Baseball Magazine

I'm Not a "Believer" Either

By Theomnipotentq @TheMightyQuinn
With all the genuflecting at the altar of Derek Jeter going on as he approaches the 3,000 hit mark, the Sporting News has a column called "Skeptic vs. Believer" and the topic is "Derek Jeter is the greatest shortstop in MLB history" and two writers take opposite sides of that statement. (Personally, I believe that Honus Wagner, Cal Ripken and Ozzie Smith are greater.)
My friend Dave, a huge Red Sox fan and big time stat cruncher, decided to answer back the "Believer" in the piece, some guy named Stan McNeal. He sent me an email about it, and it's done in a very "Fire Joe Morgan" style. I think you all might enjoy Dave's responses. (McNeal's column is in italics.)
Don't get me wrong; there's a case to be made that Jeter's the best shortstop in history (he's not, but the case could be made). But this -counterpoint by Stan McNeal ain't it. (For reference purposes ahead of time, here're the stats of Derek Jeter, Cal Ripken, Arky Vaughn, Honus Wagner, and Reggie Jackson.) I realize this is an advocacy piece, and McNeal's co-author writes the case why Jeter is not the greatest of all time, so it's not really so offensive that this is one-sided, but there are nevertheless glaring moments of inaccurate stupidity, or if that's too harsh, stupid inaccuracy:
Only Honus Wagner, widely considered the greatest shortstop ever, put up numbers at the position to compare with Derek Jeter.
Wrong. Jeter's offensive case is actually remarkably weak, given his reputation, when compared to the rest of his league (probably due to him competing against the players of the steroid era, but still). Jeter scores a really weak 6 on the black-ink test; he's led the league in offensive categories only five times, three times for plate appearances (thanks, New York Yankees, for batting me leadoff!), once in runs, once in hits. Ripken led in PAs and ABs multiple times, but also in runs, hits, doubles, and total bases, and he holds the record for consecutive games played. Vaughn led the league in games and appearances and also runs (3x), triples (3x), steals, walks (3x), average, on-base (3x), and slugging. Wagner led in runs (2x), hits (2x), doubles (7x), triples (3x), RBIs (5x), steals (5x), average (8x), on-base (4x), and slugging (6x), and he still has the best single-season win-share total and his baseball card is an iconic bit of Americana. It's absurd to say Jeter compares to Wagner, and dishonest to say nobody but Wagner compares to Jeter. Quite a few shortstops do.
Only Ozzie Smith, Omar Vizquel, Luis Aparicio and Mark Belanger won more Gold Gloves....
And every one of those Gold Gloves is widely ridiculed. Derek Jeter is the worst fielder at shortstop in history. During his time in the majors, no player has been worse at any position, excepting possibly Manny Ramirez.
.... and combined, that foursome did not hit as many homers as Jeter.
Pointless, at least out of context. Aparicio led the league in steals nine straight seasons, something Jeter's never done, and has a higher black-ink rating---does that mean Aparicio is better than Jeter, because of that one stat? Of course not, because an isolated stat doesn't give you very much of a complete picture.
And that's just talking about April-September. Even the statheads who believe Jeter is overrated have to admit he is in a class by himself in October (and November).
The November playoff game is a recent oddity; if you want to claim that Jeter is the best ever in that month, you're playing a pretty silly game. Also, you're losing: Jeter was .250 in November 2001; Steve Finley went 5-for-8 with a homer and two walks during that month. In October, the argument is positively inane. In playoff history, Jeter is not in the top 10 in any rate stat---average, on-base, slugging, or OPS. He does lead several count stats---runs (by 18), hits (by 57), singles (by 54), doubles (by 1), and total bases (by 60). This of course obscures the real story; Jeter played his whole career in the era of long playoffs, whereas Ruth, Cobb, etc. only had seven games at most per postseason. Jeter hit leadoff or second for the Yankees, and accordingly had the most chances to get those hits, leading the list of plate appearances by 134 (no. 2 is Bernie Williams). Even with all those extra chances, he doesn't have the most triples or home runs, nor RBIs, walks, or steals. He does have the most strikeouts. But why call him "in a class by himself"? His very nickname clearly puts him in a class with Reggie Jackson---to whom he's demonstrably inferior, at least in the postseason. Mr. November is .321/.384/.449 in the World Series. Mr. October is .357/.457/.755. Jeter has 20 postseason home runs. Reggie Jackson has 18... in fewer than half the plate appearances.
That he still can handle the position 17 years into his career should be considered a plus.
Except he can't handle the position. He never could.
After all, when the Yankees traded for Alex Rodriguez, there was no doubt about who would man the 6 spot.
Poor team management by Joe Torre is a mark of excellence, it seems. Hey, I never knew that Scott Proctor was the best reliever on the Yankees!
The Orioles wanted Cal Ripken off shortstop years before he moved to third.
As has been widely reported in NY media, the Yankees have been looking for a way to move Jeter off short for years, too. But while we're ripping Cal Ripken, let's examine the season before he moved to third: He made the second most assists from shortstop in the AL. Prior to that, he'd been in the top five in assists every single year since 1983 and was #1 in seven years. Jeter led AL shortstops once (n 1997). He rated the top five twice. He did manage to lead the AL in putouts once, though. (Ripken did it six times.) Ripken was a great, great defensive shortstop.
Wagner never was regarded as a great defensive player and actually played 890 games at other positions.
Simply untrue. Honus Wagner has been called a great defensive player routinely. Here, I just Googled "honus wagner defense" and retrieved these squibs:
"A-Rod was fairly consisent but definitely not at the caliber of Honus Wagner in the defense department." "On defense, Wagner had a 'sixth sense of baseball,' McGraw claimed." "From 1900-10, Honus Wagner was arguably the best hitter, fielder, and runner in baseball." "There are too many good shortstops who could thrill with both offense and brilliant defense, starting with ... 1. Honus Wagner" "Would Williams' offensive advantage counteract Wagner's defensive dominance?" "'Honus Wagner can't play the entire infield,' he groused," "A concession can be made to Smith on defense, although when you compare Wagner..." "And he contributed mightily on defense. 'The only way to get a ball past Honus is to hit it eight feet over his head.'"
Again, that's just the front-page results from the one Google search I performed. Bill James considered Wagner an elite defensive player, calling him gold-glove quality. What's more, no matter his reputation, he actually was a good defensive player. He led NL shortstops in putouts twice and made the top five in assists eight times, so right there he's outdone Jeter, but he also led the league in range factor four times. Jeter made top five in range once. Wagner scored top-ten in defensive WAR, across all positions, seven times, and led the NL once. Jeter has never come in the top ten. Weirdly, McNeal takes a gratuitous shot at stat-heads. I say weirdly, because Jeter's case for best-in-history really can be best made with the advanced SABR metrics that stat-heads are notorious for employing. Take a look at the analyses linked here, putting Jeter second or third. Posnanski puts Jeter third all-time, too, but he relies on WAR (can't find the link right now... may have been at the old blog that got hacked). Without those advanced stats, it's hard to see Jeter as anything but a very durable beneficiary of a lot of good luck (came up with the Yankees in the 1990s, kept at short by stubborn management and adoring fans, A-Rod moved to third, etc.) with a penchant for making big plays conspicuously. Best of all time? Sure, if it's a slow news day and the Post needs six inches. But if you're really asking the question? There's no way to make that case seriously, unless you're using WAR, etc.,... and then Jeter looks really pretty good. This will, I hope, be taken as a swipe at the writer and not at the player. Jeter's of course a Hall of Famer on the first ballot; he deserved one MVP and possibly more; Joe Posnanski calls him the most underrated overrated player in baseball (in a really interesting bit of analysis). Considering his postseason success and the different eras Vaughn and Wagner played in, you can even make a plausible case for Jeter as the best at the position. (Again, I wouldn't agree with it, but it's plausible.) Which makes it all the more curious---and frustrating---to read a writer make such extensive use of obviously implausible arguments.

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