Monday, July 11, 2011

Mr. 3000 (July 11)

If I told you Casey wrote 1,500 words on this movie, would you read it?
Written by: Casey Richey
Casey is a frequent contributor to Boris Diaw Time! and a regular guest on the Boris Diaw Time! podcast. Also, considering my lack of knowledge/interest in all matters baseball, Casey is our unquestioned head of the MLB department.

Musial. Mays. Ripken. Gwynn. Boggs. Jeter.  Do you feel like one of those names just doesn’t quite seem to fit in? I know what you’re thinking: “Get Ripken off of there!” Don’t worry, I kid. But seriously, if you aren’t living in a cave right now, you’ve probably heard from the media that Derek Jeter has achieved his 3,000th hit. Furthermore, you’ve probably heard from them that he is a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer, is the best leader in the history of the game, gives 110% day in and day out, is scheduled to be knighted by the Queen next month, gives his entire salary to charity, and donated both his kidneys for dying children.

Now, I haven’t done all the necessary research, but I’m pretty sure at least one of those statements isn’t true. They love this guy! So the question is, how much of the hype is actually deserved, and how much of it is just the expected media hyperbole? I would like to get to the bottom of this, and I figured I’m a better candidate to examine it than Jon, who hates only one thing more than baseball…you guessed it, Derek Jeter! 

There are so many different directions I could go with this, so let’s just start at the most over-hyped part, the leadership/character aspect. The media loves to find athletes who have had lots of success (in other words, many championships), then automatically start throwing around words such as ‘leader’, ‘clutch’, ‘mature’, ‘legacy’…the list goes on. Some of these words don’t even have any practical meaning in sports. I mean, why in the world would you talk about an athlete’s ‘legacy’ when he hasn’t even retired yet?! I am sick of hearing this from the guys on the radio. Also, ‘leadership’ means something totally different in baseball than it does in, say, basketball or football. In baseball, for 90% of the team, your most important contribution comes when you’re standing all alone on the field, trying to hit a ball.  I’m not saying there aren’t leaders in baseball, or that it doesn’t need leaders (someone’s got to keep Miguel Cabrera in the hotel at night during those long road trips!), but have we actually examined Jeter’s tangible credentials? Is there even a way of knowing, or do we just make assumptions because he has been on the Yankees through five championship teams? It is hard to show many of these character qualities from on-the-field numbers.

So, what facts do we actually have? Let’s see here…Jeter is now 37 years old, and there’s no evidence he’s ever actually been in a serious relationship with a woman who you can take seriously (no, Jessica Biel does not count!); there have been multiple reports throughout his career of clubbing into the early morning hours the day before a game (one of these led to an ongoing public dispute with George Steinbrenner); he’s been in trouble with the New York state tax department for evading state income tax; and, of course, you have the offseason contract issues from this past year. Now, on any one of these items, you could probably argue both sides, and I’m not trying to incriminate Jeter here. But on the other hand, it’s not exactly the resume of Tim Tebow. Where’s the hard evidence FOR Jeter? On this one, I’m calling over-hype. I suspect that Jeter is, to some degree, a good leader, but I also suspect that most of the talk about it is speculative and unsubstantiated.

Next, let’s discuss the big-picture elements of Jeter’s baseball career. Whereas the previous section makes it look like I hate Jeter (in reality, I’m a Yankees fan and I love Derek Jeter!), this area has to be the most compelling case for him. Five championships, playoff appearances in all but one year of his career, and always seeming to be getting the big hit (or making the big play with his glove) at just the right time are all factors that have given legitimate rise to his fame. Also, he’s really, really good-looking!  Oh, sorry, back to baseball…

Obviously, just being a member of championship teams is not enough to merit ‘greatness’ talk. The part that I just can’t let go of is the part where he’s always making the big play in the big moment. Look, I generally hate the term ‘clutch’ (despite the fact that I use it constantly), and by all means every championship team has its slackers, but there really has been something spectacular, almost magical, about Jeter’s playoff career. I still don’t even know whether ‘clutch’ is a real attribute of an athlete, or if it is just a term to describe events that have transpired in the past, But there’s no denying we’ve at least observed this phenomenon in Jeter’s career. The bloody dive into the stands, the bizarre cutoff to home plate, the ‘Mr. November’ ordeal, and, well, the entire 2000 post-season – these all add to Jeter’s ‘legend’ perception (and they should!). The fact is that the guy has been in so many postseason games and has consistently come through in the clutch that you can’t just excuse it. MAYBE he’s been lucky all these years…but you can’t just ignore it! It’s called the Hall of FAME – perception has a lot to do with it, whether you like it or not! We will always be fascinated with and want to honor players who made names for themselves in the big moments of their careers.

Finally, let’s talk about numbers. After all, at the end of the day, the Hall of Fame voters are going to be spending most of their time looking at his stats and comparing them to those who have been voted into the Hall and those who have not. Right now, Jeter sits at a healthy .313 batting average for his career, slugging .450 with 237 career home runs. No, Jeter is not notorious for his power, but thanks to longevity and consistency, only about 15 HR/year have yielded him that decent career total. Of course, with all this, one has to take into account that he is in fact a shortstop. Most shortstops aren’t expected to have lots of power, as they need to be quick on their feet defensively, and it’s rare that you find a brilliant combination of the two. Furthermore, most shortstops can’t even bat .300 in a season, let alone in a career. This is impressive. His numbers are solid, and after 15 years in the big leagues, they only started showing any sign of decline last year. Considering that this guy got it going immediately at the beginning of his career, he essentially had a 14-year ‘prime’ (this assumes he is in fact past his prime now – not a guarantee, but the safer bet).

Now, back to that shortstop thing. This is probably the most debated thing about him. Thanks to modern sabermetric stats such as zone rating and range factor, we have learned to see that Jeter falls somewhere in the middle of the pack. THAT’S RIGHT, I SAID MIDDLE OF THE PACK, NOT BOTTOM! No, he’s not a GREAT defensive shortstop, but he’s not as bad as what you’ve probably heard. Let me explain. Early in his career, Jeter quickly became known for his signature turn-and-throw move, throwing to first with his momentum going to his right. I don’t know what it is, but the way he actually does it makes it look so effortless, and, quite frankly, it’s just pretty. Well, fast-forward a few years, and we begin tracking range factor. Suddenly, the world is shocked to find out that, while it is pretty, it’s not as efficient as many of the other shortstops in the league.  After hearing this, days of Vancouver-like riots in the streets of the Bronx completed the pendulum effect, and all positive perception of his defensive game was basically taken away from him. The fact still remains, though, that Jeter’s zone rating FAR exceeds that of any other shortstop in recent memory. Put together the phenomenal zone rating and bad range factor, and what you get is a GOOD (not great) defensive shortstop. When you are as good a hitter as he is, your manager isn’t going to ask for much more than that!

So, does a guy like this belong in the Hall of Fame? YES! I sure hope you don’t argue with that point. However, you may still wonder if he belongs among the likes of Musial, Mays, Gwynn, and the rest of the 3,000 club. To me, longevity is a great thing, but not as important as making great contributions for your team in your prime. Jeter didn’t have the prime that some of these guys had, but he also didn’t have your typical bell-curve career with an unbelievable five-year prime, and plenty of tapering on either end – he simply hit really well for 15 years, and it helped his team earn five World Series titles. To me, he belongs among the greats of the game. You may feel differently! If so, I’d like to hear your thoughts. To me, this has been one of the most fascinating sports debate topics, and the debate has continued to evolve as Jeter’s career has gone on and the game has changed. So let the debating continue!


  1. Let me begin by saying that I despise Jeter, but largely agree with your article. Then again, I hate everybody who has ever embraced pinstripes, so that's not fair, plus the reds had all but drafted Jeter one pick before the yankees and for the dumbest reason ever, chose not to, so I acknowledge bias. I'm not super familiar with sabermetrics, but I did appreciate the part where you mentioned Jeter's range, because as a former SS, I said from the first time that I saw his "move" that he made a routine play look harder than it was and possibly allowed base hits by taking 57 extra steps to get momentum to jump as opposed to planting and making a good strong throw. This does, however, bring up a question I've been pondering lately...and it might change my opinion of Jeter it is: considering talent and skill (to be defined shortly) what is the best ratio for evaluating a player? What I mean is, there are extremely physically gifted athletes who routinely make difficult plays look easy-take Michael Phelps, for example. Given the same training and dedication, almost if not absolutely nobody else would be able to swim as fast as he does, simply because of elements such as his wingspan, musculature, etc. There are also athletes-Pete Rose, for instance, who wring every bit of production out of a body that may not be physically superior to others. To bring it back home, Derek Jeter has a limited range, I'm guessing (though I'm not sure) below average speed for a SS, and an average arm, yet you will find no argument from me that he is a good fielder. In contrast, though, and I could be mistaken on this, I think I remember reading a stat that examined his "clutch" hits to win ballgames, and I believe that in a majority of said games, he missed opportunities earlier in the game with runners in scoring position, failing to get the run home. I, like you, HATE the word clutch as it applies to baseball-a sport so compartmented that everyone takes a catnap between pitches. Anyway, I'm just rambling now, but I thought I'd see what you guys think as to what constitutes greatness as it applies to the ratio of talent (natural ability) and skill (utilizing all your talent)

  2. I think, like with so many other things, it's a mixture of both - we all have to be amazed when we see raw talent, even if it is squandered (a la JaMarcus Russell); yet we all are equally amazed when we see a small guy who doesn't look like he should be very good putting in so much effort to be elite (Steve Nash? Doug Flutie?). In Jeter's case, you're right, he's not fast. I believe that he plays very hard, and the effort totally does increase proportionately to the height of the occasion. Like you said, this is one of the reasons 'clutch' shouldn't be valued TOO much, because you can always say hey, why didn't you come through earlier with 2 RISP? On the other hand... at the end of the day, who would you rather have, A-Rod who hits most of his HRs in 7-run ballgames with no RISP... or someone who always seems to have 'it' when you're down 1 with RISP in the 8th or 9th (currently Nate Schierholtz)?!

  3. FYI - Nash is actually pretty big for a point guard.

  4. Also, Jeter has over 300 stolen bases, so he isn't slow.

  5. Really? Somehow I just always pictured Nash as this tiny white guy running circles around everyone. Further evidence that I have absolutely no business talking about anything basketball!