Episode 13: August 27, 2010
Derek Jeter is often referred to as the second best shortstop ever. Is this accurate? Where does Jeter fit among the greats?
Please note: this is not an exact transcription of the episode.
When people talk about Derek Jeter they often refer to him as "the second best shortstop ever." Sometimes they put Honus Wagner as #1. Sometimes it's Cal Ripken. It's always "someone, then Jeter." Why does Derek Jeter have to be the second best shortstop ever?
I'm Alex Reisner...
Here's the thing: Jeter is not a good fielder and he plays the most important infield position. And yet there's something about him that makes people feel like, well, he's probably not the best but he *must* be the second best. Well that's just not necessarily true. In baseball history there are a lot of great shortstops:
There are even two that are, without question, better than Jeter:
* Honus Wagner and Alex Rodriguez
Now I know Alex Rodriguez isn't a shortstop anymore but I'll get to that in a minute.
Wagner was prolific. He played for 21 years and rarely missed a game. His Wins Above Replacement was 10 or higher in four of those years which is ridiculous. That puts him in a club with fewer than 10 players: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, etc. He played 100 years ago so it's hard to compare his offensive stats with current players but if you look at all the numbers carefully it's pretty hard to argue that there's been a better career by any shortstop ever.
Alex Rodriguez, by the time he's done, could have that career. I know he plays third base now but it's pretty obvious he would still be playing shortstop on any team other than the Yankees. It's not like he was moved to 1B or DH or showed any signs of slowing down...I don't see how you can take him out of a great shortstop conversation just because the Yankees are stubborn about keeping Jeter at short. With that said, there's no comparison between A-Rod and Jeter. A-Rod's batting average is 10 points lower but his slugging percentage is over 100 points higher, he has 370 more home runs, and he creates 1.5 more runs per game. And he's also a better fielder.
So if you consider A-Rod a shortstop, which I think you should, Jeter is *at most* the third best shortstop ever. But it's not *that* simple either, because there are plenty of other great shortstops, like...Cal Ripken who played more consecutive games than anyone, including a guy who was called the Iron Horse and played first base. He also had more power than Jeter and was probably a better fielder. It's hard to compare his numbers to Jeter's because he played before the steroid era when batting averages were about 10 points lower on average, but I think he was probably not quite as good at getting on base. I think overall, in the end Jeter has a slight edge over Ripken but it's not that easy to prove. You can't just say Jeter was better without some pretty good reasons. I think Jeter vs. Ripken may be one of those arguments that never dies.
Then there's Ernie Banks. Now I know he moved to first base halfway through his career but he had his best offensive years at shortstop so you can't dismiss him that easily...alright, tough guy? In 8 full seasons at shortstop he hit almost 300 home runs, slugged over .550, won two MVP awards, and had 2 more Wins Above Replacement per year than Jeter during Jeter's best 8 year span. Basically, if you just look at the years Banks played shortstop, there's no comparison. There's no way you can slice Jeter's stats so they're even close. So I'm not going to get into what makes a legitimate shortstop, but think about *that* and take a look at the numbers if you're one of those people who say Ernie Banks wasn't a shortstop.
Also: remember it's pretty easy to argue that Jeter should have been moved to 3B a few years ago when A-Rod came to New York. Jeter is really a shortstop in name only.
There's also Robin Yount, whose batting average and on-base percentage are lower than Jeter's but that's partly because he played with Ripken in the pre-Steroid era. Yount also changed positions halfway through his career because of a shoulder problem, but he moved to centerfield which is, again, not like moving to 1B or DH, and he played 11 full years at SS you can't just dismiss him immediately either. Plus, if you've been to a Brewers game in the past couple of years you probably know about Robinade: old school lemonade. "Like the man, a natural classic." Some of the profits go to charity so if you're ever in Milwaukee you really should try a bottle. Now, can you imagine drinking cool glass of Jeterade? No, I don't think you can.
Alright, so there are some more shortstops worth mentioning from a time before athletes had their own beverages. Luke Appling, who played his whole career in the 30s and 40s for the White Sox, was, like Jeter, a terrible fielder. And his batting stats are similar too: .319 BA, .399 OBP, and Wins Above Replacement per year around 5. They're so similar you really can't talk about Jeter's place in history without knowing where Appling stands.
There's also Joe Cronin, who had a better Runs Created per Game and Wins Above Replacement per Year than Jeter as a player-manager. Now we know Jeter is The Captain but he's not the manager for crying out loud. Cronin also became the Red Sox general manager, and eventually was elected American League president. As a player he hit over 500 doubles and walked over 1000 times. Jeter hasn't hit either of those marks yet and he's already 1500 plate appearances ahead of Cronin. Cronin had a better OBP, a better SLG, struck out half as often...even despite the problems of comparing players across eras, it's pretty hard to argue that Jeter is as good as Joe Cronin.
And what about Arky Vaughan, Pittsburgh's shortstop in the 30s? Vaughan's Wins Above Replacement is even better than Cronin's. And so is his .406 OBP. He struck out less and rarely grounded into double plays, and in 1935 he had what might be the best season by any shortstop ever: a .385 BA, .491 OBP, and .607 SLG with 19 HRs and 97 walks and only 18 strikeouts. Vaughan's career wasn't as long as Jeter's but that's because of a little inconvenience called World War II, which came when Vaughan was 32 years old, which happens to be the age Jeter might have been at his best.
Also, remember that Jeter's career isn't over yet. It's easy to point to the decline of guys like Vaughan and Banks late in their careers, but Jeter's career batting average has dropped 2 points this year and he's not likely to get much better. So there are some "what-ifs" involved in comparing his rate stats to anyone else's, that don't work in his favor.
There are some more shortstops who were very good but I think not quite as good as Jeter. But maybe you can make a case for one of them:
* Barry Larkin
* Johnny Pesky
* Joe Sewell
* Lou Boudreau
* Alan Trammell
And to really consider the question of the best shortstops ever I think you have bring in the guys who were great fielders but not necessarily great hitters:
* Ozzie Smith
* Mark Belanger
* Luis Aparicio
* Joe Tinker
* probably Omar Vizquel
As we get better at quantifying defense we may realize that one of those guys was good enough in the field to make up for their mediocre hitting.
Now I should point out that I'm not saying any of this to bash Jeter. I always root against the Yankees, but I can't help but like Derek Jeter. There are just so many likeable things about him, but when people need him to be the second best shortstop ever it makes me cringe. Jeter is one of the best players of this generation. He's historically significant for a lot of reasons, and he will probably be remembered for a long time, kind of like Mickey Mantle, both for the things he did and for the things people *think* he did. That's how it is with great players--they become mythical. You can find dozens of stories about how Mickey Mantle hit home runs that went 565 feet, 620 feet, and even 734 feet, none of which are possible. People who saw him hit the facade in Yankee Stadium in 1963 claim that "the ball was still going up" when it hit the facade, which is impossible. Already people remember Derek Jeter diving head-first into the stands to catch a foul ball against the Red Sox in 2004. Not many people remember that he actually caught the ball in fair territory, not at the stands, and should have slid to avoid going into the seats and getting injured. I'm also pretty sure he will be remembered for having more clutch hits than he actually has. And also as a *much* better fielder thanks to the famous "flip" and the countless replays of him fielding balls in the hole, jumping, and throwing in the air to first.
These things are annoying. They can even be infuriating if you're not a Yankees fan, but what about the Yankees isn't infuriating outside of New York? And Jeter's reputation isn't his fault. It's not like he talks about what a great fielder he is. Twenty years from now the Yankees will still be annoying. The announcers will still talk about how great they are when they make routine plays. But we won't be subjected to all the Jeter propaganda, and I think we'll have a better appreciation of his *actual* greatness, which is significant. A lot of non-Yankee fans like Mickey Mantle now and I think in 20 years that may happen for Jeter too.
I think part of the reason people need to build him up is that Jeter's stats are just not that exciting. He hits home runs but he doesn't have a ton of power. He steals bases but doesn't steal a *lot* of bases. He doesn't run out a lot of infield hits like Ichiro... What he is is consistent. He always gets around 200 hits, 30 doubles, 15 home runs, 20 steals, strikes out 100 times, and ends up with around 300 total bases. He's rarely missed a game in 15 seasons... His numbers are never outrageous, but they're very good and they're remarkably consistent. They're the kind of numbers that, if you put them up while playing shortstop for a great team, you get into the Hall of Fame as soon as you're eligible, regardless of your defense. And Jeter *deserves* to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He's been the face of a great team for 15 years, and he's one of the top 10 players of his generation.
Just, please, don't try to tell me he's the second-best shortstop of all-time.
I'm Alex Reisner...
All content on this web site and in podcasts copyright © 2010-21 Alex Reisner.