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Derek Jeter is simultaneously underrated and overrated

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Jeter is Schrödinger’s Hall of Famer.

Derek Jeter #2...

It’s Hall of Fame season, and as usual, I am so excited for all of The Discourse we’re going to get exposed to over the next six weeks. Like last year, this year’s class of eligible baseball greats hits particularly close to home for Yankee fans, with Bobby Abreu, Jason Giambi, and Alfonso Soriano all being added to the ballot, alongside a guy you may have heard of: Derek Jeter.

Jeter, the captain, the shortstop of the New York Yankees, a player who was perhaps more famous than he was good, and he was extremely good. It’s not really worth recounting his career résumé, we know he’s a Hall of Famer, he’s going in on the first ballot, and has a shot at becoming just the second player to ever be unanimously inducted after Mariano Rivera last year.

But Hall of Fame time is a point to reflect on a player’s career. The reason the five-year waiting period exists is so we can evaluate a player with a little more perspective. Again, there will be enough columns coming about objective reviews of Jeter’s career, and that’s left a gap for me to explore.

Jeter is perhaps the best example of a player who is simultaneously overrated and underrated. No modern baseball player has been lionized like Jeter, save for maybe Rivera himself, but Rivera is quite clearly the best relief pitcher ever.

This kind of dichotomy is fascinating to me. Alex Rodriguez or Barry Bonds are polarizing figures too, but that’s mostly due to PED use and personal attitudes rather than raw on-field performance. Jeter is different – his counting stats and postseason record speak a different language than more advanced, modern metrics, and as a player whose career spanned the creation and adoption of those metrics, he’s uniquely positioned as a test case for a player whose value can be defined in so many different ways.

He’s sixth all-time in hits, but “just” the ninth-best hitting shortstop of all time on the basis of wRC+. He was a star on five World Series winning teams, but piled up less career WAR than guys like Craig Biggio and Larry Walker, excellent players but never the faces of baseball. That’s exactly what I mean when I call him Schrödinger’s Hall of Famer. Traditional evaluators would look at the hit total and conclude that he was an inner-circle member of the game’s elite, and all too often snarky Twitter Analysts would decry his less robust advanced metrics as proof of New York Bias.

The truth, as often is the case with these things, lies in the middle. Jeter was a fantastic hitter at a premium position, and his 1999 campaign is still one of the worst MVP snub seasons of all time. He was also a truly subpar defender at best and outright dreadful at worst – even early defensive metrics like Total Zone Rating peg him as negative over any significant sample size.

His comparisons to other Hall of Famers has him the 12th-best shortstop by JAWS, exactly average in Baseball-Reference grey ink, well below average in black ink, and well above in the Hall of Fame Monitor, a derivative of a Bill James metric. He’s not as good as others at his position, but better than most players overall. And boy, was he a star.

Stardom is a funny thing - it’s called the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Best Baseball players, and like I said above, in spite of just how good Jeter really was, he probably was more famous than he was good. Being the shortstop of the most recognizable team in pro sports, playing in the postseason 16 times, and having a career perhaps best defined by flashbulb moments will do that.

Stardom can pump up careers in a lot of ways, but there’s almost always a backlash, either from fans of opposing teams, newer generations of fans tired of hearing about their grandfather’s favorite player, or analytically-inclined folks with a bone to pick. Bryce Harper is a prime example of the modern version of this: a very good player who was hyped as The Best Ever before he got his feet wet in MLB, and no reasonable player could live up to those expectations at 19 anyway. Even Mike Trout, maybe THE best player ever, wasn’t hyped in such a way when he was a teenager.

Jeter’s stardom worked that way. There are plenty of persnickety folks out there that insist if he played for the Tigers or Reds he’d get down-ballot Hall votes at best. His fame also worked the other way, though, in that any legitimate criticism, especially from Yankee fans, is often seen as disloyal or cherry picking, and it’s not. Nobody is above criticism, especially on a baseball field, and being a very good shortstop certainly doesn’t grant you immunity.

Derek Jeter will go into the Hall of Fame, and he’ll deserve it, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to all the replays of The Flip, The Dive, 3000 and The Walk Off that we’ll get in summer 2020. At the very least, celebrations around his accomplishments as a player will distract from his thus far unseemly tenure as minority owner of the Miami Marlins. His is a complicated legacy, one that divides us pretty clearly along the lines of how we view baseball. Maybe he wasn’t as good as you wanted him to be, but he also wasn’t as bad as that guy you hate on Twitter says he is.