This article originally ran in February, and is now being re-posted on account of Derek Jeter.
Run a Google search for “Derek Jeter” and “defense” and you get almost 700,000 results. Run a Google search for “Chipper Jones” and you get fewer than 450,000 results. I suppose now you can bump each of those up by one. The matter of Jeter’s defense is a tired, tired topic, and it was a tired, tired topic years ago. Personally, I try to avoid tired topics. But in this instance, I think there’s something; something not enough attention has been paid to on account of the raging argument elsewhere. People have argued about only part of the story.
You all should be familiar with the position of the advanced defensive metrics like DRS and UZR. It’s because of those metrics that an argument exists in the first place. Jeter loyalists have continued to insist he was at least a solid defensive shortstop in the past. UZR has disagreed, and DRS has more extremely disagreed, as they’ve both evaluated Jeter as subpar for the position. On the occasion of Jeter’s retirement announcement, there were people who couldn’t help but make fun of his defensive ability, and he’s been the butt of such jokes for much of his career. Jeter’s often been described as an awful defensive shortstop, or as something along those lines. While there’s been some basis for this, though, one of the key words in that description is “shortstop.”
Let’s say you’re a professional pie-eater. Congratulations! You’re one of the lucky ones! You’re able to reliably consume three pies in a timed sitting. Among the pie-eating circuit, this makes you more or less average. In one competition, against weaker foes, you eat your three pies, and no one else eats more than two. You’ve won! Then you move on to another, more challenging competition. Against stronger foes, you eat your three pies, but most everyone else eats four. You’ve lost. Your ability level was exactly the same, but the peers you were matched up against were better than the peers before, so relatively speaking, you looked worse.
This has, in essence, been Jeter’s dilemma. Statistically, he’s been a below-average defensive shortstop, and everybody knows that. He’s also been a shortstop for his entire career, and shortstops are above-average defenders, relative to the Major League Baseball player pool. So on the one hand, Jeter’s been one of the worst. But on the other, he’s been one of the worst out of the best, so it’s important remember defensive numbers come within a certain positional context. Maybe Jeter’s like the worst beer from an excellent brewery.
In case you haven’t been able to look ahead, this whole post is basically just going to call attention to Jeter’s Defense rating. Every player on FanGraphs gets a Fielding rating, and a Positional rating. Combine them and you get the Defense rating, which allows for a direct comparison of players across different positions. Most of the talk about Jeter has had to do with the Fielding rating. That paints an incomplete picture.
In the past 50 years, 507 different players have batted at least 5,000 times. Sort by Fielding-per-150-games, and you find Jeter in 487th place, around names like Jay Buhner, Michael Young and Bobby Bonilla. However, sort by Positional-per-150-games, and you find Jeter in 57th place, around names like Cal Ripken, Rafael Furcal and Omar Vizquel. This is the positional adjustment, and Jeter gets major points for being a shortstop — a position of considerable difficulty.
Sort by Defense-per-150-games, and you find Jeter in 252nd place. In other words, he’s right in the middle of the pack, near guys like Jeff Blauser, Andre Dawson and Willie McGee. He comes out at -1.5 runs on that scale. He’s ahead of John Olerud. He’s ahead of Mark Grace and Rickey Henderson and Moises Alou. Jeter has drawn the criticism that he’s cost his team runs by playing a lousy shortstop, but overall he’s still been a reasonably valuable defensive player. That’s just because of his reliability at a difficult position.
The numbers they have at Baseball-Reference like Jeter less, and if you use their numbers for those same 507 guys in the past 50 years, you find Jeter in 341st place. It’s a worse place, to be sure, but it’s certainly not a dreadful place. And Jeter’s right by names like Nick Markakis and Shannon Stewart. He’s ahead of Jeff Bagwell. And of course, we’re loyal to the numbers we have right here, so I look at these as a backup.
Let’s say you only want to know about the era during which we’ve had UZR. This stretches from 2002 to 2013, and during that span, 322 players have batted at least 2,500 times. Keep in mind this window ignores Jeter’s youngest years. Sort by Fielding-per-150-games, and you find Jeter in 280th place. Sort by Positional-per-150-games, and you find Jeter in 50th place. Sort by Defense-per-150-games, and you find Jeter in 161st place. Again, right in the middle. His spreadsheet neighbors include Andrew McCutchen, Eric Byrnes and Ronnie Belliard. I feel like I’d just be repeating myself if I noted the significance of this. There’s a difference between criticizing Jeter as a defensive shortstop, and criticizing Jeter as a defensive player.
To the eyes, Jeter can be pretty convincingly OK. At least, that has to be the takeaway from so many Yankees fans insisting he’s been fine. Part of that is because Yankees fans haven’t been able to watch any other Yankees shortstops. Part of it is because his missed plays aren’t egregious. Part of it is because the bar for defensive shortstops is really high, and so even a weaker shortstop can look playable. And part of it is because Jeter has long been so athletic, because his position has demanded it, because his position has been among the most demanding. He’s looked like he belongs on the field. That’s mostly because he has.
I get that Derek Jeter is polarizing, and I get that it’s fun to criticize a player the media’s never stopped putting on a pedestal. It’s certainly worthwhile to note Jeter hasn’t been a great defensive shortstop. While he’ll have absolutely zero trouble getting into the Hall of Fame, defense still is important when it comes to our understanding of what he’s been as a player. Jeter has had his on-field shortcomings. But it’s also important to not get carried away. For his position, Jeter’s been one of the game’s worse defensive players. His position has included some of the very best defensive players in baseball. In terms of overall value, those about negate one another. In the end, the most correct opinion of Jeter’s defensive ability is, `Hey, he’s been all right.’
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