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To the Mats with Jeter Comments

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Derek Jeter: You cannot have respect without honesty. (AP)

I have over 50 comments on my reaction to Derek Jeter's reported contract demands to choose from today, many of them about showing Jeter the proper respect for his many contributions to the Yankees. I’ve decided to go with this one from reader John, as it seems to cover so many of the arguments about Jeter that others have made. As I do with longer reader comments, I’ll interrupt with my responses where appropriate. I haven’t changed anything except spelling and punctuation.

Mr. Goldman you amaze me. In part because I know you’ve been writing your column for some time and I wonder what team you’ve been watching and whom you have been watching at shortstop for the Yankees since 1996.

It has been some time. I’ve been working this corner since 1999. I was 28 then, just married, and in more or less mint condition; I’m about to turn 40 now, have two children, and am a shell of my former self. As George Washington said, I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country. However, I am not so blind that I’ve missed Derek Jeter’s career. As I’ve oft remarked in this space, shortstop was the cross the Yankees had to bear before Jeter came along. As a younger fan, my formative baseball experience was probably the 1985 Yankees, a very good team that came painfully close to winning the American League East. It would be unfair to place the whole blame for the shortfall on Bobby Meacham, but it was just two games, and Meacham’s 24 errors and .218/.302/.266 hitting had a lot to do with it. When Meacham stands in your mind as the archetypal Yankees shortstop, when you spent years watching Alan Trammell destroy the club’s hopes, you can be sure I haven’t missed Jeter’s importance. He’s about Mt. Rushmore-sized in my mind.

Thing is, have you ever seen Mt. Rushmore? It’s a sculpture of four dead guys. Living people don’t get to be monuments; we can’t afford that kind of blind veneration. Everything that Jeter has done from the moment he was drafted until this very minute, wherever he is and whatever he’s doing, is history. It’s in the past and it has very little relevance to whether he can help the Yankees win in the future, particularly for six bloody years. I appreciate his importance to the franchise and to the fanbase, and he’s due a certain deference. We agree about that. But we don’t ask the dead pols on Mt. Rushmore to run the country and we don’t ask aging ballplayers to play shortstop.

As for the terms of contracts and the money involved, who knows what a player is worth? These days the numbers are way beyond stratospheric and Yankees fans have seen dollars flushed away on pitchers who barely earned a seat in the stadium. So I will leave that to the people who write the checks to decide, it’s their money and their call.

The numbers have actually been coming back down with the bad economy, have been for a couple of years now. Even if they weren’t, surely you don’t mean to suggest that just because the Yankees have signed bad contracts in the past and wasted their money that they should do so again? Surely you have heard the old saying, "Two wrongs don’t make a bagel?" In any case, as Jay Jaffe has discussed, the issue isn’t the cost in and of itself, but what the opportunity cost is in terms of other players foregone. The Yankees’ supply of money is large, but not infinite. If there is a budget, however large, giving Jeter an outsized share of it means that the Yankees don’t have that money for other players.

However when I was reading your column one section in particular really stuck out, i.e. "…Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel, had defensive chops that Jeter couldn’t dream of at 25…" Now the only interpretation I could take away from that is, that according to you Derek Jeter is and was a mediocre or maybe average shortstop, probably not qualified to carry the spikes of really great players at the position like Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel. I repeat my earlier query "what team have you been watching?"

Jeter has been a great hitter for a shortstop, and would have been a good-to-excellent hitter at most other positions, depending on the season. As a defensive shortstop, he has never been one of the greats. I summed up my position on Jeter’s defensive game in the 2005 edition of the Baseball Prospectus annual:

"For those of us in the performance analysis biz, Jeter is a difficult problem because any realistic evaluation of his skills, no matter how flattering, seems like a slight when compared to his reputation. In the eyes of true believers, Honus Wagner and Superman combined couldn't do half the things Jeter does. In truth, he's terrific at going back on shallow pop-ups and executing the jump throw in the hole. Other aspects of the job—fielding grounders to his left for instance—elude him, and it doesn't take an MS in scouting or statistics to see it. When watching a Yankees game, simply pay attention to the opposing shortstop. He will routinely get to balls that Jeter cannot. As for the Gold Glove, peel back the foil on the award and you'll find there's some tasty chocolate underneath. That's about what it's worth, though at least Jeter was better this year. On offense, Jeter walked less than ever before and doubled his previous high in sac bunts, perhaps because he lost confidence after a shockingly poor April. Jeter is a Hall of Famer to be, a key player on a great team, an inspirational leader, a fine hitter…and he gives up a lot of singles with his glove. In light of the rest, why is that last part so difficult to accept?"

My opinion hasn’t changed much in the intervening years, except that with the arrival of Alex Rodriguez and a stern talking-to from Brian Cashman, Jeter briefly improved in his early 30s before age caught up with him. Let’s address the specific comparison to the Wizard of Oz and the Wizard of Venezuela. In a hitting contest, Jeter, pardon the pun, batters Smith and Vizquel. They just can’t compete. Defensively, they had so much more range, range that you didn’t need statistics to track, you could just see. They could make plays to both sides. They could stop balls behind second base. Smith did it routinely. When have you seen Jeter make a play on a grounder behind second? The Clinton administration? Maybe? In the Jeter "This is Your Life" video, there is one great defensive highlight, the shovel pass to the plate in the playoffs, and a lot of shots of those spin-jump-and-throw plays from the hole. Both are great, but they don’t account for the countless grounders that escaped him the rest of the time.

Here is a very blunt tool for you. Consider the batting averages that Yankees pitchers have allowed on ground balls since 1996. The reason that this is a blunt tool is that I don’t know which grounders were hit where, and therefore how much of the credit or blame should go to other fielders. I’ve listed the other primary infielders each season so that you can judge for yourself the quality of the rest of the inner defense.

1996 .251 .237 .014 12 Tino Martinez, Mariano Duncan, Wade Boggs
1997 .263 .232 .031 13 Martinez, Duncan, Boggs, Luis Sojo, Rey Sanchez, Charlie Hayes
1998 .212 .221 -.009 4 Martinez, Chuck Knoblauch, Scott Brosius
1999 .227 .237 -.010 5 Martinez, Knoblauch, Brosius
2000 .168 .170 -.002 7 Martinez, Knoblauch, Brosius, Jose Vizcaino
2001 .192 .177 .015 12 Martinez, Alfonso Soriano, Brosius
2002 .173 .165 .008 10 Jason Giambi, Soriano, Robin Ventura
2003 .256 .236 .020 14 Giambi, Soriano, Ventura
2004 .238 .245 -.007 3 Tony Clark, John Olerud, Giambi, Miguel Cairo, Alex Rodriguez
2005 .246 .239 .007 8 Tino Martinez, Giambi, Robinson Cano, Rodriguez
2006 .240 .245 -.005 4 Andy Phillips, Giambi, Craig Wilson, Cano, Rodriguez
2007 .244 .245 -.001 6 Doug Mientkiewicz, Phillips, Cano, Rodriguez
2008 .256 .240 .016 13 Giambi, Cano, Rodriguez
2009 .230 .238 -.008 5 Mark Teixeira, Cano, Rodriguez
2010 .247 .231 .016 13 Teixeira, Cano, Rodriguez

I’ve placed the years in which the Yankees were above average in bold. As you can see, the Yankees have had eight seasons at or near the bottom of the league, and another seven seasons in the top half of the rankings. The only constant here is Jeter. The pitchers have changed, the other infielders, the managers. Draw your own conclusions, but keep in mind that there is no fancy statistical work going on here, though all the "fancy" defensive measurements, whatever their origin or basis, agree that Jeter’s glove fell off some time ago.

I was just remembering an interview I heard some years ago with Buck O’Neil, probably one of the most knowledgeable baseball men in recent memory and one who had the opportunity to see and play alongside some of the greatest to ever play the game. The interviewer was asking him to evaluate current players at various positions. Granted this was probably 10+ years ago. When it came to Short Stop, he was very emphatic and observed that he had never seen anyone play the position better than Derek Jeter. He certainly didn’t shy away from saying he was the best playing at that time.

I have great respect for Buck O’Neil, and his opinion of Jeter would carry a great deal of weight if we knew that he had watched Jeter day in and day out, play by play over a period of years. Even if he had, O’Neil has, sadly, been dead for over four years, and his opinion on Jeter is now quite out of date. Even if he was correct in his evaluation, it no longer applies. Good try, though, on the appeal to authority, one of the all-time great dodgy argument tactics.

Was that hyperbole, I honestly don’t know but even if it was, I think I would give infinitely more weight to his opinion than I would to someone who seems to not have a clue as to what he is talking about and unless I am misinformed, has never played the game or had the responsibility to evaluate or train a player, on the professional level.

As you observed at the outset, I’ve been doing this a long time, long enough that I’ve watched this particular movie with Tino Martinez, Bernie Williams, and several other Yankees. Each time, I can count on at least a few people to point out that I must not know what I’m talking about because I didn’t play left field for the St. Louis Browns. Man, it’s old. Of course, no one can ever know anything about a subject without living it first. That’s why Isaac Asimov was able to write all those great novels about robots and futuristic outer-space historians—because he was in fact a robotic outer-space historian from the future. Charles Dickens expired before finishing "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" because as it was a murder mystery he had to die to understand the plot. And all biographies, no matter how well-researched, are bogus, because as much as you might think you know about, say, Abraham Lincoln, you weren’t there with him. In fact, you weren’t him, which is the only way to really know anything about him. It’s why math was so hard for me, because I’ve never been a number!

Heck, John, unless your name is really "Rogers Hornsby," I figure it’s safe to assume that you’ve never "had the responsibility to evaluate or train a player, on the professional level." If that’s the case, why share your opinion since it’s just as uninformed as mine? Parenthetically, attacking the guy making an argument, instead of attacking the argument itself, is also one of the great dodgy argument tactics.

Certainly it would seem, when the day comes for Jeter to be considered for the Hall of Fame, you would no doubt vote an emphatic NO! After all he is nowhere near the caliber of Smith or Vizquel. RIGHT?

Actually, he’s a first-ballot guy in my book, and I didn’t say anything to indicate that he wasn’t. What I did say was that he wasn’t the defensive equal of Smith or Vizquel. That’s okay, though. Babe Ruth isn’t in the Hall of Fame for his basestealing, Goose Gossage isn’t in for his win total, and Jeter won’t go in because he was a great defender.

I have been a Yankee fan for 64 plus years, Yankee fans are passionate and the vast majority are great fans and knowledgeable about the game and the team and they appreciate talent even in its waning. There are however some, who for lack of a better word are JERKS. Yes even amongst Yankee fans, unfortunately. They want an All-Star at every position and when things begin to go bad they have zero patience. Suddenly the player in question is "horrible….never was any good….get rid of the bum…" etc. etc. etc. As I said real jerks. I realize you are not just a fan you get to write opinions, that a huge number of people get to read and presumably gain some insight from. But you sure sound like you belong in that negative and bitter chorus.

John, I respect the amount of time you’ve put in with the Yankees, and I appreciate your reading the Pinstriped Bible. That said, you are painting with too broad a brush. There certainly are fans who overreact to short-term fluctuations in player performance. That is not what is happening here. Jeter’s defense has been controversial for years. Read what I wrote back in 2005: his defense was something the Yankees could live with as long as he putting more runs on the board with his bat than he allowed with his glove. He did that again this year, but the gap narrowed dramatically. Now his contract is up and he’s asking for many more years. At some point soon, his bat is going to stop carrying his glove. With all respect to Jeter, if he requires more than a two-year contract, the risk of that happening is too great. This is not about disrespecting a great Yankee, but about figuring out the way the Yankees can continue to win.

If you have access to the massive YES video files; I would suggest you review the career of this player whom you seem to think lacks "The Chops" to qualify for much respect.

To me, respect is being honest with and about people, not pretending that the emperor has clothes on when he’s naked as a jaybird. Praising people for attributes they don’t possess isn’t respect, it’s a lie. Jeter has done great things, but you’re making the mistake of thinking that this argument is about the past. It’s about the future. What Jeter did in 1996 or 1999 has as much to do with it as what Ty Cobb did in 1906 or 1909.

You might also consider recent polls that reveal Jeter to be one of the most, if not the most respected athlete in professional sports.

Third dodgy argument: appeal to popularity. "Velveeta must be good, because so many people buy it." They do and it isn’t. Even if it was good, the fact that people buy it wouldn’t prove its quality.

Maybe a little research from time to time would be a good idea. If you’re going to write a column, even an opinion column you should at least know what you are talking about.

Research is all I do. This isn’t an opinion site, but an informed opinion site. I wish you continued good health and much happy rooting for the next Yankees shortstop, whoever he may be.