Jeter vs. Larkin

OK, finally, today’s the day … Derek Jeter is being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame about 18 months after he was elected. He is joined by an eclectic group of baseball icons:

— Larry Walker was elected to the Hall last year in his final year on the ballot. Walker’s Hall of Fame journey — he received only 10 percent of the vote in 2014 — is a testament to people’s willingness to look at a player’s career in different ways. When he first was eligible for the Hall of Fame, people simply could not see beyond the way Coors Field had inflated his numbers and the many injuries that shortened his career year by year.

But while those certainly had to be considered, they diverted attention away from the more obvious and important part: Walker was a spectacular five-tool player in a game that has had very, very few of those. He hit. He slugged. He ran. He threw. He fielded. And he did all of them at the highest levels.

— Ted Simmons was elected 22 years after he retired. Simmons was all but completely ignored as a Hall of Fame candidate when he came on the ballot in 1994; only 17 people voted for him, fewer than Pete Rose, who wasn’t even on the ballot. The problem for Simmons, I think, was that he was a near-perfect contemporary of Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk and Gary Carter — and those three were all better than him.

To be fair to the voters, it takes a special kind of vision to realize that the fourth-best catcher of an era is still one of the best catchers of all time. I see this happening in football now — I suspect that both Philip Rivers and Eli Manning will be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame even though neither was as good as Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers. Can the fifth- and sixth-best quarterbacks of an era really be all-time greats?

Sometimes, it just takes a little time to get that perspective. Simmons was a terrific hitter, particularly in a six-year stretch from 1975 through ’80 (.303/.383/.483 with a 138 OPS+) and for most of his career he was an underrated defensive catcher because he had quite a few passed balls and only an average arm.

— Marvin Miller was, in my view and the view of many others, the biggest omission from the Hall of Fame (now, I think it’s Minnie Miñoso). Miller’s impact on the game was so immense — free agency, arbitration, long-term contracts, on and on and on — that the great Detroit Tigers’ broadcaster Ernie Harwell used to say that Miller belonged with Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey and Babe Ruth on baseball’s Mount Rushmore. And I think that’s right.

The only real trouble is that Miller did not want to get elected to the Hall of Fame posthumously. He felt — rightly so — that the various Hall of Fame committees through the years held grudges and kept refusing to elect him to the Hall for personal and mean reasons. He made it clear to family and friends that he would refuse induction and that he expected them to refuse induction after he died.

All of that does seem to have been worked out; Miller belongs in the Hall of Fame, and now he’s there.

This brings us back to our headliner, Derek Jeter.

There’s not much more I can write about Derek Jeter … I’ve poured thousands upon thousands upon thousands of words on Jeter, his greatness, his flaws, the over-the-top idealization of him, the unfair criticisms of him, his offense, his defense, his leadership, his postseason performances, his iconic moments, his lack of an MVP award, on and on and on and on.

But there is something that I think gets overlooked about Jeter.

And you can probably best tell the story by looking at WAR and comparing Jeter with another Hall of Fame shortstop, Barry Larkin.

On the surface, Larkin and Jeter have a lot in common. They were both shortstops, roughly the same build (Jeter is taller), both of them planned to go to the University of Michigan (Larkin actually went; Jeter decided last-minute to sign with the Yankees). They were both high draft picks (Larkin 4th overall; Jeter 6th). They were both impressive people. They were both leaders.

They each won multiple Gold Gloves (Jeter won five; Larkin three),. They each won multiple Silver Sluggers as the best hitter at their position (Larkin won nine; Jeter five).

And if you look at their almost identical Baseball-Reference WARs — Jeter at 71.3; Larkin at 70.5 — you would just assume that they were carbon copies of each other.

They weren’t … they really were very different players. But the point is that Jeter is so much more famous than Larkin. He was elected almost unanimously to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, while Larkin had to wait three years to get in. Derek Jeter hosted Saturday Night Live. Derek Jeter is named in multiple hip-hop songs. Derek Jeter was cheered and booed in every park he played in.

None of this is particularly true of Barry Larkin.

So, this is the part where you say: Well, of course, this is true — Jeter played for the YANKEES, all capital letters, and Larkin played for the reds, all lowercase letters, and though Larkin did play on one World Series winner, Jeter played on five, and Jeter was in New York where everything is overhyped while Larkin played in Cincinnati where everything is understated and, well, you know this song by heart.

And I don’t think there’s any question that is PART of what’s going on with Jeter’s fame. Playing on winning teams in New York is a good way to become famous and stay famous.

But I think there’s something else going on here, something that you can see inside their WAR numbers.

So, yes, overall, their WAR numbers are almost identical … which is particularly striking because Jeter played in almost 600 more games than Larkin.

BUT their WARs are almost identical only if you buy this basic premise: Derek Jeter was the worst defensive shortstop in the history of baseball.

No, check that: You have to make the assumption that Derek Jeter was the worst defensive PLAYER in the history of baseball by a wide, wide, wide margin.

Here, by fielding runs, are the worst defensive players in baseball history according to Baseball Reference:

  1. Derek Jeter, 253 runs below average

  2. Gary Sheffield, 195 runs below average

  3. Adam Dunn, 168 runs below average

  4. Michael Young, 152 runs below average

  5. Matt Kemp, 141 runs below average

This is why Jeter’s WAR is so close to Larkin’s. As a hitter, Jeter was 150 or so runs better. As a baserunner, Larkin was a touch better, but only a touch — Jeter was an outstanding baserunner. They both played shortstop almost exclusively, the toughest non-catcher position in baseball, and Jeter played the position longer.

So take away the fielding numbers, and Jeter is 15 or 20 wins better than Larkin.

But since Larkin was an above-average fielder and Jeter was, at least by this measure, as far below average as a player could be, Baseball Reference gives Larkin a TWO HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-ONE run advantage on fielding.

And when you add it up, they’re suddenly neck and neck.

But this is why I love WAR when you use it the right way … not as an end but as a beginning. Jeter’s WAR challenges you to ask: Was Jeter really THAT BAD a fielder? He did win five Gold Gloves; is it possible that his charisma and leadership skills so blinded Gold Glove voters that they just kept giving Gold Gloves to the worst fielder in baseball?

And if he was that bad a fielder, wouldn’t that have shown up in the Yankees performance? Like, wouldn’t pitchers have grumbled about him? Wouldn’t the team have lost a bunch of games they should have won?

Or maybe those things DID happen, and we just didn’t hear about it or notice it.

None of this is to say the defensive stats are wrong — it’s simply inarguable that Jeter, over his career, made many, many fewer plays than the average shortstop. Simply looking at range factor — which just counts the number of plays a fielder makes per nine innings — Jeter averaged 4.04 plays per nine innings and the average shortstop averaged 4.51. That means the average shortstop made one more play than Jeter every two games.

But it’s not that simple, simply counting plays. Do you know which team had the best ERA+ in the American League over Derek Jeter’s career? The Yankees, of course. They obviously had the best record. They won the most World Series. And throughout, the Yankees believed that their best shot at winning was to have Derek Jeter playing shortstop. That probably should count for something.

People will often ask: What would everybody think of Derek Jeter if he had been drafted by Minnesota or Colorado or, yes, Cincinnati? And it’s one of those fascinating but unanswerable questions because Jeter’s career is so tied in with the Yankees, with legendary postseason moments, with the over-the-top hype that led me to coin the word “Jeterate.”*

*Jeterate (verb): To praise someone for something of which he or she is entirely unworthy of praise.

But I think the fascinating thing about Derek Jeter is that he is overrated and underrated, overblown and underappreciated, exaggerated and underestimated. He never won an MVP award, and he could have won two or even three. He was elected almost unanimously to the Hall of Fame in a year when there were four players on the ballot with higher WARs. In the American League, only Omar Vizquel, Luis Aparicio and Mark Belanger won more Gold Gloves, and yet he’s got the worst defensive statistics of any shortstop ever.

And there are actually people who say that if not for the Yankees, he would not even be in the Hall of Fame — this even though he had 3,465 hits, more than 500 doubles, scored almost 2,000 runs, stole 358 bases at a 79 percent success rate and was, at his best, as tough an out as there was in the game.

Derek Jeter contains multitudes, that’s for sure. I was obviously not a fan, could not be a fan, because, you know, the Yankees. And, as such, I invented the word “Jeterate” and wrote articles like this one. I made fun of his defense as much as anybody.

But now that he’s in the Hall of Fame, I do find myself feeling nostalgic. He really was one hell of a player.