Last week, Derek Jeter announced that he will retire at the end of the 2014 season. The news was a surprise to virtually no one—Jeter was hobbled and ineffective during a stunningly short stint in 2013. First it was slow recovery from surgery on the ankle he fractured during the 2012 American League Championship Series. Then it was a quadriceps strain, then a calf strain. Finally, soreness in that ankle took him out for the year.
Although those injuries and failures made clear that Jeter’s end was near, his choice to announce his decision in advance occasioned a huge volume of commentary. Whether hagiography or harangue, tons of pent-up postulation came bursting forth at the news.
I’m not as deeply affected by Jeter as some. I grew up a Cubs fan, hating the Yankees in a distant, hazy sort of way, but reserving my active enmity for the Cardinals, Brewers and (less intensely, as I lived in Wisconsin most of my childhood) White Sox. Jeter didn’t offend me, even as I grew to understand that he was something less than the perfect idol of all things baseball. He didn’t impress me all that much either, even when he was arguably the best player in the American League my senior year of high school.
The way I’ll best remember Jeter, therefore, is not the “Flip Play” or the bloody nose he got diving into the crowd or the “Mr. November” home run, or even the gift baskets or Minka Kelly or the nonsensical dichotomy drawn between him and Alex Rodriguez. I’ll mostly remember him as the primary subject of the stats-versus-scouts debate, on the defensive side, and for the fact that the Yankees used him as a walking market inefficiency for his entire career.
Jeter was and is a terrible defensive shortstop. Not compared to you or me, mind you, but by Major League standards for glovework, he’s atrocious. He always has been. He’s given away something like 250 runs with his glove over the course of his career. I have limited patience for those who want to lump his fielding in with his leadership, his reservedness and his poise as just another intangible asset. It’s not one. He’s simply bad at fielding baseballs, compared to most professional shortstops.
Still, he stuck at the position for all (it will be) 20 years of his career, and the Yankees went to the playoffs in 17 of the first 19. Importantly, the Yankees also had an elite offense in virtually all of those seasons. Here’s how the last 20 years of Yankee teams break down, in terms of their ranking among all MLB teams in True Average:
New York Yankees, Rankings in TAv, 1995-2013
Number of Times
That lone horrible season, of course, was 2013, when Jeter played 17 games.
In this way, the narrative that has elevated Jeter to icon status, that has made him a legend when he ought only to be a hero, is accurate. Jeter’s presence permitted the Yankees to build elite offenses for two decades. He did that.
How? It’s simple. He was a very good hitter, and the Yankees kept him at shortstop. Despite overwhelming evidence that the position overwhelmed him, the Yankees left Jeter alone, and that allowed them to build an offense they never could have built if he were in center field, or at second or third base. Robinson Cano and Alfonso Soriano couldn’t have provided the Yankees with elite second-base production if Jeter had been playing the only position at which their bats were thought to be playable during their prospect turns. Hideki Matsui and Bobby Abreu couldn’t have turned in quietly sensational seasons for New York if Jeter moving to center field had forced Bernie Williams into a corner spot. Even Jorge Posada’s utility was extended by several years, thanks to Jeter using the DH spot only very sparingly, leaving it open to the aging catcher as a salvific alternative to constant squatting and foul tips.
It’s something for which the organization deserves a good deal of credit; the guys in that front office aren’t stupid. They surely knew of Jeter’s shortcomings. They chose to work around them, and even to turn them to their advantage. It’s also to Jeter’s credit, though, that he never blinked at the criticism levied at him over his defense, and that even as he aged and became increasingly, obviously inept at the spot, he was willing to endure ongoing embarrassment, and to hurt the team, in a strictly individual sense, with his poor glovework. Jeter understood his role, and the team used his strengths to outrun his weaknesses.
If you don’t believe that the Jeter Model (not one of his girlfriends, but the framework whereby fielding a strong hitter and poor fielder at shortstop makes the team stronger overall) works, simply widen your scope, and take in the proof. The 2013 Los Angeles Dodgers played Hanley Ramirez at shortstop whenever they could, and his dominant offensive performance more than made up for his typically tepid defensive work. The Oakland Athletics more or less played Jed Lowrie out of position all year; Lowrie is not a shortstop any more than Jeter ever was. He’s awful with the glove. However, Lowrie can really, really hit, and slotting him in at the most demanding position in fair territory allowed Oakland to stack its lineup with troglodytic sluggers like Chris Young, Josh Reddick, Brandon Moss, Nate Freiman and more.
Offense wins. Average fielders and baserunners are easily found. Pitching is fickle and best assembled in a rush, when a team is ready to win. Batting skill separates good players from bad ones, and great players from good ones. Derek Jeter could hit, and he was willing to play shortstop, and that was really all the Yankees ever needed from him.Next post: A 2014 Chicago Cubs Preview to Suit Any Reader
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