By In Baseball

The Greatest Living Yankee


Over at SportsWorld, I play off George Vecsey’s column in The New York Times naming Whitey Ford as the Greatest Living Yankee. I like George a lot but I find this to be silly. If Greatest Living Yankee is an actual title, then it belongs to Derek Jeter, and I don’t think anyone else is particularly close.

Well, that’s not exactly right: In the piece, I do say that Whitey Ford and Mariano Rivera have compelling arguments — arguments that for me fall short.

I also make only a passing reference to Alex Rodriguez. Here’s why: There’s no point. For one thing, there’s no way to have a viable discussion about A-Rod’s value as a Yankee; there’s way too much baggage there and no matter how a baseball argument begins it will end up not being about baseball. For another, if you are serious about Greatest Living Yankee — as I think many Yankee fans are — then it is obviously not Alex Rodriguez.

Of A-Rod’s eight best seasons, two were with the Yankees. While he was a dazzling shortstop for Seattle and Texas, he was a pedestrian third baseman for New York — you can blame that on Derek Jeter if you like, but it’s how things turned out. A-Rod was a fantastic player for four or five years in New York, and then he declined into a less fantastic one, mostly a home run hitter who sparked a lot of controversy and boos. The Yankees won just one pennant and one World Series with A-Rod, and while you can’t blame that on him, you can’t just pretend it isn’t so. He had one great postseason and a bunch of lousy ones. He so ticked off MLB with his persistent drug use and Herculean efforts to lie about it that he got himself suspended for a full year.

What does Greatest Living Yankee even mean? Even as a numbers geek, I understand it either means nothing or it means a lot more than which player had the most Wins Above Average. Derek Jeter grew up with the Yankees, played with them his whole career. He was the best player on the Yankee teams that won four World Series and six pennants from 1996 to 2003. He made numerous of the most iconic plays in team history. He was the player who, by all accounts,  set the standard. He was The Captain, whatever that is worth, and he was beloved in New York and booed everywhere else, he was Jeterated beyond all reason but he was never given an MVP. He owns many of the most meaningful Yankee records — hits, games played, etc. — and he was a fabulous player for most of a very long career and he handled himself with a boring but majestic class. He represented his generation.

A-Rod offered none of this. He’s one of the productive players in baseball history — more productive over the whole career than Jeter. But when it comes to the Greatest Living Yankee, this isn’t even worth discussing except maybe in a blog.

The Greatest Living Yankee

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57 Responses to The Greatest Living Yankee

  1. DB says:

    So who replaces Mays as the Greatest Living Player who has been the greatest for probably over 50 years now. Aaron? I thought Joe did a list for each team some time ago but love to see stories of each player (same as the Baseball 100) but probably never happen.

  2. I won’t argue Jeter’s accomplishments on the field – they are many and I am not a Yankees fan on any level – never have been. That being said, I’ve always respected Derek for the way he handled himself on and off the field. I always felt he was a class act so to speak.

    I did have an opportunity to run into Derek Jeter yesterday at my local Starbucks. I was less than thrilled when his driver pulled up in front of the store and cut off my path to the door. It was like I didn’t exist. I was shocked when I turned around as I walked in and saw who it was. When I mentioned his driver almost hit me I was greeted with a blank stare.

    Instead of requesting a photo with him, I let him get his coffee without any fuss. Reality is he should have apologized for his driver, or at the very least, the driver could have apologized for nearly hitting me.

    So he may be the greatest living Yankee but he could use a lesson in decorum. Everyone told me what a nice guy he is so I’m going to attribute this to his maybe needing that cup of coffee to wake up. Rest assured, if I ever see him again I will be asking for that photo.

    • MikeN says:

      Talk about Jeterating.

      Derek is not a class act. He would have slapped that ball just like ARod, only then people would have said Oh look, what a great competitor Jeter is, Alex would have meekly taken the out. Very few people even mention his tendency to grab players to keep them from advancing to third. The 2001 World Series in particular.

      • KHAZAD says:

        I actually saw this dichotomy in two games in the same week with the same announcers once. Arod had a pitch barely touch his shirt and pointed at his midsection to claim it had hit him and was awarded first base. The announcer excoriated him, coming just short of calling him a lying punk.

        In a later game in the same series, Jeter reeled away from the batter’s box holding his hand and actually had the trainer come out and look at it and was awarded first base. The replay showed it did not even come particularly close to touching him, and was even over the inside corner, actually grazing his bat to change direction as he reeled out of the way dramatically. The same announcer chuckled and said something about how Jeter would do anything to win a ballgame and that was what made him great.

        I clemenate Jeter. I recognize that he was a great player, but I see him as a very successful con artist.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      Well, if you are going to get into that, Joe DiMaggio was certainly not a class act. The title is based on their performance, not whether they are good people or not. If you were going to talk about “greatest (non-living now) inventor of computer stuff” it wouldn’t matter that Steve Jobs was a complete asshole.

      It’s the same thing with Barry Bonds. I think he’s a jerk but that has nothing to do with his standing as a player. It just shouldn’t matter.

  3. ritchie vanian says:

    Perfect logic, Joe.

    Although, if Horace Clarke is still alive, I might have 2nd thoughts…

  4. Jaunty Rockefeller says:

    I largely agree that the title, such as it is, belongs to Jeter. But Arod was far from a pedestrian third baseman. Since joining the Yankees, he’s accumulated 47.7 bWAR to Jeter’s 27.3, including a couple of 9+ seasons. His first five years he averaged nearly 7, which is pretty great. I think only Wright and Beltre were better over the same period (though admittedly the arbitrary cutoff skews the results–Longoria is just a smidge behind ARod, and he didn’t make the majors until 2008).

    • Jaunty Rockefeller says:

      Also, I didn’t take into account WAR at 3B vs DH, but at any rate ARod’s best seasons as a Yank (and his 2nd and 4th best seasons overall, according to bball-ref) were at third.

  5. Freddie says:

    As a baseball purist Joe, and as someone who argues that baseball is timeless, I will never understand the Mariano Rivera, comment that he was the “greatest ever at his position.” Certainly you are not arguing that you would rather have him than Roger Clemens, Sandy Koufax, Walter Johnson, Tom Seavor, or heck, even Whitey Ford. You can’t be serious. And, if you mean to argue that “relief pitcher” is somehow a different position than “pitcher”, I’m waiting for your column regarding which second string second baseman is deserving of HOF consideration.

    • MikeN says:

      Todd Walker.

    • David says:

      One could also argue that the positions are fluid in basketball, too– is James Harden a PG or an SG? Should Tim Duncan go into the history books as the best power forward of all time, or a top 7 center?– and that certainly affects how people view basketball players historically. I suspect this is the main reason why Tim Duncan doesn’t like being called a center; it would hurt his chances of being remembered as the “best ever power forward”.

  6. David says:

    Even with his unexpected success in 2015, A-Rod is still so widely disliked that even if every single other former Yankee died, I suspect he STILL would not be named Greatest Living Yankee.

    • That sounds a lot like the premise that if you were the last man on earth, and the last woman on earth was a hideous hag with terrible manners…. would you sleep with her? Well, would you?

  7. I’m going to take the bait. I think contrary to Joe’s theory that we always look back to older players as being somehow greater, that doesn’t really happen anymore. Yeah, in 1969, the year Joe referenced where they named the all time best living players, fans had a well formed sense of history. But in the case of Whitey Ford, how many people today were alive to see the guy pitch? Or to even vaguely remember him as a dominant pitcher? During the last couple of years of his career, our family had season tickets for the Angels. I don’t recall ever seeing him pitch. I DO remember him at an Old Timers game a few years later. But my point is, Whitey Ford was a great player, who is a HOFer, who nonethelees ended his career almost 50 years ago. Yes, thats fifty. 5-0.

    He had one Cy Young award, and probably deserved two more. He went 236-106 2.75 in Yankee Stadium. Post Season he was 10-8, 2.71, with a 1.137 WHIP. Most of his career was in the swing for the fences 50s and the early 60s. He also missed two years because of military service.

    He’s also nearly 90. Let Whitey have it. He deserves it, IMO, and Derek Jeter can then carry it for the next 40-50 years. Either him or Oscar Gamble. I can’t quite decide.

    • buddaley says:

      Incidentally, and I don’t mean to suggest that ERA is a valid stat for evaluating pitchers, but of all starting pitchers in the Hall of Fame who pitched their entire careers in the live ball era (after 1920), Ford has the lowest career ERA. I know that creates a lot of cutoff points (HOF, Starter, Post 1920), but I think they are legitimate cutoffs.

      • dfj79 says:

        Well, besides all the cutoff points, there’s also the issue of comparing careers of different lengths. Ford’s entire career was 3170.1 innings at a 2.75 ERA. But, other pitchers have had stretches within their careers of more innings at a lower ERA.

        Tom Seaver from ’67 to ’81 pitched 3789.0 innings at a 2.60 ERA. You can even continue into his decline years (including his terrible 1982, when he had a 5.50 ERA) and pass the 4,000 inning threshold and still find him with a lower ERA than Ford (2.73 in 4131.1 innings through ’83). It wasn’t until his first year with the White Sox (’84) that his career ERA finally climbed higher than Ford’s.

        Greg Maddux also had a “career within a career” of more innings than Ford at a lower ERA: 2.68 ERA over 3563.2 innings from ’88 to ’02.

        Bob Gibson, too: 2.70 over 3373.0 from ’61 to ’73.

        (There may be others; I haven’t done a comprehensive search.)

  8. Steve says:

    This column is pure Jeteration.

  9. Carl says:

    Should Jeter (like Eddie Matthews) have been considered the GLY (Greatest Living Yankee) even when Berra was alive?

    • Hard to top 3 MVPs and 10 World Series rings.

      • Marc Schneider says:

        I have a problem with using Yogi’s 10 rings as a measure of his skill. It was a completely different generation of baseball, with no playoffs and a far greater differentiation between teams. The Yankees were a great team and Yogi was a huge contributor but the ten rings were, in part, a function, of when he came along. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were better players but only won 4 and 6 (I think) rings, respectively. I’m also not sure how valid a measure MVPs are given the arbitrariness of the vote in those days. Jeter’s four rings in the 90s/200os were probably the equivalent of Yogi’s 10. Moreover, Yogi might have been the best player on the team for a few years in the early 50s but he certainly was not better than Mantle in the late fifties and early 60s. Jeter was easily the best player on the Yankees of the 90s; no one else is really close and he is likely the only player on those teams (other than Rivera, who I put in a different category) who will even sniff the Hall of Fame.

  10. Guy says:

    If you are going to rely on career wins contributed, then it’s actually a close call between Jeter and Randolph. The B-Ref numbers suggest a fairly large 18-win gap in Jeter’s favor. However, B-Ref’s “total zone” metric clearly overestimates Jeter’s defense by a good margin. If you incorporate better assessments of Jeter’s fielding, like Tango’s WOWY or Humphrey’s DRA, then Jeter’s fielding was 100-150 runs below the B-Ref estimate and his win total drops by 10-15 wins.

    And just as B-Ref’s “total zone” metric overestimates bad fielders like Jeter, it tends to understate the value of good fielders. So it’s very likely that Randolph was better than his B-Ref total. Bottom line: both of these guys were roughly 60-win players.

    If you want to give the “Greatest Living Yankee” title to Jeter for post-season performance, “leadership,” or something else, that’s fine. But in terms of career regular-season value, Randolph was Jeter’s equal, and maybe a little better.

    • No, no and no. Not even close. I saw Jeter and Randolph both play a lot, and there’s no comparison who the greater player was. But since you’re a numbers guy lets take a look at a typical season for both Willie Randolph and Derek Jeter, remembering that they both played most of their careers in the same ballpark:

      Here’s Randolph:

      163 H, 91 R, 23 2B, 5 3B, 4 HR, 51 RBI, 20 SB, 7 CS, 91 BB, 50 K, .276 BA, .373 OBP, .351 SLG, 724 OPS, 104 OPS+

      Here’s Jeter:

      204 H, 113R, 32 2B, 4 3B, 15 HR, 77 RBI, 21 SB, 6 CS, 64 BB, 104 K, .310 BA, .377 OBP, .440 SLG, 817 OPS, 115 OPS+

      I mean, it’s not even close. Randolph was above average, Jeter was a Hall of Famer. The one thing Randolph did better than Jeter was walk (oh, how sabermetricians love players who don’t swing the bat), but Jeter’s OBP was still 4 points higher than Randolph’s, while his slugging percentage was 89 points higher. Add that up over a career, and you get 3465 H,1923 R, 260 HR, 1311 RBIs, vs 2210 H, 1239 R, 54 HR, 687 RBI. Like I said, not even close.

      Jeter was also legendary in the post-season, with a line of .308/.374/.465, for an OPS of 838 that was even a tick higher than his regular season OPS.

      Randolph was mediocre in the post-season, with a line .222/.304/.306, for an OPS of 650 that was significantly worse than his regular season numbers. Maybe because when he was facing elite pitchers who could throw the ball over the plate, he actually had to swing, and the results weren’t pretty.

      The only way you can possibly rank Randolph ahead of Jeter is to wildly overrate Randolph’s defense and wildly underrate Jeter’s. Randolph was a fine second baseman who could turn a double play, but he was no magician, never winning a Gold Glove, with a fielding percentage of .980.

      Much ink has been written about Jeter’s fielding, often based on Jeter’s latter years when his mobility suffered, making it seem like he was a sieve who never made a play in his life. In reality he was a sure handed shortstop who could turn a double play, plus he made some of the most iconic plays in baseball history, with a fielding percentage of .976. Like it or not, he also won 5 Gold Gloves. Voters knew that if the game was on the line, you wanted the ball hit to Derek Jeter.

      Derek Jeter is the Greatest Living Yankee. Willie Randolph isn’t even the Great Living Yankee Second Baseman. That award would go to Robinson Cano.

      • Karyn says:

        Jeter was a terrible fielding shortstop. His range was awful, and his footwork mediocre at best.

      • It’s hard to underrate Jeter’s defense. He liked to dive to make up for his lack of lateral movement, which made him look great. In actuality an above average shortstop doesn’t need to dive & makes fairly routine plays on the same balls that Jeter’s diving for… and often missing.

      • Guy says:

        Jeter’s poor fielding cost his team literally hundreds of runs — most likely 300-400 below an average shortstop — which is enough to erase his considerable offensive advantage over Randolph. Just to give you a sense of the magnitude of Jeter’s awfulness in the field, here are the total assists recorded by NYY SS over the past 5 seasons, compared to AL league average. See if you can spot the two seasons when Jeter was not the SS:
        2011 -70
        2012 -70
        2013 -4
        2014 -92
        2015 +18
        And FYI, a difference of 70 assists means approximately an extra 50 runs (!) surrendered by the Yankees.

        If you want a more sophisticated analysis that arrives at similar conclusions, read Tom Tango or Michael Humphreys on Jeter.

        • Juan80 says:

          Those stats are based on Jeter’s last 3 seasons (2013 he played 17 games) starting from age 37 to 40. Of course his range was inferior to the avg ss at this stage of his career. You can’t cherry pick stats, you should have shown these numbers for his entire career, and should include fielding percentage vs AL league avg if we’re supposed to learn anything.

          I don’t know what those comparisons would look like, and I’m curious, but keep it real.

          • Guy says:

            His career numbers aren’t any better. Jeter averaged 384 assists per 150 games played at SS. The AL average over his career is about 430 assists per 150 games, so he was 46 assists below average per season. That translates into an additional 32 runs allowed per year (about 3 wins), which is enormous. For his full career, Jeter was almost 800 assists (!) below average, costing his team about 550 runs by this simple methodology.

            Now, you can credit Jeter with some mitigating factors, like NYY having some high-strikeout pitching staffs over this period. But even giving him the benefit of the doubt on factors like that, his poor range cost his team at least 20 runs a season, likely more.

    • Kuz says:

      Is this satire?

  11. professorbohn says:

    I have to confess: I don’t really get what this is, other than an excuse to point out that Derek Jeter was a beloved franchise icon and A-Rod wasn’t, which everyone knew already

  12. Peter says:

    “Even after superior players like Mays and Aaron and Robinson stopped playing…”

    I love Jackie Robinson like everyone else, for obvious reasons, but on what criteria are you basing that he is a superior player to Joe DiMaggio? Hitting? Fielding? Championships won? WAR? Length of career?

  13. Juan80 says:

    I understand the idea of leaving A-Rod out of the discussion, but to say it’s ridiculous to put him on the list with the other five potentials is insane. First, Andy is an admitted HGH user, secondly A-Rod was the best hitter in baseball during most of his years with NYY. He was also not a pedestrian 3rd baseman. Unlikable? Yes. Not clutch in playoffs? Yes. But the Yankees wouldn’t have made the playoffs twice without him. Since you included Andy on the list, and used the word ridiculous for A-Rod, it makes me wonder. In other words, Andy is worthy of consideration, which implies PED’s aren’t a big issue, and if PED’s aren’t a big issue, you’re dismissing the greatest hitter of all time,

    • Karyn says:

      I think Pos doesn’t care so much about PED usage before, say, 2001 or so. I certainly don’t, and I think MLB didn’t either.

      But Pettitte confessed publicly, said his contritions and was shriven. He went forth and sinned no more. Not so for Rodriguez–at least, in the public perception.

      • Juan80 says:

        If you only want to count the years before MLB cared about usage, then Alex is still on that list. If Pos left Andy off I wouldn’t have commented, but that’s not the case. Andy is more likable than Alex in many ways, but that’s the only difference that matters discussing these things.. If MLB and the media went after Andy like they went after Alex, what he did might not seem so harmless, but the focus has always been on Alex for several reasons (his numbers, his contract, and hatred from the fans). MLB took advantage of the negative bias against him. Keep in mind that A-rod never officially tested positive after MLB “cared”, and he’s been held accountable for leaks that we weren’t supposed to know about- or more importantly, that which MLB shouldn’t have used against him. The way I see it is that many players abused PED’s and Alex was singled out in a harsh manner, which he fought. We either need to wipe out every player involved with the steroid era, or if not, at least treat them equally (do you really think you know who took what, for how long, etc?). The idea that what A-Rod did was worse than others involved is meaningless until there’s a witch-hunt on any of them to the same extent. Just My Opinion.

        • Karyn says:

          I agree that there’s been a huge witch hunt against Rodriguez, to the extent that MLB thinks they need to look tough, so they go after a superstar–but one who no one likes. They actually made Rodriguez seem sympathetic.

          That said, I do believe Rodriguez used banned PEDs well after 2001.

          I also think that, in the public’s perception, Pettitte’s sins were worse than Rodriguez’s and that Pettitte’s apologies were more sincere. Thus, Andy gets forgiven while Alex is shunned.

          I think we’re a lot closer in opinion than it might seem at first blush.

          • Juan80 says:

            Exactly! Yes I think we agree for the most part. The only reason I commented in the first place was that Poz put Andy on the list and called it ridiculous to consider Alex.. I thought his list was supposed to evaluate the greatest players, not just public perception!

          • Juan80 says:

            He also considered Alex a pedestrian 3rd baseman, which makes me cringe a little.

        • Bill Caffrey says:

          It’s not that much of a mystery why Pettitte and ARod are viewed so differently by Yankees fans with respect to PEDs. In the minds of the public, once Pettitte admitted his PED use, he was clean thereafter. In the minds of the public, after ARod’s initial admission, he then got caught AGAIN.

          Pettitte’s admission also struck a more believable tone: “I only used to rehab from injury” vs. ARod’s admission: “I only used during my 3 years in Texas due to the pressure of living up to my contract.” ARod’s admission was further undermined by the Katie Couric interview, in which he had very publicly claimed to be clean. ARod was like Rafael Palmeiro pointing at a Congressional panel, in that regard.

          And after their initial admissions, Pettitte avoided further PED-related trouble while ARod had the whole BioGenesis scandal that led to his suspension. So the public views ARod as having got a second chance which he then blew.

          I don’t think much of these distinctions, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is neither one of them admitted jack until they were caught. So I think Pettitte gets too much credit for being virtuous. But their circumstances vis-a-vis PED use are viewed quite differently for these reasons.

        • Marc Schneider says:

          Well said.

  14. dixiewrect says:

    Reggie Jackson’s still alive isn’t he?

  15. the ELO ratings are really interesting; they tend to skew to older players, and they vary a lot.
    check out this snazzy chart,

  16. testing2 says:

    Joe, you lost me at “I like George a lot.”

    BTW, Ford grew up in Astoria and spent his whole career with the Yankees, so not sure how Jeter gets your hometown advantage. I mean Jetes is still better than Ford. Just, nitpicking.

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