I’ve run this blog for about a year and a half now, and in general, I’ve avoided writing a genuinely controversial post. While a few of my political posts may have inspired much griping among certain groups of people, I haven’t written a post that a great number of people would likely hate on me for. I think that stands a chance of changing today. In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last 6 months, let me fill you in: Derek Jeter retired this season. Players at every ballpark the Yankees shortstop played in showered him with gifts, and Nike made the “Re2pect” ad as a tribute to him. A similar lovefest followed Yankees closer Mariano Rivera when he retired last year, but there’s one key difference in my mind: Rivera deserved it. Jeter did not.
Let me make a few things clear first. I’m writing this as a longtime Orioles fan and Yankee hater, so some personal biases may be shaping my opinion of Jeter. Also, I’m not denying that Jeter was a true class act in a profession that often lacks people like that. I do respect him for the way he was able to play well and have a life off the field while staying above the controversy that often dogs a player with his fame. Also, I’m not denying that he was a good player and probably deserved to start for the Yankees for as long as he did. My main thesis is that he’s not a Hall of Famer.
Let’s start with the more obvious cases against Jeter. First off, I don’t know of a single time in which anyone would’ve considered Jeter the best position player in his league. I can’t remember a time in which many people would’ve considered him one of the top 5 position players in his league. He simply didn’t have that dominant stretch that, in my mind, is required to be elected into the Hall of Fame. He never won an AL MVP, only three times finishing as high as third in the voting. Heck, he probably wasn’t even the best position player on his own team for most of his career, considering the players he played with (to name a few: Jorge Posada, Tino Martinez, Bernie Williams, Paul O’Neill, Mark Teixeira, Robinson Canó, Johnny Damon, and yes, even A-Rod, though that one’s debatable). And that’s not even taking into account the many dominant pitchers the Yanks have had recently. Some have said that this isn’t an accurate way to portray his career, since many players were using PEDs during it, inflating their stats and thus getting awards they didn’t earn. However, none of the players not named A-Rod I cited above were ever connected to PEDs, and their effect on players’ stats is uncertain. I think Jeter got as much attention as he did because he played in the media hub of New York City, and was on a franchise that won 5 World Series titles during his career (but that was probably largely due to the fact that the Yankees could afford to buy the best team in the league for much of that time). If he had played in, say, Baltimore, no one would have noticed him.
A look at his stats reveals a similar story. Jeter was a slick-fielding shortstop who hit for average and not much else. He only twice hit as many as 20 home runs in a season, and never really stole too many bases, either. His career on-base percentage, which one would think would be quite high for a superb leadoff hitter who can hit for a high average, ranks… 190th in baseball history. He led the AL in a major offensive category a whopping three times: 1998 (runs scored), 1999 (hits), and 2012 (hits). He led his team in major offensive categories only 17 times. “Fine,” you say, “But advanced stats will vindicate him.” Not so. In career Wins Above Replacement (WAR), he ranks… 88th all time, just ahead of Johnny Mize and Ted Lyons (anyone remember their farewell tours?). He also ranks near the bottom of the barrel in most offensive stats for players whose careers lasted as long as his, which casts doubt on the argument that he should be elected because of his longevity. Oh, and it turns out he isn’t much of a slick fielder after all, just benefited from a few highlight-reel plays that built his legend. His career defensive WAR is -9.4. That’s right, his defense was so bad it cost the Yankees nine wins over his career. That’s the worst performance by that measure by any shortstop since 1900!
Like with his defense, Jeter benefited from a few highlight-reel plays he made in the playoffs too, earning him nicknames like Captain Clutch and Mr. November. FiveThirtyEight does a pretty good job of tearing down that argument. In short, Jeter didn’t hit much better in high-pressure situations than normal when you break down the numbers. The very existence of clutch hitting has been disputed for years, which further weakens his case.
Many fans also point to his leadership and intangibles as reason he deserves to be a Hall of Famer as well. Having never been in a locker room with the man, I’m not in much of a position to argue with the many players who say he was a locker room leader. His aforementioned classiness and professionalism on and off the field are further evidence of his intangibles. But that doesn’t make anyone a Hall of Famer. If leadership is all that gets you into the Hall, Johnny Damon and Juan Pierre should make it in on the first ballot.
Last but not least, I can think of several players on the Hall of Fame ballot right now that have a much better case than Jeter for their election:
Mike Piazza- Say what you want about his defense (it was pretty bad), but Mike Piazza is probably the best hitting catcher of all time, and that alone deserves election. And he was never connected to steroids.
Roger Clemens- Now, he was connected to steroids, but that was largely based on the testimony of a trainer, Brian McNamee, who changed his story more often than Taylor Swift changes boyfriends. So Clemens’s connection to PEDs has never been conclusively proven. Set that aside, and he’s probably the greatest pitcher of the modern era.
Jeff Bagwell- His career WAR is about 8 wins better than Jeter’s, and he hit for average and power.
Mike Mussina– His career WAR is around 11 wins better than Jeter’s, and unlike Jeter, he was productive right up until the end of his career. He’s one of the only pitchers to retire after a 20-win season, and the first to do so since 1966. Jeter hit well below his career numbers for the last few seasons of his career, while still hitting second. Never once did he ask to be dropped in the order because he was hurting the team.
Curt Schilling– He had two incredible playoff performances, in 2001 for the Diamondbacks and in 2004 for the Red Sox. That, along with three second-place Cy Young finishes and a WAR similar to Bagwell’s, makes him more deserving than Jeter.
I could go on. But the fact remains, a long career and a few great plays do not a Hall of Famer make. Derek Jeter was fun to watch, and a good player at that. But he might be the most overrated player in MLB history.