Every time somebody praises Derek Jeter, somebody else rolls his eyes. This has been true for at least a decade, since advanced stats gained traction and a segment of baseball fans screamed that Jeter is NOT a great defensive shortstop, or even a good one, but is actually bad, he is terrible — let's keep going here — he's a disgrace, it's like he never played the game before, he can't move, he's embarrassing and why do the Yankees even give him a glove? Does somebody help him put it on?
So naturally, there has been backlash to the Derek Jeter Farewell Tour, Sponsored By Everybody. It has been crassly commercial. New Era is selling $100 Derek Jeter hats. The Yankees are trying to squeeze every dollar out of Jeter's career, because that's what they do. Remember, their original plan was to market the hell out of Alex Rodriguez breaking home run records. Well, that didn't quite work out.
It was inevitable, then, that somebody would take the backlash too far, and on Tuesday night, ESPN's Keith Olbermann did just that. Olbermann is a lifelong Yankees fan and a proud baseball historian, and in a widely circulated rant, he decried Jeter as overrated, came up with a way to say he is not one of the top-10 Yankees of all-time, and called him "nowhere near an immortal."
I suppose, technically, none of us is near an immortal. Some day, Jeter will die, probably in the company of a much younger woman. But let's assume that Olbermann is using "immortal" in the baseball sense, in the way that Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio are all immortals — despite being, as Casey Stengel would say, "dead at the present time."
Well, in a baseball sense, Jeter is absolutely one of the greats. Any reasonable person can see that. He is obviously not the best player of all-time, or even of his generation. But let's not pretend he was just a pretty good player. That's utter nonsense. The man has more hits (3,461) than any shortstop in history, and that only begins to describe how good he was.
It is true that, as Olbermann notes, Jeter never won an MVP award. But in 1998, he finished third, and the winner, Juan Gonzalez, was later accused of steroid use by both teammate Jose Canseco and Rangers owner Tom Hicks. The next year, Jeter had the highest WAR, 8.0, of any American League position player, according to Baseball-Reference.com. But he finished sixth in the MVP voting behind Pedro Martinez (who should have won), Roberto Alomar, Ivan Rodriguez ... and Manny Ramirez and Rafael Palmeiro, both of whom tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs later. Are you noticing a trend here?
In 2000, Jeter finished 10th in MVP voting. The extremely ... uh, muscular Jason Giambi won, and Ramirez and Alex "Mr. Clean" Rodriguez also finished ahead of Jeter. In 2001, Jeter finished 10th again — behind, among others, Giambi, Gonzalez, A-Rod, Ramirez and Roger Clemens. Hmmm. What do those guys have in common?
In 2006, Jeter finished second in the MVP voting and probably should have won it, as Olbermann admits. In 2009, he finished third, and he had no business winning it over Joe Mauer, but still, third is pretty good, right?
So no, Jeter never won the AL MVP award. He never had that one mind-blowing season, like Justin Verlander had in 2011. But he made up for it with incredible consistency, which is important in a game where the regular season is so meaningful and a team plays almost every day for six months.
From 1996 to 2009, Jeter hit .318 with a .388 on-base percentage and .459 slugging percentage and averaged 152 games a year at shortstop, one of the most physically demanding positions on the field. Other players could play at that level for a month or two, or even a year or two. Very few could do it for that long.
And if you view Jeter in the context of his era, you can appreciate that he was a special player. For a long stretch of his career, baseball did not test for performance-enhancing drugs. It's pretty obvious that some of the players who out-performed Jeter were juicing. We don't know for sure that Jeter refrained from using steroids, but there has never been a hint that he used them. It's fair to imagine that, if baseball had tested for PEDs for Jeter's entire career, his numbers would look even better than they do, relative to his peers.
Olbermann insists that Jeter is not among the top-10 Yankees of all-time as measured by WAR per season with New York, which is a neat trick; the Yankees have had an inordinate number of all-time great players, so it is possible for Jeter to be an obvious Hall of Famer and still not one of the 10 best Yankees of all-time. They are like the Lakers in that way. We would all agree that Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant are among the best basketball players in history, right? Well, if those are your top five Lakers, where do you put Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?
Still, this is where Olbermann overdoes it. He proudly cites Red Ruffing, who had very good numbers, but never faced an African-American player as a Yankee. He also mentions Graig Nettles. Nettles was an amazing defensive player who hit for power. He also hit .253 for the Yankees, with an on-base percentage of .329. He was not as valuable to the Yankees as Derek Jeter. Olbermann offers Thurman Munson, another great player whose career ended at age 32 when he died in a plane crash. We will never know how Munson's career would have ended, but the fact is, Jeter accomplished more than Munson. (You want another player who didn't make Olbermann's top-10? Yogi Berra.)
It was also curious to see Olbermann blast Jeter and the Yankees for all the retirement hype, then say that if he is such a great Yankee, he should retire before the end of the season, so his career does not end in Fenway Park. To sum up: Jeter is being selfish by not quitting on his team before the season ends. OK, then.
Jeter was an outstanding player for many years, and he is an obvious Hall of Famer. If he has been overrated by his own fans, then guess what? He isn't alone.
Some great players are especially beloved. It's just how fandom works. Sometimes it's because the great player won championships, or has an infectious personality, or played his whole career in one city. David Ortiz is beloved, and probably overrated, in Boston. You could say the same for Kirby Puckett in Minnesota, Dale Murphy in Atlanta, Tony Gwynn in San Diego, George Brett in Kansas City and Cal Ripken Jr. in Baltimore. But they were all great players, and the fact that their fan bases elevate them a little too much does not change that.
Ripken is the best comparison for Jeter — not just because they played the same position (though Ripken moved to third base late in his career), but also because they are admired for reasons that go beyond their stats. Ripken's numbers (.276/.340/.447) were not the best of his generation. You could reasonably argue they are not as impressive as Jeter's (.310/.377/.440). But Ripken was a Baltimore icon, had his amazing Iron Man streak and won a championship with the Orioles. If he were asked to throw out a first pitch in Baltimore in the upcoming playoffs, you would expect a thunderous standing ovation. Baltimoreans are willing to overlook his flaws and his down years, because he is theirs.
Jeter was a consistently terrific player, he was extremely durable, he almost always represented his franchise well and he played for five championship teams. He also apparently didn't use PEDs at a time when so many players did. That helps explain why he is beloved, and why so many people have found ways to make money off his retirement tour. But don't let the business distract you from the game. Derek Jeter was a great player.