Misunderestimating Jeter

In Tom Clark’s small but brilliant 1976 book Baseball, Joe Rudi is quoted as saying “I’m getting more and more ink about not getting ink than most people do who always get ink”.  It strikes me, the now anachronistic use of the word “ink” to mean publicity notwithstanding, that the opposite statement could almost be made about Derek Jeter.  There is so much noise on the blogosphere about Jeter being overrated, that he is close to becoming underrated.  This is, of course, an exaggeration, but there is something puzzling not just about the amount but the kind of criticism Jeter gets.

Interestingly, and somewhat surprisingly, the criticism of Jeter is loudest from quantitative analysts, while those defending him often rely on more qualitative, and at times nonsensical, or at the very least highly subjective, arguments such as “leadership” or “presence”.  This has always struck me as a bit strange because Jeter, in many respects, is the type of player whose skills should resonate well with those given to more quantitative analysis.

The most common criticism of Derek Jeter is that he is not all that good defensively.  There have been numerous quantitative studies over the last few years seeking to demonstrate this.  While the numbers suggest that Jeter is not a great fielder, this analysis is superfluous for people who has seen Jeter play consistently, and are honest about it.  Anybody who has watched more than a few Yankee games over the last 13 years cannot have missed Jeter’s limited range and inability to turn ground balls hit up the middle into outs.  Similarly, Jeter has never been one of those graceful shortstop who makes turning a double play look like poetry.  His signature plays, when he goes deep into the hole and throws the runner out at first, or when he catches a fly ball in short left field are a triumphs of strength over grace.  The most famous play of Jeter’s career is, of course, “the flip”, from the 2001 ALDS, but even this was an awkward, lunging, if miraculous, play.

For most of his career, Jeter has been an average or below average defender at a key defensive position, but he has also been one of the most consistent top of the order hitters in baseball for much of that time.  His primary contribution offensively has been his ability to get on base, a skill that is usually recognized by the statistically minded as the most important skill in baseball.  While Jeter gets a lot of hits and has a career batting average of .316, that batting average only represents some of his value.  His career OBP is .386, which is about the same as Tony Gwynn’s.  As Jeter is, presumably, already in the decline phase of his career, this number is impressive.

Jeter’s OBP is 16th among active players.  Of the 15 ahead of him, seven are younger, so their numbers could well decline over the next several years.  More significantly, only one of those players, Alex Rodriguez, has played a majority of his games at a key defensive position such as shortstop, second base or catcher.  The only other middle infielder in the top 25 among active players is Chase Utley.  Additionally, all of the active players ahead of Jeter are middle of the order type hitters.  One could argue that even though he has usually batted second, Jeter was the greatest table setter of his generation.

Jeter’s career OBP is 120th all time, but among middle infielders he has the 18th highest OBP in baseball history.  Other than A-Rod, the only middle infielder from the last 40 years with a higher OBP than Jeter is Joe Morgan.

In addition to his impressive ability to get on base, Jeter’s 213 career homeruns and .459 slugging percentage, while not as impressive as his OBP, suggest a player whose offensive skills are not limited to simply getting on base.

The notion that Derek Jeter is somehow underrated is silly and an argument not worth making.  Nonetheless, Jeter is precisely the kind of middle infielder, a mediocre defender, with an extraordinary ability to get on base, decent power, and impressive consistency throughout a long career, that a generation ago, Bill James and other pioneers of new ways of looking at baseball would have argued were underrated.  The Yankee decision to keep Jeter at shortstop, which has meant sacrificing defense for a consistent offensive contributor, is precisely the kind of decision for which James and others would have advocated.

If Derek Jeter had split his career between say the Chicago White Sox and Houston Astros, and only appeared in the post-season a few times while racking up his offensive statistics every season, he would almost certainly be a darling of the SABRmetric crowd and a target of derision from the Joe Morgans of the baseball world because of his inadequate defense and un-shortstop like stature.  Of course, that is not what Jeter’s career has looked like.  Instead, he has been the iconic player on one of baseball’s most famous teams, playing in an intense media climate.  This has framed perceptions of Jeter a great deal, but when one gets past the nonsense written about Jeter in the local New York media, it is worth taking a second look at what kind of player he has been, and continues to be.