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Thursday, August 8
From the archives: Assessing Jeter's defense

By Rob Neyer

The following column was originally posted on February 7, 2001.

The day we answer the burning question, "So how much is Derek Jeter worth, anyway?"

In recent years, and especially in recent days, it's been the fashion to sing the praises of The Magnificent Derek Jeter. The Greatest Yankee Shortstop, even better than the Scooter. Maybe as good as Nomar Garciaparra. Maybe even as good as Alex Rodriguez, the $252 Million Man.

Jeter's better than Rizzuto. But is he close to being as good as Garciaparra and/or Rodriguez? Here are some key numbers for each of them:

      Alex  Nomar  Jeter
OPS    935   955    862

Garciaparra has certainly benefited from playing half his games in a good hitter's park, but the advantage certainly can't account for a 93-point difference in OPS. Same story with Rodriguez, who's actually spent the last season-and-a-half playing in a great pitcher's park (and before that, the Kingdome wasn't nearly as hitter-friendly as widely thought). As for the "little things," Jeter is a good baserunner, but no better than Rodriguez. And of course he's not often asked to bunt.

As hitters, Rodriguez and Garciaparra both earn A's, and Jeter gets a B+. Nothing to be ashamed of -- there are plenty of Hall of Fame shortstops who didn't hit like Jeter does -- but he certainly doesn't compare favorably with his slugging peers.

Well, if it's not his hitting, it must be his fielding, right? People rave about Jeter's defense, with Tim McCarver leading the wild-eyed hyperbole parade. However, there is virtually no objective evidence to support the notion that Jeter is a Gold Glove-quality shortstop.

The simplest fielding metric is called Range Factor: Putouts plus Assists, per nine innings.

And Jeter's Range Factor is, in a word, execrable. It's execrable every year. Here's where he ranked, in each of the last five seasons, among major league shortstops who started at least 100 games:

1996    20 of 24
1997    16 of 24
1998    23 of 25
1999    21 of 21
2000    23 of 23

Those numbers, elegant in their simple consistency, speak for themselves.

But of course, Range Factor is subject to all sorts of outside influences. Heinous things like pitching staffs and infield surfaces and gosh knows what else. There's a way to account for those outside influences, though. We can compare Jeter to the other Yankees who played shortstop in the same seasons that he did. Unfortunately for the purposes of this little argument, Jeter has been exceptionally durable, but the table below lists Jeter's Range Factor, along with the composite Range Factor of the other Yankee shortstops of the last five seasons.

          Jeter   "Others"
Innings    6767      461
Range      4.27     4.32

Now, this certainly isn't conclusive. But if Jeter were truly a superior defensive shortstop, wouldn't you expect him to make more plays per nine innings, rather than slightly fewer?

As I said, Range Factor is subject to various outside influences. Fortunately, Clay Davenport (one of our colleagues at Baseball Prospectus) goes to great pains to adjust for those influences. Davenport's method rates Jeter as 23 runs worse than the average American League shortstop (given the same playing time). That was the worst in the majors.

It was also the worst showing of Jeter's career, but then he's never done well by this measure. In 1999 he was negative-12; in '98, negative-3.

And you know, it's not just Davenport. Fielding statistics are not, despite what you might have heard from your favorite Luddite, meaningless. They can be quite meaningful in the hands of bright people. And as it happens, any number of bright people -- Bill James, Tom Tippett, etc. -- have designed their own methods for evaluating defensive statistics, and I believe that they all reach the same conclusion: Derek Jeter is, at best, an adequate defensive shortstop. He simply doesn't make many plays, and that's true even if you adjust for the left-handedness (or not) of the Yankee pitchers, and it's true even if you also adjust for the tendency of the Yankee pitchers to allow ground balls (or not).

Is Jeter the worst defensive shortstop in the major leagues? Maybe he is, maybe he isn't. There is some evidence to suggest that he is, but I'm sure there's evidence to suggest that he isn't, too. My point is that there's no evidence to suggest that he's an outstanding defensive shortstop, or even a good one.

Wait, that's not precisely true. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence in Jeter's favor. McCarver thinks he's great, and so do a lot of other people. But you know, even Tim McCarver doesn't know everything. McCarver sees that Jeter is adept at snagging pops in short left field, and McCarver sees that Jeter does, indeed, boast a powerful arm. But other observers have seen that Jeter doesn't get a good jump on grounders -- the single most important skill for any middle infielder -- and others have cast doubt on his footwork, especially when he fields balls up the middle.

I simply don't believe that Jeter is a good fielder; nevertheless, the notion that he is a good fielder will likely endure as one of the great baseball myths of our time.

After reading all this, somebody out there will still be arguing, "Yeah, but Jeter's a winner. How many World Series have those other guys won?"

The answer, of course, is that they haven't won any. Zero, compared to Jeter's four.

Vlad Guerrero hasn't played for a World Series winner yet. Does that mean he's not as good as Paul O'Neill? Jeff Bagwell doesn't have a ring yet. Does that mean he's not as good as Tino Martinez? Randy Johnson hasn't reached the Promised Land yet. Does that mean he's not as good as Andy Pettitte?

Of course it doesn't. It's a silly, circular argument. Derek Jeter is great because the Yankees win. The Yankees win because Derek Jeter is great. Round and round we go, and where the specious logic stops, nobody knows.

So what is Jeter worth? If you're the Yankees, he's worth whatever it costs to keep him. Because you've got bottomless pockets, and because Derek Jeter is a very good baseball player.

Those are good reasons. But let's not jump to the ill-founded conclusion that Jeter is in the same class as Rodriguez and Garciaparra. Because he's not.

I have softened on this issue a bit since first writing the column, because Jeter has proved himself to be significantly more durable than Garciaparra.

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