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Shhh, don’t tell a Yankees fan but Derek Jeter was probably overrated

John Romano | The Yankees shortstop might join former teammate Mariano Rivera as the only unanimous Hall of Fame selections, but his defensive abilities left a lot to be desired.
He is a Yankee icon. One of baseball's greatest ambassadors. And soon, he will be a Hall of Famer. But did Jeter's reputation exceed his actual value on the field? [GENE J. PUSKAR  |  Associated Press]
He is a Yankee icon. One of baseball's greatest ambassadors. And soon, he will be a Hall of Famer. But did Jeter's reputation exceed his actual value on the field? [GENE J. PUSKAR | Associated Press]
Published Jan. 18

ST. PETERSBURG — The question is not whether Derek Jeter is one of baseball’s all-time greats.

Naturally, he is. And in a few days, Hall of Fame voters will acknowledge that by making him one of a handful of shortstops to be elected in their first turn on the ballot.

The more interesting question, the more nuanced, snarky and intriguing question, is whether Jeter is one of baseball’s most overrated players.

You’re probably thinking, how can a player be overrated and still be great? It’s tricky territory, for sure. Once you’ve put yourself in the 99th percentile, there’s not a lot of variance for inflated opinions. But it happens. Think Pink Floyd and rock ‘n’ roll, for instance.

The thing with Jeter is his prominence as a player was enhanced by some very real, although not analytically justified, circumstances. For one, he played his entire career in baseball’s most recognizable uniform and city. That matters. He was also part of the Yankees renaissance in the 1990s. That matters, too.

Even more, Jeter carried himself with the kind of dignity that is both difficult and rare in a look-at-me era with its increased scrutiny. In that sense, he was the closest thing to Joe DiMaggio that his generation probably ever saw.

And all those factors helped overshadow the evidence that Jeter was, for a very long portion of his career, a pretty bad fielder at one of the game’s most important defensive positions.

That’s not a subjective opinion, by the way. Although it probably does require some explanation because Jeter wasn’t bad in the grounder-between-your-legs sense. He was, for the most part, pretty surehanded. And that probably explains how he managed to win five Gold Glove awards.

But Jeter was extremely, maybe radically, limited in the number of batted balls he reached. So while he may not have been charged with errors, a batter would still end up on first base with a single because Jeter did not get to a grounder that most shortstops would turn into outs.

Fangraphs.com has detailed defensive charts that date back to the 2003 season. The charts are not foolproof but they give a reliable sense of how many runs a fielder saves (or costs) his team based on the number of balls hit in his direction that are turned into outs.

In Jeter’s case, the numbers are like a horror show. He cost the Yankees twice as many runs (152) as the next closest shortstop (Hanley Ramirez with 73) in the majors from 2003-14. (Story continues below chart)

Jeter in the field

Did Derek Jeter cost the Yankees more runs than he saved in the field? Here’s a look at how he compared to other shortstops in a Fangraphs.com study of defensive runs saved.:

Player Innings Plays Defensive Runs Saved
Andrelton Simmons 3,055.1 746 88
J.J. Hardy 10,789.0 2,508 78
Troy Tulowitzki 8,199.0 2,185 78
Rafael Furcal 10,511.1 2,666 52
Jimmy Rollins 15,246.2 3,615 49
Alexei Ramirez 8,274.2 1,907 41
Zack Cozart 3,823.1 873 39
Yunel Escobar 8,731.2 1,992 28
Brandon Crawford 4,107.1 1,023 23
Elvis Andrus 7,721.2 1,700 18
Alcides Escobar 7,042.1 1,505 14
Stephen Drew 8,356.0 1,845 6
Erick Aybar 8,328.1 1,795 5
Jean Segura 2,876.2 689 5
Jhonny Peralta 11,316.0 2,713 1
Adeiny Hechavarria 2,706.0 610 -4
Cristian Guzman 6,394.0 1,437 -11
Orlando Cabrera 10,754.2 2,344 -13
David Eckstein 5,974.1 1,435 -19
Ian Desmond 6,579.0 1,496 -21
Royce Clayton 5,199.0 1,232 -21
Starlin Castro 6,481.0 1,488 -23
Edgar Renteria 9,678.1 2,202 -25
Miguel Tejada 10,153.0 2,483 -29
Carlos Guillen 4,705.0 1,116 -30
Jose Reyes 12,250.1 2,834 -39
Yuniesky Betancourt 8,239.1 1,905 -66
Hanley Ramirez 9,237.2 2,022 -73
Derek Jeter 13,643.1 2,951 -152
• • •

Now, in some ways, those numbers are skewed. To begin with, they cover the second half of Jeter’s career and only a small part of his prime.

Also, most teams, upon realizing a shortstop has limited range, moves them to a new position which means their negative numbers don’t have a chance to climb very high on that list. For example, by the time Ramirez was 28 he was already being fitted for third base, outfield and first base gloves.

Robin Yount is a Hall of Famer who went from shortstop to centerfield at 29. Cal Ripken moved to third base at 35. Alex Rodriguez was a better shortstop than Jeter but moved to third base when he joined the Yankees at 28.

Yet Jeter never budged. He played nothing but shortstop until he retired at age 40.

You can blame the Yankees for that, although Jeter’s pride and stature had a lot to do with the decision. Plus, he didn’t have enough power to justify moving him to third base or leftfield or even designated hitter.

All of which goes a long way toward explaining why his WAR (which approximates how many wins a player is worth versus a typical replacement player) is probably less than expected. Jeter’s WAR (72.4) is very similar to third baseman Scott Rolen (70.2).

Yet Jeter might be a unanimous Hall of Fame selection on Tuesday, and Rolen will probably fall short of election.

None of which means Jeter does not deserve the recognition. The only players in the last 50 years to get more hits than Jeter’s 3,465 were Pete Rose and Hank Aaron. And while modern analytics downplay intangibles, there is something to be said for the standard Jeter helped maintain in the Yankees clubhouse.

And, yes, it's probably not fair to talk about Jeter’s faults when his career is about to be celebrated.

It’s just that, for the 20 years he was on the field, those faults were rarely mentioned.

You tell us: Is Jeter overrated?

There is a chance Derek Jeter will be the first position player to be unanimously elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame, following the historic precedent of New York reliever Mariano Rivera last year.

Jeter’s 3,465 hits (sixth all-time), his .310 batting average and 260 homers clearly make him an easy first-ballot pick for the Hall.

But modern analytics say his defense at shortstop was a hindrance to the Yankees, and his final five seasons of offense were fairly pedestrian.

Did Jeter’s reputation exceed his production?

Send us an email at jromano@tampabay.com and let us know what you think.

Contact John Romano at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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