No. 57: Derek Jeter
Have you ever really looked at the list of greatest players who did did not win an MVP award? You have some outliers in there like Eddie Murray and Wade Boggs, maybe. But look at the core group: Start with Mel Ott. After that, in no particular order, you have Al Kaline, Eddie Mathews, Tony Gwynn, Dave Winfield, Paul Molitor. Among pitchers, you have Tom Seaver and Warren Spahn. Right up there is Derek Jeter.
What do these men have in common?
Well, here’s one thing: They were all HUGELY popular players, not only with the fans but with the baseball writers who vote for MVP. You could even say that they were media darlings. And yet the media consistently ignored them for their biggest baseball award.
How do you figure that? Derek Jeter has been called an overrated media creation so many times by so many people that he probably has grounds to have the phrase copyrighted and yet that very media has never voted him MVP. Not only that, his two best chances for MVP — 1998 and 2006 — he was beaten out by thoroughly uninspiring choices, Juan Gonzalez (his SECOND MVP award, for crying out loud) and Justin Morneau (huh?).
This cuts at something I’ve been thinking about a bit — kind of a “Zen and the Art of Baseball Maintenance” thought. I’ve been thinking a lot about the concepts of “overrated” and “underrated.” I’ve always thought of them as opposites, but I wonder if they are actually the SAME EXACT THING viewed from different angles.
Think about it. Call a player underrated enough times, he becomes overrated. Call a player overrated enough times, he becomes underrated. And, still, the two are intertwined even more tightly than that. If one person thinks a player is overrated, it is only because others celebrate him more than you think right (they think he’s underrated!). If you find a player underrated, it is only because other people don’t talk about him as much as you think they should (they find him overrated!).
Derek Jeter is the most overrated/underrated player of our time. This is in part because he has been a central figure on the essential team of the last 20 or so years, the New York Yankees. This is in part because he is such a charismatic figure and because he has so gracefully (and carefully) managed his image. But perhaps most, this is because Jeter’s value as a player has always felt at least partly unmeasurable. And the arguments about unmeasurable things can rage hot and rage forever.
Derek Jeter at first looked like perhaps the third-best young shortstop to come up in the mid-1990s. Alex Rodriguez came up in 1994. Jeter reached the big leagues in 1995. Nomar Garciaparra came up in 1996. And the other two had great seasons before Jeter did.
— A-Rod in 1996 led the league in hitting at .358 and with 54 doubles. He probably should have won the MVP award that year.
— Garciaparra in 1997 hit .306 with a league leading 206 hits, 11 triples, 30 homers and 122 runs scored.
Jeter’s contributions his first two years were steadier. This is one thing about Jeter that I’ve always admired — he really never had an extraordinary tool. All five of A-Rod’s tools were better. Nomah was a better hitter with more power he was probably better defensively. Jeter certainly was an outstanding hitter, but he did strike out a lot for a guy who never hit even 25 home runs (nine season with 100 or more Ks). He hit with some power, but not immense power. He didn’t have that good an arm (jump throws aside), and his range was always somewhat spotty (he was excellent at certain plays like the slow rollers and subpar at others) and he could run fast but he was no Kenny Lofton or Juan Pierre.
He was just someone who did everything well. His OPS+ going into the 1998 season was 101 — right at league average — and there was this sense that he would be that sort of player and that he was only being listed among the “Big Three” because he played for the Yankees.
In 1998, Jeter had his first great year — and it coincided with the Yankees winning 114 games and breezing to the World Series championship. Jeter hit .324, led the league in runs scored, banged 19 homers, stole 30 bases and played excellent defense by the same defensive numbers that would later turn on him. And how did people respond to Jeter’s fantastic season? Overrated. Underrated. He became perhaps the most talked about player in baseball. And he lost the MVP award to a clearly inferior Juan Gonzalez. It will be hard to explain to future generations how Derek Jeter, the leader of a 114-win team that is in the conversation with greatest ever, lost the MVP award to Juan Gonzalez. Jeter was praised endlessly for his leadership and the smart way he played. And he was not the starting shortstop in the All-Star Game (A-Rod) nor the Gold Glove winner (Omar Vizquel).
In many ways, he was even better in 1999. His on-base percentage jumped 50 points, all the way up to .438. He led the league with 219 hits, scored 134 runs, drove in 100 RBIs for the only time in his career, hit 24 homers, stole 19 bases and was once again the star for a dominant Yankees team that lost just once in the postseason on their way to another World Series championship. And the response to Jeter was more or less the same. He finished SIXTH in the MVP race, did not start the All-Star Game, did not win any awards of note. And he was also the most glorified athlete in the biggest media market in America.
And so it went throughout the most analyzed, discussed and argued about career of our age. I believe some things about Derek Jeter. I believe he was a fantastic hitter for a shortstop. Well, that’s obvious. For more than a decade, from 1998 to 2009, you could count on 150-plus games, a .310 to .320 average, a .380 on-base percentage, 30 doubles, 15 to 20 homers, 20 to 25 stolen bases, 110 to 120 runs scored. Some years he’d do a little better. Some years he’d do a little less. But it was always in that range, year after year after year.
One shortstop in baseball history has had at least 10 seasons with 100 runs created. That’s Derek Jeter. He had TWELVE of those seasons.
I also believe he was subpar defensively for much of his career if you take all of his defense into account. Every Jeter fan and critic knows the defensive numbers are hard on him — he has a negative defensive WAR every year from 1998 to 2008. Ultimate Zone Rating is, if anything, even tougher on him. John Dewan has been doing his Plus/Minus system since 2003 and over that time estimates that Jeter has made 180 fewer plays than an average shortstop would have made.
I believe there’s something to these numbers. I believe Jeter never moved well to his left and that this has continuously showed up in his low range numbers.
And here we get to the crux of things, I believe beyond all that Jeter was an extraordinarily alert and observant player, and that numerous times every year he made a good play based on this sense for the game and attention to detail. Unfortunately, I have no idea how often this came up — and this probably leads to the overrated/underrated quality of his game. People who don’t like Jeter would say that Jeter’s awareness it is already recorded in his numbers and it’s overstated. People who loved Derek Jeter would say that he made these sorts of winning plays all the time, in countless ways, and the numbers people simply won’t give him credit for it
Bill James wrote about this in the 2007 Bill James Handbook:
“Derek Jeter has a halo effect that would crush concrete. His teams win a lot of games, and he’s likable and polite and the media loves him, so any area of performance that is poorly documented or poorly understood — defense, base-running, clutch-hitting, leadership — the media will use as a rag to polish Derek Jeter’s trophies.”
I think Bill is right … and he’s might be wrong too. Some media types undoubtedly did blow Jeter’s so-called intangibles way out of proportion. Heck, this is why I invented the word Jeterate in the first place. The way people would go on and on about Jeter’s brilliance, his perfect record of throwing to the right base, his otherworldly skill for being in the right place at the right time, yeah, it could get absurd and it could wear on you.
But I do wonder if, on the other hand, the rest of us went too far the other way, completely discounting the small things he did. Jeter was never one of the fastest players of his generation and yet he was a fantastic base runner, stealing 79% of the bases he attempted and going first-to-third, second-to-home enough to be one of the 10 best base runners of the last 25 years. He was ever-present. Thirteen times he played 150 games or more in a season — only the indestructible Cal Ripken can match that.
And he did handle his fame and New York celebrity just about as well as anyone could. He was a pro’s pro who dealt with the media crush and the constant trappings as well as anyone I’ve ever seen. The Yankees clubhouse was always ultra-professional and predictable — there was none of the edge or grumpiness or frustration that you would see in other places. I have no idea if that did ANYTHING to help the Yankees win — I sort of doubt it — but it was obvious every time we were around the Yankees that they were businesslike, never too high or too low, and it was the doing of Derek Jeter.
Jeter is turning 40 in June and I feel pretty sure he’s done as a good baseball player. Though he has put up some surprising numbers — like the .316 batting average in 2012 — he really hasn’t been the great Derek Jeter since 2009. And it seems pretty far-fetched that he will ever be that again. Of course some will say that you should never bet against Jeter, and that may be so. But there’s another angle.
Every great player in history, every single one, reaches the end. Some look in the mirror, realize that the fastball is by them, and walk away. Some cling to the stage in the belief that tomorrow, yes tomorrow, they will wake up young again. Neither way is right, exactly, and neither way is wrong, They are both just human. Derek Jeter, more than any baseball player of his day I think, disciplined himself and pushed himself and got the most out of his talents. He wasn’t a perfect player, despite what some wanted to make him. But he wasn’t an overrated player either, despite what some shouted. He was the indispensable player of the time. I’m not sure how he will handle the end, but I believe this: Derek Jeter was just the best damn player he knew how to be. That’s not a bad thing to be.