Derek Jeter underrated? Yankee icon great in a tangible way

Publish date:

*Though it is actually another invented word -- Clemenate -- that means: "To hate an athlete in an entirely healthy, fun sports way."

The word, Jeterate, was born of my own frustration -- a frustration shared with many people who are not in love with the Yankees -- that Jeter (because of his looks, his charms, his charisma, his natural ability to lead, his pinstripes) will receive hosannas and standing ovations for more or less anything he does, even ridiculous stuff. Especially INTANGIBLES. Oh, man. Don't get a Yankees fan started on Jeter's intangibles.

The breaking point for me came on a drive from Cooperstown to New York City when I had to endure an endless Jeter radio rhapsody after he got caught in a rundown between third and home. He was thrown out, of course, but apparently he stayed alive long enough to wave the other runners to the next base. The announcers made this bit of waving sound like the greatest bit of leadership in the world since Churchill talked about fighting them on the beaches. "How about that Derek Jeter! That's what makes him great!"

This has been constant. Jeter has received excessive praise for his defense -- and three gold gloves -- though various defensive statistics and subjective viewings suggested that he has been a subpar shortstop.* Announcers and analysts of all kinds will write sonnets to Jeter's baseball brilliance -- the guy never makes a mistake! -- though a closer statistical view shows, for instance, he can be a spotty base runner (last year, for instance, Bill James' analysis showed Jeter to be minus-14 bases as a runner). Captain Clutch is actually hitting below his career averages with runners in scoring position, in late and close situations and in the postseason.

*One of the longtime posters at the awesome "Baseball Think Factory" Web site gave himself the brilliant name "Pasta Diving Jeter" -- a moniker so utterly inspired that I think it should be served at every restaurant in New York City.

So, yes, I will admit that in the past Derek Jeter has inspired some -- call it weariness, I guess. I've always thought he was a terrific player. And I've always thought he was overrated, too. That's a hard double to pull off.

But ... now we'll get to the point of this story. I think that in many ways Derek Jeter this year has added a third title. He has, against all odds, become UNDERRATED. And that is a wicked turn. I think Jeter at 35 is having one of his greatest seasons. I think he's playing defense better than he ever has, he's getting on base and slugging like he did in his prime, and in my view he has been the Yankees most valuable player in 2009. And, for once, it's funny, I don't hear too many other people talking about it.

Now, let me be clear -- there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the American League MVP this year is Minnesota's Joe Mauer, and nobody else is even close, and I feel so strongly about this that I am doing daily updates about it on my blog. But the Twins are probably not going to make the playoffs, and there are many people who feel that the most valuable player must come from a playoff team. And if that's the case then ... well, I think at this moment Jeter might be my MVP, non-Mauer division.

Look: He's hitting .330 through Tuesday and has a .394 on-base percentage -- tied with A-Rod for best on the Yankees. He's on pace for 218 hits, 109 runs, 21 homers. 27 stolen bases. He's having a great offensive season, quite similar to the season last year's MVP, Boston's Dustin Pedroia, had.

And -- this is weird -- those advanced statistics that have so universally mocked his defense now show him to be, well, darned good defensively. The Dewan Plus/Minus system -- a video system where they plot every ball hit in play -- had long shown him to consistently be the worst shortstop in baseball. Now, it has him as a plus-7 shortstop, a top-10 shortstop. Ultimate Zone Rating -- UZR -- which had shown him to be costing his team runs defensively every single year since 2002 now calculates that he has saved the Yankees almost six runs this year. Jeter has made it clear he doesn't care about such statistics so it probably gives him no satisfaction.

Still, the numbers suggest that he's playing shortstop better than he has in years. Two baseball insiders concur, saying that he positions himself better now than he ever did before and his already quick release has gotten even quicker. Plainly, not as many grounders are getting past a diving Jeter.

This is a good time to consider the Jeter career. This week, he passed Luis Aparicio and became the all-time hit leader for shortstops. It was a nice moment, though Jeter has really been nothing at all like Aparicio -- a brilliant defensive shortstop who did not get on base but still led off for most of his career because he was fast (he led the league in stolen bases every year from 1956-64).

Truth is, there has not really been a shortstop who compares all that well to Jeter since World War II. Well, there's Alex Rodriguez -- but he has been a third baseman for the last six years and probably won't ever play shortstop again. There's Hall of Famer Robin Yount, though he really had some of his best offensive seasons as a center fielder. There's Barry Larkin, who was a superb blend of power, speed and defense.

But Jeter is the only lifelong shortstop to hit 200 homers and steal 200 bases. He's the only lifelong shortstop the last 60 years to punch up an on-base percentage better than .375 (.387 lifetime -- and on-base percentage is probably the most telling single offensive stat). He's moving into the top 50 lifetime in runs scored -- and there's every reason to believe that by the end of his career he will be in the top 10, maybe even the top five if he plays well into his 40s.

And hits? Well, the Hit King Pete Rose had 2,762 hits on the day he turned 36. Jeter, assuming health, will have more when he turns 36 next June.

"Tell Derek that the first 3,000 hits are easy," Rose said, and it's a good line, but the truth is that Jeter should breeze past 3,000 hits and, depending on how important it is to him, could really climb the charts if he wants to keep going and going.

And that's probably the most compelling part of the Derek Jeter story now. He really could keep going and going. While it is true that he has always been admired in and around New York -- worshipped even -- the truth is that the last couple of years there have been increasingly louder whispers that his end is nigh. Even two or three years ago, people around New York already began to worry about what would happen when Jeter's contract ran out after the 2010 season. Would the Yankees have to overpay to keep him in his twilight years? Would he insist on staying at shortstop even if his usefulness there had run out? Would he continue to lead off after he stopped getting on base? Or (gasp) would he actually leave New York -- and could you even imagine Derek Jeter wearing a uniform other than the Yankees' pinstripes?

The worry became palpable last year. For the first time, Jeter really did look old. He was hitting .270 in mid-June last year and he wasn't hitting with any power and the Yankees were struggling and there was this sense that the Jeter story was unhappily winding down.

But, turns out, the obits were premature. Jeter is still Jeter. He hit his usual .323/.390/.430 the rest of the way in 2008, and this year he has been preposterously consistent. Batting average isn't a great measuring tool, but it's telling that Jeter is hitting at home (.319) and on the road (.340), in wins (.337) and losses (.318), with men on base (.315) and with nobody on base (.339). He crushes lefties (.429), and he's hit well in short at-bats (.403 when putting the first pitch in play) and long at-bats (.480 when the at-bat is seven pitches or more).

I throw all these rather pointless numbers out there because Jeter's greatness as a player so often gets packaged inside the "intangibles" box. He's a leader! He's a winner! He has incredible instincts! He's always in the right place at the right time! He never makes a mental mistake! Every time he makes a smart play -- he does make a lot of smart plays, good players do that -- the Jeter as Saint thing grows, making a lot of baseball fans across America want to gag.

And it's those sorts of things that have led many to consider Jeter a media creation. Well, he's not. He's a great player having another great season. He's one of the best hitting shortstops in baseball history. He's an absolute first ballot Hall of Famer even if his career ended tomorrow.

And in my mind, if Yankees fans want to push one of their own as an MVP candidate they should stop pushing first baseman Mark Teixeira. He's hitting well, but he's a first baseman and they're supposed to hit. Tex is having roughly the same sort of offensive season that other American League first basemen are having, Put his numbers into a pile with Detroit's Miguel Cabrera, Boston's Kevin Youkilis, Minnesota's Justin Morneau, and even the Angels' Kendry Morales -- there isn't much separating them.

Instead push the Captain, Mr. November, the best hitting shortstop in the long history of the New York Yankees. Jeter is great, and he is unique, and it's not about intangibles. No. That's the point. It's tangible.