Note: There is a key at the bottom for advanced stats and specialized terms.
There is no doubt that Derek Jeter will be a Hall of Famer in 2020. His list of accomplishments are extraordinary: Rookie of the Year, 5x World Series Champion, World Series MVP, All-Star MVP, 14x All-Star, 5x Silver Slugger, 5x Gold Glove winner, .313 batting average, sixth in hits in MLB history, fifth all-time in homers by a shortstop, .308 batting average in the postseason, captain of the New York Yankees, and his #2 is retired in Monument Park. The only question now is will Jeter be a unanimous Hall of Famer?
Issue #1: He was vastly overrated as a defensive shortstop
There are two components to every position player: their offensive and defensive value. Jeter’s offensive value is undisputedly Hall of Fame worthy; his defense, not so much. Although racking up five Gold Glove awards is very impressive, when Jeter received these awards, defensive analytics were rudimentary; only basic statistics such as fielding percentage, errors, and assists were taken into account. For the most part, Gold Gloves were decided mainly based on the eye test. This means essentially the player’s talent level is evaluated just by watching them, without the backing of statistics. In Jeter’s case, he certainly passed the eye test. Jeter made essentially every routine play and always had an incredible arm. As a matter of fact, when he was scouted in high school, Jeter threw 95 MPH+ from the shortstop hole, and his arm directly translated in the MLB, where his arm strength allowed him to make his iconic jump throw. Year after year, Jeter backhanded the ball deep in the shortstop hole, and in one acrobatic motion, twisted his body towards first base, and gunned out the runner. Following Jeter’s example, many shortstops have since adopted the jump throw. Additionally, Jeter’s fantastic offensive prowess, positive publicity, position as the captain of the Yankees, and being one of the most beloved players in baseball, inflated his reputation as a superior shortstop, thus masking his defensive shortcomings.
So what exactly seems to be the problem with his defense? While Jeter made the routine plays, he had poor range, which was the reason why he used the jump throw so frequently. Advanced metrics saw right through this flaw and pegged him down as one of the worst fielders of all time when considering UZR and DRS. According to Fangraphs, Derek Jeter had -66.1 UZR, and -152 DRS over his entire career. Meanwhile, Baseball Reference lists Jeter as the second worst defensive player ever, right behind Gary Sheffield, with -131 Fielding Runs (the equivalent of DRS). With stats like these, even Yankkee fans might question why he was kept at shortstop for the entirety of his twenty year career.
The answer to this question lies within an article by Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs titled “The Other Half of the Story About Derek Jeter’s Defense.” In his article, Sullivan describes that Jeter plays at one of the most demanding defensive positions, and there is an abundance of slick fielding shortstops who are more talented defensively than Jeter. Sullivan ranked Jeter alongside his peers by comparing him to other shortstops that have batted 5000 times in their careers. He used the filter called Positional-Per-150-games, and Jeter is ranked poorly at 57th all-time. However, in another filter called Defense-per-150-games that compares Jeter to all fielders that have batted 5000 times in baseball history, Jeter is in 252nd place. This is a higher ranking relative to the larger group, but it still only indicates passable defense. On the surface this seems concerning, but he is near the middle of the pack, and right ahead of players such as Rickey Henderson, John Olerud, Moises Alou, and Mark Grace, who are all respectable fielders in their respective positions. Keeping all this in mind, Sullivan comes to the conclusion that while Jeter was a poor defensive shortstop, he was not a poor defensive player. Essentially, Jeter was one of the worst fielders at his position, but relative to other defenders such as corner infield and corner outfield positions, Jeter was adequate in the field. For writers paying attention to all of Jeter’s attributes, will adequacy be enough to warrant a unanimous ballot?
However, despite Jeter’s defensive issues, they are not really enough to stop a unanimous vote; Jeter’s absurd offensive stats should far outweigh any concerns about his defense. He would not be the first slugger in the Hall of Fame with defensive deficits. There are several first ballot Hall of Famers with -100 Fielding Runs, such as Willie Stargell, Robin Yount, Mike Piazza, and Frank Thomas. In previous eras, advanced analytics such as fielding runs weren’t used to evaluate nominees; however, Piazza and Thomas were evaluated using these metrics, which revealed their defensive flaws. Regardless, these two Hall of Famers both received around eighty percent of the vote and can be used as examples of superior offensive players, whose defensive shortcomings did not ruin their first ballot chances. Similarly, Jeter’s defensive issues may not hinder him as he is already on pace for a unanimous ballot, according to the Hall of Fame Voting Tracker.
Issue #2: The Difficulty of Being Unanimous
Think of all the greatest players in baseball history: Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Cy Young, Sandy Koufax, etc. None of those players were unanimous, and all of them were better players than Derek Jeter. The only player in history to be inducted into the Hall of Fame unanimously is Mariano Rivera, who pioneered the modern day closer position. Hall of Fame relievers before Rivera, such as Hoyt Wilhelm, Dennis Eckersley, and Goose Gossage all pitched multiple innings for the save, but Rivera more often than not pitched a single inning to close out a game. Additionally, Rivera was, without a doubt, the most successful modern day closer. He closed out more games than anyone else in baseball history, and was a master of sending the other team home. In comparison, Jeter is not the best modern day shortstop. That title truly belongs to Cal Ripken Jr., who paved the way for other tall shortstops such as Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, and Derek Jeter himself. Rivera is a special case because he revolutionized the closer role, while Jeter did not really change the shortstop role. Sure, his jump throw did add in a unique technique for shortstops, but his significance to the shortstop position bears no comparison to Rivera’s significance to the closer role. Rivera is often seen as not only the best modern day closer, but arguably the best closer of all-time, which certainly helped his unanimous ballot. Although Jeter is one of the best offensive shortstops of all-time, he is certainly not the best all-around shortstop. Legends such as Honus Wagner, Ernie Banks, Cal Ripken Jr., and Alex Rodriguez were all more talented than Jeter.
However, now that Mariano Rivera has broken the sacred seal of the unanimous Hall of Fame ballot, more players will be eligible to receive the honor as well. Current players such as Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Clayton Kershaw, and Mike Trout all now have a real shot at being unanimous Hall of Famers. Recently another factor has come into play; the writers who vote are held accountable for their choices as their ballots are now open to the public. Thus, the writers for the BBWAA (Baseball Writers Association of America) are subject to criticism for whom they decide and do not decide to vote into the Hall of Fame. If there is any writer that votes to keep Jeter out of the Hall of Fame in 2020, the writer will be forever known as the person who kept Jeter from a unanimous ballot. Since the Yankees and Jeter’s fan base play such a key role in baseball, the backlash would be unrelenting. That being said, knowing the backlash that would ensue could negate writers’ concerns about Jeter’s defense.
Many critics of the BBWAA have speculated that some writers have previously voted against players just to stop them from being unanimous. Because of open ballots, these writers will now have to justify their reasoning for why they want to keep a player as celebrated as Jeter out of the Hall of Fame, which could dissuade them this time around. Consequently, since Mariano Rivera has broken the sacred seal, fear of public accountability has removed one of the last barriers to unanimous ballots, and Jeter’s remarkable offense far outweighs his passable defense, on January 21st, 2020, he should become the second unanimous Hall of Famer.
Will Jeter be unanimous? What do you think? Comment below or comment on my Twitter @the_real_AJC714
Silver Slugger: best offensive player at each position in each league. Ex/ Jeter’s five silver sluggers show that (according to the voters) he was the best offensive shortstop in the American League during each year he won the award.
Gold Glove: best defensive player at each position in each league.
Monument Park: the space in centerfield in Yankee Stadium where all the best players are enshrined.
UZR and DRS: Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved are both statistics from Fangraphs that measure fielding. If UZR or DRS is above 0, the fielder is above average. Equal to 0 means the fielder is average, and less than 0 means the fielder is below average.
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