Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Chasing Tris Speaker

My Final Word on Derek Jeter

On August 16th, Derek Jeter had 3 hits. Two of them were significant as he tied and passed Luis Aparicio for the most hits by a shortstop. Three weeks later he passed Lou Gehrig on the all-time Yankee hits list.

Except for a few passing references, I haven’t spoken much about Derek Jeter on this site. But among my friends and email correspondents, I am well known as a boorish and boring critic of The Great Mr. November. His “records” got me thinking about his lifetime statistics, and made me realize my opinion of him is improving, even if I don’t shy away from my earlier criticisms.

My Jeter Obsession has gone through 3 phases:

Phase 1: The Big Three – 1996-1999
In the late 1990’s, baseball fans noticed the American League had 3 great young shortstops – Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Nomar Garciaparra. When Miguel Tejada hit 30 homers and drove in 115 runs in 2000, the group added a fourth member, three in the AL East. It was a bounty of greatness at a position that had seen few truly great hitters.

Jeter immediately became the biggest star. A-Rod was putting up better numbers (and was rumored to be a better fielder) but was stuck in the baseball backwater of Seattle. Nomar was in Boston, but the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry was nowhere near as hot in the late 90’s as it is now, and Nomar played in relative obscurity. Jeter, meanwhile, playing on four championship teams for the most famous sports franchise on earth, was a fixture on national television.

Plus, he was handsome, graceful, charming – a media and fan favorite. This combination launched him to national fame and convinced many baseball fans he was actually better than A-Rod and Nomar.

Which, naturally, was madness. Here are the seasonal averages of the Big 3 from 1996-1999:

Jeter: .325 BA, 17 HRs, 82 RBIs, 124 Rs, 17 SBs

A-Rod: .304 BA, 37 HRs, 113 RBIs, 117 Rs, 28 SBs

Nomar: .337 BA, 28 HRs, 96 RBIs, 110 Rs, 13 SBs

Three excellent players obviously. You can make a case, I suppose, that the late 90’s Jeter was as good as the others, but this would be a novel baseball argument. Nomar hit for more power and a higher average. A-Rod hit for far more power, stole a few more bases, and was no slouch in average. You’d need to be a Yankee fan or a lazy announcer to think Jeter was the best of the three.

Still, the young Jeter, through the 2001 season, was a genuinely great hitter, even if he wasn’t quite as great as his rivals.

Phase 2: Stealth Decline and Attack of the Stats Geeks, 2002 - 2008
Two things happened in the first decade of the 21st century – both largely unnoticed by Madison Avenue and the average fan, but of keen interest to close watchers of baseball statistics. First, Derek Jeter saw a steady decline in his hitting, and second, he became the whipping boy for a new breed of stats geeks called Sabermetricians.

Attack of the Sabermetricians
Let’s take the sabermetricians first. Armed with calculators, spreadsheets, and advanced degrees in statistical analysis, they began creating and popularizing a form of statistical analysis that went way beyond the traditional triple crown categories. They had been around a while – the patron saint Bill James published his first Baseball Abstract in 1977 and his disciple Rob Neyer had been writing a popular column on ESPN.com since 1996. But it was Michael Lewis’ 2003 bestseller Moneyball, about the Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane and his adoption of these new metrics, that introduced the broader baseball world to things like OPS, Win Shares, and Pythagorean Winning Percentage.

Jeter became an irresistible target for the Moneyball crowd. Stats geeks, more than anything else, seek to bring down the overrated and rise up the underrated. Jeter, through no fault of his own, was the most lavishly praised player in baseball.

Announcers gushed over every thing he did - he'd get more praise for hitting a ground ball out that moved a runner over than the next guy would get for doubling the runner home. He appeared in commercials with Tiger Woods and Roger Federer, two guys who were indisputably the best in the world in what they did*. Fans, even non-Yankee fans, seemed to truly believe that Jeter’s singles were more valuable than A-Rod’s homers.

* I used to imagine Albert Pujols or Vladimir Guererro, sitting at home after another .340/40 homer season, wondering why a guy who hit .310 with 14 homers was appearing in Gatorade commercials with Michael Jordan while they were stuck doing spots for local auto dealers.

But the other reason stats geeks wrote so damn much about Derek Jeter is that, well, he’s Derek Jeter. He was the most famous player on the most famous team in baseball. An article claiming he was a statistically horrible fielder was more likely find a larger audience than, say, an article on how Kevin Youkilis has a higher VORP than Carlos Delgado.

The Stealth Decline
But the more interesting thing, one that to this day I’m amazed so few people have noticed, is that he ceased to be a great hitter.

In 1999, Derek Jeter had a genuinely great season, based on traditional statistics, sabermetric statistics, or any other way you want to measure it. In the traditional Triple Crown categories he hit .349 with 24 homers and 102 RBIs. For the sabermetricians, he had an .OPS of .989 - higher than ARod and higher than that year's AL MVP, Ivan Rodriguez (though not nearly as high as Nomar, who had a spectacular season).

He was 25 years old, an age when most guys have yet to reach the peak of their powers. But it turns out Jeter had maxed out. He took a step back in 2000, and again in 2001, and continued to decline through the 2005 season. He bounced back a bit in 2006, and and remained a good player, even a very good one. But the promise of power shown in those 24 homers went away, he didn’t seriously threaten for another batting title, and his OPS showed a steady year-on-year decline. Quite simply, he was not a great hitter.

For a comparison, click here and here, and compare Jeter to Gehrig. Gehrig had his breakout season in 1927, at age 24. It was an eye-popping season – he hit .373 with 47 homers, 175 RBIs and an OPS of 1.240. Wow. But he hadn’t peaked – he followed it up with 11 more spectacular seasons – each one better than Jeter’s best season. He had a good season in 1938 at age 35, and then had his career cut short by disease.

Jeter, by contrast, spent his age 26 through 35 seasons as a good, but not great hitter, that never approached the across-the-board success of his age 25 season.

Despite the decline, announcers, sportswriters and fans breathlessly spoke of Jeter as if he was the same great hitter that burst on the scene in the late 90’s.

Phase 3: The Rethinking Things Era

As the 2005 season was closing, Derek Jeter was on his way to becoming the most overrated player in the history of American sports.

Imagine a gathering of the Baseball Gods, Hitters’ Division. There is Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Mike Schmidt, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez.

And in walks Derek Jeter. He alone would have no home run titles or batting titles. His best MVP performance was a distant 3rd – despite the luck of always playing on a playoff team. His lifetime average is a shade over .300. He led the league in Hits one year, but led in Plate Appearances that year too. He led the league in Runs Scored once, but playing leadoff for the Yankees tends to help that out.

In fact, there is only one individual statistic that Derek Jeter has consistently placed in the Top 10 in the league in: Salary. Since 2000, he has ranged from 3rd to 6th in that coveted individual category.

But…but…something else happened in the intervening years. A bunch of things, actually. Alex Rodriguez was outed as a steroid user. So was Tejada. Nomar Garciaparra had a series of injuries and became a backup. And Derek Jeter just kept getting hits. Lots of them. Every year.

Not as many as Ichiro. And on the all-time list he still trails such such non Hall of Famers as Al Oliver, Vada Pinson, Andre Dawson, and Harold Baines.

But, he’s only 35 and having his best season since 1999. He has more hits than Pete Rose - the all-time leader at 4,256 - had at the same age. I charted out Jeter’s shot at reaching the highest levels of the hit list. And here are my conclusions:

  • Rose's record is in reach, but he'd need to average 175 hits a year till he's 44

  • Joining Rose and Ty Cobb in the 4,000 hit club is more achievable - though it probably still means avoiding injury and playing well into his 40's

  • Much more achievable and interesting, is 3,500. Only five players are on that list: Rose, Cobb, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, and Tris Speaker

  • And finally, if he sticks around for 3,500, he only needs 15 more to pass Tris Speaker, and place him in the Top 5

Projecting the Captain's Legacy

All in all, Derek Jeter is the weakest hitter to ever be mentioned as one of the all-time greats. But if he pursues, catches, and passes Tris Speaker and breaks into the Top 5 hit list, I promise I will declare him to stand proudly with the elite.

If not - he will assume a proud place among the lesser Hall of Famers, with Tony Gwynn and Robin Yount, rather than Babe Ruth and Willie Mays. And I'll be the jerk in the corner pointing out that Yount had two MVPs and Gwynn had 8 batting titles, whereas Jeter needed Mariano and 23 other guys to get him his jewelry.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

OK, you with me here, Neyer? We play that game they got there that's kind of tasteless but kind of funny. I think it's "Screw, Marry or Kill?" You get my drift? Who would you do, who would you hang with for the rest of your life, who drives you so batty you'd rather shoot 'em now and ask questions later.

I'm giving you Clooney, Jeter, Palin. And the order I've got 'em in is not providing any clues as to the right or wrong answer. Simple alphabeticals is all it is.

It's a challenging one, I'll admit, and you have to make yourself a lad and a lady all in one, but I'd love to hear what you have to say. I'll take your answer off-line.

First-time, long-time. Love what you're doing with your blog.

A. Sullivan