We’ve spent the last week or so talking about two of Derek Jeter’s best individual seasons, seasons that were MVP-caliber even though he didn’t end up walking away with the award. While both seasons highlight the former captain’s ceiling as one of the best players in baseball, for our last installment in this series, I think we need to take a much broader look at his entire career.
If there’s one all-time, career-defining stat for Jeter, it’s his 3,465 hits — good for sixth all-time in baseball history. Raw hit totals are, I think, one of those areas where we see the most friction between “old school” baseball fans and sabermetricians, since the former often assumes the latter doesn’t care about hits or average, since a walk’s as good as a hit.
Of course, this is wrong, most hits are better than a walk, but not all hits count the same, and any time you reach base, that’s better than making an out. Getting a hit is really good, if you look at the top-20 hit list, the worst career wRC+ belongs to Cal Ripken Jr. at 112. We should all be so lucky if that’s the worst player in a dataset.
That hit list also is a time capsule of sorts — perhaps nothing better encompasses the changes in the game like looking at the top 50 all-time hit leaders. We see two active names, Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera, and indeed, four of the top 10 played their full careers before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Career hits is obviously a counting stat, you need to play a lot of games to find yourself reasonably high on the list, but the impacts of optimized defenses, relief pitching, and even standardized and maintained infields should be obvious to even cursory examination.
Even with that caveat, you just can’t be sixth all-time in hits and be a bad player, even if your place on that list doesn’t necessarily correlate with how much of a gamebreaker you were. Barry Bonds and Babe Ruth average out to 42nd on this all-time list, and Ted Williams isn’t even on it, despite that trio being the first, second, and third greatest offensive force in the history of baseball — argue amongst yourselves who goes where. This is what I mean above, not all hits are equal. Pete Rose wasn’t as big an offensive threat as Ted Williams, despite his 1,500 or so more hits.
But even though that 3,465 number is going to be forever associated with Jeter, I think there’s actually something more impressive about his career — consistency. For a 12-season run from 1998-2009, he never posted a wRC+ below 116, and save for a dislocated shoulder on Opening Day in 2003, he never played fewer than 148 games. Availability is an ability, even if it’s something that public metrics aren’t great at quantifying. Being able to put the same, solid-to-great bat in the order 150 times a season made Joes Torre and Girardi’s jobs easier, and roster construction less tenuous.
Compare this to the modern Yankees, where redundancies have to be built in over and over to anticipate injuries to Giancarlo Stanton or Aaron Hicks. Even though Stanton is, at peak, a better player than Jeter, from his age-28 to 31 seasons with the Yankees, he’s appeared in just 62 percent of the team’s possible games. Across those same four seasons, Jeter was able to play in 91 percent of possible games. Stanton produces more value per plate appearance, but Jeter’s ability to be on the field so much more makes up for the gap in overall skill, and then some.
One of the questions that I have about Jeter and a sabermetric framing is how much rest he would have gotten — teams have increasingly turned to this as a strategy, give guys a couple more days off throughout the season in hopes that a player will be closer to 100 percent come playoff time...
Of course, Jeter was actually a little better in the postseason than he was in the regular season, playing the equivalent of a full season against the best pitching in the AL and finding a little more power in his game. If he’d been given an extra day off in July and August, could he have been better? Sure, maybe, I guess we could have seen that .839 OPS bumped to .850 or something like that, but it’s not really worth speculating about in my opinion.
I’ve said and written before that Jeter is probably simultaneously the most overrated and underrated player of all time. He was never, really, the best player in baseball, and often wasn’t the best player on his own team. He did have real defensive deficiencies that knocked back his WAR totals.
But the value of that consistency is something that I’m not sure is properly reflected in public metrics. Look no further than the current Yankee roster — Gleyber Torres pretty much mirrored Jeter’s output in his first two seasons, a 125 wRC+ shortstop with good contact skills and defensive issues. The problem is, Gleyber’s only been able to do that for two seasons, not 15, and has regressed in a way that Jeter never really did.
I’ve now spent like, 3,000 words talking about a Hall of Fame induction when I’m well known for hating Hall of Fame discourse. I’m not sure if my appreciation or evaluation of Derek Jeter has changed, and I feel the same way that I felt at the beginning of this series. Analytics don’t exist to poke holes in your favorite player, advanced metrics find that Derek Jeter was a super valuable, talented, consistent hitter, who provided a high offensive floor and paired it with three or four seasons where the ceiling was raised to MVP quality — even if he never was clearly the best player in the league. I don’t think that’s all that different from what traditional measures find.