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The Legend of Derek Jeter

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Derek Jeter is often referred to as the second best shortstop ever. Is this accurate? Where does Jeter fit among the greats?

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Dan on September 03, 2010 02:13

Derek Jeter is the Best SS in history learn the facts and stop what the what if's...He's actually a very good fielder on his way to his 5th gold glove this year. Honus Wagner never even came close to playing his whole career as a shortstop, and A-rod used steriods...

Alex Reisner on September 05, 2010 15:15

If you judge fielding by Gold Gloves, lack of errors, and a few slick-looking plays then you will end up believing that Jeter is a good fielder. But just about any meaningful defensive stat will show you that Jeter is among the worst in the league, year after year. Look at Range Factor, UZR, or Dewan +/- and you'll see how awful he is. You can't get an error if you don't get to the ball and NO REGULAR SHORTSTOP in the past 15 years HAS FIELDED FEWER BALLS per 9 innings than Jeter.

Frank on September 06, 2010 00:25

Horace Clarke tied Charlie Gheringer's all time records for assists and double plays, and he just was rotten.
How was he able to do this? 4 pitch to contact starting pitchers that's how.
If all of your pitchers are fly ball pitchers like the Yanks were from 2004 till 2008 and most of those were rookies or vets on the downside who had trouble hitting home plate let alone spots.
And if your first baseman was a statue named Giambi who caused your second baseman to shift towards first leaving most of the middle of the infield to the shortstop to cover....I could go on.
The bottom line is, the game is played ON THE FIELD, not in a statisticians book. look how politicians play with the numbers from the CBO.

Alex Reisner on September 07, 2010 22:57

The game happens on the field, but we need numbers if we want to have a realistic understanding of it. For example, I've seen Ike Davis hit a home run in more than half of the Mets games I've watched this year. Should I assume he'll hit over 80 home runs by the time the season is over? Similarly, I've seen Jason Kubel make more sliding and diving catches this year than any other outfielder. Should I assume that Kubel is the best outfielder in the Majors?

Obviously the answer to both questions is: no. We need to use numbers if we want to determine players' values objectively. We all have vivid memories from various personal experiences, but memory is a vastly inferior tool for evaluating baseball players. There are too many events in a week, let alone a season or a career, for one to remember them accurately (even assuming you could see them all).

That being said, of course you don't want to be led astray by devious statistical arguments (by politicians or baseball fans). I talked about this a little in Episode 12 ("Speed") in regard to Juan Pierre. If you just look at his raw H and SB totals you might incorrectly conclude that he's a great player. You have to look at all the relevant stats before coming to a conclusion (or believing someone else's conclusion). In baseball this is much easier to do than it is in politics. I *love* that you've attempted to explain *why* the numbers are what they are, but your argument is still a statistical one, as it should be.

As for your argument: unfortunately, even if the Yankees had all fly ball pitchers from 2004-2008, that's the period when Jeter fielded the most balls per inning, so it can't explain his low career numbers. Personally, I believe part of the reason Jeter fields so few balls is that he sets up in the same place for every pitch to every batter. People have told me he's gotten better at moving around before each pitch in the past year or so, and maybe that's the source of his recent improvement. But he's still well below league average.

I'm not saying Jeter isn't a slick fielder. I'm not saying he isn't a great athlete. I'm not saying he doesn't occasionally make great plays. I am saying that over the course of a season, the number of balls he doesn't get to makes him a poor defensive shorstop. I've looked at a lot of numbers and I haven't yet seen any convincing evidence to the contrary.

kenny oneal on September 13, 2010 16:20

Granted Jeter good, but I still put Ripken ahead of them all. He could field, his fielding pct. was in the 900's and he could hit, 400 plus I believe 3000 hits plus and he showed up everyday. Now this is coming from a guy who seen Ozzie Smith play.

ty on November 24, 2010 13:29

You say you've "looked at a lot of numbers" to determine that Jeter is a "poor" fielder, yet you also say he is a "slick" fielder and you seem to say he is a "great athlete." It seems to me you are confused and so you turn for comfort and certainty to your beloved stats.

Now, about your "numbers:" is there any way that you can be certain that another SS on the same field would have made the plays Jeter missed? Please explain to me how I am wrong to insist that for the numbers to be given so much authority they would absolutely HAVE to show the above, and take into account several other variables.

For instance, I saw a lot of hits through the hole in the ACLS this year. We know A-Rod's range at third isn't what it used to be. Given the balls were roughly equidistant from both players, who missed the play? Is that factored into your stats?

Please, no lectures on sabermetrics, I've heard it. I want you to defend your reliance on stats because it takes some nerve to call Jeter a "terrible" fielder. My contention is that you are over-relying on stats in general, and this absurd comment is just the most extreme case of stat-based foolishness that you sportswriters are committing on a daily basis.

But I stand ready to stand corrected!

Alex Reisner on November 26, 2010 22:26

Ty, you make some very good points so let me address a few of them individually.

> is there any way that you can be certain that another SS
> on the same field would have made the plays Jeter missed?

One could ask the same question about batters. Mark Reynolds struck out 211 times last year. Can we be sure another batter on the same field would have hit those same pitches? Kevin Millwood gave up 30 home runs last year. Can we be certain another pitcher facing the same batters would have allowed fewer?

Clearly there is no way to really answer these questions. The best we can do is to count everything that happens during games and look at the numbers in an intelligent way, knowing that comparisons are not 100% fair, but that the more numbers we have the more fair they are.

In the case of Jeter, who's played 19,744 innings at shortstop, we have enough data to say with reasonable certainty that, for whatever reason, his fielding results are not good compared to other shortstops. The numbers don't tell us *why* players are good or bad and that can be confusing. Jeter *does* look like a good athlete to me. Being a Major League baseball player, of course he's a good athlete. But for some reason he's fielded fewer balls than most other starting shortstops during the past 15 years.

> I saw a lot of hits through the hole in the ACLS this year.
> We know A-Rod's range at third isn't what it used to be.
> Given the balls were roughly equidistant from both players,
> who missed the play?

Firstly, what makes you say A-Rod's range isn't what it used to be? (I was under the impression he's remained remarkably consistent.)

Second, even if we imagine that A-Rod has become a worthless fielder who can't get to anything more than two steps to his left, that would leave *more* balls for Jeter to field, not fewer, and yet his range factor (number of balls fielded) has declined over the past five years.

Third, I'm not blaming Jeter for missing any particular balls during any particular series. I'm blaming him for missing some large number of balls over the course of his career. I couldn't tell you which ones exactly, and I couldn't tell you which other shortstops would have fielded them, if any.

In short, statistical studies can't answer your questions. Statistical analysis is designed to ignore specific situations and instead provide insight based on large amounts of data that cannot be perceived by looking at individual events.

> I want you to defend your reliance on stats because it
> takes some nerve to call Jeter a "terrible" fielder.

Continuing the above train of thought: statistics and naked-eye observation are two tools that are used to evaluate baseball players. They provide very different types of insight, and each needs to be used to get the full picture.

I have long believed, and teams like the Athletics and Red Sox have recently demonstrated, that statistics are the more important of these two when evaluating players at the Major League level. It's easy to put too much stock in one's own powers of observation, but in fact there is too much information in any single game, let alone the course of a 162-game season, for the human brain to accurately assess player ability. We're prone to remembering certain players when they're on streaks or for a few great plays they made, and other players when they're in slumps or making errors. We don't see, or don't remember, the vast majority of their at-bats and defensive plays. If we evaluate shortstops based on how slick or smooth they look we'd miss really excellent shortstops like Jack Wilson.

You might want to read "Moneyball" by Michael Lewis, which is a really fun book and which shows how the late-90s Athletics built successful teams with very little money by relying on statistics to the near-complete exclusion of traditional scouting. The bottom line is that stats work, if you know how to use them.

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