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What will define Derek Jeter's career?

Everyone seems to have an opinion about Derek Jeter's place in history, and no one can agree as to what that will be.

Jim McIsaac

I was watching an ESPN highlight reel showing Derek Jeter's best career moments, and the anchor ended the segment by emphasizing that "Stats can't define him" and that one couldn't talk about numbers when talking about him, that he merely played the game the right way and had the intangibles, so to speak. People on the analytical side, of course, rarely mention these defining moments as evidence for his Hall of Fame case; he was statistically one of the best shortstops in history, and that's pretty much all you need to know. These mock debates over what best defines Derek Jeter is just as ridiculous as the "old school vs. new school" debate that was completely fabricated to create some controversy. This "debate" isn't necessarily as high profile as that one, but it still comes from the same template.

In one hundred years from now, what will people say about Derek Jeter? Will baseball go all the way to the dark side and fully accept analytical stats, using wRC+ and WAR as pillars of success, or will his career merely be another highlight reel to show on whichever media these future humans use? That's very hard to say, but I'd have to say that it mixes a bit of both. In the past ten years we've seen an exponential growth in the popularity of advanced metrics, so popular that we see WAR and FIP popping up on popular media and at ballparks themselves. There is no doubt in my mind that advanced metrics will become even more popular in the future, especially as MLBAM's new data will be able to track every aspect of every single play. Baseball fans have and will always continue to like more data, and baseball will give it to them. I don't know if RBI's and batting average will ever become truly extinct, but I doubt it will be at the forefront of baseball discussion.

For that very reason, statistics will always be part of the Derek Jeter discussion as to why he was great. According to Jay Jaffe's JAWS model, Derek Jeter is 12th all time, and five of those never played past 1950. In the modern era (post-WWII), Derek Jeter is easily one of the best shortstops to ever play. According to FanGraphs, since 1945 Derek Jeter is (amongst qualified shortstops): 3rd in fWAR, 7th in wRC+, 5th in home runs, 2nd in batting average, 7th in OBP, and obviously first in hits. These facts alone are enough to warrant praise; with numbers like these, why focus on the moments when all metrics--both advanced and standard--show that Derek Jeter is one of the best shortstops ever?

The fact is--his stats merely can't stand alone. This may mean nothing to baseball and Yankees fans in one hundred years, but Derek Jeter is more so an idea than a person. We know nothing about him. No one knows anything about his personal life, his personality, or anything like that. He's merely an idea in our head, one that most of us were content with. He had an almost Hollywood-esque flair for the dramatic: the Jeffrey Maier home run, the lead-off home run in the 2000 World Series, the Mr. November home run, the flip play, diving into the stands in 2004, and hitting a home run as his 3000th hit.

What people seem to forget though, is that it isn't these moments that wholly define his career because it is not these moments that made him great, it was being great which spurned those moments. The highlight reel and his stat line will forever be tied together like that of an ant on a Möbius strip: one cannot separate one from the other because not only would it be sloppy, but it would cut out the whole picture. That whole picture is what I believe fans of the future will marvel at, not just one aspect alone.