Derek Jeterís up to .324/.394/.464 now, and itís been, oh, a day or two since Iíve heard how overrated he is.
When Jeter struggled back from his shoulder injury, the Yankees played some of their worst ball in recent memory. He wasnít hitting, and instead of fielding ground balls, he was yucking it up with George in a Visa commercial. At the beginning of the July, somebody sent me Page 2ís list of the ten most overrated athletes. Derek Jeter was #3. The failings of the new Yankee Captain afield were suddenly visible enough for the story of his overratedness to crest. That was probably pretty gratifying for some in the sabermetric community who have for years bewailed Jeterís reputation as a superstar, or clutch player, or winner, or whatever.
Iíd like talk a bit about Jeterís rating, but first off, let me recognize that there are more than two positions in the debate. There are:
1. The people who think Jeter can do no wrong, possesses magical abilities, and is better than A-Rod.
2. The people who know A-Rodís better, but still count Jeter among the elite.
3. The people who think Jeterís good, while understanding that heís a not a good fielder.
4. The people who think heís first and foremost a lousy shortstop, but still a decent player in other ways.
5. The people who think Jeter sucks, resent that girls like him, and hate the Yankees.
Grouping the opinions of 2, 3, and 4 with those of 1 or 5 tends to emotionalize the issue, so let me state up front that though a fan of Jeter, I can see that most of his critics are just trying to evaluate a player as honestly as they can, and get irked when they think a player has an inflated reputation. My premise here is that a player can be praised up and down without really being overrated.
The opinion that Derek Jeter is overrated is common, and fast approaching Point Rudi, when the people convinced of a playerís under- or overrated-ness out-number the holders of the original perception. If you made an all star team of the players whose overrated-ness has upset the most people, Jeter would probably be in the starting line-up, along with Steve Garvey and Pete Rose (although I donít know that he could move Phil Rizzuto off the shortstop position, what with his awful range and all).
Hell, Baseball Prospectus wanted to move him to third after the 1998 season. The idea that Jeter is a good fielder seems limited to Yankee broadcasters John Sterling (radio) and Michael Kay (YES). Iíve even read several accounts of how Jeterís shovel pass in the 9-6-2 that nipped Jeremy Giambi at the plate in the 2001 Division Series was really an example of his poor play, either because he was actually supposed to be covering second base, or because he interfered with an accurate throw by Shane Spencer. One of my friends compares Jeter to David Beckham (I know thatís a put-down but Iím not quite sure how bad). People are not reluctant to criticize this guy. Itís not a revelation to say heís overrated, itís an old refrain. The very fact that you are right now having an encounter with Jeter-is-Overrated Backlash should tell you that this is a notion in general circulation. Who has inspired all this comment though? Who is doing the overrating?
Is it the traditional sportswriters? When Jeter arguably deserved the MVP award in 1999, the writers voted five players ahead of him.
How about the fans? The fans have never elected Jeter to the All Star team. In 1999, the year Alex Rodriquez was injured and Jeter was playing his best ball, the fans elected Nomar Garciaparraóa pretty good indication that while fans thought there were three great shortstops in the American League, they thought Jeter was specifically third in that group. These days, the idea of the Big Three shortstops is history. Last year during the ridiculous Omar Vizquel all star bubble that resulted in five shortstops on the AL All Star team, an ESPN.com poll asked fans to pick the least deserving one on the squad, and Jeter won.
Managers and coaches? Heís never won a Gold Gloveóthey know heís no great shakes with the leather.
How about those anonymous scouts who get quoted in Peter Gammons columns and such? Theyíve been saying Tejadaís better since the 2000 season, and questioning Jeterís place in the AL shortstop troika.
Himself? Heís not a self-promoter. Asked about that Larry Bird play against Oakland, he just said the Yankees coached that positioning in Spring training.
Iím tempted to say you canít even find anyone outside the Evil Empire who actually overrates Jeter, but you can. In mid June, I saw Harold Reynolds on ESPN saying heíd rather have Jeter than Alex Rodriquez. But the other three guys on the show disagreed with him. Karl Ravech, Peter Gammons, and Bobby Valentine are more representative of the mainstream on this question than Harold Reynolds or the Yankeesí homer announcers.
If you really want to know how the baseball public rates a player, you canít just look at superlatives. You have to look at stuff where people are actually forced to choose. Commentators are careless with superlatives when they talk about a player is isolation: when he wins the World Series, breaks a record, or retires.
When Tony Gwynn retired a couple of years ago, all the gushing accolades set off a round of complaint from the cognoscenti about how the ignorant public overrated batting average and Tony Gwynn. But they donít, really. The fans didnít elect Tony Gwynn to the All Century team, or Roberto Clemente either. They elected power hitters. The writers didnít give him the MVP when he hit .370, or .394. They gave the award to hitters with more power. When a guy like Gwynn retires, people say ďHeís the greatest hitter I ever saw.Ē Theyíre not going to say, ďHe was all right but I rank him behind Al Kaline.Ē Same with Jeter when the Yankees won. They said heís the greatest, but you can see by the voting that they didnít really mean it. Derek Jeter doesnít get picked in the first round of a lot of rotisserie league drafts.
Take your casual fans. When they overrate players, it tends to be on the basis of their triple crown stats or their raw rotisserie-type categories. In part, thatís how Vladimir Guererro sometimes gets cited as the best player in baseball, or the most underrated. I doubt many of these fans would dispute Jeterís rating based on a more sophisticated analysis:
Your casual fan who looks at some basic stats would likely know a few things, like Tejada and A-Rod were MVP candidates last year while Jeter wasnít, or, Nomarís been better when healthy but got hurt one year. To the extent that they are not yet aware of on base percentage, they may underrate Jeterís contribution:
Career OBP through 2002
Derek Jeter .389
Alex Rodriguez .380
Nomar Garciaparra .375
Edgar Renteria .341
Omar Vizquel .340
Rich Aurilia .332
Miggy Tejada .330
(And as the moneyballers would have it, an ounce of OBP is worth a pound of sluggingÖ)
The kind of fan who would be shocked by how much Jeter trails the best shortstop in an advanced metric is a fan so casual that he or she isnít really looking at all; i.e. not making an effort to rate players to begin with. Then youíve got your angry know-nothings who go to the park to chant obscenities at opposing playersÖ all this worry over Jeterís rating canít be about them, can it? These people are not casual fans, but niether are they interested in trying to rank baseball players.
After awhile the focus on Jeterís shortcomings can be a little frustrating for the sensitive Yankee fan, especially because it feels like a conversation people should have been having for a long time about Cal Ripken Jr. When old man Ripken limped into yet another All Star start in 2001, A-Rod let him play short, Selig stopped the game in the middle to give him a pointless award, and the announcers fawned all over him. But when Jeter came up, they were quick to offer that, if you really looked at his year, his selection to the team was questionable. They never suggested that maybe a 40-year-old inert offensive player like Ripken shouldnít be keeping, say, Troy Glaus on the bench.
And Ripken had been sucking wind for years on his march to Cooperstown. I am certainly not saying that Derek Jeter is a better player than Ripken. Jeter has only had that one year that was up there with the Ripkenís best few campaigns. I only mean that Ripken was a much better example of the Teflon Ballplayer people think Jeter is. Ripken enjoyed many seasons of superstar status as a non-superstar player, and took comparatively little grief about it. To his legions of admirers, the things he couldnít do at the plate were invisible in the glare of his Hard Work, Character, Respect for the Game, etc.
Jeter gets his vague character points too. I believe it was on the basis of being a Winner and a Leader that Michael Jordan picked him, along with Eddie Jones, to sell a special line of ugly sneakers for Nike a few years ago. I donít think it has crowded out all other considerations, the way it did with Ripken, though.
How about Jeterís alleged leadership; is there anything to it? Baseball teams, after all, are still collections of human beings who have to work through their motivations and relationships. From the outside, I can only see Jeterís leadership at work in two ways. Of all the Yankees of recent years, he and George Steinbrenner seem the most committed to the notion that anything less than a championship is unacceptable. I suppose that in small doses, that exacting attitude can be useful to a team.
Perhaps of more value to the Yankees is that Jeter buys into Torre and Zimmer (Don Zimmer, you remember, was not always regarded as loveable). You may have had the seen this scenario in youth sports. When the coolest kid likes the coach, the other kids more or less have to get with the program. If the kid with the most social power hates the coach, itís going to be a long season. Bill James once had a great description of Kirby Puckett that I think applies to Jeter almost in its entirety:
On a certain hard-headed level, Kirby isnít as good a player as people think he is. . . . He isnít a great offensive player, and neither is he a great defensive player. Taking the complete package, any manager would kill to have him. If he ever has injuries, he doesnít mention it. If he ever has conflicts with manager or teammates, we never hear of it. If Kirby knows how much he gets paid to play baseball, heís never mentioned it. He gives the impression if being totally immersed in the game that he is playing, the game on the field. Itís hard to overstate how much it means to an organization to have a guy like that, because he sells to his teammates the attitude that Tom Kelly would sell them if he could (Baseball Book 1992, 251-252).
That took me by surprise in 1992, because a lot of us educated by James had been moaning for years that Puckett was overrated. It makes sense now. Itís not that ďattitudeĒ puts any games under the W column. Weíve all seen angry teams whose best players were jerks win, too. It is just that, the way those particular Twins were knit together, Puckettís centrality was part of an dynamic that worked, they won a couple of titles, and everybody had a great time. It is more like a set of circumstances than a skill you can pack up and take with you when you sign with the Texas Rangers (and anyway, you generally canít be a leader when you arenít playing like a star). If leadership is bogus for use in rating a player, it can still be part of his history, and something to which a fan responds.
Fans donít have to like players in descending order of their Wins Above Replacement Player. And they donít automatically overrate the players they like. To use a player to whom I have no emotional attachment, Darin Erstad is another fan favorite getting the overrated label. The fact that he hasnít had a good year at the plate since 2000 is, if anything, more obvious than the fact that Jeter canít reach any balls. Do his fans really think heís more valuable than a centerfielder who can actually hit (like their old centerfielder)? Or do they just think, ďthis man helped win us the World Series and we love himĒ? Maybe Iím assuming too much rationality here, but I think when people say Jeter is a winner, a lot of them just mean that heís won a lot. When they say heís a clutch player, a lot of them just mean heís gotten some big hits in some awfully big games. When Yankee fans say he represents all that is good about baseball, they really just mean that when you watch a team everyday and the same guy, going on eight years, is always the first out of the dugout to congratulate a teammate, you begin to appreciate the guyís attitude. As such, Derek Jeter is not overrated; heís just popular.
Chris DeRosa is a historian living in Long Branch, NJ, who writes an annual newsletter for all his baseball friends. You can reach him at: firstname.lastname@example.org