Since Jose Reyes broke in with the Mets in 2003, articles like this one, touting Reyes’ speed, ability and the excitement he brings to the game have appeared with some frequency in the local media. Reyes is a genuinely exciting ballplayer, and probably the best National League shortstop to play for a New York team since Pee Wee Reese moved to Los Angeles with the Dodgers following the 1957 season. Implicit in many of these articles is the idea that Reyes has supplanted Derek Jeter as New York’s best shortstop.
A comparison between the two shortstops, even allowing for Reyes’ better defense, rather than showing that Reyes is the better player, mostly demonstrates just how an impressive offensive player Jeter has been. As exciting a player as Reyes is, all but two of his years, 2006 and 2008 would be considered off years for Jeter; and neither of those two years would rank among Jeter’s best years. Reyes had OPS+ of 115 and 118 with 5.9 and 5.3 WAR respectively in those two years. Jeter has had an OPS+ better than 18 nine times in his career and has exceeded 5.9 WAR in four different season.
Reyes became a full time player at age 22, but lost much of last year to injury. However, between 2005-2008, ages 22-25, he was a formidable player hitting .287/.342/.442 with an OPS+104 and accumulating 18.3 wins above replacement (WAR). WAR is particularly useful here because it takes Reyes defensive prowess into consideration as well. These are very impressive numbers, but Jeter’s numbers for his age 22-25 years, 1996-1999, .319/.391/.467 OPS+121 23 WAR were unambiguously better. Moreover, Jeter has continued at that level of play for more or less his entire career.
Jeter is likely in the decline phase of his career, but still is a better player than Reyes, at least for now. A number of observers, including me, have raised concerns that Jeter is no longer the hitter he once was. According to this narrative, Reyes is perceived as bringing excitement to a rejuvenated Mets team, while Jeter is thought to be slowing down a good Yankee team. It is telling that even during what is widely perceived as an off year for Jeter, .279/.338/.413 OPS+ 105 0.9 WAR, Reyes .283./.327/.434 OPS+104 1 WAR has not been clearly better.
If Reyes can get close to back where he was during the 2005-2008 period and Jeter does not another produce year like 2009, Reyes will soon eclipse Jeter as New York’s best shortstop. Given that the Reyes is nine years younger than Jeter, Reyes will become New York’s best shortstop due to Jeter’s age rather than by becoming a better player than Jeter was in his late 20s and early 30s, but at 27, Reyes has still not yet accomplished this. Of course, one of the things that has made Jeter a special player has been his durability. Last year, was an extraordinary season but it he has had several other good years since turning 30 as well. From 2005-2007 at ages 31-33, although Jeter’s defense was not great he combined for an OPS+ of 126, with an average of fifteen home runs a year. These are pretty good numbers for a shortstop in his early 30s. This was also the period when Reyes was first mentioned as threatening Jeter’s position as the best shortstop in New York
The difference between Jeter and Reyes is that while Reyes plays better defense and steals more bases, Jeter is slightly stronger at the more important offensive categories of drawing walks and hitting home runs. Reyes advantage of defense has not been enough to make him the better overall better player. It is not entirely reasonable, or even useful to hold measure Reyes in comparison to a great player of historical significance like Jeter. Reyes does not have to be as good as Jeter, to be a very valuable player, but a flashier glove and better speed on the bases should not be overestimated either.