Wednesday, October 1, 2014

How Good Derek Jeter Actually Was

Derek Jeter's farewell tour is mercifully over, and the Yankee captain of the past decade is finally hanging up the spikes. We've all seen the fanfare around Jeter's exit, and also the vomit-inducing hagiography, and the backlash to that hagiography. Jeter is a player who had a great career, but his legacy is buried under piles and piles of bullshit from both sides. I'm here to right the wrongs, and give Jeter exactly the objective farewell that he has earned (at least, as much as I am able to as a Red Sox fan).

I'd like to focus on something that has plagued Jeter's legacy in the last few weeks: cherry picking stats. It's easy to argue against those who call Jeter the greatest Yankee, or in some cases, the greatest player of all time. That's just crazy talk. But people on both sides of the Jeter conversation -- the knob slobbers and the haters -- have been cherry picking stats to make Jeter seem the way they want him to seem. That's obviously unfair, and for any player with a 20-year career, you could find stats that make him sound like the best or worst. Two examples of this cherry picking are Keith Olbermann's rant against Jeter's legacy and Jayson Stark's very stupid article detailing Derek by the numbers.

Olbermann is a GENIUS as we all know (the bar for the "genius" title is getting lower and lower), and though I like most of what he says on sports, this rant is off-base. He first rails against Jorge Posada for saying Jeter was the greatest Yankee of all time -- an understandable opinion because he knew the guy for 20 years and won 5 championships with him (since when is Jorge Posada the authority on anything?). Olbermann then cites the following statistics:

  • Number of times Jeter led the AL in an offensive category (3)
  • Number of times Jeter led the Yankees in "the big 8" offensive categories (Doubles, Home Runs, RBI, Stolen Bases, Batting Average, OBP, Slugging, OPS) (17)
  • MVP Awards (0)
  • Career WAR compared to Adrian Beltre, Chipper Jones, Albert Pujols, Jim Thome, Larry Walker (6th)
  • WAR Per Season with the Yankees compared to Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Alex Rodriguez, Thurman Munson, Mike Mussina, Willie Randolph, Graig Nettles, and Red Ruffing (11th)
  • Slugging %, OPS, Home Runs, Triples, Doubles, RBI, Strikeouts among 19 all-time players with 12,000 or more AB (13th, 14th, 12th, T-13th, 14th, T-14th, 1st respectively)
  • Defensive WAR (-9.4, worst among SS in modern era)
  • Defensive runs saved (-156 since 2003, lowest since 2003 among SS)
  • World Series wins in last 14 years (1)
  • BA, OBP, Slugging in 2014, and then since August 1 (well below career averages)
While some of those stats are very telling (the defensive stats jump out), some of them are truly arbitrary. Olbermann conveniently picked 5 players whose WAR is higher than Jeter's. He could have mentioned that Jeter is 4th among active players in career WAR, behind only A-Rod, Pujols and Adrian Beltre. Beltre's presence is certainly more of an argument for Adrian Beltre being underrated than for Jeter being overrated.

Also, WAR/season with the Yankees? How can you compare Mike Mussina, who was with the Yankees from ages 32-39, including some of his best years in which he was basically never hurt, to Jeter, who was there for his entire career, including times when he was hurt? Olbermann knows that it's unfair to add Jeter's 17-game, -0.7-WAR season to that calculation as just another year. CC Sabathia had 4.9 "War Per Season" with the Brewers, a full Win higher than Robin Yount! CC Sabathia must be the greatest Brewer of all time. NO ONE DENIES THIS.

Keith gets on Jeter a lot for a lack of offensive production compared to relatively arbitrary peers. Keith fails to divulge that Jeter is the only person he mentioned playing a traditionally light-hitting position (second base, shortstop, catcher) other than Thurman Munson, whose misleading "WAR Per Season" statistic is based on his age-22 through age-32 seasons (because of his tragic death) rather than Jeter's age-21 through age-40 seasons. Jeter, at Munson's ages, had 4.9 WAR per season, compared to Munson's 4.2.

Okay. I now want to turn our attention to Olbermann's opposite, which is Jayson Stark's cherry-pick-a-palooza. Here are the stats Jayson Stark uses:
  • Games played with one team in a career of playing for just one team (8th all-time)
  • Career hits (6th all-time, more than Hank Greenberg and Shoeless Joe Jackson combined!)
  • Number of games played at shortstop (the most by a player who never played any other position)
  • Multihit games (4th all-time)
  • Postseason hits (most all-time)
  • Seasons hitting .300 with 10+ home runs and steals (11, most all-time)
  • On-base percentage (.377. Stark claims that this is the highest among shortstops since World War II, but after a one-second search, I found that A-Rod's was higher as a SS)
  • Got a hit in 92/100 games once (tied for 2nd all-time for number of games with a hit out of 100)
  • Playing for only one team at ages 20 through 40 (5 others have done it)
  • Number of games Jeter played when his team was mathematically eliminated from the playoffs (at the time of that publishing, it was 1, but there were a few more this season)
I know that Stark's article probably wasn't meant to be a comprehensive summation of Jeter's legacy, but these stats and comparisons come out of seemingly nowhere -- if they're not just wrong altogether. Jeter being 6th all-time in hits is, to me, the most obviously excellent accomplishment of his career, something Olbermann conveniently does not mention. The fact that Jayson Stark decided to compare that number to the hit totals of two players who had famously high peaks and shortened careers is a bit odd. Also, so many of these are incredibly circumstantial. Jeter played on the team with the highest payroll in baseball for the vast majority of his career, and his teams were always good. Also, his entire career occurred during the Wild Card era, and it began at the beginning of that era. Of course he has the most postseason everything. His teams having always been competitive might have to do with the other $200 million in payroll that was around him, and not just the 2 hitter and below-average defensive shortstop. Stark does make a good point about Jeter's offensive production as a shortstop, which Olbermann neglects to mention, but Stark conveniently ignores Olbermann's valid point that Jeter shouldn't have been a shortstop as he was defensively poor.

I also particularly enjoy that .300 average with double-digits in home runs and steals stat. Hitting .300 is hard and only about 25 guys a year do it in baseball, but 10 home runs and 10 steals is nothing, especially in this era. This "stat" is the most cherry-picky of them all. I can imagine Jayson Stark or some intern at ESPN poring over arbitrary benchmarks searching for one in which Jeter was the best all-time.

Anyone who has a 20-year career on all good teams and with relatively few injuries will draw comparisons to greats. Stark does this: Jeter is compared favorably to Stan Musial, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Pete Rose, Cal Ripken, George Brett, and many others. But one comparison is particularly perplexing. Stark lays out Jeter's career playoff stats, and since Jeter has played 158 playoff games, it looks like one season's stats. He batted .308 with 20 homers, 18 steals, a .374 OBP and an OPS at .838. Quite good stats for a quite good hitter. Then Stark says this:

So how many active players have ever had a regular season like that? Exactly five. And one of them is (guess who?) Derek Jeter. Who of course also had a "season" like that in October. Against the best teams and the best pitchers, in the most pressurized games of his life. Don't tell me that's overrated.

What does he mean by "a regular season like that?" Like what? Matching those numbers exactly? Exceeding all of those numbers? Coming within X% of each of those stats? What does that mean at all? Exactly five players have had seasons that remind me of those stats in some way that I'm not going to tell you. And he did those rare (?) things in the playoffs! Therefore, those who say he's overrated are wrong. Because he had certain stats. That are reminiscent of others maybe. That few people have gotten. And that correlates to his public perception. Somehow. Good.

So, instead of cherry-picking the most random things we can possibly find like our friends Keith and Jayson, let's just look at, y'know, normal stats, and throw in what we know about Jeter.

Jeter was never the best player in baseball (and rarely the best player on his team), but he was always a well-above-average hitter with little (but some) power. He was a machine who got 200 hits while playing the toughest position in baseball other than catcher. He played that position pretty poorly.

Derek Jeter is sixth all-time in hits. There are only five people in the million years of baseball history who have more hits.That's really amazing. That alone means he's a first-ballot, surefire Hall of Famer.

On, Jeter is 88th in career WAR. That's in guaranteed-Hall-of-Famer-non-steroid-division territory. On FanGraphs, he's 46th, which is even more Hall of Fame-y. Jeter's .310 batting average is quite good -- 112th all-time, but over a 20-year career, that's quite good. His career .377 OBP is quite good as well, and especially good for a shortstop.

Derek is quite impressive in many counting stats. He's 6th all-time in hits, 10th all-time in runs scored, 21st in total bases, and was good for 260 home runs, which is 5th all-time for a player as a shortstop behind A-Rod, Ernie Banks, Cal Ripken, and Miguel Tejada.

In many ways, Jeter is a Mariano Rivera to the power of 10. Consistently very good, especially for his position, only played for one team, and that team was very successful. Jeter's career wRC+ is 119, meaning he was about 19% better than the rest of baseball over a very long career. That's absolutely no small feat, but it's nothing crazy. A guy who holds a wRC+ of 119 over a 15-year career might be a Hall of Famer (AKA Paul Konerko, who we'll get to later)-- one who does it for 20 certainly is.

One thing about Jeter that colors fans' perception of him: he has MOMENTS. I was present for one, when he hit a home run for his 3000th hit. "The Flip" in the 2001 ALDS (which I think is a legitimately great play). "The Dive" against the Red Sox (which I think is a relatively overrated, though still great, play). Becoming Mr. November in the 2001 World Series (which the Yankees lost by the way). He also was part of 5 World Series-winning teams and was the captain of the Yankees from 2003 until his retirement. He also never had a real controversy, and knew exactly how to handle himself to keep a low profile and gain respect. That's no easy task for a 20-year-old making big money and playing in an even bigger city. Never mind keeping that up for 20 years.

But everyone has said it before, and I'll say it again: this guy would be Craig Biggio if he were on a different team. Sure, he may still be 6th all-time in hits, which is an unbelievable stat that can't be forgotten, but come on. If this guy were on almost any other team, he would not receive the adulation he does. Paul Konerko, a guy who played essentially his whole career with one team (the White Sox) and has a wRC+ of 118 (one point less than Jeter), just retired as well. He didn't get a farewell tour, and he didn't deserve one.

Derek Jeter is a Hall of Famer. He's had a really great career. But let's call him what he is: one of the top singles hitters of all-time, a real defensive liability (we've covered that), and a beneficiary of East Coast bias and extremely high payrolls. He's a top-5 shortstop of all time who actually couldn't play shortstop. A first-ballot Hall of Famer, but very objectively overrated as a player. Not the best player of his or any generation, but a guy who hit quite well, had his moments, and should not be forgotten. I guess I just think we'll remember him too easily.

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