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“Derek Jeter was OK”

Tom Scocca files a bizarrely sane column summarizing the famous shortstop’s accomplishments:

Derek Jeter was an OK ballplayer. He was pretty good at playing baseball, overall, and he did it for a pretty long time. . . . You have to be good at baseball to last 20 seasons in the major leagues. . . . He was a successful batter in productive lineups for many years. . . . He was not Ted Williams or Rickey Henderson. Spectators did not come away from seeing Derek Jeter marveling at the stupendous, unimaginable feats of hitting they had seen. But he did lots and lots of damage. He got many big hits and contributed to many big rallies. Pitchers would have preferred not to have to pitch to him. . . . His considerable athletic abilities allowed him to sometimes make spectacular leaping and twisting plays on misjudged balls that better shortstops would have played routinely. People enjoyed watching him make those plays, and that enjoyment led to his winning five Gold Gloves. That misplaced acclaim, in turn, helped spur more advanced analysis of defensive play in baseball, a body of knowledge which will ensure that no one ever again will be able to play shortstop as badly as Jeter for as long as he did. And that gave fans something to argue about, which is an important part of sports.

Scocca keeps going in this vein:

Regardless, on balance, Jeter’s good hitting helped his team more than his bad fielding hurt it. The statistical ledger says so—by Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference, his glovework drops him from being the 20th most productive position player of all time to the 58th. Having the 58th most productive career among non-pitchers in major-league history is still a solid achievement.

And still more:

When [Alex] Rodriguez showed up in the Bronx, Jeter would not yield the job. It was a selfish decision and the situation hurt the team. But powerful egos, misplaced competitiveness, and unrealistic self-appraisals are common features in elite athletes. Whatever wrong Jeter may have done in the intrasquad rivalry, it was the Yankees’ fault for not managing him better.

And this:

Like most star athletes of his era, he kept his public persona intentionally blank and dull . . . Depending on their allegiances, baseball fans could imagine him to be classy or imagine him to be pissy, and the limited evidence could support either conclusion.

I love this Scocca post because its hilariousness (which is intentional, I believe) is entirely contingent on its context. Sportswriting is so full of hype (either of the “Jeter is a hero” variety or the “Jeter’s no big whoop” variety or the “Hey, look at my cool sabermetrics” variety or the “Hey, look at what a humanist I am” variety) that it just comes off (to me) as flat-out funny to see a column that just plays it completely straight, a series of declarative sentences that tell it like it is.

Of course, if all the sportswriters wrote like this, it would be boring. But as long as all the others feel they need some sort of angle, this pitch-it-down-the-middle style will work just fine. The confounding of expectations and all that.

P.S. Also this from a commenter to Scocca’s post:

He also inspired people to like baseball again after the lockout and didn’t juice.


  1. Here’s a link to all-time WAR rankings:

    I have no idea how they’re estimated.

    Jeter’s still among the top middle infielders, along with the obvious trio of A-Rod, Cal Ripken, both of whom played a lot of 3rd base, and Joe Morgan, the best 2nd baseman ever (and though I like his commentary because I’m a lifetime fan, I’ve heard complaints). And to show that defense really matters, Ozzie Smith is rated ahead of Jeter as a pure shortstop (and was arguably even more fun to watch). The surprise to me is that Lou Whittaker’s so high on the list!

    • Andrew says:


      Good point. “Derek Jeter was Excellent” would’ve been a better title than “Derek Jeter was OK.” Having the 58th most productive career among non-pitchers in major-league history is not just “a solid achievement,” it’s an excellent career, even if it can be made to look like less by comparing to the 57 players who’ve done more.

      • Phil says:

        Really good article (and the article that it links to, about Jeter’s “dreadful” defense, is worth a read too). But I add to the Bob and Andrew chorus: saying Jeter was “OK” is an understatement. His defense may have been overrated by Yankees fans, and he may not be as great as some people think, but if he was around the 60th-best player ever…that’s pretty phenomenal. In any given year there are only a few active players who are as good as he was in his prime. It also means he was substantially better than most of the players in the Hall of Fame. It’s possible for someone to be both excellent and overrated, and I guess that’s what he was.

  2. Steve Sailer says:

    I can recall when the late George Steinbrenner gave the young Jeter an immense long term contract after the 2000 season: $189 million over 10 years. The deal received some criticism from sabermetricians pointing to Jeter’s defense and lack of immense home run power, but Steinbrenner’s view was summed up in an NYT reporter’s article:

    “Steinbrenner has always been reluctant to sign his younger players to long-term deals before they become eligible for free agency, but Jeter has been treated differently because he is different. Jeter has played little more than five full seasons with the team, and the Yankees have won four World Series championships; he already has more than 1,000 career hits. Jeter is viewed as an heir to the Yankees’ tradition of greatness that began with Babe Ruth and was passed down to the likes of Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. He is already a clubhouse leader, and Yankees Manager Joe Torre once suggested that Jeter would eventually be the team’s captain for years to come.”

    Over those 10 years, Jeter averaged .310 / .380 / .445 with 108 runs scored per season. By the steroid-inflated standards of 2000, that wasn’t that good, but by the more reasonable standards of 2010, the Yankees were, I suspect, highly satisfied with their investment. The ratcheting up of drug testing didn’t seem to hurt Jeter’s offense as much as it hurt those of players more admired by the sabermetricians. But then the famous sabermetricians, such as Bill James and Nate Silver, almost utterly ignored the biggest statistical story of their careers: steroids.

    • john philip says:

      Nate Silver has not ignored steroids. He has extensively written on it, including looking for the impact of PEDs on baseball performance.

      Bill James has also written on it but to a much lesser extent. I guess his largest comment on the topic is here:

      • Steve Sailer says:

        What little Silver wrote about steroids turned out to be very wrong:

        In May 2009, 21 years after Tom Boswell accused Jose Canseco of using steroids, slugger Manny Ramirez, who had finished the 2008 season by hitting an improbable .396, got caught by a drug test and suspended for 50 games. In response, Silver wrote in Baseball Prospectus about how surprised he and the whole sabermetrics community were:

        “In fact, Ramirez was frequently taken to be the counter-example, the guy who, come hell or high water, absolutely was not on steroids. He was so much of a freak that we assumed his hitting talents must have been freakish too — God-given ability, and not the result of any sort of chemical intervention.”

        The problem for Silver with a superstar like Ramirez getting caught was that it shot a hole in the theory Silver had been promoting ever since positive tests started being leaked to the media in the mid-2000s: that the real juicers were the scrubs, not the superstars putting up all the seemingly ridiculous statistics:

        “The typical steroid user might not be the prima donna slugger who endorses Budweiser between innings but the “hardworking late bloomer” who is struggling to maintain his spot in the lineup or is trying to leverage a good season into a big free-agent contract. Certainly these players might have more economic incentive to enhance their performance, as compared to their counterparts who have already signed multiyear, guaranteed major league contracts.”

        Hence, Silver predicted in 2005 after having to respond to positive test results:

        “There is clearly something going on–but it is not producing the sort of predictable impacts that everyone expects. Nor, because of the complexity of the underlying chemistry, are we likely to see substantial changes in the game’s statistics resulting from efforts to curtail use of these substances.”

        Well, Silver turned out to be really wrong: offensive statistics have cratered since then due to drug testing.

        • Andrew says:

          What happened to Tom Boswell, anyway?

        • Andrew says:

          The bit about offensive statistics cratering is interesting in that it suggests an asymmetry between the effects of drugs on pitching and on hitting (also on fielding, but it’s hard for me to imagine these drugs having huge effects on fielding or, for that matter, baserunning).

          • John Philip says:

            According to a few “physics of baseball” articles I have read, pitchers are less helped by steroids because most of the velocity comes from how far your arm can go back when you rear back to throw. That is based on your ligaments/tendons (I don’t know which). You get a few extra MPH when you do leg strengthening exercises as you complete your throwing motion and push off the mound.

            That’s why skinny Pedro Martinez could throw as hard as bulked up Roger Clemens.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Isn’t this basically how you argue most research should be written? “Effect sizes are nothing impressive, lots of things didn’t get measured, a million hypothetical decisions could have impacted the results, we can’t really be sure of anything either way.”

  4. “You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension – a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both middle aged men, and endless passionate arguments made over beer and guacamole, of balls and at-bats. You’ve just crossed over into the Baseball Zone”.

  5. B Mills says:

    “no one ever again will be able to play shortstop as badly as Jeter for as long as he did”

    This is an overstatement to me. The measures tell us he wasn’t a Gold Glover. But over a 20 year career, he netted out to slightly below average according to Fangraphs at -27.7 runs, with -18.9 of those coming in his final 4 seasons combined. As a comparison, Barry Bonds was worth -24.7 runs in his final 2 seasons with the Giants…in Left Field.

    This whole “awful fielder” thing is overblown because everyone assumes he fielded like Ripken did thanks to the acrobatic plays. But across Jeter’s career, he was actually nearly average at Shortstop. That means he was average at fielding among players that are the best fielders in the league.

    It’s not clear that A-Rod would have been any better during his Yankees stint. The total of the entire time at 3B, he has fielded a little bit below average (again, according to the Fangraphs numbers).

    • B Mills says:

      I’ll note it could be that I’m misinterpreting this, and Jeter simply gets a defensive bump simply because he was at shortstop. If that’s the case, then it’s a strange way to adjust by position to me.

    • pds says:

      Fangraphs now reports defense vs.average for all players, as well as offense. So he does get a significant bump for being a shortstop. Comparison vs. other shortstops via UZR is in the advanced fielding section, and he grades out as 7 runs below average SS per year since 2002. That is sort of passable though, and Yankees switching A-Rod to 3B seems to be right decision, despite criticism at the time. Or at least, it turned out OK.

      • B Mills says:

        OK, then the average is the average player in MLB, rather than the average shortstop. Makes the measure itself a bit misleading when reading it. But in any case, as you note, seems passable as a shortstop, and particularly so when hitting well.

  6. Chris G says:

    A friend sent me this link –

    To which I replied:

    Interesting piece but this – “.255 (Jetere BA) = 1 in 3.921 .03593 (FB @ 86.1 mph %) = 1 in 27.831
    Chances of Derek Jeter Getting a hit on a 86.1 mph Fastball from Evan Meek: 1/109.12 chance” is wrong.

    Jeter’s batting average can be treated as an integral over conditional probabilities, p(hit|pitch type, velocity, count):

    BA = p(H) = integral{p(H|pitch type, velocity, count) p(type,velocity,count) d(type) d(velocity) d(count)}

    where integral{p(type,velocity,count) d(type) d(velocity) d(count)} = 1. Actually, in practice, you’d probably do it as a sum rather than an integral. Undoubtedly p(H|86.1 mph FB) >> 0.255 but the author booted the calculation.

  7. […] name Tom Boswell came up in a recent comment thread and I was moved to reread his 1987 article, “99 Reasons Why Baseball Is Better Than […]

  8. Mike Humphreys says:

    Jeter was in fact even less impressive than the Wins Above Replacement estimate by He was merely ” . . . a good player who was fortunate to play shortstop as long as he did and for the best team of his time.”

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