfielder who is not only criminally underrated by MLB standards* but also clearly underrated by his own team – Roy White.
(*White has more career WAR than Hall of Famer Lou Brock and only 0.9 fewer than Hall of Famer Jim Rice.)
Let’s start by looking at the careers of White and O’Neill. White put up 46.8 WAR in 15 seasons, all with New York. O’Neill put up 26.7 WAR in nine seasons with the Yankees (lower per season average). Not that it should matter, but if you count O’Neill’s Cincinnati days, he still falls more than seven wins short of White for his career. Simply, Roy White had a better career than Paul O’Neill and all of it was with New York.
OK, that’s over a career – what about at their absolute best? Glad you asked. O’Neill’s best season by WAR was in 1998 when he put up 5.8. White’s best years were back to back in ’70 and ’71 when he posted 6.8 and 6.7 wins respectively. And before you come at me with “But rings! White was at the end of his career when the Yanks were good, Paulie Pie was a key player on World Series teams!”, White produced 5.5 WAR – essentially the same as O’Neill’s very best season – on the 1976 AL Pennant winners, the third-highest on the team.
“OK, OK, but what about their peak over a longer stretch – like say, four consecutive seasons,” you ask?
White’s best four consecutive season stretch by WAR was 23.1 from ’69-’72. O’Neill’s was 14.9, from ’95-’98.
Maybe you’re thinking, “All right, we get WAR and overall play, but Paulie won a batting title and had the 100 RBI seasons!”
Let’s start with this small bit of context: Imagine a world in which O’Neill played for the Yankees in the late ’60 and early ‘70s, and White hit behind Jeter and in front of Bernie Williams in the ‘90s. Who has the 100 RBI seasons in that world?
Furthermore, on June 14th, 1994, O’Neill was hitting .417 on the season. When the season ended just nine weeks later he was hitting .359. If you’re telling me that he would have outlasted Albert Belle (.357), Frank Thomas (.353), Kenny Lofton (.349), or his own teammate Wade Boggs (.342) if the season went on for another 59 games, I’m going to laugh and end the conversation – I’m not sure in which order. Damn batting title should have an asterisk next to it…
But we can stop with speculation and get to facts if you’d like, so let’s keep talking about hitting. O’Neill’s best offensive four-season stretch was from ’94-to ’97 when he posted a 140 OPS+. White’s best four-season offensive stretch was from ’68 through ’71 when he posted a 141 OPS+.
Roy White was a better hitter than Paul O’Neill, he was a better overall player, for a longer period of time and he did it all as a member of the Yankees. Do I expect him to get his number retired by the Yankees? No, because that wouldn’t sell t-shirts and bobblehead dolls and most importantly, it wouldn’t give Michael Kay nonsense to talk about in the booth.
Don’t kid yourself – that’s all O’Neill’s number being retired is about.
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