Jeter’s Ceiling and Floor

It seems like 80 percent of all baseball news lately has been about Derek Jeter. As an Alliance blogger, I would be shirking my duties if I didn’t write a few thousand words about him in the aftermath of his 3,000th hit. Most of you know that I dislike Jeter, not because of anything he’s said or done (he seems like a decent guy), but because of the way the media fawns over him. Baseball writers don’t earn their press credentials until they master the art of praising Jeter’s leadership and the class with this he carries himself on and off the field. Naturally, it’s become chic for bloggers to call out Jeter’s poor defense and general overratedness. If you’re not writing about Jeter, you’re not writing about baseball.

My personal sentiments disclosed, I will attempt to write about Jeter’s position in baseball history in the most unbiased manner possible- by making a case for ranking him as high as he might possibly rank among the greatest players ever, and a separate case for how low he may rank.

Wins above replacement, the best metric available to assess a player’s accumulated career value, will be central to my argument, but an exercise such as this demands some variance from cold, hard facts. If you’ve read my Pyramid of Fame piece, you know that (1) I believe that baseball players have evolved over time, so today’s players, on average, are bigger, stronger, and more athletic than the players of any other generation; (2) I measure greatness in terms of both value accumulated over time and peak value, with slightly more emphasis on accumulated value; (3) I objectively consider Jeter one of the 81 best, but not one of the 27 best, players of all time, based on assumptions 1 and 2.

All of the assumptions above combine objective data with some amount of subjective discretion. The analysis below will be a little looser with that discretion, as I make the case that Jeter may be better (and later worse) than the way WAR evaluates him. Following are the best players in the history of the game, in my opinion, and whether a case can be made that Derek Jeter was (is) better.

1) Barry Bonds– Bonds stands just two tenths of a win behind Babe Ruth on the all-time offensive WAR list, despite playing 70 years later, when the game was fully integrated and international and players had better nutrition and, ahem, supplements. He hit like Babe Ruth against much better pitching. In my mind, that makes Bonds the best player of all time.

Furthermore, I believe that a majority (or at least close to a majority) of players- hitters and pitchers- were using steroids in the late 90s and early 00s, and that it’s irresonsible to try to separate the users from the non-users. That said, we’re trying to limit this list to those players who were definitively better than Derek Jeter, and in this case, I’ll make the assumption that Bonds was taking steroids for most of his career and that Jeter has been clean for all of his. I’ll also assume that steroids were entirely responsible for revitalizing Bonds’s career.

Through opening day 1995, my best esimate of the start of the steroid era, Bonds had accumulated 67.2 WAR (all WAR data in this piece courtesy of Had he been injured in 1995 and never fully recovered, he may have stalled out somewhere in the 70-80 WAR range. Jeter, whose career started ten years later (meaning he probably faced slightly stronger competition) has earned 70.5 WAR so far, and may hang on to reach 76 or 77 by the time he retires.
Verdict: it’s a huge stretch, but not necessarily better than Jeter

2) Babe Ruth– Ruth was immensely more valuable to the Yankees of the 1920s and 30s than Jeter was to the Yankees of the 1990s and 2000s. He changed the game with his colossal power and practically invented getting intentionally walked. Before that, he was one of the best pitchers in the game. He certainly dominated his era like no player before or since.

However, Ruth was certainly not the athlete Jeter is. There’s no evidence that he could have played shortstop 150 games a year. I suspect he could hit many of today’s major league pitchers, but we can’t be sure that, in an era where there’s always a reliever with 97 mph heat waiting for you in the eighth inning, Ruth could have answered the bell the way Jeter has. It took a huge stretch of the imagination to justify Jeter over Bonds, but whether the Babe would be better than Jeter if he played today is actually a great barstool debate.
Verdict: not necessarily better than Jeter

3) Willie Mays– I can’t give this one to Jeter. Sure, Mays played thirty years earlier, when the game was not quite as international as it is today, and probably had access to amphetamines to keep him at full speed during August doubleheaders, but Mays did it all. His .302/.384/.557 career batting line was 55 percent better than his peers in one of baseball’s lowest-scoring eras. Jeter has hit .313/.383/.449, but he’s done it in a hitters’ era, his OPS just 18 percent better than league average.

Both Jeter and Mays played premium defensive positions, and Mays (18.5 dWAR) played his much better than Jeter (-13.7 dWAR) did. I’m willing to accept that defensive numbers aren’t perfect, but there’s no denying that Mays was one of the best defensive outfielders in history. Both played in New York and were megastars, and both are beloved by their fans. There’s really no case to be made for Jeter here.
Verdict: better than Jeter

4) Walter Johnson– Johnson was probably the best pitcher of all time (though cases can be made for Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez, among others). WAR does a good job at comparing the relative impact of a pitcher and a position player on a baseball game, but we can’t definitevely say that a great pitcher was “better” or “greater” than a great hitter because their jobs are so different. That’s why you won’t see any more pitchers on this list.
Verdict: not necessarily better than Jeter

5) Josh Gibson– Gibson was quite possibly the greatest baseball player ever. That belief, though is based mostly on tall tales about 600 foot home runs hit out of Yankee stadium. As much as I believe that Negro League talent, at least among superstars, was as strong as major league talent, we can’t be sure that the whole pool wasn’t watered down with minor league-caliber players. That’s why you won’t see any more non-major league players on this list.
Verdict: not necessarily better than Jeter

6) Ty Cobb– Much like Ruth, Cobb towered over his era. He was a Jeter-type player, relentless in his approach to getting on base at all costs. Indeed, Cobb was one of the best of all time at getting on base, as his otherworldly .366/.433/.512 slash line (68% above league average) suggests. Cobb was a world-class athlete, and likely could have been a star in today’s game, but nearly a centurey later, we can’t be sure.

One more strike against Cobb: according to legend, intimidation was a large part of Cobb’s game. Today’s MLB may have intimidated Cobb with fines and suspensions and umpires who aren’t afraid to ring up a superstar on a third strike. As nauseous as I get hearing that Jeter “plays the game the right way”, it is true that he plays by the same rules as every one else (even if he does stretch and shrug a few ball/strike calls his way).
Verdict: not necessarily better than Jeter

7) Hank Aaron– It seems like the biggest reason Aaron is rarely hailed as the best player of all time is that he was a contemporary of Willie Mays. Aaron is sometimes criticized for being a “compiler”, steadily hitting 35-45 home runs without ever hitting 50. He never lead his league in on-base percentage and only won one MVP. Jeter has never won an MVP (though he’s had a good case at least three times), and has never lead his league in OBP or any other major percentage stat. He once led his league in hits, another time in runs, and that’s about it. If anything, Jeter should be praised as a compiler in the Hank Aaron mold, putting together 3,000 hits without ever winning a batting title.

Aaron hit .305/.374/.555, 55% better than league average, over a 23-year career. He “compiled” 3,771 hits, more than Jeter will finish with if he averages 170 hits per season for four and a half more years. He peaked at 223 hits, more than Jeter’s best season. Jeter plays a more premium defensive position in thirty years later, but that hardly makes up for his having earned less than half of Aaron’s career WAR.
Verdict: better than Jeter

8.) Honus Wagner– Wagner is the gold standard for shortstops. He hit a lot more than Jeter (.328/.391/.467), especially compared to his peers. We suspect he fielded better as well, though the 8.2 dWAR he accumulated are subject to some shoestring interpretations of box scores and game logs.

Much like Ruth and Cobb, the biggest thing we don’t know about Wagner is whether he could have towered over today’s players. One of the most powerful anecdotes about Wagner’s legend is that he was a hulking beast of a man, with hands so big he often scooped up infield dirt and rocks and threw them to first along with the ball. Wagner is listed on baseball-reference as 5’11”, 200 lbs. Jeter is 6’3″, 195.
Verdict: not necessarily better than Jeter

9) Ted Williams– This one hurts, but if we can’t prove Babe Ruth was better than Jeter, we can’t prove Ted Williams was. Williams played a generation later, but still accumulated much of his value before the game was racially integrated. He can make a great case as the best hitter ever, and fighting in two wars during his prime probably kept his numbers short of his actual ability, but he played the easiest position on the field against all white pitchers before nine figure contracts and year-round training regimens.
Verdict: not necessarily better than Jeter

10) Alex Rodriguez– The only case Jeter can possibly make here is based on steroids. ARod has been caught and Jeter is generally assumed to be clean. I could dismiss Rodriguez on the same grounds on which I dismissed Bonds- the possibility that he earned most of his career value while on steroids- but somehow that seems less likely with Rodriguez.

Jeter and Rodriguez are almost exact contemporaries who play(ed) the same position. Starting in 1996, when Rodriguez was a lithe, 20-year-old shortstop far removed from steroid speculation, Rodriguez has been a better hitter and a better fielder than Jeter virtually every day. Rodriguez hit .358/.414/.631 in ’96, earning 9.8 WAR, while a 21-year-old Jeter hit .314/.370/.430, good for 2.6 WAR. The difference hasn’t always been that pronounced, but over their first 16 seasons, Rodriguez has out-WARed Jeter every year except ’99, ’06, and ’09, and ARod spent time on the disabled list in the former and latter of those years.

Jeter has been a model of consistency, so we could try to assume that Rodriguez’s career would have been marred by injuries if not for the steroids, but I don’t think that’s fair. While Barry Bonds’s greatness was built largely on dominance late in this career, when other players miss a lot of games to DL stints, Rodriguez was the best player in baseball at 20 and has been among the top few throughout his twenties and thirties.
Verdict: better than Jeter

11) Lou Gehrig– See Williams, Ted. From here on, I’ll dismiss all pre-integration players without discussion.
Verdict: not necessarily better than Jeter

12) Stan Musial– It’s easy to paint Williams and Musial with the same brush, since they played roughly contemporaneously and they were both left fielders who reached base at a torrid pace (though Musial’s .417 isn’t exactly Williams’s best-ever .482) with power (Musial hit 475 home runs to Williams’s 521). While I won’t try to argue that Musial was better than Williams (he had almost 3,000 additional plate appearances to accumulate his 2.5-WAR advantage), there is a case to be made that Musial was more obviously better than Jeter than Williams was.

Williams was 28 when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, and by the end of that year, had already accumulated 47.2 WAR. Musial was 26 in 1947 and was worth 34.8 WAR through 1947. After that point, in an integrated league, Musial was worth 93 wins, while Williams was worth “just” 78.1 (roughly where Jeter will wind up if he plays well through age 40). Musial was a better fielder than Williams (7.1 dWAR vs. -2, though anecdotal evidence may be stronger), and a better baserunner (successful in 72% of his base stealing attempts, to Williams’s 59%), so he’s a little closer to meeting the “greate athlete” criterion Jeter defines so well.

Musial still played baseball in a different era, before shortstops were 6’3″ and relief pitchers threw 97 mph, but the value he accumulated in post-integration baseball (he led his league in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage at least three times each after 1947) suggests pretty strongly that he was:
Verdict: better than Jeter

13) Mickey Mantle– This is an easy one. If we know Willie Mays was better than Jeter, we know Mickey Mantle was too. They played center field in New York at the same time, both had great power and great speed, and probably should have won the MVP six-to-ten times apiece. The biggest difference between them is health, as Mantle’s knees kept him from being a great player after his age-32 season. He still earned 120 WAR by filling up the scorebook every way a great player can.
Verdict: better than Jeter

14) Albert Pujols– Pujols is the best player in the post-Jeter world. In his first ten seasons, Pujols accumulated 83.7 WAR, more than Jeter will accumulate if he plays twenty years. Sure, Jeter plays in the tougher league, and plays a more demanding position (which factors into their respective WAR values), and we could speculate about PEDs, but…
Verdict: better than Jeter

15) Rogers Hornsby– pre-integration (though Hornsby’s case may be stronger than Ruth’s or Williams’s because he played a premium defensive position)
Verdict: not necessarily better than Jeter

16) Joe Dimaggio– pre-integration
Verdict: not necessarily better than Jeter

17) Mike Schmidt– Schmidt was far more valuable to the Phillies of the 1970s and ’80s than Jeter has been to his Yankees. Schmidt had far more power than Jeter and played slick defense at a demanding position. He won three MVP awards and nine Gold Gloves (for what they’re worth). He also played in an era far more evolved than Musial’s and even Mays’s.

I could make a case that Schmidt’s era was watered down by expansion, but so was Jeter’s. I could cite that weight training was frowned upon in Schmidt’s era and that baseball players looked like more like chess masters than today’s players, but the same is probably true of Mays’s era too.
Verdict: better than Jeter

18) Joe Morgan– Joe Morgan did all the little things. He accumulated enormous value with his walks (1,865 of them) and stolen bases (659, stolen at an 81% clip). He earned over 100 WAR at a demanding defensive position (second base, although baseball-reference doesn’t think he played it well).

While Jeter isn’t quite the smallball master Morgan was, has always walked a lot (972 in his career, and his .383 OBP is within 10 points of Morgan’s), and has stolen 79% of the bases he’s attempted. We can make a case that greatness (which isn’t necessarily the same as value) is measured not in walks but in hits (Jeter has almost 500 more) and hitting (Jeter’s .832 career OPS is 13 points better than Morgan’s). With their defensive contributions not appreciably different and Jeter having come on the scene 22 years later, Jeter may be as great a player as Morgan ever was.
Verdict: not necessarily better than Jeter

19) Eddie Collins– pre-integration
Verdict: not necessarily better than Jeter

20) Tris Speaker– pre-integration
Verdict: not necessarily better than Jeter

21) Jackie Robinson– Here’s where numbers actually work in Jeter’s favor. Robinson played in the Negro Leagues until he was 28 and accumulated “just” 63.2 WAR in his ten major league seasons. He was an incredible athlete who could do everything that helped baseball teams win games, but we don’t have statistical evidence that he was more valuable than Jeter.
Verdict: not necessarily better than Jeter

22) Frank Robinson– Willie Mays without the speed and defensive reputation. Still an immensely valuable player, but not quite at the level where we can ignore the 39 years between his debut and Jeter’s. Robinson probably would have been a superstar in today’s game, but he might have been more Alfonso Soriano than Ken Griffey, Jr.
Verdict: not necessarily better than Jeter

23) Rickey Henderson– Rickey was one of a kind. 3,000 hits? Check. .380 OBP? How about .401? 300 home runs? Not quite, but still more than Jeter. Henderson also played excellent defense all over the outfield and, by the way, stole 1,406 bases while getting caught less than 20 percent of the time. Everything Jeter did, Rickey did better.
Verdict: better than Jeter

24) Johnny Bench– Bench has almost the exact same career WAR as Jeter. Catcher defense is hard to quanfity, and catching takes such a toll on a player’s body that most catchers, like Bench, are unable to play until their mid thirties. Bench and Yogi Berra set the gold standard for catchers, but niether accumulated enough value to be unquestionably superior to Jeter.
Verdict: not necessarily better than Jeter

25) Cal Ripken, Jr.– The most comparable player to Derek Jeter in major league history, Ripken’s 18-WAR advantage is based entirely on his superior defense. Ripken hit .276/.340/.447 over his career, 12 percent better than league average. Jeter was 18 percent better, so if we ignore defense, Jeter has a slight edge.

Of course, we can’t ignore defense entirely, as it’s a huge part of baseball, particularly at the shortstop position, but we can (1)consider the possibility that Jeter’s defensive contributions aren’t accurately measured by statistics, (2)give Jeter a bonus for everything he’s done in the postseason, where he has earned 148 more hits than Ripken, and (3)give Jeter the nod based on his era, 15 years further along in baseball evolution.
Verdict: not necessarily better than Jeter

From this point, I think it’s clear that we can make a case for Jeter having been better than any pre-integration player and any corner position player, as the demands of the shortstop position can be used to argue in Jeter’s favor. Outside of my top 25, the list of shortstops, second basemen, center fielders, and catchers who played after 1947 and earned more than 75 WAR is a short one, namely Rod Carew, Ken Griffey, Jr., and Robin Yount. All three were within ten WAR of Jeter’s current total, and it’s conceivable that Jeter could catch all of them, or at least come close enough that we can question the accuracy of the metric in evaluating their relative merits, over the next few seasons.

I recognize that we’re dismissing third basemen Eddie Mathews, George Brett, and Wade Boggs without giving them a fair trial, but none was more than 25 percent more valuable than Jeter according to WAR and all of them played a less premium position in a less competitive era.

If we’re feeling charitable, Derek Jeter may be the ninth best baseball player of all time, after (in some order) Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Alex Rodriguez, Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle, Albert Pujols, Mike Schmidt, and Rickey Henderson. This assessment is based on the assumptions that (1)Jeter plays in the most competitive era in baseball, when a player must be a supremely gifted athlete to stay in the major leagues for fifteen years; (2) Jeter never used steroids, but many of his contemporaries did, and they benefitted greatly from them; (3) the defensive component of WAR does not accurately reflect his defensive contributions, as his role as “captain of the infield” makes him more valuable than a corner position player with similar offensive numbers; and (4) we do not have to tools to compare hitters to pitchers or Negro League players to Major League players.

What if we’re not feeling so charitable? It’s possible that all four assumptions above are wrong. Maybe athletes are just athletes, and the great players from a century ago, with the right nutrition and conditioning, could walk on a major league field today and play just as well as today’s stars. Maybe most of the players who did use steroids realized nominal gains from them, and they would have been great players anyway. Maybe WAR understates the effect of Jeter’s poor defense on his team’s performance. And maybe the Negro Leagues were just as competitive as the Major Leagues.

If that’s the case, where does Jeter rank? We can start by putting him behind the 22 players I ranked above (everyone except Johnson, Gibson, and Jackie Robinson- we’ll get to pitchers and Negro Leaguers later). We can throw in the three up-the-middle guys (Carew, Griffey, and Yount) and the three third basemen (Mathews, Brett, and Boggs), all of whom accumulated more value in their careers than Jeter has. That’s 28. Here are the rest of the position players with more WAR than Jeter:

Mel Ott
Nap Lajoie
Cap Anson
Jimmie Foxx
Al Kaline
George Davis (a 19th century shortstop)
Carl Yastrzemski
Roger Connor
Roberto Clemente
Dan Brouthers
Chipper Jones
Charlie Gehringer
Jeff Bagwell
Sam Crawford
Bill Dahlen (a 19th century shortstop)
Frank Thomas
Arky Vaughan (a WWII-era shortstop)
Pete Rose
Frankie Frisch
Paul Molitor
Ed Delahanty
Reggie Jackson
Paul Waner
Fred Clarke

Now let’s look at the pitchers who accumulated more value than Jeter. We don’t know if they were better athletes, or what makes a better baseball player, but these 26 pitchers contributed more wins to their teams than Jeter has:

Cy Young
Roger Clemens
Walter Johnson
Tom Seaver
Pete Alexander
Kid Nichols
Lefty Grove
Greg Maddux
Phil Niekro
Gaylord Perry
Warren Spahn
Randy Johnson
Bert Blyleven
Christy Mathewson
Bob Gibson
Nolan Ryan
Steve Carlton
Tim Keefe
John Clarkson
Fergie Jenkins
Robin Roberts
Eddie Plank
Pedro Martinez
Mike Mussina
Old Hoss Radbourn
Don Sutton

And if pitching means more, relative to hitting, than WAR gives it credit for, the next few guys have strong cases too:

Pud Galvin
Curt Schilling
Tom Glavine

And we can’t forget the pitchers with enormous peak value whose careers were too short to accumulate as many WAR as Jeter, but they enjoyed several seasons in their prime better than Jeter’s best:

Sandy Koufax
Dizzy Dean
Addie Joss

We’re up to 77 players, but we haven’t talked about the guys who, like our previous assumption about Jeter, might be better than WAR indicates. The following active players are younger than Jeter, within striking distance of Jeter’s career WAR and may pass him before they retire:

Scott Rolen
Carlos Beltran
Vladimir Guerrero
Roy Halladay
Adrian Beltre
Chase Utley
Joe Mauer
Mark Teixeira
CC Sabathia
Miguel Cabrera

Then we’ve got two younger shortstops who are still building credentials, but have hit better than Jeter since they entered the league:

Hanley Ramirez
Troy Tulowitzki

Next, players who missed time due to war, but were still close to Jeter’s WAR:

Bob Feller
Johnny Mize
Luke Appling

There are a few guys whose games were built primarily around defense, who might rank higher than Jeter if WAR measured defense differently:

Brooks Robinson
Ivan Rodriguez
Carlton Fisk
Ozzie Smith

…and a few whose defensive position brings their WAR down, despite offensive numbers much better than Jeter’s:

Jim Thome
Edgar Martinez
Manny Ramirez
Eddie Murray
Rafael Palmeiro
Willie McCovey
Mark McGwire
Harmon Killebrew

Let’s not forget the Negro League greats. It’s hard to draw a line between “maybe better than Jeter” and “definitely not better than Jeter”, so I’ll do it like this: There are 29 Hall of Famers who played all or most of their careers in the Negro Leagues. Derek Jeter is a better player than the lowest standard for the Hall of Fame, so it would be foolish to think that every Negro Leaguer in the Hall was a better player than Jeter. Let’s take the players inducted before the 2006 special ballot, which included 12 previously overlooked Negro League and pre-Negro League greats. To wit:

Satchel Paige
Cool Papa Bell
Oscar Charleston
Martin Dihigo
Josh Gibson
Monte Irvin
Judy Johnson
Buck Leonard
Pop Lloyd
Day Dandrige
Leon Day
Bill Foster
Bullet Joe Rogan
Hilton Smith
Turkey Stearnes
Willie Wells
Smokey Joe Williams

Of the the three players who made their mark in both the Negro Leagues and the Major Leagues- Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, and Roy Campanella- we can easily make the case for Robinson, perhaps the most important athlete in American history, and Campanella, a three-time MVP whose major league career was cut short on both ends (by discrimination and injury). Doby deserves a mention, but he was not as good as Jeter.

This seems like as good a place as any to throw in Ernie Banks, who debuted in the Negro Leagues, but played substantialy his entire career in mixed company. Banks hit over 500 home runs, playing half his career as a shortstop. It’s that second half that kept him from accumulating as many WAR as Jeter, since a first baseman has to hit a whole lot more to be above replacement level than a shortstop does. I’m not saying Banks was absolutely better than Jeter- only that he has a case.

Finally, relief pitchers, at least as their roles are currently constituted, can’t possibly be as valuable as everyday players. There is one reliever, though, whose greatness is often argued relative to Jeter’s. One could certainly make the case that Mariano Rivera has been a better player than Jeter throughout his career.

I’m sure if we dug deep enough, we could come up with a few more players who may have been better than Derek Jeter in the right circumstances. Pitchers like Mark Fidrych and Dwight Gooden had single seasons more valuable than Gooden’s best, but couldn’t sustain that success. It’s likely that some minor leaguer or young major leaguer who could have been an all-time great went off to war and died. We won’t include anyone from this set, as they didn’t achieve anything resembling Jeter’s “greatness”.

The final tally: 128 players who may have been better than Derek Jeter.

Derek Jeter is probably the most polarizing figure in baseball history. Being as objective as possible, I feel pretty confident proclaiming him somewhere between the ninth best and 129th best player of all time.

This entry was posted in Yankees. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Jeter’s Ceiling and Floor

  1. I’m curious. I’ve always liked Jeter, but how would you label Derek Jeter’s infamous hit by a pitch – that wasn’t last year – statistically? Or would you? I mean, is there any way to figure that into sabermetric calculations? Just asking , since I have a limited understanding of sabermetrics.

    • Bryan says:

      I’m not sure what you’re digging for here, but sabermetrics are devoted to objective analysis. Objectively, when Jeter convinced the ump he was hit by a pitch, he reached base, which is a good thing. If that was a repeatable skill, and Jeter reached base 10 or 50 or 723 times more than other comparable players simply because he’s the best at fooling umpires that he was hit by a pitch, that would increase his value. As a one-time occurrence, it’s an anomaly not worth much analysis at all.

      I think the interesting angle in the case of Jeter’s acting has less to do with value and more to do with psychology. For better or worse, it takes a certain kind of person to react to nearly getting hit by a baseball thrown 90+ mph by pretending he actually did get hit for the benefit of reaching base. Is he a natural cheater? Is winning so inate to him that he automatically knew the best way to help his team was to act in a way most people wouldn’t? Or is this just a freak incident we overanalyzed because it happened to Jeter and not, say, Mitch Maier?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s