Derek Jeter: Great player, or GREATEST player?
We’re funny, us humans. We have a tendency to think that whatever we just saw is the greatest thing that anyone has ever seen.
Sometimes we’re right! Usually we’re not. But we think we are. I call this The Specialness Compulsion … We just think that we’re sooooo special. We’re not.*
* There’s actually a real name for this, but I don’t remember what it is and I can’t find the book that would tell me. Trust me, though, it’s real.
This was among my first thoughts upon reading Richard Justice’s column in the wake of the news that this will be Derek Jeter’s last season. You gotta give Justice this: He doesn’t pull his punches!
Derek Jeter’s legacy will not be all that complicated. He was the perfect baseball player. Got anything else?
In fact, it could be argued that Jeter is the greatest player who ever lived. Wrap your mind around that idea. Think of all the ways we assess a player’s career and tell me another player who ranks ahead of Jeter.
Here are the ways that Justice assesses a player’s career (or this player’s career, anyway):
• He’s been productive, with a career including more than 3,000 hits, five Gold Gloves, and eight top-10 MVP finishes in a 15-year span;
• He’s played for great teams, including five World Series winners;
• And “the other stuff” (you probably can guess what that means).
It’s funny. I thought Mariano Rivera, just last year, was the perfect Yankee. Granted, there’s really no comparison between an everyday shortstop and a relief pitcher who throws 70 innings per season. But in terms of “the other stuff” – not to mention postseason excellence – I’m not sure even Jeter trumps Rivera.
As I said, though, there’s really no comparison.
But was Derek Jeter perfect? Nobody’s perfect. No player’s ever been perfect. But if we’re making a list of players who had no apparent weaknesses, here’s roughly what that might look like: Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Tris Speaker, Stan Musial, Eddie Collins, Joe Morgan, Roberto Clemente and Joe DiMaggio.
No, Jeter is not on that list. Because there’s a great deal of evidence that he was not, in point of fact, a good shortstop.
Yes, this again. A dozen or more years ago, I made this point in a column, with some pretty good evidence on my side, and was insulted on the radio by Yankees broadcaster John Sterling. I wish I had a recording. That was before Ultimate Zone Rating. As I’m sure you know, it’s impossible to find a modern defensive metric that makes Jeter look like a good shortstop, or even an average shortstop.
Yes, all the metrics might be wrong. But the weight of those metrics is so great, the burden of proof now rests with those who want to argue the other side, no? At this point, it’s not enough to just say, “I saw the guy play and the numbers are wrong.” Yes, there are the five Gold Gloves. We know Gold Glove voters make mistakes. We know they’re biased toward incumbents, toward good hitters and toward players with high fielding percentages. We know our eyes and our memories conspire to play awful tricks on us. We know Jeter’s won five Gold Gloves, and his new teammate Brendan Ryan has won none.
Gold Gloves are evidence. In this case, they’re not particularly compelling.
Jeter’s been a good, and sometimes excellent hitter. He’s been a fine baserunner, he’s played a key defensive position, and he’s represented the Yankees as well as anyone has. If you can demonstrate that he’s been a good fielder, I’ll allow that he comes as close to perfection as any player we’ve seen in a while. But until then, he’s just not on that list.
The greatest player who ever lived? He’s not the greatest shortstop who ever lived. That’s Honus Wagner or, if you prefer a modern player, Cal Ripken. As brilliant as Jeter’s been, he’s not Babe Ruth or Willie Mays or Hank Aaron, or Stan Musial or Ted Williams, or Mike Schmidt or Joe Morgan. He’s just not. Consider: Very few people have thought he was the greatest player in one season; while he does have those eight top-10 MVP finishes, he has only three top-five finishes, and never actually won the award.
Maybe the voters were wrong! But the numbers suggest they weren’t. The numbers suggest the voters were just about right, except maybe he shouldn’t have done quite as well as he did. Leaving the intangibles aside, which I don’t necessarily recommend.
Looking just at regular-season numbers, you can make a pretty good case that Jeter is one of the 50 greatest players in history. That’s really impressive. Throwing in some extra credit for his solid postseason performance and his general bearing, and you can get him into the top 40, maybe even the top 30. That’s tremendous.
Forget about the greatest who ever lived, through. To get him into the top 20 — and past Cal Ripken, by the way — you have to prove that he was an above-average fielder. And that’s a heavy lift. I think that unless I had a great deal of time on my hands, I would be content with a tremendous player who ever lived.