Derek Jeter, Offensive Shortstop

As you might have heard, Derek Jeter is set to take his final lap around the major leagues. I have always found Jeter fascinating, for many reasons. Obviously, he was the key defining link – along with Mariano Rivera – among the Yankees’ five World Series champion clubs over the last 20 years. He was the centerpiece of the simultaneously most beloved and hated franchise in the game. If at all possible, Jeter has been, quite paradoxically, one of the most overrated and underrated players in baseball throughout his career. There is no disputing Jeter’s status as one of the greats of his era, and as a certain first-time Hall of Famer, due to one simple fact – he is one of the premier offensive shortstops of all time.

Overrated? Some Jeter aficionados claim that he is one of the top 10 players of all time, and might even belong on a Mount Rushmore of the game’s legends. That is beyond the pale, based on a closer examination of the facts. Many believe that he should be the first guy to earn 100% of the Hall of Fame vote. While I would certainly vote for him on the first try, even with the current crowded ballot, why should he be more worthy of an honor that escaped Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, etc., not to mention the even brighter stars of a more recent vintage who have been tainted with the brush of steroids?

Underrated? There are those who point to his obvious defensive deficiencies and state that he gave back too big of a portion of the offensive value he provided. Just a singles hitter, some say. Amazingly, with the so-called New York media bias that has supposedly favored him, Jeter won exactly zero MVP awards. For all of his on-base prowess, he never won a batting or OBP title.

Today, let’s throw away the perceptions, the narratives, the championships, and for the most part, the defense, and focus on the words “offensive shortstop”. The offensive shortstop has been one of the single most rare and valuable commodities in the game, both today and in the past. Since 1901, there have been 2334 individual player-seasons that can be classified as regular shortstop seasons. Those 2334 seasons resulted in a cumulative slash line of .259-.317-.358, with an average OPS+ of 86.5. Only 605 (25.9%) of those seasons resulted in an OPS+ of 100 or better. Obviously, throughout most of the game’s history, offense has been a secondary consideration for the position – but the player who can both meet the defensive requirements of the position while also adding offensive punch adds massive value.

Only 62 players in the game’s history have been regular shortstops for 10 seasons or more. Only one player, Luis Aparicio with 18 seasons, tops Jeter’s mark of 17 years as a regular shortstop entering 2014. The vast majority of these 62 were well below average offensive players. For each of these shortstops, the number of cumulative standard deviations above or below league average for their seasons as a starting shortstop were measured. Only 14 of these 62 players had a positive combined cumulative total of standard deviations in OBP and SLG for their career. These players appear below:

Wagner Honus 15 42 22.93 30.72 151 14 14
Vaughan Arky 11 31 19.55 9.70 136 11 11
Jeter Derek 17 38 18.81 1.75 117 15 15
Cronin Joe 12 34 8.84 6.68 119 11 12
Larkin Barry 15 40 11.06 4.38 116 12 13
Stephens Vern 10 31 2.20 12.28 122 9 9
Appling Luke 16 42 16.44 -4.65 113 12 12
Boudreau Lou 10 31 8.84 3.65 120 8 9
Ripken Cal 15 35 3.18 7.98 118 9 12
Trammell Alan 16 36 7.14 1.53 110 8 8
Tejada Miguel 12 35 -1.37 4.37 112 9 9
Reese Pee Wee 14 37 8.35 -5.62 101 10 9
Yount Robin 11 28 -1.57 3.69 113 6 6
Wallace Bobby 12 38 1.47 -1.41 105 7 8

For each player, the following info is listed, from left to right: number of years as a regular shortstop, the age at which each played his last year as a regular shortstop, each player’s cumulative career total of standard deviations above/below league average in OBP and SLG compiled through his last year as a regular shortstop, his career OPS+ through his last season as a regular shortstop, and his number of seasons with positive combined standard deviations above league average OBP and SLG, and above 100 OPS+, respectively. For purposes of this exercise, only seasons dating back to 1901 were included in the seasonal count columns.

Measuring players’ offensive contributions using standard deviations above/below league average is a somewhat inexact science, but it does afford the ability to split production into its on-base and slugging components. It measures players relative to league average instead of replacement level, which makes it poor at measuring average players, but pretty good at measuring really good ones. In this case, it also successfully shows how high a bar it represents to A) be a regular shortstop for 10 or more years, and B) be a league average or better offensive performer.

Some observations about the list above – Honus Wagner is in a class by himself. This is a guy who just might be included on a Mount Rushmore of the game’s greats, and would have a 100% chance if a second mountain was annexed. Arky Vaughan is a very interesting case. The only lefthanded hitter on the list, he is clearly the second best hitter above on a per at bat basis. His OPS+ of 190 in 1935, with a .385-.491-.607 line, is the only season ever posted by another shortstop that wouldn’t look out of place in Wagner’s prime. After tearing apart the NL as a Pirate in the 1930’s, Vaughan went to Brooklyn, never got along with Leo Durocher, and was basically done as a shortstop at age 31. He then drowned at age 40, and has largely been forgotten. Jeter has Vaughan on longevity, but the latter was clearly a much better offensive player qualitatively.

The rest of the listed shortstops, with the exception of somewhat lesser threats Reese and Wallace – both Hall of Famers – were similarly productive on a per at-bat basis. This is where Jeter’s career bulk sets him apart. Vern Stephens‘ peak period occurred during wartime, and he barely met the 10-season minimum criteria. Robin Yount moved to center field after his age 28 season, and continued the offensive uptick in his game that had only recently begun. Lou Boudreau, like Vaughan and Stephens, hit the wall in his early thirties.

Alan Trammell and Barry Larkin‘s offensive profiles were similar to Jeter’s, but the former was a better than league average offensive performer in only half of his seasons, while the latter’s injury problems kept his counting numbers and number of regular shortstop seasons down. Joe Cronin, qualitatively, was very similar to Jeter, but had a much shorter career. Luke Appling had the career length, but wasn’t quite the equal with the bat of Jeter or most of the others on a per at bat basis.

One argument against Jeter that some will try to make is his lack of a particularly exceptional career peak. Let’s look at these 14 one more time, focusing on their three-year peak period:

Wagner Honus 33-35 07-09 7.02 10.24 190
Vaughan Arky 22-24 34-36 8.52 5.04 161
Yount Robin 26-28 82-84 3.44 4.25 147
Jeter Derek 24-26 98-00 4.98 2.13 136
Larkin Barry 27-29 91-93 3.90 2.78 133
Ripken Cal 22-24 83-85 2.66 3.92 138
Stephens Vern 22-24 43-45 1.55 4.98 134
Trammell Alan 28-30 86-88 3.08 3.25 138
Boudreau Lou 25-27 43-45 4.10 1.98 138
Appling Luke 28-30 35-37 5.40 0.11 121
Cronin Joe 31-33 38-40 3.03 2.46 128
Tejada Miguel 30-32 04-06 1.81 3.39 128
Reese Pee Wee 28-30 47-49 3.15 -0.18 111
Wallace Bobby 30-32 04-06 1.66 0.83 120

It turns out that Jeter’s peak period actually matches up almost equally as well as does his entire career with this group. Wagner and Vaughan are on another plane, and Yount’s offensive explosion in his last three years as a shortstop also outstrips Jeter, but his peak is as good or better than that of any of the others.

At this point, let’s revisit the term “offensive shortstop”. To be a truly exceptional offensive shortstop, by definition, you have to provide offense, and you have to be able to remain a shortstop. Ernie Banks was an exceptional offensive shortstop – for eight seasons. Then he moved to first base. Alex Rodriguez was an even better offensive shortstop for eight years – and then moved to third base, in deference to Jeter. At the time, many – including myself – thought the Yanks moved the wrong guy to third. In the short term, perhaps they did, but by 2010 at the very latest, it was clear that the Yanks were right.

While Rodriguez was becoming an increasingly stationary, one-dimensional player, Jeter had remained athletic enough to meet the demands of a full-time shortstop position, new-age defensive metrics notwithstanding. He remained a viable shortstop option, and as Jeff Sullivan’s excellent recent article on the topic stated, the worst defensive shortstops still provide value solely by their virtue of playing a very demanding defensive position.

On a per at bat basis, Jeter has provided offensive at a level equal to the second or third best, depending on your feelings about Arky Vaughan, offensive player ever at his position. Who is the second best bat at very other position on the diamond? Inner circle Hall of Famers, that’s who. Even at the other more defensive-oriented positions, your second-best offensive second baseman would likely be Eddie Collins, your second-best offensive catcher might be Gabby Hartnett. In either case, those are clear Hall of Famers, regardless of their respective defensive prowess. This would also seem to help make a clear case for Mike Piazza‘s Hall of Fame candidacy, as a solid argument can be made that he is the very best offensive catcher of all time.

Let’s take away the barrier of defensive position now, and look at Jeter’s standing among all hitters. His combined number of career standard deviations above or below league average in OBP and SLG of 18.81 + 1.75 = 20.56 ranks him 136th of all time, with no adjustment for position. Of the 135 players ahead of him, only two have a lower SLG component – Rickey Henderson and Pete Rose. Henderson is a substantially better offensive player (39.09 + 1.36 = 40.45, #5 OBP component of all time, #36 overall) who provided solid defensive value farther toward the easy side of the defensive spectrum. As an all-around player, Henderson trumps Jeter. Rose (25.71 + 1.41 = 27.12, #77) played a bunch of positions at a league-averageish level, and spread his value over an amazing 23 seasons as a regular.

I would submit that Jeter was a better all-around player than Rose when all factors are taken into consideration. Only 50 players had a higher career OBP component than Jeter’s 18.81, and most of them are clear all-time greats with superior power, though they played “easier” defensive positions than Jeter. There is also a lesser number of players with a lower OBP component than Jeter whose power is so extreme that on an all-around basis they belong ahead of Jeter, regardless of defensive position. Without pitting these players against one other tournament-bracket style, I would estimate that 50 position players would possess more all-around value than Jeter, and wouldn’t you know that he ranks #45 in WAR according to Fangraphs, and #58 according to Baseball Reference.

Derek Jeter is going to the Hall of Fame the second he is eligible, and deservedly so. He doesn’t need the championships to buttress his argument. In fact, one could argue that he was the best player on at most two of those five teams, with the criminally underrated Bernie Williams and Rodriguez his strongest competition. Jeter was great because he established a high level of performance at a very young age at the position farthest to the difficult side of the defensive spectrum, and maintained both that level and that position for a very long time. That is historic stuff. He might not belong on Mount Rushmore, but he is an inner circle Hall of Famer, an all-time great that we were all privileged to watch play. May his last season be a healthy, above average one.

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