DEREK JETER DIDN'T NEED 3,000 HITS TO CONFIRM HIS STATUS AS AN ALLTIME GREAT
This is an article from the July 18, 2011 issue
Derek Jeter's 3,000th hit doesn't change an evaluation of Derek Jeter any more than his 2,984th did or the 3,011th will. His career package didn't need this particular pretty bow to be special. Jeter isn't quite Craig Biggio, stumbling to the line for a bad team that sold itself out for some gate receipts, but the points made when Biggio reached 3,000—in the worst full year of his career—can be repeated here. Like Biggio, the Yankees' shortstop didn't need his 3,000th hit to become a Hall of Famer, to burnish his legend or for any kind of validation. The focus on a single hit detracts from an appreciation of the whole, and the whole shows that Derek Jeter is one of the top five or six shortstops in major league history and one of the game's 75 or so greatest players.
According to baseball-reference.com Jeter ranks sixth all time among shortstops in Wins Above Replacement, a stat that measures how many more wins a player contributes to this team than the average fill-in, although a few players above him spent substantial time at other positions. We can comfortably place Honus Wagner, Cal Ripken Jr. and Arky Vaughan ahead of Jeter, and probably Alex Rodriguez as well, noting that the end of Rodriguez's career at shortstop is irrevocably tied to Jeter; that's a long and complicated discussion for another day. You can arrive at different answers depending upon what metrics you use to measure Jeter's defense, and it's important to remember that the fairly precise tools we have today are new and cannot be effectively used to compare Jeter's range to, say, that of Vaughan or Luke Appling or even Ozzie Smith. But it's enough to say that Jeter is in a group with Ozzie Smith, Ernie Banks, Alan Trammell, Robin Yount and Barry Larkin among the second tier of alltime shortstop greats.
Jeter, however, rises to the top of that group for his work after Game number 162. Many statheads are loath to give Jeter credit for his postseason performance. But fans, players and media care about who wins these games, and ignoring them is to ignore a major part—maybe even the point—of baseball: trying to win championships. Jeter has played in the postseason in all but one of his 15 full major league seasons. He's been part of five world championships and two more AL-pennant-winning teams, and getting those crowns was in some ways harder than it was for his Yankees predecessors. Yes, Jeter was extremely fortunate that the Expos or the Reds didn't snap him up with a higher pick in the 1992 draft. He benefited from the early-1990s banishment of owner George Steinbrenner, which allowed general manager Gene Michael and manager Buck Showalter to lay the foundation for a dynasty without interference. He arrived in New York at a time when the business of baseball and the local economy allowed his team to print money—and keep it—in a way that hasn't been true before or since. You can concede all of these points and still see that a player with 147 career postseason games and a .309/.377/.472 line in them deserves a lot of bonus points for pushing his team toward championships.
His .850 postseason OPS still doesn't define Jeter's impact. He has been in the right place at the right time and made himself an integral part of baseball history. We may never get a straight answer as to why he was in foul territory between home and first on an Oakland evening in October 2001—he scooped up a relay and flipped the ball to cut down Jeremy Giambi at the plate—but it was a big reason why the Yankees went on to win a fourth straight AL pennant. Two weeks later, Jeter would live the dream of every eight-year-old with a Wiffle bat, winning a World Series game with an extra-inning walk-off home run. In the twilight of his career, Jeter would have arguably his best postseason, batting .407 in the World Series in helping the Yankees to their 27th title, in 2009.
Soon we can get back to arguing about whether Jeter should be batting high in the order against righthanders, or if his diminished range is costing the Yankees hits and runs. For now, forget the mythology that deifies him on the one hand and the data that defile him on the other, and look at what he has done. He has been a great baseball player for a very long time, a core member of a dynasty, a high-performance player in the highest-leverage games, a maker of great baseball moments for his entire career. The number of hits he has and the relative impacts of skill and luck on the course of his life mean very little when measured against the millions of people who have the memory of a moment Derek Jeter made.