The Yankees, Innovation and Derek Jeter

Willie Mays and Brooks Robinson are two of the greatest defensive players in baseball history. In addition to winning a combined 28 Gold Gloves, providing some of the most memorable defensive plays in World Series history — Mays in 1954 and Robinson in 1970 — and being almost universally viewed as the best fielders at their positions for most of their career, modern quantitative data also supports their reputations. Robinson has the most defensive WAR of any third baseman in history, while Mays is third, behind Andruw Jones and Paul Blair, among outfielders.

Robinson and Mays also share another distinction: they rank first and second in games played at the same position for the same team. Robinson played third base for the Baltimore Orioles 2,870 times. Mays appeared in 2,737 games as the New York and then San Francisco Giants’ center fielder. This distinction is based on a combination of being a great player, playing a key position well, being viewed as an institution and getting lucky.

The player who is third on this list is unlikely to catch either Mays or Robinson, but it is nonetheless impressive that only two players in the games history have been a fixture at one position for one team longer than Derek Jeter has at shortstop for the Yankees. Carl Yastrzemski and Stan Musial played too many games at first base, or in Yaz’s case, designated hitter. Ozzie Smith was a Padre for four seasons before becoming a Cardinal. Many other great players were moved positions or were traded at some point in their career, but Jeter has been a fixture for the Yankees at shortstop for a very long time now.

Like Mays and Robinson, Jeter has spent his career at a critical defensive position, but unlike those two he has generally not played it very well. One way to demonstrate that is that according to Baseball Reference, 53% of Robinson’s and 12% of Mays’s career WAR came from their defensive contributions. Jeter, however, has actually accumulated negative defensive WAR over the course of his career. Despite his less than sterling defense, Jeter remained the starting shortstop for one team, and generally a very good team, for the better part of a generation.

Jeter’s career path, and the way the Yankee’s have used him has, in some respects, been a challenge to conventional understandings of how to construct a baseball lineup. Shortstop has traditionally been a position primarily valued for defense, so most good shortstops have either stopped playing when they could no longer field the position well, become backup infielders, or in rare cases such as Robin Yount, Cal Ripken Jr. or Ernie Banks moved to less demanding defensive positions at some point in their careers when their bat still had value, but their defense had slowed down.

The Yankees, as we know, never did this with Jeter, continuing to play him at shortstop despite his defensive inadequacy largely because he continued to hit so well for a shortstop. In 2004, the Yankees added a better defensive shortstop and had a center fielder who was slowing down. Instead of moving Jeter to center, following the career path of Yount, the Yankees moved Alex Rodriguez, at that time on track to be the greatest shortstop since Honus Wagner, to third base. In retrospect, moving Jeter, likely would have been a mistake as Rodriguez probably could not have played shortstop as long as Jeter has, so the Yankees would have still been left needing a shortstop.

Keeping Jeter at shortstop for so long is often attributed to the Yankees inability to recognize the shortcomings of their beloved captain, but it is also possible that it reflects the willingness of the Yankees to think innovatively and weaken themselves defensively in order to keep a premier bat at shortstop. This has helped make it possible for the Yankees to continue to have top offenses for most of Jeter’s career. It is also true that for many of these years, particularly in the middle part of the last decade, they were a weak defensive team. However, in every year but one during that period they made the playoffs; and Jeter’s defense was not the reason they lost any of those playoff series during those years.

Jeter’s talent, ability to stay healthy and unique place in modern Yankee history have all contributed to his record of most games at shortstop for any one team, and the third most at any position for any team, but the Yankee management also should get some credit, not for giving in to the pressure from fans and media to keep playing Jeter at shortstop, but for recognizing that this may have been the best way to use this exceptional player, despite his shortcomings.