I started the what about series primarily to address guys that a lot of people think should be in the Hall of Fame. Usually, we clump players together that are all borderline candidates. This time we are doing something else. No one doubts the fact that Derek Jeter is a Hall of Famer. He was the captain of the best team in baseball in the 1990s and 2000s. He joined the 3000 hit club. He earned the nickname Mr. November. So, we are not here to debate whether he belongs in Cooperstown. We are debating exactly his place in Cooperstown.
There are a few players like Jeter throughout history. Some fans think he is among the best to ever play the game while others think he is among the most overrated players to ever play the game. For Jeter, that usually begins and ends when people start talking about fielding. However, we are getting ahead of ourselves as usual. We should begin with the index and then move on from there.
The Hall of Fame Index
If we look at the total list of shortstops (including modern players) then we find that Jeter’s index puts him fourth all-time. Obviously, the index was never designed to rank order players, but he clearly belongs in elite company. That is almost exclusively because of the offense that he brought to the table and his long record of durability. It is a lot more instructive to compare him with the top five guys on the Hall of Fame board offensively before we even get to the fielding question.
The typical offensive numbers we use show us how dominant (or not) a player was over the course of his entire career. They don’t tell us how long the player did it. We can use different numbers for that. So, to illustrate that we will include runs created as a way to show each player’s durability.
Now we get into one of those famous cases where we ask ourselves what these numbers really mean. Obviously, Wagner and Rodriguez are in a league of their own offensively. The rest were grouped pretty close together. There are two ways to look at this data. The first is that Jeter belongs with the elite performers because he was relatively close to all of them in the numbers we have been using throughout our reporting. However, we haven’t gotten to defense yet and we know his reputation is shaky at best. That is where runs created come in. He is second all-time amongst shortstops in that honor and beaten only by his former teammate Arod.
The upshot is that he had approximately two to three seasons worth of plate appearances beyond what the others were able to produce. Part of that can be attributed to longevity and part can be attributed to durability. Both of those are good things, but none of those make him a better hitter than the rest of them. Now, we look at defense. We really can’t compare him to anyone else as you can see, so we will look at Jeter by himself.
There is an argument to be made for Jeter being the worst defensive shortstop of all-time. Unfortunately, that argument is primarily dependent on the numbers. When you look at defensive win shares (as an example) you find that players typically have fewer defensive win shares per 1000 innings with the fewer innings they play. That makes perfect sense. Teams don’t employ inferior fielders for very long. That was different in Jeter’s case for a variety of reasons.
Jeter was a fan favorite and a powerful player within the Yankees organization. They moved Rodriguez to third so they could keep Jeter at short. This was even though Rodriguez was clearly the better defender. Obviously, they were not using dispassionate analysis there. One could argue that the desire not to rock the boat outweighed a desire to actually have the better defender. They won and won a lot, so obviously they can defend the decision, but there was something else at stake. Let’s compare him with fellow butcher Jose Offerman.
We see two very important phenomena happening at the same time. First, we could yank any other player from history similar to Offerman. Offerman played longer than just those five or six seasons. They moved him around between second base and first base to find a position where he wouldn’t be a liability. This is the way sports work. When you find a player that you like overall, you will keep shuffling him around when he proves to be substandard at a position.
So, Jeter really isn’t the worst shortstop in history. That’s ludicrous. He is the worst shortstop for any that played the position for that long. That could hardly be blamed on him totally. The Yankees simply had a blind spot where he was concerned. However, another more likely blind spot are the errors. Jeter was fairly surehanded when compared to Offerman and most other shortstops for that matter.
This reflects the bias of the previous age. Many traditional fans still think it matters how many errors you have. On an individual game basis it might. It certainly looks worse when you boot one. It matters a lot more how many balls you actually get to. This is where Jeter suffered. He just didn’t get to as many balls as most other shortstops. So, in terms of actual ability and scouting, Jeter was not the worst defender of all-time at shortstop, but in terms of value he was.
In terms of overall value, this definitely has an affect on how we perceive Jeter over time. This is one of the reasons why we look at career value and peak value. Jeter is a top five shortstop in career value. Peak value just might be a different story. All told, he is still a Hall of Famer when he becomes eligible, but where he stands in history will probably be debated for quite some time.