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In defense of Mickey Mantle's final season compared to Derek Jeter

The Mick's last tour of duty was not nearly as bad as it has been typically perceived.

The National Pastime Museum

From the very beginning of his final season, it was going to be difficult for Derek Jeter to have a Farewell Tour quite like the one conducted by Mariano Rivera last year. Mo was an ageless wonder, and he still performed at a highly productive level that made the duration of the season intriguing to watch even as the Yankees faded from playoff contention. Old relief pitchers have been able to stay useful in the past. Jeter on the other hand was a 40-year-old shortstop, territory dwelled by very few players in baseball history.

Even if he received more rest than he has gotten this year, it would have been a challenge for him to be good. Despite a recent hot streak, the results are not pretty: .255/.303/.311 with just 22 extra-base hits and 34 walks. No one covering baseball outside of the Yankees radio booth figured his defense would be even moderate at this point, but I don't think anyone expected his offense to be quite this bad, even on a surgically repaired ankle. Asking for his league-leading hit total of 216 from 2012 would have been a bit much, but a mere league average season at the plate for a shortstop would not have been too unreasonable. Unfortunately, here we are.

Jeter's sluggish swan song has called to memory some disappointing farewells of years past, like good friend Jorge Posada's forgettable DH stint in 2011, Craig Biggio's painfully slow march to 3,000 hits, and Cal Ripken Jr's appalling final season masked by his famous All-Star Game homer. However, one Yankees legend in particular has also been cited in comparison to Jeter's adieu: Mickey Mantle. This was happening around the All-Star Break when Mike Vaccaro of the New York Post argued that Jeter was "sticking the landing" compared to Mantle and others, and that he was the team's most consistent player outside of Brett Gardner:

Maybe Jeter’s numbers mock the superstar he once was — his slash line is .272/.324/.322; in what was probably his best year (2006) it was .343/.417/.483 and for his career it’s .311/.379/.443 — but even when his numbers were pristine, Jeter’s prime value was in the day-to-day and in the overall, in his reliability. And other than Brett Gardner, who has been a more reliable Yankee in 2014, day to day, than Jeter?

Sixty-eight games to stick the landing.

You don’t have to wander very far to know how challenging that can be. Mickey Mantle long regretted how it ended for him, a 1968 season in which he could barely walk, in which he hit .237 and knocked four points off his career average, leaving him at .298.

Craig Calcaterra posted over at Hardball Talk about how unfair this claim was, and yet here we are in September with people still bashing the Mick's final season. It's even stranger now as a second half slide has made Jeter's numbers even worse. Nonetheless, here's Wallace Matthews at ESPN New York again throwing shade at Mantle:

Compared to some past Yankee greats, whose final seasons were better off forgotten, Jeter's has been pretty good.

Mickey Mantle, at age 36, hit just .237 in his final season and dropped his career batting average below .300 to .298.

For good measure, here's one more swipe at Mantle's 1968 from Larry Fleisher of Metro Sports:

Even if Jeter finishes this season well below his .310 career batting average, his last year is going better than some other Yankee greats.

Babe Ruth finished his career in Boston, Mickey Mantle languished for seasons as a shell of his former self and Yogi Berra was released after 1963.

In these articles, the writers also made sketchy comparisons to the final seasons of Don Mattingly, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, and Babe Ruth, all of which are also not quite warranted, but Mantle's is the most egregious case. As much as raw batting average would like to have you believe that Mantle was dreadful in his departure from the game, it's simply not true, and considering how historical the 1968 season was, it's pretty damn disappointing that these writers aren't thinking about league context.

Most fans with even a slight knowledge of baseball history probably know that 1968 was famously the "Year of the Pitcher." It was the most pitching-dominant season since the Deadball Era and eventually sparked rule changes to the height of the mound in order to get more offense into the game. The pitcher win stat is overrated, but Tigers starter Denny McClain's 31 wins still stick out like a sore thumb as the only pitcher within the past 79 years of baseball to accomplish that feat. Hall of Famer Bob Gibson was even more overwhelming with a downright ludicrous 1.12 ERA and 13 shutouts in 34 starts. Hell, even raw batting average should be enough for these writers to remember how pitcher-oriented that season was: Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski won the AL batting title. Even playing half his games at cozy Fenway Park, he hit a mere .301, the only AL player to bat over .300 that season. The league average was .237/.299/.340, compared to .252/.314/.387 today, which is already pitcher-friendly. Yikes.

These numbers were not normal by any means, and yet for some reason, people still hold them up as reasons why Mickey Mantle was an embarrassment in 1968. To make appropriate comparisons, one simply has to look at statistics that adjust for context compared to the league at that time. There are a plethora available, though my favorite is wRC+, or Weighted Runs Created (which accounts for all methods of getting on base) compared to league average and controlling for park effects. It doesn't account for differences in position (Mantle played first base in '68 while Jeter played shortstop this year), but that can be made up by comparing their numbers to the league average at that position.

In the end, Mantle's '68 just completely wipes out Jeter's 2014 across the board:

Mantle 1968 144 0.237 0.385 0.398 145
Avg. 1968 1B X 0.247 0.317 0.380 110
Jeter 2014 139 0.255 0.303 0.311 72
Avg. 2014 SS X 0.251 0.307 0.364 87

Mantle's 145 wRC+ was in fact exceeded by only 12 players in all of baseball in '68, regardless of position. Even with a typically productive year for first baseman, he was about 32% better than average. Meanwhile, Jeter's 72 wRC+ is obviously nowhere near the top of regular players, and it's about 21% worse than the average shortstop. Woof. There simply is no comparison here--the only thing 2014 Jeter has '68 Mantle beat in is batting average, and that's simply not a good enough statistic with which to compare them. Walks are as good as hits, and Mantle still received 99 unintentional walks, a fantastic number, especially compared to Jeter's 34. Jeter was unlikely to beat Mantle in power anyway, but he's not even close to the 2014 shortstop league average for slugging percentage anyway. It's a rout.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the lazy comparison is that there are interesting articles one could write about that don't delve into the statistics at all. Yankees historian Marty Appel, who was also the Public Relations Director during Mantle's final years, penned a very nice piece noting that Jeter and Mantle both signify the end of eras with the Yankees at a crossroads both in '68 (another year barely over .500) and now again in 2014. One could also discuss how injuries took their toll on the two players' bodies, enough to make Mantle move from his iconic center field position to first base and Jeter's already-small range at shortstop even more limited. There are several different angles to investigate.

It's just inaccurate to simply say that Jeter's departure from the game is similar because the two had disappointing seasons by statistical measures. Mickey Mantle was not a problem on the '68 Yankees. Mantle was hard on himself about that year, but his teammates like future Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox and '90s Yankees architect Gene "Stick" Michael, both savvy evaluators of talent, agreed that he was their best player. Don't disrespect Mantle's '68 by saying that Jeter's 2014 was equal or perhaps better. They were different eras, and Mantle's '68 was far superior.